Fishbowl’s False Starts on the Way to Its Current Success

For those entrepreneurial types out there, do you ever look at a successful company and get a little intimidated? Maybe you think, “Wow, look at all they’ve accomplished! That’s way beyond what I could ever do.” Success IS intimidating, but remember, you’re looking at the company the way it is now, not the way it started. Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, tells a story of when he ran the first ad for QuickBooks. It was a half-page, professionally created ad in an accounting magazine with a one-million readership:

It generated four calls. Scott, I feel your pain.

I LOVE this story because I can relate to it. I envision Scott sitting there in his little office, listening to some ad guy’s marketing ideas and Scott saying “Uh… okay!” I KNOW that feeling. Sometimes, whether it’s marketing, software development, hiring, what direction to go, etc., you just don’t know what the answer is, so you give it a shot and see what happens. You can’t be so afraid of a bad decision that you are unwilling to make the call. In this case, Scott gave it a shot, realized it didn’t work (pretty easy with only four calls), and kept trying new things until something did work. He then went after it, learned from his mistakes, made improvements along the way, listened to his customers, and kept moving forward. Intuit is the result. That’s a pretty condensed version, but good enough for my purposes.

So today I want to talk about some of the odd events, screw-ups, and misguided sales/marketing/development efforts in Fishbowl’s history, not to cry over spilled milk, but to let everyone know that, in the time-honored tradition of successful businesses, we’ve had our growing pains, too.

NEAR MISSES: The Early Years, or Gotta Sell Something! It’s easy to look at Fishbowl now and say well, duh, OBVIOUSLY you should have gone after the QuickBooks market from the start. Remember, in 2002, there was no QuickBooks-integrated market because the QuickBooks SDK wasn’t even released and when it finally came THEN we had to start development on the integration. So what do you do when you have no official product to sell and only a HOPE of something that MAY be available sometime the following year? You get creative and try things out:

Eve, The Event Manager: Don’t know what that means? OK, how about: The chunk of code that provides the communication between the client and the server. Still don’t know what that means? Well, that’s too bad because that’s about where I tapped out. Our Head of Development at the time was so proud of Eve he thought we could sell it to other companies that had heavy database issues to deal with (and Fishbowl Inventory with QuickBooks integration wasn’t ready yet). I didn’t think so, but I called “The eBay Store,” Overstock.com, and Disney’s Imagineering (I think he knew someone, who knew someone, etc.) to see what they had to say. They said no.

Grocery Guys: We sold a $45k contract to a local grocery delivery business to modify Fishbowl Inventory to take and pick orders for them. Our Development team was originally on board with the idea, but we all lost interest as soon as our QuickBooks integration was ready to go. We moved on.

Medical Rental Module: We sold a $35k contract to develop rental capabilities within Fishbowl Inventory for a local medical equipment rental company. We built a beta version of it, which at the time probably consisted of our beta version of Fishbowl Inventory with “Rental Version” written in italics. We might have pulled it off, too, but the customer apparently purchased the wrong server and couldn’t get Fishbowl Inventory to run on it.

Note: I’m glad none of these worked or else we would be an entirely different company today or, more likely, out of business.

MARKETING: How do you like my new logo? It takes a while to figure the branding out. Company name, logo, taglines, etc. Some directions we took were really bad. We were originally called Eventronix. I don’t know how the original founder arrived at the name (or the logo for that matter), other than it sounds and looks vaguely tech-ish.

Eventronix’s original logo was beautifully done. It conveys, at a glance what we do and is easily remembered… I’m kidding. It sucked.

In 2002 we changed the name of the company to Fishbowl and we paid a professional artist to create a new logo.

OK, be honest. Does this remind you of a fishbowl? That’s what it was supposed to do. I thought it was obvious, but apparently no one told our customers. Three years after we started using it I thought it might be a good idea to ask them. Only two could correctly identify it as a fishbowl.

As much as I hated the Eventronix name and logo, it took years to clean it out of all our marketing materials. Even now, my brother in California says that the name Eventronix shows up on his phone when I call him.  It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Check out the bright yellow logo on the right.  This is where my bloodshot eyes come from. Blurry white letters on bright yellow. Ouch:

STOCHASTICITY: The quality of lacking any predictable order or plan. Random things happen in business: some good, some bad, and you can’t really plan for them. The best you can hope for is to get more random good than bad or, at least, mitigate the bad.

We paid the Brigham Young University MBA department $10k to figure out which features QuickBooks users needed. Here’s what they said. In retrospect, we probably could have figured this out on our own by making a few phone calls:

  • Full-scale inventory control for QuickBooks
  • Unlimited items and users
  • Technical support
  • Labor tracking
  • Bar coding
  • An MRP system
  • Bids and estimates
  • RMAs and outsource repair tracking

SWIM (Shop, Warehouse and Inventory Manager): This was supposed to be a bar coding system that would work within Fishbowl Inventory. It was developed by the original founder of Fishbowl. When David K. Williams, our current CEO, came on in 2004, we talked him into paying the original founder of Fishbowl $50k for it. He did. It didn’t work.

Good Investment: In 2002 when we released Fishbowl 1.0 we had almost no money. So when a door-to-door salesman came by selling a $250 ad space for one of those throwaway coupon books they mail out once a month, I figured we could at least reach some people here in Utah. We got ONE call from the mailer. That was to Backyard Adventures, a high-end playground equipment retailer. They ended up paying us around $50k to add some cool new features to Fishbowl Inventory and we sold our software to their many franchisees around the country.  But most importantly, we hired away the following six employees from them:

Kevin Batchelor who is now our Head of Development
John David King who is now our Executive VP of Sales
John Erickson who is now our VP of Customer Satisfaction
Matt Sharp who is now Director of the Fishbowl Developer Network
Taylor Burton who is now a developer for us
Terry Sharp who was one of our top trainers but has since left Fishbowl to get his MBA

QUESTION: What kind of ad got six smart and capable guys to give us a call? Here it is on the right.  (I’m kidding, but I bet it WOULD have worked!):

And that’s the way it went. Trying things. Finding our way. Making mistakes. Avoiding the REALLY big mistakes and moving forward.

Till next time!

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About Grant Kimball

Grant Kimball is currently serving as vice president, partner relations and is one of the founders of Fishbowl. Grant joined the original Fishbowl team in 2001 and has filled many roles in, or related to, sales. Previous to his current role, he was vice president of sales and marketing. Grant brings 24 years of sales experience to Fishbowl, primarily in technology-related fields. In 2003, Grant helped steer Fishbowl towards integration with QuickBooks, the popular accounting package from Intuit Corporation. Since 2003, Fishbowl has focused on this relationship and is currently the #1-requested add-on software solution for QuickBooks users out of approximately 300 software packages. Besides the relationship with Intuit, Grant is also responsible for developing Fishbowl’s growing resellers program, which he is currently managing, and now accounts for over 20% of Fishbowl’s total sales. Grant earned a Master’s in Computer Integrated Manufacturing from Brigham Young University and a Bachelor’s in Operations Management from Cal Poly, Pomona.
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3 Responses to Fishbowl’s False Starts on the Way to Its Current Success

  1. Marilyn says:

    Loved the honesty Grant. It’s hopeful to the rest of us who are in the stages of trying to make a go of it. Thanks!

  2. Jason Hunter says:

    So many memories. Glad to see it worked out in the end.

  3. Mike Rich says:

    Grant, those really were the days, weren’t they!

    In response to a few of your comments; The name “Eventronix”, although a bit techie I admit, was derived from the platform being based on an Event Driven Architecture (EDA), which actually was about 10 years ahead of its time according to the Gartner Group (I could give references if you’d like).

    Event Manager (EVE), being the core of the EDA was cool, but as most “new” platforms, it was WAY immature for becoming anything commercial on its own. Although, had it somehow made its way to commercialization, Fishbowl might not exist, but could be MUCH bigger than it is now. Who knows!

    Shop and Warehouse Information Manager (SWIM) was incomplete and was purchased from me due to my inability to finish it due to financial constraints. Everyone knew it was incomplete, and as you should recall, I provided the developer to work on your team in effort to finish it. Of course, I understand that if he is utilized other ways, he might not complete it in the planned schedule (how often does anything happen to schedule!). You probably re-architected it to something better anyway, so no worries, just saying for the record.

    Finally, there is an interesting history for Fishbowl a few years before I hired you that for reasons I don’t fully understand, has been suppressed. Maybe someday I’ll put that part in my own memoirs, and it can sit on my shelf unread, but at least published somewhere.

    I did enjoy reading your blog, and it brought back some good (and bad) memories, but I’ve learned a lot from those early experiences! I am satisfied that my efforts in the early days provided you with a venture that in Dave’s words “…was a fairy-tale adventure with relatively few problems…” by the time he arrived.

    Keep the interesting articles coming, and keep doing good in the world!…

    Your friend,
    Mike Rich
    Founder

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