Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 4: The Vegas Gamble


NOTE: This is Part 4 in our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

As our customer base for QubeCalc slowly grew, we began to get requests for a “more powerful” version of the program.  This really hit home when we exhibited at COMDEX Fall in November 1988.  It cost us almost $3000 for a 10×10 foot exhibit space, and once we set up, we realized we were really out of our league.  We didn’t have employees, so I worked the booth by myself the entire five days.  We took the kids and drove down to Las Vegas, and spent the week at the Motel 6.  During the conference, all I kept hearing was “Can the program do this like 1-2-3?  Can the program do that like 1-2-3?”  It made it clear that low-cost wasn’t enough, the program had to be more powerful.

I returned from COMDEX and spent the next year on a rewrite of QubeCalc, taking what worked well, changing what didn’t, and adding more “wonderfulness” to it.  In September of 1989, we released “ProQube,” so named because I figured it was a “professional” version of QubeCalc.  We decided that to be taken seriously, it shouldn’t be shareware, and it should be more expensive.  People kept telling me that a $69.95 spreadsheet obviously couldn’t compete with $495 programs, so we priced ProQube at $249.95 and put it in one of those fancy 3 ring binder slipcases like Microsoft and other “real software companies” used.  The problem is, if you didn’t order thousands of those binders at a time, they cost about $25 each.

And then if your $250 program doesn’t sell very well, you’re stuck with a bunch of very expensive binders.  After a year of slow sales, I lowered the price to $99 and created a light version of ProQube (called ProQube Lite) which I released as shareware and priced at $25.  We switched to a much cheaper cardboard box like the one in this MicroWarehouse ad from 1990.


This decision brought in enough sales for one final shot at COMDEX.  We spent nearly every last penny to make an impression at COMDEX ‘90.  We even bought a full-page ad in the COMDEX guide book.  We knew that we needed something big to come out of this show or it would be the end of the road, and I would have to go get a “real job” again.

During the show, a guy from the Justice Department came by the booth and asked for a demonstration of our products.  He didn’t really say much, but came back the next day and said that the department needed a site license for their agents in the field.  It looked like our ship had finally come in.  They were actually interested in our InstaCalc program to install on the portable computers of all department field agents.  They didn’t want to pay the high price for one of the big spreadsheet programs, but they were planning to spend more than enough to put our little company in good shape.

After COMDEX had ended, I spent the rest of the year corresponding back and forth with government paper pushers and continued several months into 1991.  With each passing day, week, and month I became more convinced that this was not going to happen in my lifetime.  As I was complaining to my wife about it, she suggested I call the 2 guys in trenchcoats who had given me their cards back at COMDEX.  I wasn’t even sure where I had put their card since it had been 3-4 months since COMDEX ended.

I finally found the card under a pile of papers and decided to give them a call.  Some guy named Bob Parsons who had a software company called Parsons Technology.  I hadn’t ever heard of them, but I figured I had nothing to lose at this point.  I called Bob, and we talked for some time as he told me they were really looking to add a spreadsheet program to their product offerings.  After several weeks of negotiations, we licensed our ProQube program to them, and they renamed it ProCalc 3D.


This was the beginning of a new phase in our company’s history.  We were now a software development company rather than a publisher.  We no longer had to worry about sales, support, marketing or anything else other than developing and enhancing our software.  Even so, it became a great opportunity to learn the ins and outs of software publishing from a much larger company.

With the release of ProCalc 3D, our first monthly royalty check from Parsons was more than we had made in a full year selling the software ourselves.  We were able to pay off credit cards, parents, and other assorted loans over the next year to put our company back in good fiscal shape.

But despite the success of ProCalc 3D, it was our next product that came to define us and set our company in a new direction that we have been traveling ever since.

NEXT: The World of Genealogy

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 3: The New Full-Time Job


NOTE: This is Part 3 in our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2.

As word of mouth spread about QubeCalc and InstaCalc, sales slowly picked up throughout 1987.  Then in August of 1987, we got our first “national” mention when Brit Hume wrote this article reviewing some shareware programs.

He actually called and talked to me about how much he liked the program, but I probably should have told him how to spell my last name.  My mom was so excited when she saw a syndicated copy of the article in her newspaper in Albuquerque.  I still have 3 or 4 copies of the article she cut out and sent to me.

The next month we decided to try and make this software thing a full-time business.  My wife Laurie was getting tired of trying to answer tech support questions during the day while I was at work and thought it might be nice if I got to answer the phones instead.  So we packed up and moved to Sandy, Utah.

Laurie’s parents were split on our decision to leave a nice paying engineer job and move 800 miles to be self-employed.  Her mom thought we were making a huge mistake, but her dad said we needed to go for it.  He said if we didn’t try we would always wonder “what might have been”.  Although there were many rough times during the early years, looking back now makes me appreciate even more the wisdom of that advice.

The first snag we hit after moving to Utah was our company name.  When we applied for the same FormalWare name, the state told us we couldn’t use it because it was confusing with a tux rental (formal wear) company.  Looking back now I realize that since we were in different industries we should have been able to use that name, but I was just a business novice, so I just accepted the decision and changed the company name to FormalSoft.  I chose that name simply because we were under a tight budget that let us keep our same logo, and required a minimal amount of changes to packaging and advertising materials.


We did tweak the logo just a little bit, making the bow tie and disk more “realistic,” but deep down I have always loved my simpler logo better.

The first several years in Utah were bumpy ones.  Expenses always seemed to exceed sales, and we didn’t have enough of a track record to get outside funding.  If it weren’t for our maxed out credit cards and loans from our parents, the company would have never survived those years.

But then in February 1988, we thought our fortunes had changed forever.  We started getting a bunch of phone orders from people who told us our software was awarded PC Magazine Editor’s Choice, which at the time was probably the highest honor a computer program could receive.  And not only that, but we now had two Editor’s Choice awards.


Sales took off and we figured we were on easy street, but this was to be a great learning opportunity.  Within a few weeks, sales had dropped back down and were barely higher than before.  Fame is fleeting, especially in the software business.  We realized if we wanted to continue to grow, we needed to do more advertising, but at least now we had these awards to use in our promotions.

We bought a pop-up booth to use at trade shows and in April 1988 we attended our first trade show, the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco.  I only owned one computer, so we hauled that out to California to demo our software to customers.


Over the next couple of years, we took our booth to numerous trade shows, including the big one in Vegas, COMDEX Fall.  Very rarely did we break even, but we kept pushing hoping that eventually we would get noticed.

NEXT: More products, and a chance encounter

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 2: Getting off the Ground


NOTE: This is Part 2 in our ongoing series documenting the history of our company. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Part 1.

Now that I had both a company and a product, all I needed to do was figure out how to sell software.  My engineering degree certainly hadn’t taught me that, and I knew that selling a spreadsheet in the world of Lotus 123 was way beyond my budget.  So I decided to try out a new way of selling called “shareware”.  This was a newly emerging way to sell software where you made your program free to share and distribute, but asked customers to pay for it if they liked and continued to use it.

I sent copies of QubeCalc out to all the shareware distributors, including the big ones like PC-SIG, Public Software Library (PSL), and Public Brand Software.  Many PC Users groups also had shareware libraries that were happy to add my program.  And then there were the bulletin board systems (BBS).  This was before the invention of the World Wide Web (WWW), and if you wanted to download a program, you did it from a dial up BBS.  My phone bill became my biggest advertising expense, uploading QubeCalc to bulletin boards all over the country.  I would spend hours uploading, and was up late every night because long distance charges were much cheaper after 11pm.

Despite all the time and effort I put into trying to start a software company, it was a good thing I still had my job as an engineer.  From the time I started the company, it was almost 4 months before we had our first sale.  And it happened to be to one of the shareware distributors we had sent a copy to months earlier.  On this copy of the invoice from our first sale, my biggest dilemma was what invoice number to start with.  I didn’t want to use 10000 because I didn’t want them to know we hadn’t sold a copy yet, and 12345 seemed a little too obvious as well.  So I finally used 10234 as the first number in our order system.


For obvious reasons I didn’t have thousands of manuals sitting on a palette, so they received a glorious hand bound manual just like this one I made the same day (except that theirs didn’t have my name written on the cover).  As you can tell, my artistic abilities were (and continue to be) unparalleled.


Now that we had our first sale, we were ready for the big time.  Sales started slowly coming in for QubeCalc, and I had just about finished writing our second program InstaCalc.  InstaCalc was also a spreadsheet program, but it had the special ability to “terminate and stay resident”.  Younger computer users will never be able to appreciate the magic of a “TSR” program.  In those old DOS days (before Windows), a computer could only run one program at a time.  If you wanted to run a different program you had to completely exit the program you were in, and start the new program.  If you wanted to go back to the first program, you had to completely exit and then start the other one back up.  There was no clicking to switch between programs… in fact there was no clicking at all since most computers didn’t even have a mouse.

InstaCalc would load itself into memory and then “terminate”, but it didn’t actually remove itself from memory (it “stayed resident”).  So you could then start up another program (like your word processor), and InstaCalc would wait in the background until you pressed its “hot-key”, and it would then pop up over the top of your other program.  When you exited InstaCalc it would switch right back to your other program.  It was like magic.

And with the release of InstaCalc in early 1987, we doubled our product offerings, and upgraded our manuals (no more laser printer covers for us).


I was still gainfully employed as an engineer, and our sales weren’t enough to make me want to give that up.  But my wife and I did talk about “what ifs”.  Little did we know that in less than 6 months we would be trying to rely on this software company to completely provide for our small family.

NEXT: A move, a name change, and a big award!

Enter the RootsMagic 30th Birthday Contest


It’s our 30th birthday, but you’re getting the presents!  Whether you’ve been a part of the RootsMagic family for 30 years or 30 minutes, we want to hear your story! Tell us about the time you “first felt the magic”- that is, the moment you fell in love with our software. Just fill out this entry form by Monday, October 31, 2016.

The five (5) best stories, as judged by RootsMagic staff, will be placed online from Wednesday, November 2 through Wednesday, November 9, 2016 where the public will be able to vote for their pick of the best story.

Results will be announced on Friday, November 11, 2016. The person who submitted the story with the most votes will receive a SHOTBOX Photography Light Box Deluxe Bundle, and autographed copies of RootsMagic and Personal Historian bundles (over $250 retail value). The four (4) runner-ups will all receive autographed copies of RootsMagic and Personal Historian bundles (retail value $79.90).

Don’t forget, you have until Monday, October 31 to submit your entries at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/RootsMagic30. Good luck!

Happy 30th Birthday, RootsMagic! Part 1: The FormalWare Co.


Part 1: The FormalWare Co.

Happy 30th birthday to RootsMagic!  Well, not RootsMagic the program, but RootsMagic the company.  This month (October 14th to be exact), marks the 30th birthday of the company we now know as “RootsMagic”.

Like a lot of people, RootsMagic has gone through a number of names, moves and changes since 1986.  With October being National Family History Month, I realized I have never put together a history of our company.  Pretty hypocritical for a company that encourages people to document their own history.  So let’s hop into a time machine and set the dial back to the mid 80’s.

Barely out of college, I finally had a “real job” as an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley.  Although most of my personal computer experience had been on my Apple II, I bit the bullet and bought an AT&T 6300 PC clone (which I still have in a downstairs closet, much to my wife’s chagrin).  It had a massive 10MB hard drive that I knew would be impossible to ever fill up.  But I still needed programming tools.  At work I used C, Fortran and assembly language, but they were prohibitively expensive for a young married guy like me.  I decided to take a chance on a brand new programming tool which had just come out called Turbo Pascal.  At $49, it was an order of magnitude cheaper than anything else.  Turns out it was also faster and more powerful than the other tools I had been working with.

I now had a computer and development tools, now all I needed was something to write.  My previous attempt at writing a genealogy program for the Apple II left a bad taste in my mouth after I accidentally deleted all my source code with 2/3 of the program written.  This was my initial introduction to “why backups are important”.

My first program turned out to be a shareware spreadsheet program called QubeCalc.  Now QubeCalc wasn’t just any spreadsheet, it was a 3D spreadsheet.  In my day job as an engineer I became aware of a couple of 3D spreadsheet programs, both developed by airplane companies (Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas).  Both products were thousands of dollars, and I figured I could write one and sell it for under a hundred dollars.  I spent many evenings and weekends working on this new project, and in September 1986 I had something I felt comfortable trying to sell.  The only problem was I didn’t have a company to sell it.

Having never started a company before, I learned you don’t just say “Hey, I’m a company” (especially in California).  So I registered my awesome business name (with the great logo of a floppy disk wearing a bow tie), and filed all the papers they required.


And on October 14, 1986, we got our California seller’s permit, and the future RootsMagic, Inc. was born.

Little did I know that the next 30 years would bring the highest highs, the lowest lows, and the in-betweenest in-betweens.

NEXT: Our first sale, and a new product!