And as Mary closed her eyes to savor her memories of falling in love with Jack Sullivan, the first snowflakes of winter began to fall….
Early December, nearly forty years ago…
Jack Sullivan needed a Christmas miracle.
“There’s no question that the Pocket Planner is a great and cutting-edge product. That’s why we agreed to manufacture thousands of units in anticipation of big Christmas orders,” Allen Walter explained. The distinguished gray-haired man who had founded Walter Industries held Jack’s invention in his hand. “Unfortunately,” Allen said as he put it on the table and slid it a couple of inches away, “our sales reps have all reported in to let us know that their accounts are far more interested in ordering toys like the Pet Rock and posters of sex symbols such as Jacqueline Bisset for the holiday sales rush. My company has already lost a great deal of money on several great products this year. What we need to sell this Christmas is a sure thing, so we’re going to have to cut our losses now. I’m afraid this is the end of the road for the Pocket Planner.”
Ten years ago, Jack had just begun the Ph.D. program in electrical engineering at Stanford University when he’d woken up in the middle of the night with a crystal-clear vision of a portable electronic device that would help people keep track of their appointments and to-do lists. His colleagues had thought he was crazy at first, but he’d held on to that vision with unwavering focus. By the time he’d graduated with his doctorate, three of his fellow Ph.D. candidates had joined his quest to develop the Pocket Planner.
In classic Silicon Valley style, Jack, Howie Miller, Larry Buelton and James Sperring had left the campus labs and set up shop in the garage of a house Jack was renting on a suburban Palo Alto street. James married a year later and left the group to take a steady job with a paycheck. But Larry and Howard had stuck with Jack through hundreds of cold slices of pizza and cups of coffee while they sweated it out over their computers and calculators. They’d had plenty of failures and had made endless mistakes over the years, but there’d been enough success—along with part-time engineering jobs to keep the bills paid—to continue moving forward with their plan.
This morning, when the three of them had put on suits and ties to come to this meeting with Allen Walter, they’d assumed he had great news to share with them about how things were shaping up for their big holiday product launch. Walter Industries had been one of the early investors in Hewlett Packard and, as far as Jack was concerned, they were the only partner he would have trusted with his baby. It had been a thrill when Allen’s company had signed on earlier in the year to manufacture and distribute the Pocket Planner to retailers this Christmas.
Jack had worked too long and hard to let Allen and Walter Industries pull the plug. Even if several other new products had underperformed this year, he knew his wouldn’t. Fortunately, he’d done extensive research and he knew exactly what had underperformed and why.
“The Factomatic doesn’t appeal to a broad enough market," Jack said. "And the Playerphone is too similar to the Stylophone. But our Pocket Planner isn’t just a gadget for men to get their tech fix with. Women will love using it, too, because it will make their busy lives easier. Even kids can use it to keep track of homework and after-school games.” Jack remembered how busy his mother had been raising four boys while putting in part-time hours at the school district office. She would have loved having his invention at her disposal to keep track of household purchases and school schedules. His father would have used it to track his favorite sports teams and investments.
“I don’t doubt that you’re right, Jack,” Allen agreed. “The problem isn’t whether or not people would enjoy using your invention. I’m sure they would. The issue is getting the retailers to stock it in the first place. Between rising inflation and slowing economic growth, we’re finding it more and more difficult to get stores to give a new product a chance. They truly have to believe that people will want to part with their hard-earned dollars to buy it.”
Jack could see his partners, Larry and Howie deflating more and more with every word out of the chairman’s mouth. But it would take a heck of a lot more than a couple of lukewarm sentences to make a Sullivan give up.
“We appreciate your concerns, Allen, and would like to come back in twenty-four hours with a marketing and publicity plan that will convince you that our invention can be extremely profitable for your retailers.”
Howie shot Jack a look that he could read without needing to hear him speak aloud: Why are you volunteering to come up with a marketing plan? We’re engineers, not PR people.
Larry’s expression was even easier to read: It’s over.
Allen shook his head. “I admire the work you’ve put into this, Jack, but times have changed—too fast, if you ask me. People aren’t interested in wholesome or helpful anymore.” He picked up the Pocket Planner again. “Tell you what—if you can figure out a way to give this device sex appeal, we may be able to continue the conversation.”
Jack could have easily proved its usefulness. And he could have definitely detailed its time-saving benefits.
But sex appeal?
Even Jack knew when he was staring straight into a dead end.
Still, he’d bought them twenty-four hours. Now it was time to use those hours to make absolutely sure he and his two partners came up with something big enough, reassuring enough, and “sexy” enough, that the retailers couldn’t say no.