Almost 20 Years ago I developed a software product called Forecaster. You start with an empty chart. Then you assign values to vertical and horizontal. Then you draw a line with your mouse, and Forecaster generates the numbers that correspond to the line.
It was built as something you could use in a business plan. Grab the chart as an illustration, put the numbers into your clipboard, and paste them into Excel (or Lotus 1-2-3, because this was 1989).
But: it took three sentences to explain Forecaster. And that, I’m sure, was the problem.
Forecaster wasn’t successful in the market. It didn’t sell itself. On the contrary, it took me explaining to sell it. We didn’t have a marketing budget; in fact, we back then was just me and my wife, with no outside financing. Not even the reviewers understood what it did.
One comment that came up a lot: "but that’s cheating." As if getting the numbers from the line was morally wrong. You’re supposed to draw the line from the numbers, and vice-versa. Say, what? Why?
The Moral of the Story
- It’s very hard, and expensive, to market something that you can’t explain in a simple sentence. It’s like rowing upstream.
- Competition can be good for you. It’s nice to have competition to help you explain what you’re doing. Jeff Atwood had a good piece on that earlier this week, riffing on the idea of the arch enemy.
- With that next great new thing you want to build a business around, test yourself: can you explain it in a sentence? No? That’s a worry.
The Rest of the Story
- I took it up to a small exhibition of Excel add-ons up in Redmond, WA. Microsoft product managers saw it and liked it. It was built into the next version of Excel. (And, lest you read this as an accusation, there was no violation of copyright, nothing illegal or immoral, they just liked the idea and added it in. It’s called progress.) And, as far as I can tell, nobody got it. Nobody used it. I never saw it commented in a review, or in some expert lesson.
- Years later, we built Forecaster into Business Plan Pro. It’s still there, still as powerful as ever; and still hard to explain.