How the Energizer Bunny Saved My Company
The accidental screen saver
Our sales had slowed considerably. Windows was in, MS DOS was out. We were desperate for a pivot into a new space — stat.
It’s 1993. My company, PC Dynamics, was famous for its lineup of MS DOS menu products which helped users launch their favorite programs in a land before Windows. MenuWorks first debuted in 1986 and took off like a rocket once we added a magical automated menu builder, but now Windows 3 was out and it was definitely taking over.
One by one, our distributors were having “the talk” with me — Peter, if you don’t get a Windows product in your lineup ASAP, we’ll be forced to drop you.
I was in trouble. In my head, I could plot my revenue graph to zero and I didn’t have much runway in the bank; certainly not enough for time to create any kind of truly meaningful Windows product.
I underestimated the fight for retail shelf space and resellers’ pursuit of shiny new things.
It’s not that I didn’t see Windows gaining traction; but in hindsight, I think it’s clear that I underestimated the fight for retail shelf space and resellers’ pursuit of shiny new things. That change outpaced the actual user adoption rate of Windows and I expect it contributed to my confusion.
Clothing stores are notorious for changing things up every season. They switch out most of their inventory and if you don’t have something new to swap in, somebody else quickly jumps in on your space. They’ve done this for decades. It’s predicable.
Think about it. Windows was the first change of season for PC software. MS DOS was all there was since the PC originally debuted a decade earlier. We didn’t have a regular cadence of change like in clothing stores to give us perspective; and without a frame of reference, it was hard to predict exactly how resellers would welcome in the new season.
key resellers were going “all in” on Windows
My revenue was highly-dependent on in-store retail sales, and I was about to lose my shelf space; not because people stopped liking my products or everybody suddenly upgraded their PCs to Windows, but rather, because key resellers were going “all in” on Windows — it was the shiny new thing.
It Started as a Joke
Knowing that without a Windows product I would soon die, my mind was consumed with thinking up some kind of pivot — but it couldn’t be a bullshit pivot. That would be a waste.
It’s nearing midnight and I’m in my 1980s-style high-back orange office chair, staring at the ceiling with my mind in a focused daze, thinking “what can I make”, “what can I make”, “has to be simple”, “cannot be bullshit.”
Out of nowhere the thought of an Energizer Bunny screen saver passed through my brain. Their commercials were on TV a lot back then; maybe that was the subconscious trigger.
Alone, I laughed out loud; man, that would be funny as shit.
Alone, I laughed out loud; man, that would be funny as shit. But I didn’t actually think it could ever be a real product. And besides, Eveready would never go for that. But seriously, wouldn’t that be a trip.
The next morning I mentioned my crazy idea to Bruce, our VP of sales; not because I thought we should do it, or even that we could do it, but just because I still thought it was hilariously funny. It was just water cooler talk — nothing more.
Bruce agreed. It was funny as shit. And as nothing more than just a joke idea, it worked its way around the office that morning like a contagious disease.
It was a “talk about.” That’s what I call things that people just tend to repeat in conversations. Many things are talk abouts. Rumors. Who’s in. Who’s out. Something on TV last night. Anything that has legs.
Later that afternoon, Bruce comes into my office and and tells me he just got off the phone with Eveready. What? But yeah, being no stranger to business development and cold calls, Bruce was not a shy guy by any means. And just for kicks, he apparently decided to see if he could find somebody at Eveready who would take his call. And he did!
They didn’t say no.
They didn’t say no. That was the gist of the call. But seriously, that was huge.
But Bruce also learned that Eveready had never licensed their famous mascot to a third party and it was highly unlikely they would start now with the likes of us, so we still weren’t really all that much better off than a “hell no.” Never the less, they were intrigued. After all, this idea was funny as shit — a talk about.
Time went on. Bruce kept selling. I kept programming. We all did whatever it was we do. We still had to keep moving forward with our DOS products while pondering some kind of pivot into Windows.
I spent most of my time working on an encryption add-on to our MenuWorks software. This was a common ask from our corporate customers because of how seamlessly it could be combined with file access controls and integrated into our launch menus.
I was also sort of thinking encryption would lead our transition into Windows. This actually made a lot of sense because disk encryption “lives” under the operating system, and I had drivers that worked both with MS DOS and Windows. So even though Windows was displacing our menu software, it didn’t have any features related to encryption. I figured we could slip into that space — not super exciting, but practical.
The Big Meeting
My phone rings at home just after 8am. It’s Bruce. “You have a meeting at Chiat/Day in Santa Monica at 10am.” What? Who?
What was so important that warranted this rude awakening?
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I’m the quintessential midnight programmer; even more so back then, when I was younger and had more energy. Translation: I worked all night and just got home around 7am.
I had barely closed my eyes when Bruce called to wake me up. It would take at least an hour for me to get to Santa Monica. Bruce knew I tended to work all night and come in late. What was so important that warranted this rude awakening?
Bruce laid it out for me. “Chiat/Day is the advertising agency for Eveready. They’re in the Binoculars Building in Santa Monica (a famous local landmark). Eveready just called and there’s a meeting today and they’re giving you 15 minutes to pitch the screen saver idea. Today or never.”
This was totally out of the blue. Pitch what? It was just a joke idea.
We hatched a plan over the phone. Bruce would craft up a one-pager I could pass out at the meeting while I took quick a shower. I’d drop by the office to pick up the hand-outs on the way to Santa Monica. It didn’t really matter what they said; I just didn’t want to walk into the meeting empty-handed. I’d still have one hour to dream up some kind of pitch on the drive down.
I’ll be perfectly honest. I had absolutely no idea that morning who Chiat/Day was. I hadn’t even had time for coffee and the Internet was still so new it wasn’t like you could just look things up like you can today. I was going in blind with no sleep.
Of course, I’d later find out they were huge. Super huge. They had famously produced the iconic commercial that played during the 1984 Olympics when Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh computer.
That afternoon, back from the meeting, and still a bit dazed, I wanted to know more about Chiat/Day, so I walked next door to see my friend Mark who ran a marketing agency. His office was adjacent to mine for years and we hung out a lot back in the day. I figured he’d have run across them before. They seemed like his kind of crowd.
Yeah, they’re big. It takes months to get a meeting with them.
I was right. Mark knew all about them. “Yeah, they’re big. It takes months to get a meeting with them.” His jaw dropped when I told him I just got back from seeing them — and I only waited two hours for my meeting. He filled me in the best he could.
I’m escorted into a huge conference room with about a dozen advertising execs. After the usual pleasantries they told me I was there because the people at Eveready were genuinely intrigued by the idea of a screen saver and asked them to look into it and review how it might affect the brand and their multi-million dollar marketing programs.
I remember thinking I was such a nothing ant compared to everything they had going on that the risks would far outweigh the benefits of letting me do a screen saver.
I started throwing out some ideas. I think half of them were straight off of their commercials. Let’s face it, it was only a screen saver. It didn’t need a lot of depth. And before I knew it everyone in the room had joined in and was pitching out concepts. They were engaged. They totally got it. It was a talk about. And I could tell they too thought this idea was funny as shit, even though they were too polite to put it in those words.
We got the green light to proceed just a few days later. They wanted a 7% royalty, regular status meetings and Chiat/Day had to approve all the creative — every last pixel.
Going for It
I needed a simple Windows product and nothing’s simpler than a screen saver. Did I just stumble into something huge? Could this be my salvation? Half the people I talked to loved the idea, and the other half thought it was insanely stupid and not worth betting the farm on.
My bank account was running low. Maybe a few more months of runway at best. This project would take every penny I had, but I was going for it.
I started pitching our distributors and resellers the moment I had some mock-ups. One distributor, Kenfil, controlled distribution into Egghead, CompUSA and Fry’s. This was important because Kenfil preferred to do 5% prepays on purchases to boost their margins on products that moved quickly and didn’t collect dust in their warehouse. I had done this many times before with MenuWorks.
The prepay arrangement worked like this: The assembly and packaging house I used was about a 45-minute drive from Kenfil. Whenever we had a big order to deliver, I’d rent a U-Haul truck and pick up the palettes from the packager and personally drive them straight to Kenfil in Van Nuys, California. Their purchasing manager, Mary Anne, knew when I’d be showing up and would meet me at the loading dock with a check — less the customary 5% for being paid up front. I’d deposit the check on the drive home. It was a sweet arrangement for high-margin products like software.
This prepay thing was key to my master plan. Knowing in advance that I wouldn’t have any money left for buying inventory, I figured I could work things so Kenfil’s check would clear the bank before I had to pay my vendors. All I needed to do was line up a few manly-sized preorders from the big chain stores like Egghead; and that turned out to be easy as soon as they saw the packaging mockups. We were a talk about and the orders flooded in.
Back in 1993 computers weren’t anywhere near as powerful as they are today. We faced a number of challenges getting the product to work within the confines of the typical Windows system and the iron fist of Chiat/Day.
Our first big problem was animation speed. We quickly found out that the maximum frame rate we could achieve was woefully inadequate for some of the skits we hoped to create. In the end, our clever solution was to pick scenes that naturally didn’t require any fast moves, like having the bunny scuba dive alongside slow-moving fish, or slowly floating through the clouds with a parachute.
Our next source of grief was color. Early versions of Windows were severely limited in this regard. All of the running programs needed to share a single palette of 256 colors. Some of these colors were predefined, and others were dynamic based on what applications were running. As a screen saver, we could only depend upon the subset of fixed colors in the palette because we’d never know what else might be running when we were launched.
The solution to the color problem was to use a technique known as dithering. This is where you create new colors from a fixed set by combining pixels in ways that sort of fool your eyes — like old newspaper photographs. The screen shot above shows our galant attempt to render various shades of pink to keep with the branding requirements set out by Eveready.
Chiat/Day turned out to be quite the protector of the Energizer brand. They nixed some of our favorite scenes or nuances to the ones we were allowed to keep. And so many questions — I was asked things like if the shark in the scuba scene would ever take a bite out of the bunny; or if the parachute would ever break and the bunny falls to his death. Now that would truly be funny as shit!
As much as they were all in love with the product concept, software was a scary black box to them and they were particularly concerned we might bury something nefarious deep inside the code that wouldn’t show up for hours. We didn’t.
Where did you get that drumbeat sound from?
The product was finally ready. We sent release candidates to all of the people at Chiat/Day and Eveready who needed to sign off. And then I got a call from Eveready’s legal department, “where did you get that drumbeat sound from?” What’s the big deal? I recorded it from your TV commercials since that was an easy way to exactly match the beat.
I suddenly found myself being lectured on unions, musician compensation requirements, the Actor’s Guild and deposits to performers’ retirement funds. That half-second of sound I recorded off of the TV had to be cut. WTF? How would I match the sound? We tried reaching out to some of our musician friends, but nobody could match the iconic beat that we had all become accustomed to hearing in the commercials.
I called Eveready back and literally begged them to let me use the recording. Still, no go. But they were sympathetic to the importance of matching the beat to protect the brand.
Finally, they offered to record a new beat at their cost that was totally street legal. Seriously, they rented studio time and a union musician to hit the drum once. It cost them $5,000. Honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference, but their lawyers could, and that was all that mattered. Who knew?
Time to Launch
We launched with less than one payroll left in the bank. But with tons of preorders and the 5% prepay from Kenfil, we were suddenly flush with several hundred thousand dollars in our account. All the pieces were falling into place.
The product sold for $14.95 in stores.
The product sold for $14.95 in stores; sometimes even less. Our cost of goods was just over a dollar, not including the 7% I owed to Eveready for the license and another 7% to our national sales reps who helped with distribution.
The press loved us and sales skyrocketed into the millions. My rendezvous with Mary Anne at the loading dock became ever more frequent. Life was great.
Then without warning we suddenly found ourselves being sued for patent infringement. But not by Eveready, they loved us and we always paid our royalties on time. It was by some troll that claimed to have a patent on any advertising appearing in software. Seriously — that was their patent. Their position was the bunny was advertising and the screen saver was obviously software, so pay up.
We ultimately beat the troll and got the patent thrown out, but that took months to resolve and took its toll on our sales and bank account. Our customers were threatened with contributory patent infringement if they continued to buy from us, and they just didn’t want to assume that sort of risk.
The Full Pivot
Meanwhile, we started getting all kinds of calls from famous brands to make more screen savers. The popularity of the Energizer Bunny screen saver put us on the map. We were suddenly the go-to company for branded screen savers.
The Energizer Bunny turned out not be the one-hit wonder I thought it might be when we embarked upon this project. We had found our pivot, albeit, totally by accident.
We had found our pivot, albeit, totally by accident.
Quickly realizing we were now a screen saver company, my next move was to create a common engine named ScreenPlay to serve as the hub for all of our future products. This was important because one of the key lessons I learned selling the Energizer Bunny software was that there’s a lot of friction getting customers to pay for a new screen saver to replace one they’ve already paid for.
Today, as I write this in 2018, I realize many younger people can’t even imagine a world where people actually paid for screen savers. But 25 years ago it was quite in vogue, and users would routinely fork out as much as $39 to $49 for popular titles like Star Trek or Disney.
Going forward, if we wanted to sell multiple products to the same customers, we’d need to make it so they can all work together in some kind of play list — and that’s exactly what ScreenPlay was designed to do. And to make it even better, ScreenPlay could also import screen savers made by many of our competitors. It was a splendid solution.
Popeye was the first commercial product we published based on ScreenPlay. This was developed and marketed in partnership with American Technos, a popular gaming company at the time.
The Popeye edition introduced yet another new concept — the interactive screen saver. Seriously, why did screen savers have to be so static? Why not add an element of game play to make them more fun?
We were the first publisher that I know of to make an interactive screen saver.
As we gained more and more momentum as a screen saver publisher, opportunities for bigger brands started coming our way. Landing NASCAR was quite a coop.
The feedback we received from our interactive screen savers was off the charts. People loved this feature. So we got to thinking, how do we take that to the next level? The answer to that was MyCorkboard.
It’s a screen saving, note taking, picture hanging, memo minding, almost organizing, calendar keeping, interactive bulletin board and much more! Nothing like it. Free download. Free registration. Lots of add-ons. Must be seen!
MyCorkboard was a monster hit. We had over 100 add-on modules; some free, some paid, with additional revenue coming from affiliate programs and a few sponsors.
Selling screen savers in stores was becoming more and more difficult by that time because of the popularity of the Internet and the proliferation of free downloads. We decided MyCorkboard would be marketed exclusively online.
MyCorkboard had literally hundreds and hundreds of drag and drop pieces of art, notes, clocks, calendars and animated gizmos. You could pick from dozens of name plates and type your name or schedule an alarm to beckon you with one of the animated cuckoo clocks.
But there were two killer features that captured everyone’s attention. The first was the fully-animated parrot that moved around on his perch and squawked. And the second was network pranks. You could throw an egg at your co-worker’s screen, send flowers, or just blow it up with a stick of dynamite.
We had over a million downloads.
We had over a million downloads of the core product and millions more when you include the add-on modules. Keep in mind, this was over 20 years ago. That was a way over the top number back then. Our servers had trouble keeping up with the load and would often crash in the middle of the night if some huge shareware site featured us without giving us a heads up.
And although we never ourselves marketed MyCorkboard as a boxed product in stores, a well-known company named SouthPeak Interactive approached us to private label the core engine and co-develop a number of branded editions such as the Looney Tunes software pictured below.
Coming up, Another Pivot
As you might expect, the Internet continued to expand and soon became oversaturated with free screen saver downloads. We had a good run, but it was over. Once again, it was time to pivot. But that’s another story.