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Let’s Try Another Verse of Your SaaS Company Does Not Need a Sales Force

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 23, 2014

MorpheusNoSalesForceIt’s time for another installment of what some of the Enterprise Irregulars have called the Jason and Bob show.  Jason and I have disagreed on a fair number of issues over time, though we have also agreed on a lot.  Jason’s had a great run and is now in the rarefied atmosphere of VC’s.  All of his material is thought provoking and well worth a read.

Today, we’re going to talk about Outside Sales or indeed the question of whether SaaS companies must have a sales force at all, inside, outside, or otherwise.

Jason’s post today is “Inbound or Outbound Sales? The Answer is Yes.”  In it, he argues that

There’s a meme, a CommonThink, among certain segments that Outbound Sales is Bad, or at least, a Little Unseemly.  And maybe a lot bit Old School.

That we’re in a new world of sales, a new consultative world, where leads come in, prospects can try and learn before they even talk to a human, and then, a sales rep thoughtfully answers questions, models business process change, and helps them decide how and why, and if, to buy.

And that’s true.  We are in that world.  Inside sales is terrific.  Warm leads are great.  Live trials of easy-to-use-and-deploy web services really have changed the game.

And yet …

The reality is, by revenue, this isn’t the way the majority of the world buys.

My role here today is to cast a dissenting vote, and to explain why.  In fact, this one’s been argued between us before so I’ll just refer you gentle readers to my original response to get the ball rolling:

Does your SaaS company have to have a sales force?

In that article I make the case that, no, your SaaS company doesn’t automatically need Outside Sales. It’s a function of who you need to sell to and that’s a function of what your solution costs. The more money involved in an individual sale, the more likely you need Outside Sales.  This isn’t really news or something I made up, by the way.  I learned it at the knee of one Geoffrey Moore, he of the Chasms and Gorillas and such.  I find it makes a lot of sense to think about how you need to sell based on the size of the transaction involved.  In hindsight, it’s obvious that a very expensive purchase carries a lot of risk and that a large organization will need to involve many people and ultimately a highly placed decision maker to get it done.

Jason does tip his hat to this notion with some remarks about selling to SVP’s, but I believe it’s something that startups need to think really carefully about very early on.  Horses for courses. What’s the right way to sell for my specific product and opportunity?  You need to make a conscious choice during the very early stages of the startup about what your strategy will be in this respect, because it’s going to have a profound impact on what sort of company you’re building, what kinds of skills you will need, and even the capital needs of your venture.

Jason mentions the “meme” that Outbound Sales is Bad.  Surely that’s damning with faint praise, but there are sound reasons why that meme is out there.  He says, “by revenue, this isn’t the way the majority of the world buys,” referring to purchasing without the need for Outside Sales.  Au contrare, Jason.  I don’t believe it and I have never seen any data to support it.  In fact, you don’t have to look far to see that the biggest revenue is associated with offerings that don’t require either inside or outside sales. Think Apple, Walmart, et al. Their selling is totally self-service and marketing-driven. Not software? How about Google or Facebook? Oh, not business enough? What about Github, Amazon Web Services, or many other ventures that are hugely successful.  While we’re at it, let’s look to where the majority of the profit, not the revenue goes and the differences are even more stark in favor of finding models that don’t require Sales.

What if that’s the real opportunity–start something that works and doesn’t require Outside Sales.  Or if you prefer, consider the potential for disruption that going into a market with a product that can work without Outside Sales offers. That’s exactly what PC’s did to the Minicomputer vendors. The Rolex-clad, scratch golfing, Armani suited crowd with good haircuts laughed at the little computer stores and the pathetic IBM PC.  Ken Olson himself laughed at them all the way to the point where DEC disappeared and was never heard from again and in a very short span of time.  Hitting an Outside Sales-driven industry with a solution that requires no sales creates the Mother of all channel conflicts for the poor sales-driven company.  It is just as toxic to companies with Sales Forces as Subscription models are to Perpetual License models.

The other reason the meme is strong is capital requirements.  Outside Sales-driven opportunities are going to require more capital to finance their longer sales cycle.  It’s unavoidable when you have to wind your way through the organizational complexity that’s there to stop a company from foolishly spending its money without proper checks and balances on your expensive solution.  SaaS itself is already capital inefficient because it pulls expenses forward and pushes profit out over time relative to getting it all up front in the Perpetual License model.  We live with it to get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but what if we could at least mitigate it by selling a product cheap and easy enough that it didn’t need Outside Sales or even Inside Sales?

That’s how the companies I’ve mentioned got to be so big so quickly.  That’s why this so-called meme is a real business strategy that’s disruptive and must be considered by any startup.

Figuring out how to leverage strategies like this in new markets where you can be supremely disruptive to the incumbents is what successful startups are all about.  Don’t be a slave to tradition.  You’re not here to build another SAP.  You’re here to build the next generation by disrupting SAP and Oracle.  SaaS is probably not enough to do that, though some argue otherwise.   I think many of those are confusing disruption with room at the bottom (great link from Jason, BTW).  The thing is, everyone’s doing SaaS now, so what’s different about your story?

 

Posted in bootstrapping, business, enterprise software, Marketing, strategy | Leave a Comment »

Random Thoughts on Customer Engagement, CRM, and Social CRM

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 13, 2014

Can Enterprises learn to talk WITH Customers rather than AT them?

Can Enterprises learn to talk WITH Customers rather than AT them?

I read with interest Paul Greenberg’s, “Random Thoughts on CRM.”  They don’t call Paul the “Godfather of CRM” for nothing, and this post got some old neural circuits firing again just like it was yesterday.

The gist of the article was about how a much larger market, called “Customer Engagement”, will eventually subsume CRM and make CRM just a feature of the larger Customer Engagement matrix.  The process of assimilation is already underway and presumably resistance is futile.  Paul characterizes Customer Engagement as involving all that is CRM plus the following:

 

  • Customer journey management
  • Customer experience management
  • Customer analytics including sentiment and text analysis
  • Social listening
  • Gamification engines and platforms
  • Customer engagement platforms (broad definition here)
  • Feedback management systems including ranking, rating engines)
  • Reputation management engines
  • Customer interaction engines (e.g. Epiphany, Exact Target)
  • Self-service knowledge engines
  • Community platforms
  • Social networks
  • Personalization engines
  • Communications platforms that foster customer communications (parts of unified communications fit the bill here though UC is a lot more than this)
  • Enterprise video chat/conferencing
  • Customer Effort Scoring (score on what you do. Thanks to Esteban Kolsky for this one). How much effort does a customer make
  • Loyalty and Advocacy systems

I wholeheartedly agree, and it was as I was reading that list that I suddenly had my epiphany:

Customer Engagement is nothing more than Social CRM writ large.

Or if you prefer to be a little less dramatic, Customer Engagement is the Second Coming of Social CRM.

Whether you believe Social CRM failed, was an idea before its time, or is simply percolating along and growing steadily, I can’t think of a better way to describe Social CRM than to say that it’s all about Customer Engagement.  The difference between Social CRM and Conventional CRM is almost entirely a matter of perspective:  are you talking WITH your Customers or talking AT your Customers?  CRM talks AT them.  It values them solely as leads to be qualified and sold to or as an expense area in the case of Customer Service to be minimized.  Paul’s list of Customer Engagement activities is nothing more than a list of what sorts of conversations can be had WITH Customers and what tools may be available to facilitate those conversations.

That problem of talking AT your Customers (and yes, “Customer” must be capitalized in this era when those who can’t learn to talk WITH them will start to increasingly lose) is a cultural problem born of seeing Customers as accounting line items and metrics rather than as PEOPLE who can choose to do business with us or not. Social CRM skeptics back in the day (seems so long ago since I was part of that world) danced around the cultural issues–they were sure Social in the Enterprise couldn’t work just because Enterprises were all about Command and Control and not what it takes to be Social.  Not all Enterprises are, BTW.  Companies like Southwest Airlines come to mind as counter-examples.  But by and large, Enterprises are very much about Command and Control.  I believe that a close relative of the Innovator’s Dilemma is what I will dub the “Politician’s Dilemma.”  It’s what happens when an organization grows large enough that the primary skill needed for advancement is not creativity or the ability to make good decisions, it’s the ability to be a good politician.  It’s been the undoing of at least as many large organizations as the Innovator’s Dilemma, and it is also closely related to those pesky cultural problems that prevent Enterprises from seeing Customers as Customers rather than $customers (and I wish I had an even smaller font for “customers” and a bigger one for “$”).

Here’s where I wonder about Paul’s view that Customer Engagement is, in fact, going to eat CRM.  I wonder because I can’t see much evidence these cultural biases that prevent Enterprises from being good at CRM have even remotely diminished.  Perhaps over time the Internet will exact a toll on their callous disregard for real Customer Service.  Certainly the frictionless exchange of information about what a Company’s products are REALLY like and what it is REALLY like to deal with that company help.  But, our fixation in the 80′s, 90′s, and 2000′s with reducing regulation and empowering ever larger monopolies (and hence the 1%) has been a powerful counterbalance to any renewed sense of egalitarianism the Internet brings.  Simply put, it’s business as usual for these companies.

Paul brings up the 4 largest companies in the CRM space:  Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft.  It’s funny, but with the possible exception of Salesforce, you couldn’t ask for a stronger list of the Who’s Who of having abused their customers and maximized their Bully Pulpit Status.  Perhaps by being (or seeming to be) the exception, this is precisely what has driven Salesforce’s growth.  I certainly know people that work there and talk about it in much more glowing terms than the other 3.  Let’s leave Salesforce aside and ask about the other 3:

What are the chances that SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft can actually learn how to talk WITH Customers and not AT $customers well enough to participate in Customer Engagement at a more empathetic level than, say, researchers watching mice in mazes?

I’m not optimistic, and I don’t think Paul is either.  He offers the following critique of the four companies:

  1. Salesforce.com – They are getting so big and so process driven that a lot of the creativity that characterized the company is starting to seep out.
  2. SAP – The continuous politics at this company are forcing it to step on its own feet every time they make progress – and we start again.
  3. Oracle – They are totally locked and loaded into their customer experience messaging and it’s the wrong message to send to the marketplace.  This prevents them from thinking in terms of ecosystems – which is a 21st century requirement for a large company’s success.
  4. Microsoft – They are moving quickly but still don’t have the messaging down at all. They send mixed messaging signals to the market and they are hard to read. They need to clarify this right away, since they have successfully accomplished a radical transformation of their customer-facing applications for the better. Now the world needs to hear it.

Ask yourself whether the essential cultural virtues needed to thrive in a world of Customer Engagement are likely to be strong or weak in the light of those criticisms?  Even for Salesforce, eliminating personal initiative and emphasizing management by excessive process is a sure recipe for stopping any real conversations with Customers.  It’s hard to change for all the same reasons that once the Peter Principle has taken hold, you can step back from it.  People are hired by bosses who hire the sort of people they want to hire.  Bosses who think of Customers as $customers don’t hire people who think “Customer.”  They hire more $customer people.  Sure, you can add a few Customer lovers here or there, but they drown in the sea of $customer people.  It’s a vicious cycle that can’t be undone.  Command and Control never goes softly into that Good Night, least of all because it is very Commandingly In Control.

What does it all mean?

Optimistically, it means that these four will eventually give way to a New Guard of some kind.  I’d like to think that’s true everywhere and in every industry that finally understands the Customer is King.  Taking that view is a powerful Engine of Growth for new ventures.  It is disruptive in much the same way SaaS has been to Enterprise Software because where SaaS was a business model change that could not be achieved, Customer Engagment is a Cultural Model change that is too hard to achieve.  It’s relatively easy to hire a new CEO or merge to make a new entity.  So far, we are tragically short of good Existence Proofs that this New Wave is underway.  There are precious few Southwest Airlines and an endless stream of Ego-Du-Jour companies that power to the forefront or that cling tenaciously to the monopolies they already own.

Fundamentally changing the culture of a company?  That’s darned near impossible.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a successful example of it outside the fawning press releases and interviews telling us how transformative some new CEO has been, all of which turn out to be false hopes.  More’s the pity.

Postscript

Paul Greenberg’s response, via Facebook:

Bob, I read the post. I’m more optimistic than you on this, though I really liked your post. Also, these are random, and to be fair to the Big 4, I also noted what I liked big picture about each of them too. I just don’t have a black and white view of this at all. its a nascent, roiling market at the moment and lots to come of it hasn’t happened yet – and is indeterminate. Also, I agree with you totally that this is what you called Social CRM writ large though my take is a little different. You’ll see more on this in a series of major pieces that will be coming leading to the next book. Social CRM was the progenitor for customer engagement – it didn’t fail, like social business morphing in its short life to digital transformation, social CRM now CRM morphed to something much larger and more encompassing that the parent was/is. CRM becomes the operational components of the engagement market. You are a helluva writer, by the way. Seriously good.

Paul is not just a brilliant CRM analyst, but a gentleman and renaissance man of the sort that is seldom seen these days.  I know him via my past life in Social CRM and the Enterprise Irregulars.  Thanks Paul!

Posted in business, customer service, Marketing, strategy | 1 Comment »

Good Customer Experience Trumps Good Customer Service. Bad CUX Trumps All. A Tale of Chukka Boots and Photoshop.

Posted by Bob Warfield on January 22, 2014

ChukkaBootsGood Customer Experience trumps Good Customer Service, even if you are Zappo’s.  My wife quit buying shoes from Zappo’s after they sent her the wrong pair of shoes for the third time and she had to return them.  They didn’t do it all on the same transaction, it happened over a fairly long period of time.  And yes, the Zappo’s Customer Service people were wonderful as always.  But it didn’t matter–the underlying Customer Experience was giving her the wrong shoes and she only allowed that to happen so many times before she gave up on them.

I had a similar experience with Zappo’s, but I didn’t even get as far as Customer Service.  I have bought shoes from them once–a nice pair of Clark’s Chukka Boots.   Great!

Some time later, I went looking for some tennis shoes.  I have a penchant for bright red shoes of the most exotic design possible that I wear when I go to hear live music.  I went straight to Zappo’s, found a pair of shoes I wanted, and tried to purchase.  I expected to be able to use my Amazon account, given they’re owned by Amazon and all, and it looked like I could do that, but I actually couldn’t quite make it work.  I don’t have an account on Zappo’s, because in a time of data breaches like Target’s, I open as few accounts as I can.  So I moved on.  It came time for me to buy another pair of shoes and I went  back to Zappo’s again, thinking that companies as savvy as Amazon and Zappo’s would surely have fixed the problem.  I found the shoes I wanted and tried once more to buy them.  No joy.  I could find no way to buy on my Amazon account and did not want to spend the time opening a Zappo’s account.

Not only did Zappo’s lose the sale of 2 pairs of shoes, but I just won’t go back there again.  It isn’t clear to me Amazon cares much, because in the end, I did buy those 2 pair from Amazon.  But if there was a good alternative I was familiar with, I would’ve skipped Amazon too, just for annoying me.

Now, how hard would it be for Zappo’s not to send my wife the wrong pair of shoes 3 times?  She doesn’t buy shoes all that often, so it was surprising it happened to her so many times.  And how hard would it be for Amazon to make it easy for me to buy shoes from Zappo’s with my existing Amazon account?  Come on, this can’t be rocket science for a company like Amazon.  If Google can figure out to put a birthday logo on their search page on my birthday because it picked up my birthdate somewhere in their far flung empire, Amazon can let me buy Zappo’s shoes with an Amazon account, right?

Fast forward to this morning.  I was doing something and fired up Adobe Photoshop CS3 (yes, I have had it for a long time!).  It immediately announced I had 2 days left to activate or it would die.  Great, I did remember it asking a few days ago.  I had tried and it kept telling me it had an Internet connection problem.  I knew it wasn’t at my end, nothing else was complaining, so I figured I try again–they surely had fixed their problem by now.

No joy.

I was forced to use their phone activation.  With some trepidation I dialed the toll-free number and waited.  I really hate phone support.  It just isn’t ever a happy thing.  Ever.

Eventually, it had me key in a 24 digit serial number followed by a 32 digit activation code using my phone’s keypad.  Wow, that was a joy–not!  But, Photoshop at least did pop up a box that had the phone number to call plus these two lengthy codes to make it easier.  Unfortunately, the phone robot announced my activation code did not have enough digits.

WTF?!??  This was exactly the same code that Photoshop was telling me was the one to use.  How could it be wrong?

I tried twice, to no avail, at which point it told me to hold for a support representative.  Good, I was ready to let some human being know what I thought about all this after having used the software for several years.  Unfortunately, after a 5 minute wait, the Adobe side announced that they were no longer handling activation problems by telephone and gave me a URL I would have to visit with my browser to fix it.  Of course my blood pressure went up to the next DefCon level.

I went to the page suggested and couldn’t find even a hint of clue about what to do.  It was kind of a haphazard FAQ that only listed a few things, none of which could possibly be at issue.  When I got to the bottom, there was a Chat button with a message that cheerfully informed me I could get on right away with an agent if I would simply click.  So I did.

Of course as soon as the chat window opened, it informed me there were other customers ahead of me in line.  WTF?

Okay, deep cleansing breaths.  After no less than 10 messages informing me I was still waiting (no duh, I know I am waiting), Kumar finally popped up.

Kumar is mostly robot.  He is no doubt based on the old ELIZA simulated psychiatrist program which would always turn your question back around without really ever answering much.  It’s a primitive AI technique that’s been around forever.  Try it if you like, it’s kind of creepy in the same way that Kumar was.  I had to provide a description of my problem up front, and Kumar would ask me questions that were phrased along the lines of what I’d already told it, but that didn’t really add much color to the situation:

“Hi Bob.  You’re here because you can’t activate your Photoshop?”

“Yeah Kumar, that’s what I said in the original description.”

This is where Kumar gets clever.  Every time I respond, I get back a message saying, “Okay Bob, I’ll be back in 2-3 minutes after I check into that and take the necessary actions.”  Literally every single response I made, it would do that.  This is because Kumar, or whatever the real human being is named, is sitting in a giant call center somewhere dealing with probably 100 customers simultaneously.  He doesn’t want to get back to any one of us too quickly lest we monopolize too much of his time and annoy the other customers.  So, he uses all this clever software mostly to stall us customers so he can handle more of us.  Sweet!

He asks me to type in my 24-digit serial number (DOH!), but fortunately, I can just copy and paste it (Hah, outsmarted you bozos!).  Then he goes away for extra long–longer than the 2-3 minutes promised.  When he gets back, he wants to know my email for my Adobe customer account.  Oh boy.  Each piece of information will be asked for at 5 to 10 minute intervals–this is going to be painful and I have an appointment in 10 minutes.  I call the appointment to say I am coming, but I will be late.  It’s taken me 45 minutes with Kumar to get this far.

And then, a bit of magic happens.  Kumar comes back and says it’s all fixed, please try again.  I do, and low and behold, the Internet activation works.  A modicum of happiness ensues and I recall the nuclear bombers my DefCon blood pressure rise had summoned.  Then I started thinking about what had happened. Basically, the only reason online activation, had failed, the only reason I had worried whether I would fail to activate and thereby lose a valuable tool, the only reason I had to spend 45 minutes trying to tell Kumar the two pieces of information needed to fix the problem, the only reason I was getting really ticked off at Adobe, was because they wanted to associate my serial number (Kumar didn’t even ask me for the activation code) with my email.

Remember when I said I didn’t create an account with Zappo’s?  Well I also didn’t bother registering Photoshop.  It used to pop up a box about every 2 weeks asking me to fill out an elaborate form, and I would just tell it to go away.  Eventually it offered me the chance to tell it to never ask again, and I did so, thinking what a relief.  Nowhere did they tell me that eventually some power that be would decide they were going to force me to reactivate software that had already been activated and then put me through a painful experience of apparently having that activation fail, just because they wanted me to register.  A registration they no doubt needed so they can send me better marketing spam.

Can we see by now how to apply the maxim that Good Customer Experience trumps Good Customer Service?  Adobe didn’t really give good customer service, BTW, it was terrible.  I don’t blame Kumar for it.  I blame a Draconian wall and a moat filled with alligators designed to keep costs down on a cost center (Customer Service) that was built by a left and a right hand not knowing each other in a large bureaucratic organization and a marketing organization that only cares about filling its lead hungry maw.  It’s about par for the course with large organizations but it also happens to small organizations that pride themselves on treating customers well.  Tragically, it is so unnecessary and counter-productive too.

Let’s take Adobe’s case.  One could argue they never should’ve resorted to all this to connect my email to a serial number.  Let the man not register.  Or, they could’ve just told me I had to register to activate.  Hell, they could’ve just asked for my email as part of the re-activation and I’d have been happy.  Or they could’ve asked me to login to my Adobe account, also acceptable.  There are endless up front Customer Experience things they could have done to eliminate the need for me to deal with Customer Service at all.  Ironically, it would’ve been cheaper to do that.  45 minutes of Kumar and all those automated voice response systems had to cost something.

I run a one-man SaaS company (actually there are a couple part timers, but I’m making a point).  I do all the Customer Service myself.  Whenever and wherever I can, I try to change the User Experience to eliminate classes of Customer Service I see over and over again.  I have to just to survive.  Best of all, it makes the Customers happier and less frustrated.  The next time you’re gearing up a new release of your software, e-commerce front end, or whatever, ask what you can do to reduce the need for Customer Service.  Find out what the common sources of it are.  Get rid of a few of them every time you ship another release.  It’ll be a Good Thing for all concerned, I promise.

Posted in amazon, customer service, Marketing, service, strategy, user interface | Leave a Comment »

Everything You Need to Know About Email Marketing in One Tiny Little Post

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 13, 2013

seths.headTake the time to go read Seth Godin’s post about the 8 things you really need to know about email.  It’s short, totally to the point, and exactly the way my bootstrap business CNCCookbook tries to pursue email.  It has worked great for us and I get tons of love letters back as a result.

If you have all of Seth’s bases covered, you will too.  As I mentioned recently, we use Mailchimp (sounds like he does too) to automate as much of the email process as possible.  Interestingly, I have not heard a word from them about my post on their becoming less user friendly over time.  That’s got to be a first.  OTOH, as Seth points out, they’re just a tool and not really the important part of the equation.

 

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

Does Your SaaS Company Have to Have a Sales Force?

Posted by Bob Warfield on October 7, 2013

used_cars_SalesmanAny time absolutes are being bandied about, I have to do the fact check.  Sorry, it’s just an automatic reflex.  We live in a world that is largely gray and seldom black and white.  This was never more true than in the world of startups.  Entrepreneurs need to see both sides of every coin before they cast their lot in any particular direction.  BTW, I get Jason’s posts directly via email thanks to Google+ (bloggers, take notice), so I seem to disagree with him fairly often.  It’s really more that his posts get to the top of my queue more often than others–I love a great deal of what he writes.

Fellow Enterprise Irregular Jason Lempkin just penned a post, “Curse of the Middlers:  Why Happiness Officers Can’t Stand in for True Sales Professionals.”  It’s a decent article if you start out a priori thinking you must have a Sales Force, but it never really delves into the question of whether you need a Sales Force.  That’s a pretty darned important question that goes to what your basic business model is going to be.  There’s a little bit of hand waving about the possibility of companies like Atlassian or 37Signals which have not needed sales forces.  Jason basically says:

Well maybe you can.  More power to you.  As long as there is enough momentum in your business to hit your revenue goals without a true sales team, then by definition you don’t need one.

I don’t think this is right.  It isn’t a question of whether there is enough momentum and it certainly isn’t the case that adding sales can always increase momentum.  Sales is not something you can necessarily add to any business and expect it to make a difference.  It is integral to what the business model is in the first place.

Let’s drop back a few paces and you’ll see what I mean.  I was with a startup one time who had the luxury of having Geoffrey Moore (Mr Chasm Crosser) come in to advise us about the business.  If ever there was a guy who understands the arcane alchemy of how to combine products, markets, marketing, and business models in successful combinations, it’s Geoffrey.  His view of the whole Sales thing is that it is a question of ASP’s.  Below a certain ASP, a Sales Force won’t work.  The numbers we talked about were along these lines:

0 – $15,000:  Forget the Sales Force.  Focus on reducing the friction to purchase.  This is where the Atlassians and the 37Signals thrive.  These are pure Marketing plays, and there are zillions of successful businesses that work this way.  One could argue most successful businesses do.

$15,000 – $100,000:  No Man’s Land.  It’s too much money to expect the buy to put on their credit card, yet it is too little to field a Sales Force profitably.  You can argue Telesales works here, and it can towards the upper end.  This is also traditionally good territory for Dealer networks, which is yet another business model.

Over $100,000:  Prime Sales Force Territory.  When I worked for Oracle, Sales used to tell us product people that if they couldn’t charge at least $100K, they wouldn’t even look at the product, even as an add-on to something else.

Looked at in those terms, it becomes fairly straightforward to understand whether you need a Salesforce or not.  Let’s consider some potentially extenuating circumstances, and also consider as an entrepreneur whether you want to try to steer towards one of these or some other (realizing you probaby wouldn’t ever want to steer towards, “No Man’s Land”).

I Just Started My SaaS Company and No Way Am I Getting $100K.  None of Them Do.

Yep, it’s true.  Welcome to the world of needing reference accounts.  You don’t start with $100K sales day 1.  Not even year 1.  If you have an offering capable of commanding such sales,  You won’t be ready to take them down until you’ve gotten enough credibility through reference accounts to satisfy they buyers you’re worth betting on.  The last Big Sale + Sales Driven company I worked for was Callidus.  I was with the company from $12 million in revenue through IPO.  You could see tangible results each time a bigger customer was signed up.  Nobody ever liked being your biggest customer unless there were no alternatives or it was such a screaming deal they couldn’t lose.  But, as soon as you could point to someone bigger, suddenly you had almost infinitely more credibility.  Steadily climbing that ladder of bigger and bigger sales is important to a Sales Driven company.  Until you get there, you won’t be very capital efficient, which is a big problem when Bootstrapping Enterprise SaaS that has a Sales Force.

What if I Tilt Slightly Up-Market?

Jason has another good post, “Why Tilting Just a Smidge from Self-Service Can Grow Your Revenue 30x.”  I like the post a lot and think about its ramifications for my own company, but I’m skeptical of a lot of the numbers in there.  For example, Jason says single seat SaaS churns at a rate of 2.5% to 4%.  Annualized, that comes out to 24-36%.  He goes on to say that 5 seat deals churn at 1-1.5% a month and that over time the churn will be negative because some customers will add seats faster than other customers churn.  My problems with this are four-fold.

First, Jason shows the single seat numbers with churn factored in and concludes you keep the customers for 8 mos and that therefore they are only worth $240.  He gets there by arguing the customers are only around for 8 mos on average.  But there’s a better way to do the math since one of the great charms of small ASP businesses is they have a lot more customers.  They don’t have just one or a handful like a Big Ticket company.  If we model it that way, I get an ASP for the year of $290 to $324 per seat.

Second, Jason shows no churn on the 5-seat deal after having said there’ll be 1.5% per month.  Let’s be fair and factor in the 1.5%–that means a seat is worth $331.74.  That’s starting to be a lot closer to the $324 a seat a good single seat sale company can achieve.

Third, Jason conflates the number of seats sold with the likelihood the deal will close.  He’s up front about saying that he thinks Sales will make a deal more likely to close no matter what in the Happiness Officer post.  As he says, “More deals will both open, and close, when you have a trained sales professional working with your prospects.”  But this is a problem of how you measure it.  If you count the deals closed as the percentage of Sales Leads closed, he is right.  A good sales force will do very well on that metric.  But, Sales Leads is the wrong metric for this comparison because they have already self-selected buying interest.  they were qualified six ways to Sunday else the VP of Sales excoriated the VP of Marketing for sending him crappy leads.  We should drop back and count all visits to the company’s web page and then take the percentage of those closed to get a real Apples-to-Apples comparison.  Looked at another way, there’s always far fewer but bigger transactions with a Sales Force.  For purposes of this example, it simply means it isn’t quite right to throw down 5 seats against 1 seat and call that Apples-to-Apples.  If we had to throw down # of seats, it should be adjusted by the relative close rates.  But we don’t know what they are, so I’ve got to stick to comparing single seat numbers.

Fourth, Jason says churn will be negative over time for Sales Driven SaaS.  You should be so lucky.  If that were common, why do so many SaaS IPO candidates get looked at so carefully for churn?  Why do we see so many articles about SaaS unprofitability that call out churn?  Why do so many get called on the carpet over it?  At the same time, he takes it as an article of faith that the churn rates for single seat sales must be much higher.  Why?  Where’s the data?  Let’s talk about great brands selling to individuals that have very little churn.  I’ll just start right at the top and mention Apple.  Don’t like Apple?  Well how about Google?  Dropbox?  37Signals?  Atlassian?  SmugMug?

We shouldn’t confuse nice to have impulse purchases, which can happen to Sales Driven SaaS too, with powerful brands, products with lock-in, products with network effects, and products that are just too good to be without.

Here’s what I will readily agree to:

Tilting slightly up-market may increase your multiple-seat sales revenue by 30X.

Here, I’ll use language similar to Jason’s about this case:

Well maybe you can.  More power to you.  As long as there are enough multiple-seat opportunities for your business, you might benefit from a true sales team.

It’s really a function of whether whatever team features your software offers make it interesting enough to the team that they’ll bite.  If they do, it’s great news.  Just make sure they’re closing big enough deals (back to that Geoffrey Moore business) and that they’re not deals you could’ve closed anyway without them.  For my own business, I already offer volume purchase discounts on 3, 5, and 10 seats and they sell well.  I will be adding some Team features to see how much that accelerates, but until I get some really BIG deals, I just don’t need a Sales Guy to close a few multi-seat deals.

Note that at some point, you will automatically be able to add a Sales Force.  You’ll be dealing with enough large companies that they will insist on the kind of care and feeding a Sales Force can give them, and it’ll be worth it to oblige.  Just don’t think that has to happen too early.  It certainly didn’t happen very early for Amazon Web Services or for Google.

But Won’t Sales Always Increase the Dollars I Can Sell For?

This is another one I have to differ with.  Jason spells it out pretty clearly when he says, “Sales professionals know how to maximize the revenue per lead.”  Hang on, do you really think an individual sales guy knows how to maximize revenue per lead better than say the people at Walmart who maximize revenue per shopper?  What about the people at Amazon who do the same thing?  Substitute the people that design promotions for any E-Commerce site.  Why would we assume every Sales Rep can automatically do a better job?

OTOH, having come out of the Sales Compensation business with Callidus, I will tell you that one of the most effective ways to improve the bottom line is to change the sales comp plans to give them less flexibility in what they negotiate.  Gaining alignment between an individual sales person and overall revenue and profitability is extremely difficult.

The way to look at this is to consider who in the organization will be responsible for maximizing revenue per lead (or profit if that is more important as it sometimes is).  If nobody is responsible for maximizing sales per lead, then Jason has a point.  The Sales Guy has an advantage: he can look the customer in the eye, and if he is good, he will see how much money is in their pocket and take most of it out.  The Marketing Guy has an advantage:  he has lots more transactions than a Sales Driven company, he can measure the results of experiments much more accurately with analytics, and over time he can hone a promotion strategy that maximizes revenue per shopper.  The only way to tell who actually does better would be to compile metrics of the profitability and revenues of sales-driven vs revenue-driven companies.

Once you start thinking of the Sales Guy as the one who offers promotions by negotiating price, you’ll be a lot wiser to the issues where their agenda (make quota, go to club, buy a new car, yada, yada) may not be that well aligned with the overall company’s agenda.  For example, I find there is a certain frequency with which I can offer my marketing-driven promotions.  If I have them too often, all I am doing is lowering my average selling price.  If I have them too infrequently, I am lower my close rates as some people will only buy if they get a deal.  Can you really coordinate your salespeople to such a cycle?  Some you can, some you can’t, but you will have to work at it hard in either case.

One aside is that there is a natural tension between Marketing and Sales.  It is very hard to get an extremely high quality Marketer to join a Sales-Driven company (hard to get very high quality product people too, hence Enterprise software is often not the paragon of software virtue).  They don’t want to be under the thumb of that Sales Guy.  They don’t want to be constantly blamed when numbers are missed.  But eventually, if the CEO is good enough, he will create a situation where the company can attract and retain both and he’ll see to it that they work and play well together.  Interestingly, I have seen this work best when you have a CEO that was a Sales Guy who isn’t on his first CEO gig.

One last point here–the role of Sales is to make the market they’re in less efficient in hopes of increasing profitability.  That’s the real reason why you can’t get much real information without filling out a lead form.  This approach works, unless someone is disrupting you by making the market radically more efficient.  That brings me to my next point:

Important Counter-Example:  Lack of Sales Force as Disruption

The history of the modern computing landscape is one of increasing efficiency disrupting sales forces that wanted the markets to be inefficient.  That’s how mass markets emerge in new fields–they kick down the doors, offer unprecedented lower price points, and tell people things they never knew before.  Think IBM or DEC scratch-golfing Sales Guys having to go against the neighborhood computer store.  That was a painful disruption that neither survived when it came to the PC market (or indeed, their whole market for DEC).  They had to retreat up market.  Think the neighborhood computer store, which essentially was just smaller time sales people, competing with online sellers like Dell.  One more turn of the wheel and those guys were in trouble.

Once a market encounters meaningful disruption of this kind, it is extremely hard to put the genie back in the bottle.  After all, how do you argue that more information and lower prices are bad to customers?  The only defense is to retreat up-market.  The disruption involved in trying to change a Sales-Driven company into a Marketing-Driven company is at least as bad if not worse than going from On-Premises to SaaS.  I’m not sure I know of any successful examples where someone pulled it off.

Entrepreneurs, take note: if you can figure out how to take a crusty sales-driven market and turn it into something coin operated (insert credit card here, pay low fee, get product now), you can go disrupt a market.

So I Shouldn’t Ever Need a Sales Force?

Not so fast!

There is the matter of what your ASP’s will be–at a certain point ($100K for sure, maybe less), you will have to use a Sales Force.  To a certain extent this will be governed by the nature of your product.  Can it add enough value to relatively few people?  Will Enterprises require an all-or-nothing decision?  Such factors will dictate.

But suppose you have a blank sheet of paper.  You want to start a brand new SaaS company.  What should you aim for?

The choice here, for me at least, is easy–I’ll take the low ASP marketing-driven ideas every time.  We live in a time when you have to bootstrap on your own dime as far as possible before you can get any outside capital.  Cash flow is king.  Insights into where to double down and where to fold are king.  The web is there as a relatively frictionless resource to get the word out about your offering.  I don’t want to wait for sales cycles.  I don’t want to wait to close large enough sales to have built credibility.  I want the insights that come from analytics on large numbers of transactions today.  I want my customers lifecycle from prospect to happy subscriber to be one integrated UX on the web.

That will maximize my chances of growing a company to cash flow positive.  That will maximize my early growth potential.  Down the road, I will be able to look at whether I want to raise capital and whether I want to try to fire up a sales force to sell Team Editions.  Meanwhile, I’ve got a web company to focus on.

Posted in business, Marketing, strategy | 9 Comments »

Will Context Eat the Software Industry?

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 23, 2013

ManBehindCurtainI read with interest fellow Enterprise Irregular Michael Krigsman’s recent post, “Context Will Eat the Software Industry.”  Kudos for the excellent link baiting paraphrase of Marc Andreesen’s “Software is Eating the World.”  Andreesen is right, but I’m not so sure about Michael’s hypothesis.

He is centered in some thinking about Content Marketing and why some Content Marketing, specifically Enterprise Content Marketing, is not so hot:

The best content speaks directly to the reader, listener, or viewer. However, creating great content requires a nuanced understanding of the audience, which precisely explains why most enterprise content sucks. Content without empathy misses the target and quickly falls into the trap of jargon and sameness.

To see the effect of bland content marketing, try a test. Examine marketing materials for directly competing products from the major enterprise software vendors and try to discern significant differences in messaging and positioning. You’ll likely discover that the major vendors tend to look similar; remove the product name and see how the competitors all sound similar. I tried a variant of this test and the results demonstrated how bland enterprise marketing become as it regresses to the least common denominator.

From this he sees Content that is increasingly targeted to specific readers (e.g. targeted to Context) as the answer.  Let’s talk about that.

First, in the spirit of Full Disclosure, I want to point out that I make my living as a Content Marketer.  I don’t do it as a service for others, but it is nearly exclusively how my bootstrap company, CNCCookbook, sells its wares.  As a result, I have spent a lot of time thinking about it and trying to get better at it.  I’ve been extremely happy with the results so far.

Now, what about Context?

Context is critical to the extent that there must be content available that speaks to the reader well enough to move them to some action.  If you can do so, you’re Content Marketing.  That action may range from buying a product to promoting a brand (i.e. telling others about it) to (especially in an Enterprise setting) being predisposed to favor or at least not block a brand.  I list those in roughly the order of importance.  While it’s great to have lots of people who’ve heard of you and think positively of you, if they never bother to tell anyone else and nobody buys your products, you’re not going to make it very far.

At this stage, I should point out that Enterprise selling is special.  I have been there, done that, and gotten the T-shirt, frequent flyer miles, and hotel breakfasts that comes of selling multi-million dollar Enterprise Software.  For that world, the costs are such that you don’t just get somebody to whip out a credit card after reading a pithy article on your blog.  Instead, you may get them to exhibit enough enthusiasm that you can regard them as a sales lead.  This will start the corporate CRM gears in motion and somebody from sales will contact them.  One could argue and probably win the argument that the whole point of Sales is to provide a finely honed and real-time sense of Context.  It is the Sales Team that puts feet on the ground inside the customer’s organization.  They get to know the players, the politics, and all the details of the buying decision being made.  That is the essential key context for such a transaction.

Does that mean Context is unimportant for Enterprise Content Marketing?  No, of course not, but it is an important nuance to be aware of and I will come back to it shortly.

The next thing I want to discuss is how Context can be implemented, because that seems to be the gist of how Context might eat the Software Industry.

Here Michael has some choice Bill Gates quotes:

Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.

and:

A major reason paying for content doesn’t work very well yet is that it’s not practical to charge small amounts. The cost and hassle of electronic transactions makes it impractical to charge less than a fairly high subscription rate.

As Michael points out, micropayments are available from Paypal and many others these days, so that isn’t the problem.  The problem is that, as with making Ballmer CEO for so long, Bill Gates was wrong.  Content isn’t where the real money was made.  In fact, the real money was made by software supplying Context.  You will know what that means more familiarly if you think about names like Google and Facebook.  If you think about Content being where the real money would be made, you’d be thinking of Yahoo, and we all know how that turned out.

Context via Self Selection

This brings up an important first principle of Context, which I will call the Principle of Self Selection:

Context is implicitly applied when people search for content or go to a place where their preferred content is particularly rich.

One corollary of the Principle of Self Selection is that when a Content Marketing team is micro-managed too much to, “Stay on message,” they wind up not creating content that can self-select a broad enough range of Contexts.  I suppose we should not be surprised as the essence of Enterprise Software and the biggest weakness of both the Software and the Companies is that it is overly focused on Centralized Command and Control.  This is perhaps the foremost reason why Social continuously hits brick walls in the Enterprise–something so egalitarian is toxic to hardcore Command and Control.  It encourages too much fraternization with the enlisted and noncoms.  Command and Control is also tragically short on the empathy that Michael points to as being so important.  The higher ups rarely think of themselves as being in the Customer’s Shoes.  The ones that do have typically been the ones I have enjoyed working with the most, but they’re not always the most successful.  I’m not sure anyone ever accused Larry Ellison of having too much empathy.

It has been my observation that most organizations with awesome Sales teams have lousy Marketing.  One wins out over the other, and scratch golfing sales guys are bread to be genetically superior to marketers in the face to face arena.  The marketers simply lose at politics, and it is even worse for the quant jocks that are essential to great Content Marketing.  This is a problem, because when you’re Content Marketing, you cannot simply parrot the party line–you must create real value.  This means your Content Team needs to have some motivated stars who are empowered to do something great.

There is also a subtle mindset difference with Content Marketing.  Let’s call it the Principle of Jiu jitsu:

When Content Marketing, you must give away something of great value to build trust.  In doing so, you cannot overtly sell anything.

It is called the Principle of Jiu jitsu because like the ancient martial art, it gives where the opponent is strong and pushes hard where the opponent is weak.  The opponent is strong at resisting sales pitches.  We are trained to consider whether the spam will be worth it if we give over our email to get a white paper, for example.  In Content Marketing, we give them such fabulous content without the Sales Pitch or demand for email that they give us their email gladly to make sure they don’t miss any future free content.  This is tough for a lot of Sales people to grasp.  They’re used to the idea of using their Jedi mind tricks to machine the prospect into submission, “Sign here, these ARE the droids you’re looking for.”  In fairness, most of them are smart about giving their personal charisma for free to get to deliver the sales pitch, and that is sort of close to what’s being done by Content Marketing, but yet different.  BTW, it’s even tough for most Marketing people to grasp.  They will tell you to do things like remove all the navigation from your landing pages so that once the prospect winds up there, they have no choice but to fill out the lead form.  Sadly, this increases short term lead gen at the cost of long term trust.  Think carefully about your business and your sales cycle.  Is it really as short as you thought, or did it go through multiple iterations, coming on and off the forecast over the course of even a couple of years as the prospect came up to speed?

To capitalize on self-selection we serve up a smorgasbord of content, make sure it is SEO-optimized for search engines, use analytics to identify what’s working, and then double down further with more similar content.  Quite apart from killing software, that approach is only enabled by a bunch of analytics software, not to mention the software at Google that delivers them to your doorstep.  Seeing your content through the SEO lens as well as the reader’s lens is a subtle art that has to be learned over time.

Context via Machination

Of course self-selection is not the only way to establish Context.  There is what I will call, “Context by Machination”, where software establishes Context in real time based on what it is sensing.  Two examples would be Responsive Web Design and Marketing Automation.

Responsive Web Design is simply designing a web site so that it changes based on the device being used to access it.  This is done so mobile viewers have a better experience.  It’s blunt Context, but Context nonetheless.

Marketing Automation is a bit more subtle.  It means a lot of things, but in this case, let’s stick to Marketing Automation as observing what actions a prospect takes and serving up content based on those actions.  Ultimately, the content served up can even be the first call from telesales wanting to see if the budding relationship should be expanded to a full blown sales cycle.  A lot can be gained from this notion of Context.

To give an idea, let me tell a personal anecdote from my college days.  I’m a car nut and would haunt the local exotic car dealerships.  There’s no way I could’ve afforded such a machine as a college student, but I was not deterred.  Inevitably, a salesman would approach and try to determine if I was a serious prospect or or a tire kicking joyrider (that’s me!).  I would be taciturn, and would steadfastly refuse to ask any performance-related question.  Never ever ask how fast the car would go, for example.  Instead I wanted to know such things as, “How reliable are these cars?  What does it cost to repair one?  What’s the insurance premium likely to be?  Can they be driven in the rain?”  The salesman always took these sorts of sober questions as coming from someone who was trying to imagine what it would be like to live with one of these fiery beasts on a daily basis–a real buyer in other words who was over the romance of it.

So it is with what the Marketing Automation people call, “Lead scoring.”  So you read a white paper.  That’s good.  But did you look at the system requirements, for example?  Did you try the pricing calculator out with an interesting number of seats?  Did you look at the salesy content, or just the free value content?

Based on the lead scoring, the system can decide which emails to send to you.

This can be especially potent if you have a completely closed loop software company.  What I mean by that, is a software company where every single contact happens via the Internet:

-  They read your content on the Internet to get interested.

-  The software runs in the Cloud.

-  Customer Service is handled over the Internet.

In a world like that, the lines between Marketing, Product, and Service should rightfully become blurred.  You are always Marketing because SaaS renewals are so darned lucrative.  If they’re in the Product, why have them bail all the way out and go to a separate web site to get Customer Service?  Wouldn’t it be better if the Service people can directly see what’s happening in the Product as it unfolds with a problem?

It creates an extremely powerful combination to combine all three and view them essentially as one User Experience (UX) that has to be optimized for the entire cradle to grave lifecycle.  That’s Context via Machination at its finest.  I haven’t seen any companies that really optimize that end to end experience.  You get the Marketing Automation companies like Marketo and Eloqua at one end, and there are starting to be Product companies at the other like Totango.  It’s an interesting opportunity.  I haven’t even seen many companies that operate in that realm of Contextual Integration, but probably the biggest and best would be Amazon.  Funny how we’re still trying to get to what the CRM world originally called the “360 Degree view of the Customer.”

So, quite apart from Context Eating the Software Industry, that Man behind the Context Curtain’s name is “Software.”  If you don’t have keen Software chops in your Marketing, Product, and Customer Service worlds, you are missing several tricks.

Postscript

Heidi Cohen makes the problems with Enterprise Content Marketing even more obvious with her 3 Surefire Ways to Kill Content Marketing:

1.  Contains Too Much Marketing Hype and Buzzwords

2.  Lacks Truly Independent, Unbiased Information

3.  Is Too General To Be Effective

Yup.  You see all three constantly in Enterprise White Papers, blogs, and other content marketing.

Posted in business, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

It’s In Google’s Best Interest to Kill Marketing Channels They Don’t Own

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 24, 2013

The folks at MailChimp recently did an article that analyzed open rates for emails and how they were affected by Google’s new Gmail tabbed user interface.  There’s not a huge amount of data yet, but there are 3 consecutive weeks of reduced open rates in the wake of the new tabbed interface.  Here’s the graph from the MailChimp article:

Gmail tab open rates

There’s no question that open rates are down in the wake of the tabbed UI for Gmail…

This is not particularly surprising.  Personally, I don’t find the tabbed interface useful at all–it just means I have to look in more places to finish reading through my inbox.  If I do run short of time, it is the promotions tab that suffers.  The MailChimp folks say that it is very hard to write email that doesn’t get stuffed into the promotions tab too.  What a pity Google didn’t put Google Reader on a tab instead of Promotions and Social.  It wouldn’t been a lot more useful, but that’s beating a dead horse.

Marketers are going to be disappointed by this development because email remains one of the most powerful weapons in there arsenal.  Unfortunately, here is a newsflash:

It’s in Google’s best interest to kill or damage any marketing channels they don’t own.

They don’t really help in any way with email marketing, so anything they can do to reduce its efficacy means you’re that much more likely to shift dollars to areas they do own.  They get nothing when your successful SEO leads to lots of results through good organic search results so they’re only to happy to limit the information you can get about how people found your site and thereby make your SEO that much less effective.  In fact, they’ve basically declared all out war on SEO’s.  They are the enemy because they reduce your need to spend ad dollars with Google.

Expect more of this as time goes on.  Big companies can’t resist using their clout to do this kind of Evil.  In the original PC days, the Evil was perpetrated by controlling shelf space.  If you owned all the shelf space, nobody would ever see the Little Guy’s innovative new products.  In today’s world, they want your eyeballs focused entirely on parts of the Internet that contain their ads.  As their growth and profitability slow down, they’re only going to play these kinds of games more often to try to prop things up.

Posted in business, Marketing, strategy | Leave a Comment »

What If You Fired Your 8 Million Most Influential Users?

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 19, 2013

trumpfiresyouWhat if you were running a big web business and you fired your 8 million most influential users?

Would that be a smart thing to do?  Would your shareholders be happy?  Would your board be happy?  What possible reason could you have to do such a thing?  What perceived advantage would offset the cost of annoying your 8 million most influential users?

Lest you think this is some imaginary scenario, firing 8 million influential users is exactly what Google is doing as it shelves Google Reader in less than a month.  Google is firing the likes of Om Malik, for example, and Seth Godin who says RSS is still the most efficient way of reading blogs.  Google says they’re doing it for lack of traffic, but as I’ve written before, that’s a bogus argument.

Let’s start with how I get to 8 million.  That number is from an email I just got from Feed.ly, who are introducing a Cloud version and say that since the Google announcement they’ve gone from 4 million to 12 million users.  Even better is that these are not just looky-loos–Feed.ly says that 68% are accessing the service on a weekly basis so they’re real users.  That’s 8 million right there, but the truth is the numbers are probably much higher for a number of reasons:

-  There are bound to be quite a few that will wait to the bitter end to migrate off Google Reader.

-  There are a lot of other services besides Feed.ly that have gotten their share of defectors.  Feed.ly happens to be my current favorite alternative, but I have no doubt the others are successful growing from the Google debacle too.

-  There are potentially even larger players in the offing, with Digg about to offer up its alternative and there is even a rumor Facebook may make it possible to bring your feeds into Facebook for reading (smart move on their part if so).

With Google Reader shutting down July 1 (just 10 days) and some of these big new players getting here only slightly before the shutdown, it should be no surprise that there’ll be a lot of last minute jockeying before the post-Google Reader market has stabilized.  One thing seems certain–with this many people moving around and this many companies putting forward products, RSS is far from the dead duck Google and some others have claimed it to be.   That’s great news for bloggers, many of whom depend on RSS driven traffic to keep growing their readership through compound interest.

Okay, we’ve established there are millions of people Google is firing, but are they “their most influential users?”  That all depends on how you define “influential”, but I look at it this way:

-  They’re people that consume a lot of content and are savvy users of the web else they wouldn’t bother with the complexity of an RSS Reader.  In other words, these are the web’s power users.

-  They are Bloggers, Journalists, and Influencers.  These people need a power tool like RSS to be able to consume the Firehose of Information they need to be on top of their games.

I don’t know why you wouldn’t call such people the most influential users Google has available to it.  If you have any doubt, go to virtually any post about the Google Reader debacle and read the comments (I should add that the Google Reader audience are hugely more likely to participate via comments and other means).  I just picked a few examples to show:

-  Wired’s Christina Bonnington writes that Google Reader was axed because people no longer consume the news that way.  It’s too old-fashioned.  Instead they want the “push” delivery that services like Google+ can offer.   The comments are virtual explosion decrying that notion and you don’t have to get far before someone says they don’t want to read the news Google thinks they should read, they want to read the news they want to read.  It’s also funny to read in this article an others the guess that Reader had “several million users” when we now now it was much greater than that.  Google simply let people believe the service wasn’t popular because it served their purposes.

-  Andrew Chen says he is dropping RSS and his readers need to sign up to his email list.  His article purports to show the death of RSS in a single graph, which is of the number of people searching for RSS.  It’s telling that the very first comment is from Seth Godin who tells him in no uncertain terms he has a bad idea there (“The patient is dying, and you’re busy telling his loved ones to put their feet on the respirator hose.”).  Godin goes on to explain in detail why Chen is wrong and commented on Chen’s other post about RSS too.  Nearly all the many commenters disagree with his analysis and tell him they’ll miss him and won’t sign onto the emails.  I left him a comment myself on the fallacy of using Google searches for RSS to decide the issue.  As far as I know, he is sticking to his guns though.  If you’re a blogger, you’d be silly cutting off your nose to spite your face like this.  I also think it’s interesting that as I write this, Andrew hasn’t gotten a single comment on any of his subsequent posts.  I don’t know if that means his audience doesn’t find them interesting or if they moved on with his RSS feed antics.

- Moz.com’s Reader-A-Week post in search of alternatives has great commentary on the alternatives and a great comment thread that shows the reactions of ordinary users.  If nothing else, it shows how many alternatives are available and how many readers are interested.

Most of these kinds of articles get more comments and engagement than the average for the blogs hosting them, which is just another indication that these are influential, or at least highly engaged users.

So why would Google fire 8 million of its most influential users?

Many have expressed opinions and many are wrong.

Forget the articles that say it happened because RSS was dying.  RSS is a power user niche offering that is alive and well as the millions of users and dozen odd companies scrambling to take over for Google show.  Google wanted people to believe that usage had dwindled to a few million but in fact it’s much larger than that and likely larger than usage for Google+.

Forget the articles like Bonnington’s Wired piece or How-to-Geek’s piece that claimed the model is old and dying and that there are better alternatives.  The truth is that there aren’t any better alternatives for efficiently consuming large amounts of news, at least not yet.  There are, however, alternatives for people who want to do something other than efficiently consume a firehose of information.  That’s okay, we like choices.  It’s when companies and marketers insist things have to be black and white in order to further their agendas that we should be annoyed.

Here’s the real reason, and it is a simple, typical-big-company sort of thing:

Google Reader is being shuttered because Google thinks that will help a more strategic product (Google+) to be more successful.  They want to force us to chose and rely on inertia and their brand to shift people to Google+.  They’ve convinced themselves that Google+ is so much better strategically, that they don’t care if they lose a lot of people along the way.  They don’t value those people and generating any kind of growth for G+ through reduction in expense elsewhere is a good thing according to the way Big Co’s keep score and run their internal politics.

Writer’s like Victoria McNally call it out like it is, but the majority seem to have bought Google’s story that RSS simply died out too fast.  Keep that in mind the next time some pundit is predicting the demise of a thing.  It may only have entered what Gartner calls the “Trough of Disillusionment”, which is only a trough compared to the ridiculous peak of any hype cycle.

What will this mean going forward?

Watching my own usage patterns, it will mean I spend less time in the Google Empire.  That’ll be a bit of a disappointment for them, because they’re looking to grab more mindshare through this move, but I think they’re going to be rudely surprised.  I used to alternate between shutting down all news and interruption driven sources to get real work done and going through my sources of news and interruption:

- GMail for email

- Google Reader for RSS and specifically for news and information most relevant to my work and interests

- Facebook for casual news and information about friends

- Google News for general news about what’s going on in the world

You can see that Google had me pretty solid except for their arch-nemesis Facebook.  This is where introducing an RSS Reader that integrates in a sensible way with Facebook would be awesome.  I am only too happy to flip between tabs on a single app to access these sources.  If we think about what’s stick or not, Google doesn’t own much that is sticky because they don’t own the sources of the content.  Facebook actually owns the sources of their postings.  So, if they were to add email, RSS, and general news, it would be a pretty compelling news portal.  They could lock up a lot of eyeballs for long periods of time.  The cost to add such capabilities should be fairly low.

Yahoo is another organization that ought to be on top of this stuff, though it isn’t at all clear they can think clearly enough and respond quickly enough to get there.  Newcomers and smaller players like Feed.ly and Digg have an opportunity to land and expand in their ability to give people access to more and more news sources.

If any of these players can actually get together a coherent strategy and deliver, shutting down Google Reader could turn out to be Google’s biggest strategic error to date.  Especially because all those millions of influencers they fired will be telling others who believe in them exactly what the best alternatives to Google are.

Posted in business, Marketing, strategy | 8 Comments »

Converting Content-Audience Fit to Product Traction

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 18, 2012

tractor-pullJason Lempkin has a new post out about gaining traction after your product ships.  He says it’s hard, much harder than building the 1.0 product which was already hard, and he makes some concrete suggestions on how to go about gaining traction:

-  Finish hiring your core team.  Presumably you’ve left the sales and marketing until post-1.0?

-  Get attention for your app:  “Whatever you can possible do.  Go to every conference.  Speak at any possible event you can, no matter how small.  Win every award. Try to get every blog to write about you.  Reach out to anyone and everyone in your space.  Be respectful, but totally, utterly, shameless here.  Do whatever you can possibly think of here.”

-  Hit the pavement and get early customers and partners

-  Lavish attention on every single customer and lead

-  Plan your next release carefully–it may be your last

Wow, put that way, the job seems really tough!

After reading the account, I do have memories of startups that had to solve the traction problem through brute force and shoe leather.  They were painful and very scary.

The thing is, success is about being prepared (with a healthy dose of luck, though chance does favor the prepared mind).  As I tell my kids, “It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if the other guy already did the homework and knows the answer while you’re still trying to figure it out, he looks smarter.”

So it is with achieving product traction.  This is why I wrote my earlier post about achieving what I call “Content-Audience Fit” to tell Founders it has to be their first priority, even ahead of building a product.  Possibly even ahead of knowing what product you will build.  I say this for two reasons.  First, if you don’t know your audience, you can’t build a great product anyway.  While you might think you know your audience, how can you be sure until you have Content-Audience Fit?

If you have Content-Audience Fit, the following things are true:

1.  There is a reasonably large audience that is steadily growing and is consuming your content.  They care about what you have to say in the market you’re interested in.  They are subscribing to your mailing list, following you on Twitter, liking you on Facebook, or whatever other Social Medium works for your market.  Consequently you know what Social means to your market.

2.  You are part of the Conversation taking place on the web for your chosen market.  You are posting in their online communities.  You’re on the blogs of the key influencers (you do know who they all are, don’t you?) commenting.

3.  You are so familiar with the commercial players in the market that you’ve helped the Market Audience understand some of them better.  You’re commenting on their blogs too.  That establishes you as an agnostic authority in the market.

4.  Because of your participation in all the right conversations, and because of the quality of the content you’re producing, Key Influencers will recognize your name.  You are beginning to get folks asking you unsolicited questions as a recognized Expert.

There is a not-so-subtle difference between this Content-Audience fit and “Get attention for your app”.  It’s because you’re getting attention for your content.  You’re establishing yourself as an expert, not a guy shilling your products and company.  Because your content is very high quality and it’s being given away freely, you’re invoking the principle of reciprocity, which is a powerful force when marketing and selling.  You’re laying the groundwork to present your selling proposition from a position of strength, after your prospects have already decided you’re the expert.

Imagine being able to validate your product vision, and eventually early versions of the product with that kind of Audience insight.  It’s invaluable.  It should be a requirement.  Yet so many companies build the product first and consult the Audience afterward.

Second, you need a strategy to make this business of gaining Product Traction easier.  I love the definition that strategy is what you do to make winning easier.  If you ever needed a strategy, it is when you launch your 1.0 product!

So how do we convert Content-Audience Fit to Product Traction?

Back up.  Let’s get the timing right first.  You don’t want to start trying to achieve Content-Audience fit after you’ve built Product 1.0.  That’s way too late.  Here’s a mini-case study:

I took Helpstream, a Social CRM startup, from being invisible to having a successful blog that had achieved Content-Audience fit in about six months.  At the end of the six months, the key influencers knew who we were and were starting to write about us.  For example, Paul Greenberg, the “Godfather of CRM”, wrote a short passage that perfectly signals good Content-Audience fit:

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with fellow Enterprise Irregular Bob Warfield, who is the EVP of Products for a company called Helpstream. I have to admit, when I saw Bob’s rather cogent commentaries on the Enterprise Irregulars site, I became curious as to what he did and what the Helpstream company dealio was. I asked him and we set up a demo and a conversation between me, Bob, and Anthony Nemelka, the President and CEO of Helpstream and a long time industry veteran.

That second sentence telegraphs where we’re going and why Content-Audience fit is so critical to a product launch.  Because of my “cogent commentaries”, Paul asked us for a demo.  Imagine Content that is so good, the key influencers are coming to you, rather than you going to them hat in hand trying to get a meeting.  I would budget a minimum of 6 months and perhaps as long as 12 months to achieve your Content-Audience fit.  Sounds like you need to get started at the same time you start the Product, right?

This is an insight that is missing from many startups.  In fact, many want to do a stealth launch and keep everything secretive.  Feel free to keep your product aspirations a secret, but you’re nuts if you’re not belting out super high quality content for your audience from Day 1.  That means as you sit around the table with your fellow Founders, and you ask the question, “Who is spearheading our drive for Content-Audience Fit and who is writing all that content?”, there had better be a good answer.  That marketing guy you partnered with who has never actually done a blog, he has just simply hired people who did blogs?  We might be past the evolution in how marketing is done for that to be a good idea.  First question I ask any marketing candidate at any level is, “Show me your blog?”  If the response is, “Huh?”, the interview is not going to go well.  It’s no different than asking any question about marketing deliverables.  Would you hire someone who had never had any contact with advertising of any kind?  Content marketing is so critical to small companies, how can it be an afterthought?

As an aside, I recently came across a bootstrap business called, The Wirecutter.  The Founder achieved Content-Audience fit before they ever started this little company by writing for Gizmodo, Wired, GadgetLab, and MaximumPC.  How about grabbing one of the big name bloggers in your space as a co-Founder?  How about at least as an advisor to help you get to Content-Audience Fit?  Have them brutally critique your content until you get it right.

BTW, people like Paul Greenberg have extremely high standards.  There is a reason they get nicknames like the “Godfather of CRM”.  They are trusted and they didn’t get there by being dummies or shills.  If your content doesn’t have something really meaningful to say, you’ll get nowhere with this strategy.  But if you get the meeting because your PR firm pounded hard enough on doors, and then in the meeting you still have nothing to say, you’re going nowhere anyway.  So:

It is critically important to do the work of achieving Content Audience Fit!

That’s it.  Full Stop.  End of Sermon.  Don’t.Mess.It.Up!!!

Okay, now imagine you’ve got that fit, as defined by the 1,2,3,4 list above.  Let’s use it to produce traction.  This is done in the following ways:

The Audience that’s ready to Jump Now is ready.  Invite them in.

There are always those influencers who get an edge by working harder to learn than the others.  Always those prospects who are ready to buy now and want the new new thing.  If you have achieved Content-Audience Fit, all you need do is announce the availability of a product and any of these people in your audience will be likely to check in.  Start with  your Beta Test.  You can keep it as controlled as you like, but put the announcement out through your content channel and be sure to communicate at least your value proposition well enough so people will want to jump in.  If you don’t have a big enough audience yet that having 5% of them answer your invitation, you don’t have Content-Audience Fit.

Give the Early Adopters an Amazing Deal and Make Them Heroes

You don’t need revenue yet, you need credibility.  You put out the call to action, and the right people have self-selected by coming forward.  They like you or else they wouldn’t have come forward.  They’re active in the online world or else they’d have no idea you existed.  They’re raising their hands to tell you they care.  Make it easy for them to feel like that was the best decision they ever made.  Focus your spotlight of attention entirely on them.  Save your bandwidth so you can give them completely unreasonable amounts of it.  Make them heroes and they will make you a star.

You need to charge them a little bit or it isn’t a real transaction.  Give them the best deal you will ever offer in your corporate history and make sure they know that in the nicest possible way.  Give them attention and services that will never be available to others in even a year’s time.  Plug every member of your team into the success of these early customers.

When that fire has caught, you can ask them for a favor.  You can ask them to help you get the word out.  At the very least, you need them to be a willing and able reference.  Next step up, you need them to be a case study.  Grand Prize:  you need them to be a source of referrals.  Try to discreetly make sure when you sign them up that they’ll be able to do some of this, at least serve as references.  You can’t ask for that favor up front, but you can find out if they’ve ever been involved with early software, done references, yada, yada.

Earn the Right to Raise Your Price and Sell Bigger Deals

The company I mentioned earlier, Helpstream, had nearly every marketing automation company as customers for our Customer Service Social CRM product.  I remember calling each of these CEO’s, who were all entrepreneurs like myself, and asking them what Helpstream could and should do going forward.  Phil Fernandez, CEO of Marketo, shocked me by telling me, “Bob, I don’t know if I should be saying this, but you should raise your prices.”  Even more shocking was that Phil wasn’t the only one to tell me that.  So we did, after carefully making sure to grandfather existing customers with appropriate agreements so that they were taken care of.  There was virtually no pushback whatsoever, and it helped the business tremendously.

What had happened is we had earned the right to raise our prices by delivering on our promises and raising our credibility.

The ability to price higher comes most from credibility.  Sure, you might have the world’s greatest product, but nobody knows that if you don’t have the credibility.  Can you see where having good Content-Audience Fit is the first step on the credibility journey?  Beyond that first step, it is your conduit for telling your customer’s stories and continuing to build that credibility.

The next step is being able to tell your Early Adopter’s stories.  In terms of closing business, there is nothing like being able to have a prospect talk to a customer that gushes about your product.  At Callidus Software we used to invite prospects to our User Conferences precisely to maximize the exposure to that kind of sentiment.

Startups are enaged in earning the right to raise prices and to sell bigger deals throughout their history.  Successfully getting your first 5-10 reference accounts is just the first rung on that ladder.  Each company you sell to would like to know that they’re not the largest deal you’ve ever sold.  Raising the size of your largest deal earns you the right to sell even larger deals.  Accumulating this asset of referencibility is your primary deal closing accelerant until you’re large enough to point to being the market leader or perhaps to being a public company.  Gordon Moore’s Chasm Crossing can largely be seen as the process of establishing the credibility needed before those who are not Early Adopters will buy.

All along your journey, your Content continues to establish your company’s expertise in its chosen field.  You never walk away from that–you just keep building on it.  If your references are your Sales Accelerant, your successful Content is your lead generation accelerant.  Establish your web properties as the go-to spots to learn about what your customers care about.  All the best marketing startups like Hubspot, SEOMoz, Marketo, and Eloqua are working this way.  Maybe that’s a clue for the non-marketing startups that this is how marketing is done these days?

Lead With Content for Competitive Skirmishes and Insights

Competitors are great for startups.  If you’re the only one in a market, you have to undertake to grow that market all by yourself.  With competition, the cost is shared and the market can grow much more quickly.  In addition, picking a fight is a sure way to add passion to your content and help drive more traffic.  You can’t agree with everybody, but you need to agree with the position your key audience want you to stake out.

Take advantage of that with your Content strategy.  See which conversations your competition are dominating and wade into those conversations with your own viewpoint.  That viewpoint has to carry substance, but when it does, if you win the audience’s hearts and minds who are watching the conversation, they will come your way.  You can’t win them all, but this is where you start stacking up the different value propositions.  This is where you carve up the market into micro-niches that are looking at things each a little differently.  Here’s where you find out which micro-niches matter, and which ones are dead ends best left to the competition.

Passive sonar gained by just passively consuming the content from your space is great, but so much more can be learned through active pinging of the landscape.  See how they respond to your messaging, analysis, and insights.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of work required to achieve traction.  But, if you subscribe to my Content-Audience Fit idea, you’ll begin that work Day 1 at your company.  When you’re ready to enter Beta Test, you’ll have a lot more going for you than your sales guy’s contact lists and willingness to burn through shoe leather.  You’ll have an audience that wants to come to you, embrace your product, and help you spread the word.  FWIW, Helpstream wasn’t my first or last experience with Content-Marketing Fit.  My bootstrap company, CNCCookbook, thrives on the notion today.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing, saas, strategy, venture | 2 Comments »

The Very First Thing a Founding Team Needs to Do: Achieve Content-Audience Fit

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 10, 2012

Audience3DA lot of entrepreneurs,  when faced with the question, “What’s the most important thing to do first?”, would answer, “Build a product.”

Big mistake.

The most important thing to do first is to find an audience.  It may be that building a product is an integral part of growing your audience, but you’re not ready to build a product or grow your audience until you’ve found the right audience to start with.

How will you know you’ve found your audience?

There are some important signs.  For example, you can participate in their communities and be well received.  An even better test is you can get their communities to consume your content.  Before you’re going to have much hope of achieving Product-Market Fit, you’d better achieve Content-Audience Fit.  When you have that fit, when traffic to your web site is growing steadily and you’re starting to get some big spikes in traffic from particularly compelling content, you’re close.  When you can measure growth in the audience’s commitment to your content, for example, when your mailing list for your blog is growing and people are clicking through the weekly digest to get to the actual articles, you have achieved some degree of Content-Audience Fit.

Content-Audience Fit is a surprisingly high hurdle.  It is higher than getting a bunch of random people to sign up to try a free software product, for example.  The reason is that there is less value being offered by the content.  People actually have to be willing to spend some of their attention on your content simply because it is that good.  They do it because you’ve demonstrated you understand what they want and that you have something worthwhile to offer.  There are tons of people that will play with some free piece of software for a short time, and you’re probably not even set up to measure how hard they played with it yet.

With Content, all you need is a blog to deliver the Content from and Google Analytics to measure its impact.  Maybe augment that with a MailChimp account so you can actually start to aggregate some followers to your Tribe and use the Analytics there to tell how committed they are.  Anyone who is willing to undertake the hard work needed to consume your Content and decide they like it well enough to want to keep consuming it is a valuable member of your Tribe.  The more you can grow the Tribe, the more voices there will be to help you get your message out, to tell you what problems they need to have solved, and to guide you in the next phase of your journey:  achieving Product-Market Fit.

To be a successful Bootstrapper, you’re almost certainly going to have to be a Content Marketer anyway.  Advertising is typically going to be too expensive before you get some capital and a following.  So do yourself a favor.  Forget the product for a little while.  Focus on achieving Content-Audience Fit.  When your past striking flint and blowing on the tinder, you’ll have a little fire glowing.  It’s a big accomplishment.  So far it’s just kindling, but soon you’ll be ready to throw a real log or two onto that fire.  That’s when you build your product, as soon as the Content Kindling has caught and you can see some actual flames.  The timing will be perfect, because your costs will go up and your available attention for producing product and content will go down as soon as you ship your product.

You can’t afford to be just starting to look for Content-Audience Fit after the product is ready to ship.  That’s too late.  And it’s a terrible time to discover your market has no passion for what you’re trying to do.  That bit of news was tragically knowable with a lot less effort if you had only started out finding an Audience.

Extra Credit Note to Investors:

If you find a team that knows how to create a product, we both know that’s not enough.  You’ve raised the bar on that some time ago.  But if you find a team that has achieved Content-Audience Fit, they’ve demonstrated a critical marketing skill.  At the very least, you know that this team can present compelling content that draws a significant audience.  Combine that Audience Insight and ability to compell the Audience with a decent Product and that’s the essence of a startup that will grow.  I am surprised every time I walk into a startup and ask who in Marketing is a hard core blogger and hear back that basically nobody is and they’ve outsourced that task to technical writers of one kind or another.  Those startups are proceeding on a wing and a prayer that they actually understand their Audience.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing, strategy, venture | 8 Comments »

 
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