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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Telcos Could Be The Future Enterprise Software Vendors For Small Businesses

Having worked on enterprise software product and go-to-market strategy for SMB (small and medium businesses), I can tell you that these are the most difficult customers to reach to, especially the S in SMB. It’s an asymmetric non-homogeneous market for which the cost of sales could go out of control if you don’t leverage the right channels. The competitive landscape varies from region to region and industry to industry. In many cases instead of competing against a company you would be competing against a human being with paper-based processes.

Tomorrow I am speaking at the Razorsight annual conference on the topic of cloud computing. I am excited to meet their customers, the telcos. While I prepare for my keynote, I can’t stop thinking about the challenges that the telcos face and the opportunities that they are not pursuing. My keynote presentation is about how telcos can leverage the cloud, but this blog post is about how telcos can become successful enterprise software vendors and market their solutions to small businesses.
There are very few things that are common across small businesses. They own a landline (at least for now) and they have Internet access, in many cases from the same vendor. I believe that the landlines will be more and more difficult to sell to these customers, but losing a channel – a relationship – would be even worse. If leveraged well, these relationships could be worth a lot more compared to the landline business as it stands today. Just think about it. Selling to small businesses is all about leveraging existing relationships with them. This channel is priceless.

What will it take for the telcos to market products to small businesses?

ISV acquisitions or VAR agreements: If telcos are bundling software, on-premise or SaaS, the telcos, as organizations, don’t necessarily have the skills or resources to make software for small businesses. This would mean a series of small and niche ISV acquisitions across geographical areas and industries and VAR agreements with current ISVs.

What kind of software can telcos bundle?

There are two kinds: horizontal and vertical. The examples of horizontal software are accounting, payroll, point of sale etc. Ask Intuit and they will tell you all about the horizontal cash cow. The vertical software is industry specific for the business that you are in. One of my favorite companies in this area is OpenTable. If you have made an online reservation at a restaurant you have most likely used their software. They had a successful IPO last year and they are on track to become a $100 million company.

Telcos should be doing all these things. They have cash and they can borrow cheap money to buy companies. Telcos also have an option to leverage the cloud, their own cloud in many cases, to provide SaaS solutions to small businesses. They can leap frog the on-premise ISVs who don’t have access to these customers and are sensitive to margin cannibalization.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Lean Startup Customer Development And IxD Personas

On Quora Steve Blank asked "Is it possible to use Lean Startup customer development findings to inform IxD personas?" This post is my response to Steve on Quora:

Absolutely yes.

Pivoting is not just about finding the right business model that works for a start-up but it is also about nailing down the persona that you are designing your product for. I have seen many start-up fail because they don't know who the end user is. Creating a persona is an iterative process by itself. Many people focus on persona as a final artifact but I believe that the journey is more important than the destination. While discovering a persona and iterate on it to make it crisp, the team - the dev, marketing, and UX - comes together with the shared understanding of the target end user. The journey brings in the empathy that they all internalize and that influences what they do. The journey includes getting out of the office and talk to the real people who you think would use your product.

Persona requires qualitative discovery as well as validation. It's an instantiation of your customer. The customer discovery, validation, and creation are all directly related to the persona. In fact I would argue that in many cases knowing the target audience, at a given stage, is far more important than having a perfect product. Plenty of people fixate on building the right product against building it for the right people.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Laundromat Entrepreneur

In my previous post “While Entrepreneurs Scale On The Cloud The Angels Get Supersized” I wrote about how cloud computing is disrupting the VC industry. Continuing on the thread of entrepreneurship I am seeing more and more entrepreneurs building applications who do not belong to any formal organization, start-up or otherwise. The definition of what used to be a start-up itself is changing, primarily because of two reasons - simple and easily accessible PaaS tools to design, run, and maintain applications on the cloud and access to a market place to sell the applications.

We have been witnessing this trend for the mobile applications for a while - Android as well as iPhone and now iPad. I see the same pattern for the cloud-based applications. I have seen many useful, productive, and successful applications that are designed by individual developers with no affiliation to any organization.

Google has done a great job in designing the tools for the developers to build applications that can run on their cloud and can be sold on their app store. This has democratized the application business to large extent that attempt to solve niche problems. At the same time the individual developers have started monetizing their work without going through an overhead of bootstrapping and running a company. While Google’s cloud platform is a generic one the application and stack specific PaaS providers such as Salesforce.com and Heroku are also attracting such developers. Intuit’s partner development platform is a great example of a channel platform that allows the entrepreneurs to market to an SMB segment, a very difficult segment to reach (a post on that later).

All these trends, collectively, have introduced a new category of an entrepreneur. A laundromat entrepreneur.

They are not full fledged start-ups but these individuals are also not developing just for fun. These businesses have steady revenue, positive cash flow, and require very little maintenance. The companies such as Help Me - located in Karachi, Pakistan - have created their business model to support such developers outsource customer support for their existing applications so that they can focus on building new applications. Some of these individual businesses could be worth a few million dollars.

This is a very different business model that combines the best-of-breed with long tail. I am quite excited about this new category since that puts in the developers directly in charge of the product and takes them closer to the end users. I am curious to see the life cycle of these laundromats and how they get bought and sold. Many people that I have had discussions with claim that we could expect to see plenty of individuals who will own such a laundromat portfolio worth five to six million dollars.

Attribution: I have shamelessly stolen the word “laundromat” from my friend Mike Ni after my discussion with him on cloud computing business models. I had told him that I would!

The picture credit to Michael Valli
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