International Game Technology: Winning At The Talent Recruitment Game

Smarter workforceWhether a business is large or small, identifying, qualifying and hiring the right employees is critical to innovation and growth. But, as the recession wanes and the economy picks up, more companies are hiring, and competitionespecially for top talentis intensifying. This makes it more difficult for many companies to find the talent they need to thrive.

At the same time, options to help identify and hire candidates are expanding. For instance, employee referrals, advocacy programs, social media and mobile apps are becoming more important recruitment tools, while the role of external recruiting vendors is diminishing. While these new recruitment channels can help companies access a broader applicant pool, it’s not easy to use, integrate and optimize across them.

As a result, many businesses are reassessing and refreshing their existing recruiting practices and solutions. They are looking for knowledge and tools to give them the agility they need to compete more successfully throughout the recruitment process. .

In this three-part series, sponsored by IBM Smarter Workforce, I look at how companies are using applicant tracking systems (ATS) and assessment solutions to better address these issues, and new developments in this area that promise to provide further enhancements.

International Game Technology: Fueling Growth With Talent

HomepageHeroBanner_JurassicParkHeadquartered in Las Vegas, 34-year old International Game Technology (IGT) is the leading manufacturer of gaming machines. From Las Vegas to Monte Carlo, from Wheel of Fortune to James Cameron’s AVATAR, chances are you’ve played a video slots game on an IGT machine.

While IGT has been the long-time market leader, it does not rest on its laurels. In 2011, the company introduced IGT Cloud, an industry-first which lets casino operators dynamically deploy game content across multiple properties to optimize floor efficiencies, and also offer a seamless gaming experience across land-based, mobile and online devices. In 2012 IGT acquired Double Down Interactive LLC, a social gaming company and developer of DoubleDown Casino on Facebook, to fuel IGT’s expansion through new media. In 2013, IGT partnered with Casino Del Sol in Arizona to hold the AZ, to hold the Game King Championship, the first cross-platform video poker tournamentand the largest in the world, with more than 360,000 players.

To sustain this pace of growth and innovation, IGT must be able to identify and attract top talent.

Keeping Up With IGT Talent Requirements

Talent management solutions are still relatively new. Up until 2000, IGT had—like most companiesrelied on newspaper ads and human resources business partners for candidate recruitment. People would stop in to drop off hard copy applications, and everything was stored in physical file cabinets.

In 2000, IGT started using BrassRing’s cloud-based applicant tracking system. While the solution worked well, as the company grew, they needed more capabilities in the talent management area. When Laura Callender joined IGT six years ago as HRIS Staff Analyst, her job was to refresh and revamp talent management systems at the company to ensure IGT would be able to attract and retain top talent.

IGT’s first priority was to revamp the BrassRing ATS (which is now part of the IBM Kenexa Talent Suite) to keep pace with the company’s expanding global operations and hiring requirements. According to Callender, “It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day, and neglect new features. But it’s important to keep re-evaluating business needs and figure out what will really help improve the process.”

Callender took a fresh look at things, and extended the system to support IGT’s growing geographical footprint, and provide Chinese and Spanish language capabilities. She also added other capabilities, such as mobile functionality. “So many things that are cutting edge, like enabling mobile job applicants…five years ago, people wouldn’t have dreamed of job hunting and applying on a mobile phone. But now applicants might be at the dentist’s office and want to apply. We need to enable these new capabilities that will make a difference to our business,” says Callender.

Community and Support Are Key to Success

men with puzzle piecesIGT has found IBM’s “Kenexans” and the community of Smarter Workforce users invaluable in helping her figure out what changes will provide the most value to IGT. “IBM’s Kenexans help us stay ahead of these trends…they focus on helping us improve the way we do things and help us figure out what options will give us the biggest bang for the buck. Should we turn features on or off? What should we do differently? And how can we make things seamless for our users? So many things are cool, but what will we get the most value from?” observes Callender.

IBM’s Smarter Workforce Global Support Center helps IGT prioritize enhancements via an annual review. As important, IGT can call on their services as needed, not only for break/fix issues, but for new project tickets, and to get the “hand-holding” required to implement new functionality. “We’re in the middle in terms of what we need to implement, and they are there when we need them to help with the next step. It’s a closer degree of support than we get from other vendors,” notes Callender. “Out of all the vendors, in terms of support, I would choose IBM Kenexa any day.”

Callender is very active in user groups as well, which helps her learn from what others are doing, and what’s worked and what hasn’t for them. She’s attended six global conferences, and participated in user groups at all of them. As Callender puts it, “The user groups have really grown, from 30 to 40 attendees to over 100 at the last one. We don’t have an army of HR and IT people, but I can talk to users that do, like Pepsico, Time Warner and Disney, that we can really learn from. At the same time, there are companies smaller than uswith just 100 or 200 employeesthat we can help. It’s a really good way to exchange knowledge.”

The user groups also help facilitate conversations between the IBM Kenexa team and users. “We talk, and they listen. We sit in a roundtable, it’s very interactive, with experts and R&D engineers at each table to discuss topics such as referrals, triggers, etc. It’s very helpful and they act on our input.”

Getting Results

Since IBM Kenexa BrassRing is cloud based, upgrades are “very easy,” says Callender. “IBM rolls them out and turns them on. Some things you have a choice to upgrade or not. But they never break anything with an upgrade, which has happened with some of the other cloud solutions we use.”

Today, IGT hiring managers, external recruiters and applicants are all using the system. Last year, IGT used BrassRing to hire about 600 employees for mostly technical positions, with an average of about 50 applicants for each position. IGT has integrated BrassRing ATS with its SAP ERP system, so that when someone is hired, they are automatically moved from BrassRing to SAP. “Instead of having a person digging through emails to find candidates, ATS can do this for us much faster and more effectively with Boolean searches, and tagging,” states Callender.

IBM Kenexa’s BrassRing ATS also helps IGT answer important questions that impact recruitment strategy, such as:

  • What is the tipping point for the number of applicants for a certain position?
  • How can we do a fill requisitions more quickly?
  • What’s the best way to deal with counteroffers, or higher rejection rates?
  • How can we recruit people that aren’t currently looking for a job?

“We get our money’s worth from BrassRing ATS. We don’t have a formal measurement system, but we know we are saving a lot of time, which saves us money. There is no way we could function without it.” In addition, BrassRing pricing is based on the number of requisitions and applicants, so “what we pay for it aligns with our actual use, which we appreciate,” explains Callender.

Perspective

Talent is the lifeblood of any organization, fueling the innovation required to grow and thrive in today’s hyper-competitive world. Many cloud-based ATS solutions available, but as the IGT story illustrates, it’s not just the nuts and bolts of the software that matter. Being part of an active, engaged vendor support and user community can help you to:

  1. Map out a more effective strategy. Look for vendors and user communities that are collaborative, and can help you assess your requirements and how they are likely to evolve, and provide you with scalable solutions that you can deploy in an incremental manner.
  2. Get things right the first time. Your company benefits when the vendor facilitates knowledge sharing of best practices for things such as reporting considerations, workflow and underlying database structure that will take the most time and pain out of different processes. For instance, how do you set things up so applicants don’t need to fill out a new affirmative action form every time they apply for a new job, but can just edit information they’ve previously entered?
  3. Prioritize next steps. Your business is constantly evolving, and so is the hiring environment. But few organizations can do everything. Strategic prioritization is essential to figure out what new functionality will provide the most value.

The world of recruitment and talent management is changing quickly. This sets the stage for not only selecting the company and solution that best fits your immediate needs, but one that will provide a strong support experience to help you gain the best outcomes as your business and the recruitment landscape evolve.

This is the first post in a three-part blog series written by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM. The series examines talent management solutions and trends.

SuiteWorld 2014: NetSuite Hits Its Stride

suiteworldI recently had the opportunity to attend SuiteWorld 2014, NetSuite’s annual user conference—along with about 6,500 attendees including customers, partners, journalists and analysts. The event provided us with a good mixture of history, progress, new announcements, and future directions.

Memory Lane–A Somewhat Bumpy Road to the Cloud

I’ve been following NetSuite as an analyst since 1998, when Evan Goldberg (still serving as NetSuite’s CTO) and Mei Li (now SVP NetSuite Corporate Communications), first came to Summit Strategies, where I worked at the time. Early on, NetSuite was NetLedger, offering a simple accounting solution geared towards small and medium businesses (SMBs). The term “cloud” hadn’t yet been coined to describe the model of delivering software as a service (SaaS). In fact, even the SaaS term hadn’t surfaced. Back in the day, we called them Application Service Providers (ASPs) or just online solution providers.

NetSuite was one of a just a handful of vendors that came to pitch this new software delivery method to us in 1998. Salesforce and Employease (long ago acquired by ADP) and maybe a few now defunct vendors probably rounded out this tiny group. Of course, in the next couple of years, we were flooded with visits from seemingly anyone with a similar ideas that could create a PowerPoint presentation.

Over the past 16 years, many cloud vendors have come and gone, as for the most part, the road to the cloud has turned out to an evolutionary–not revolutionary–journey. Mainstream customer adoption of cloud solutions only started to become a reality in 2008, when the “great recession” hit, and the OPEX cloud model became much more attractive to cash-strapped companies. Looking at NetSuite specifically, I remember that for quite a few years in there, the vendor seemed stuck at a count of 5,000 active customers, and some wondered if it could ramp up to the next level of growth.

Fast Forward 

Today, while some roadblocks remain, many companies view the cloud as a mainstream approach to get the solutions they need to run their businesses. In fact, in some areas, such as collaboration and marketing automation, SMB plans for cloud adoption are higher than for on-premise.

Figure 1: Current and Planned Solution Deployment Methods Business Applications

Slide1

However, financials and ERP—NetSuite’s flagship solutions—have moved more slowly to the cloud than other types of applications. There are many reasons for this, including:

  • Deeper existing market penetration of financials, accounting and ERP. Financial and accounting software has been around a lot longer than many other types of software. So especially in the early days of the cloud, NetSuite (and other cloud-based financial/ERP vendors) needed to convince companies to replace incumbent on premise financials and ERP systems with a new cloud solution. In contrast, vendors outside of the core ERP and financial realm were selling solutions to automate functions that many companies had not yet automated—a much easier pitch to make.
  • Fewer users. Fewer people within an organization typically use financials and ERP systems than, for instance, CRM or collaboration tools. For many companies, the cloud model becomes more compelling as the number of users increases.
  • More regulatory and security requirements. Financial information is subject to many more regulatory concerns than many other functional areas. This, combined with many companies’ reluctance to house the company’s “crown jewels” with a third-party, have slowed the pace of financials and ERP cloud adoption.

Furthermore, the cloud has made it easy for business decision-makers to adopt new apps as needed, without IT involvement or even centralized corporate oversight. NetSuite has always focused on the value of a single, integrated system of record—certainly a longer, higher up the food chain sell than buying other types of solutions.

NetSuite’s Integration Value Proposition Comes of Age

men with puzzle piecesDespite these challenges, NetSuite has successfully stayed the more challenging course, and more companies are coming around to the value proposition that integrated solutions help remove friction and streamline business processes. For Q1 2014, NetSuite announced a record $123 million in revenue, up 34% year-over-year, and more than 20,000 organizations now use NetSuite to run their businesses.

At SuiteWorld, NetSuite showcased its 2014 Transformer Award winners, including Tableau Software, Jive Software, Shaw Industries, Williams-Sonoma and MusclePharm, to illustrate how NetSuite helps them grow and manage change more effectively. But their stories reflect a broader phenomenon. I’ve personally talked to many customers—and not only from NetSuite’s ranks—about how much better business runs when everyone views and works with the same, real-time information.

NetSuite’s Next Phase

Over the years, NetSuite has added integrated CRM, Ecommerce and other areas to its unified platform. At SuiteWorld 2014, NetSuite not only announced a new, improved user interface, but additional integrated offerings including:

  • B2B Customer Center built on NetSuite’s SuiteCommerce platform, to provide B2B merchants a platform to deliver a seamless, efficient B2C-like online shopping experience, with the ability to view order status, details and history, track shipments, reorder goods, and more.
  • A new services resource planning (SRP) solution, that provides integrated ERP, CRM and professional services automation (PSA). The offering includes client management, project and resources management, time-and-expense management, and project accounting in a single solution, designed to enable both product- and project-based businesses to modernize and transform operations the way manufacturing resource planning (MRP) did for manufacturing businesses.
  • The TribeHR SuiteApp. After acquiring TribeHR (a social human resources management suite) last year, NetSuite has migrated tight integration with TribeHR to the NetSuite platform. This brings HR capabilities to NetSuite and provides native integration across TribeHR and other NetSuite solution components.

NetSuite has also come to terms with the fact that one company can’t possibly develop ALL the functionality every company will need, or sell and service all of its potential customers. To that end, NetSuite is bringing more partners into its fold to fill in the white space and provide its customers with a richer ecosystem.

For instance, over 100 developer partners had booths and/or conducted sessions at SuiteWorld. The mix included established vendors such as Avalara, DocuSign and Kronos, to newer entrants such as FieldAware and VertexSMB, all of whom have developed integrations with NetSuite.

On the sales channel side, partners ranged from enterprise-focused players, such as CapGemini and Accenture, to smaller ones such as Cloud ERP (which has built its Australia/New Zealand-based business around selling and supporting the full range of NetSuite solutions), and FHL Cloud Solutions, which has developed a successful micro-vertical approach to marketing and selling NetSuite in industries such as wine, medical devices, and furniture wholesale and distribution.

NetSuite also launched the NetSuite BPO Partner Program at SuiteWorld. Through this program, NetSuite and its partners intend to simplify the outsourcing model and help drive costs down and better server smaller customers. Partners who provide Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) or Business Process as a Service (BPaaS) use NetSuite’s unified solution platform to provide services to their clients. Partners get access to SuiteCloud, NetSuite’s development platform to tailor their NetSuite offerings to industries or client-specific needs. Early partners include Capgemini, McGladrey and Accretive Solutions.

Perspective

Integration helps bring order to chaos–and helps companies reap more value from their application investments. But let’s face it, integrating applications after the fact is a difficult, messy and expensive affair, and one that many SMBs struggle to get done.

In today’s social, mobile and multi-channel world, consumers—whether B2B or B2C—have more power, and all vendors face increasing pressure to provide better, faster, and more user-friendly products, services and engagement to attract and retain customers. Having a unified system of record enables companies to have a more knowledgeable view of customer behavior, and to present a more unified face to customers, whether they’re engaging in marketing, sales, billing or service transaction. This means that the appeal and value of taking an integrated approach will only rise—as will NetSuite’s fortunes.

New Patterns Emerge: IBM PureApplication Service Takes to the Cloud

ibmpulseEarlier this week, I attended IBM Pulse along with a crowd of about 11,000 other customer, partner, press, influencer and analyst attendees. Historically, Pulse has been the IBM event that focuses on service management and infrastructure. This year, the vendor positioned Pulse as “the premier cloud computing conference.”

Pulse followed closely on the heels of IBM’s acquisition of SoftLayer last year, and on its decision to put SoftLayer technology at the center of its cloud strategy. So it’s not surprising that many industry observers viewed the event as a great opportunity to reassess IBM’s cloud strategy at a time when customers are accelerating towards the cloud. How ready is 104 year-old Big Blue to compete in the cloud infrastructure and platform as-a-service (IaaS and PaaS) space against players such as Amazon, Google and Salesforce.com’s Heroku as technology transforms at a dizzying rate?

The sweeping range of announcements that IBM unleashed signal that it is now all in on cloud computing. IBM launched Bluemix, an open-standards, cloud-based platform to build, manage and run applications; announced its acquisition of Cloudant, a cloud-only database as a service (DBaaS) for building mobile and web apps; introduced Service Engage, which provides cloud-based subscriptions for systems management; and cited plans to bring Power Systems into SoftLayer’s cloud to support Watson-based analytics solutions.

In addition, IBM announced that it is bringing the power of its PureSystems patterns approach to the cloud. Extending PureSystem’s cloud capabilities gives customers and business partners tools to simplify and speed delivery of cloud services across both public and private clouds.

PureApplication Service on SoftLayer

First, IBM announced the beta of PureApplication Service on SoftLayer.  As background, PureApplication Service uses best practice “patterns” to rapidly deploy specific applications. In a nutshell, patterns are like tried and true recipes to set up, deliver and manage the infrastructure plumbing for a given application. Instead of having to piece together all of the ingredients, customers get pre-formulated virtualization, operating system, middleware, wiring, and installation patterns that dramatically slash the time it takes to stand up an application. Putting PureApplication Service on SoftLayer brings these portable, reusable patterns to the cloud, and opens up new opportunities for new use cases. As important, it makes it easier for businesses (and partners) to support a hybrid IT environment that’s consistent regardless of where the app resides.

This will make it easier for some tech-savvy SMBs to take a do-it-yourself approach. But by far, the bigger SMB opportunity is via business partners. For instance, with PureApplication Service on SoftLayer, partners can more quickly move SMB on-premise apps to a public or private cloud, and spend more time on higher value-added business process services.  It also provides the opportunity to quickly provision new services, with the ability to rapidly access a development and test environment, implement disaster recovery, or provide added capacity for peak use periods.

To provide the best experience during the beta, IBM has selected 8 key patterns that deliver mobile, web, database, analytics, BPM and Java capabilities to help clients create new applications on PureApplication Service on SoftLayer. IBM also has several partner patterns available for beta, targeting the financial services industry.  The goal is that all 200+ patterns on PureApplication System will become available as a service on SoftLayer by the time the offering is officially launched.

DevOps on PureSystems

Second, IBM announced a soft-bundle to help clients jump-start DevOps with PureSystems. IBM’s PureSystems integrate networking, storage, scalability, virtualized environments, middleware, license management and monitoring into one solution for cloud solution development and delivery. DevOps on PureSystems pulls together key components of IBM’s Rational tool set to make it easier for developers to plan, develop and test cloud solutions, and then to monitor and iterate to meet changing requirements or correct problems.

This means that programmers can access a development environment much more quickly and thus dedicate to actually building apps, iterating on the code, and  incorporating timely feedback from customers to deliver a stronger solution.

Today, DevOps on PureSystems is only available in an on-premise model, but I have little doubt that this too will become available via SoftLayer in the very near future.  Again, while few SMBs have internal development teams, this offering—especially once its available in the cloud—should help IBM woo more next-generation developers to its fold. For more on DevOps on PureSystems, see an IBM blog discussing DevOps at Pulse.

Perspective

IBM is betting big on software development for the cloud, with a $1 billion investment in cloud software development on tap through 2015, representing a double-digit percentage increase over the past two years.

The PureSystems announcements—in combination with those for BlueMix, Cloudant and Service Engage—underscore that IBM also intends to get out in front of the next generation of cloud development and delivery. More automated, integrated and accessible cloud delivery and development solutions will fuel new development and delivery options for IBM partners, and help more customers—including more SMBs—to benefit and get more value from the cloud.

For additional perspectives on IBM’s PureSystems announcements, watch my interview with Pete McCaffrey, Director of PureSystems Marketing, recorded at Pulse.

Disclaimer: I attended Pulse as an invited media guest.

 

SMB Spotlight: IBM’s New Midmarket GM Talks About the SoftLayer Acquisition

ibmsmarterplante-150x150Laurie: Hi, this Laurie McCabe from the SMB Group, and in today’s SMB Spotlight I’m speaking with John Mason, who is IBM’s new General Manager and VP for Midmarket. Hi John. Thanks for joining me on this two-part discussion about developments at IBM in the midmarket and SMB space. In our first discussion, I’d like to focus on the IBM acquisition of SoftLayer, which I understand provides dedicated hosting, cloud computing and cloud services offerings.

Before that though, I’d like to learn more about you and your background. I understand you’re relatively new to IBM. Can you tell us a little bit about where you’ve been and what kind of experience you bring to your role?

John: Thanks Laurie. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. I joined IBM three months ago. I started my career at Compaq in the 80s. I spent thirteen years there and moved to Cisco, and ran the SME and midmarket business with Cisco in Europe, Middle East, Africa.

Then, I ran global channels for Nokia’s Enterprise business. I also ran a mobile cloud service in eReading and News for a couple of years, and a white label mobile messaging service provider that had been acquired during my time there.

So, when the discussion started with IBM, it was an interesting combination of different hardware, software and services businesses in small and midsize enterprise and across mobile and social. It was the opportunity to combine that with IBM’s amazing global reach in over 170 countries and find ways to get that to the millions of small and midsized companies. Many are possibly not even doing any business with IBM today but can benefit from those solutions.

Laurie: What will you be focusing on in your new role as GM, John?

John: Finding new opportunities to grow the business and bring mobile and social and analytics, and particularly cloud solutions to small or midsized businesses. This means working very closely with our partner organization and focusing on MSPs as the key route market.

Laurie: Thanks for that background. So help me understand a little bit about the SoftLayer acquisition and why it’s so important. IBM makes a lot of acquisitions in general, and I think probably at least a dozen in the cloud area. What makes SoftLayer stand out for IBM?

ibmsoftlayerimage-150x110John: This is one of those few times in our industry where there’s an absolutely fundamental shift that changes everything. When client-server computing started taking off was one, and when mobile really went to a whole new level was another. Now, with cloud, we’re seeing a major shift, which is very beneficial to smaller and midsized companies. They may not have the IT expertise in-house to take advantage of some of the technologies that larger companies are able to use, but now through cloud, they can use more advanced solutions without having to deal with the complexities.

Laurie: Tell us about what SoftLayer does and how that will help IBM help SMBs? What does it give IBM you that it didn’t have in the cloud area?

John: The SoftLayer acquisition was driven by a change in the way that customers are looking to buy. I would say it’s as simple as answering these questions. Is this technology solution is going to be hosted at your place or mine? Is this something that I have to build and manage on my premises, or is it something that I can tap into through a web browser to connect to infrastructure that’s sitting somewhere else outside of my physical office buildings? Then, is that going to be dedicated to me or is it something that I share with somebody else? So, it’s really your place or mine, shared or dedicated, and what software brings is the ability to offer the full range of different deployment options.

That’s whether it’s a complete public cloud solution or it’s a private cloud or it’s some mix of some parts public, some parts private in a hybrid deployment. SoftLayer lets us accelerate our ability to deliver those pieces across a broad range of different businesses and different services.

Laurie: What about purchasing and pricing mechanisms for customers?

John: Yes, that’s really key. It’s really important to make it easy and simple to understand what the offering is, and how can I choose the combination that is right for me. Then make it really easy for them to purchase and deploy that solution.

The beauty of SoftLayer is they have a very simple credit card purchase capability. You can be up and running literally within the hour and choose whether you want to be billed monthly or hourly. It’s simple and flexible, and that’s as important as the underlying technology.

Laurie: One of the other things that I’m curious about is that it seems like managed services is another big part of the SoftLayer business. IBM has been heavily courting managed service providers (MSPs) for quite some time. Does this create a conflict with them?

John: SoftLayer is really complementary to what we’re doing with MSPs. In fact, we’ve had a number of key wins with MSPs for SoftLayer with service providers who have said, “I really don’t want to have to manage this infrastructure myself. It’s not my core business. My focus is on security services or hosted exchange services. So, rather than me scarce resources building and managing an infrastructure layer, I’d rather focus on the higher value services on top of that, and I’ll use SoftLayer as infrastructure.”

Laurie: Will they be able to resell SoftLayer?

John: Yes, there’s that too. MSPs can use SoftLayer themselves as part of their own infrastructure, or they can resell it to customers together with other value-add services that they bring to the mix.

Laurie: Where does SoftLayer sit in terms of IBM’s SmartCloud services?

John: SoftLayer gives us the ability to accelerate our own leadership position, scale out the smaller cloud service portfolio, add additional higher value services and solutions across mobile and data analytics, social–together with partners. It’s the combination of all of that into a solution that adds value for customers.

Laurie: What kind of experience in SMB and midmarket does SoftLayer bring that IBM can leverage, and how will you do that?

John: I mentioned this earlier in our conversation when we talked about what attracted me to the role at IBM. Frankly, the SoftLayer acquisition hadn’t closed but had been publicly announced. That was a real additional level of credibility that we could use to address the SMB market because SoftLayer had over 20,000 SMB customers already. They clearly have a very strong focus on that market and a solution that is very simple, easy for the smaller customer to understand, choose, purchase, deploy and operate.

So, to me that said IBM’s not just talking about the midmarket, but actually putting a significant investment in technologies, ease of purchase and deployment to enable this. SoftLayer convinced me that we very serious about this and that was a decider for me.

Laurie: What does the bigger go to market plan look like? Many SMBs still think IBM doesn’t have solutions that are relevant for them. How are you going to change that?

John: First, we need to be careful that we don’t hug SoftLayer to death. We need to give them space to continue to operate their own very successful go to market model. There’s always a risk when a big company acquires a smaller company that sometimes the big company process can slow down the smaller company. We will be very diligent about ensuring that doesn’t happen and that SoftLayer continues to operate somewhat independently with their existing go to market model.

At the same time, we need to take advantage of what they bring and combine that with IBM’s traditional business partners, managed service provider partners, and some of the ISVs that we work with. Really, this is more about connecting the ecosystem that needs to work together to deliver solutions to small and midsized companies. SoftLayer helps us accelerate that with a full range of all types of different deployment options–everything from bare metal dedicated servers, virtualized shared servers, managed private and public cloud through to a full range of storage and networking and managed services.

Laurie: So, what does success look like here if this all goes according to plan?

John: I think we’ll see continued acceleration of cloud adoption within small and midsized companies and SoftLayer will help to significantly accelerate the deployment of both hybrid private and public cloud solutions for small and midsized companies. I certainly expect the 20,000 existing SoftLayer customers will increase significantly without putting a specific number on it. Beyond that, it’s about helping MSPs to accelerate their offerings with more value-add services above and beyond the infrastructure layer. That way we really bring complete solutions for small and midsized companies that are simple to deploy and use.

Laurie: John, thank you for joining me, and I look forward to our next discussion, when we will talk about IBM’s other new plans for SMB and mid-market customers.

John: Thank you Laurie. I appreciate the opportunity to have this discussion and certainly look forward to future discussions we’ll have.

This is the first of a two-part SMB Spotlight interview with John Mason, IBM’s General Manager and VP for Midmarket, sponsored by IBM. In the second post, I’ll ask John about other new IBM strategies and developments for SMB and midmarket companies and channel partners.

Collaboration and the Progressive SMB

Almost all businesses aspire to success–but not all achieve it. SMB Group has identified and written quite a bit about what we term “Progressive SMBs.” Progressive SMBs are more growth driven and invest more in technology than their counterparts. They also view IT as a tool to help the business grow, create market advantage, and level the playing field against bigger companies.

Most important, being a Progressive SMB pays off. In our 2012 SMB Routes to Market Study, 85% of SMBs that plan to invest more in technology anticipated revenue increases. In comparison, only 42% of SMBs that plan to decrease IT spending expected revenues to rise.

Personifying the Progressive SMB: Apex Supply Chain

apex logoI recently had the chance to speak with Karolyn Schalk, VP of IT Infrastructure at Apex Supply Chain. Apex designs and manufactures what it terms “Point-Of-Work Solutions”— vending machines, cabinets, and other devices, as well as software to manage use, inventory, and replenishment. Apex solutions can manage any supplies, tools or equipment that need to be tracked and controlled.

Apex illustrates the kind of attitudes and behaviors that make the fast-growth, Progressive SMB tick. Founded just seven years ago, Apex has grown to become the global leader in automated vending, supplying over 6,500 companies with vending machine solutions. Apex has fueled this growth with new employees, innovative solutions, new locations and acquisitions.

As the company grew, it invested in sales, marketing and service solutions to help increase sales and provide responsive service. But Schalk realized that Apex also needed a better way to collaborate. Sticking with “email collaboration” would eventually slow down innovation, time to market and customer responsiveness–and along with it, growth and expansion.

Cleaning Out the Collaboration Junk Drawer

junk drawer Apex had opened more locations, hired more employees, created new offerings, and made a couple of acquisitions. It’s network of external suppliers, partners, contractors and installers expanded.

But Apex was still using Microsoft Small Business Server and an assortment of email, file sharing and SharePoint for collaboration. Over seven years, Schalk explained, “this had turned into the equivalent of a big junk drawer. Whatever organization was initially in there had been lost.”

As a result, people had problems finding the information they needed, locating the right contacts to get a job done, and tracking tasks. With “end-users living in email, time was wasted and the risk of things falling through the cracks grew,” notes Schalk. “We needed something more manageable and useable to share information and track work.”

Crossing the Collaboration Chasm

Everyone wanted something better. But, despite its faults, end-users were used to the devil they knew–the junk drawer of email and shared files–and skeptical about if and how a different collaboration solution would work.

Schalk realized that successful adoption of any new solution would hinge on users understanding why improving collaboration was critical for the company, and how better collaboration tools would help to facilitate it. She recruited different end-user groups in the company to evaluate collaboration solutions. In the process, Apex evaluated or reviewed cloud-based collaboration solutions from three major vendors, which helped to get people thinking about, seeing and talking about better ways to collaborate and get work done.

Schalk also designated a technology advocate to help end-users understand how a new collaboration solution would help streamline tasks and make their lives easier. As she observed, “My biggest ‘aha’ was understanding we needed a technology advocate. We’re all creatures of habit. People need hand-holding and encouragement to believe that there is a better solution, and show them how it can make it easier for them to share and keep track of work.”

Selecting a Solution

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Apex had decided upfront that it wanted to deploy a cloud-based collaboration solution because, as Schalk noted, “We have a lean IT staff. So the cloud gives us a way to get more value, more quickly and easily than an on-premise solution.”

“Functionality was important, but so was simplicity,” explained Schalk. “We wanted all of the collaboration tools–instant messaging, meetings, community, wikis, blogs, email, etc.–but it needed to be integrated and easy to use.” Other key factors included flexibility, support, security and backup, an easy and secure way to bring external contractors and partners into projects, and mobile capabilities.

After evaluating different solutions, Apex selected IBM’s Smart Cloud for Social Business and deployed in March 2012. According to Schalk, “The initial solution was simple to use and the pieces were well-integrated. In addition, IBM gave us great access to the product team. We felt we’d have input into product development so we’d get changes as our needs evolve.” Since the initial deployment IBM has made several enhancements; in particular, Schalk liked the direction IBM was taking with its Mobile First design point, which gave her confidence that Apex would get the capabilities it needed for a more mobile workforce and world.

She also liked that support came bundled into standard Smart Cloud for Social Business subscription pricing, and that IBM provided “corporate-grade security and backup for highly confidential new product ideas and designs.” The Smart Cloud for Social Business guest model, which lets companies set up free guest accounts for external users, was another point in its favor. “The guest model would make it easier for Apex to collaborate with contractors, suppliers and partners in a secure way,” she added.

Keeping Up With the Speed of What Customers Want

Schalk reports that with the help of the technology advocate, end-users began to explore the tool set and found benefits specific to their work groups. Since then, they have quickly begun using more of the functionality in Smart Cloud for Social Business, because “they don’t have to install anything new, its easy to use, and its all integrated.”

Apex is now better able to “keep up with the speed of what customers want.” For example, the solution is easing the roll out of Apex’s new ERP solution. According to Schalk, “People are updating the task list every 20 minutes because it’s easy. They can do work from anywhere, from home, on a tablet. Almost every other day, someone says, wow, it’s so easy to get things done with a pop-up meeting or iPad app.”

On boarding new employees in this fast-growing business has become much simpler as well. Before, people had to “hunt around to find the right info for each new hire. Now we can just point new hires to the places where we’ve published information about projects, policies and procedures,” explains Schalk.

Schalk says that employees are also using Smart Cloud for Social Business as a complement to their Salesforce.com sales and service applications. Although she would like to see the IBM and Salesforce products more fully integrated, customer support and sales teams view them as complementary, and are sharing relevant conversations and tasks between the solutions.

Perspective

Social Business People Network  inside Speech BubbleProgressive SMBs that create and sustain rapid growth are defined not only by larger IT investments, but their attitudes about applying technology to help achieve business goals.

Many SMBs recognize that effective collaboration is critical to building and growing a successful business. Taking steps to develop a more collaborative culture, such as Apex did, pave the way to getting the results you want from a collaboration solution. As the Apex story illustrates, it pays off to:

  • Focus on collaboration as a means to desired business outcomes–such as faster time to market, or faster decision-making.
  • Get people engaged in the process early on to elevate awareness and conversations about better ways to get things done.
  • Lend a helping hand–such as a technology advocate–to help users who are reluctant to change see how a different approach will make their lives easier.

This sets the stage not only for selecting the solution that will best meet your business needs, but also ensures faster user adoption and, ultimately, the outcomes you’re looking for from that solution.

This blog was sponsored by IBM Smart Cloud for Social Business to help educate small and medium businesses (SMBs) about how collaboration tools and social technologies can help their businesses.

MSP Cloud Challenges in the Midmarket–and How IBM Helps Meet Them

In my recent post, A View From the MSP Trenches: Cloud Opportunities in the Midmarket, I examined how MSPs see the midmarket opportunity shaping up, and why they are partnering with IBM to capitalize on these opportunities. I discussed how MSPs are taking advantage of cloud-based technology solutions and IBM’s offerings to help their midmarket companies offload infrastructure management, deploy the leading-edge solutions, and achieve the performance, availability and security required for mission-critical applications.

I also wanted to learn more about the challenges that MSPs face, and how they work with IBM to surmount these hurdles. This post focuses on that side of my conversation with the same three MSPs, who I’ll reintroduce here:

  • Oxford Networks characterizes itself as “a 112 year-old start-up,” which began as a phone company and has since reinvented itself a couple of times over to become a high-end carrier’s carrier transport network. Oxford recently acquired an MSP and a data center, and is building on this to offer a spectrum of IT and telecom services to SMBs.
  • Perimeter E-Security delivers highly secure infrastructure protection and compliance solutions via its security-as-a-software platform, including: firewall management and monitoring, vulnerability scanning, intrusion detection and prevention, hosted email, hosted collaboration, email security, message archiving and mobile device management. Perimeter offers its services in the cloud, and on customer premises.  About two-thirds of its customers are small and midsize businesses (SMBs).
  • Velocity Technology Solutions provides virtual private cloud managed application and hosting services for its customers’ ERP solutions. It also hosts and manages connected applications, such as analytics and workforce automation; and complementary technical solutions, such as imaging. Velocity offers remote managed services for customers’ on premises applications, including a full replication service for disaster recovery.  Velocity’s customers range from businesses with about $50M in annual revenues to the Fortune 500.

MSPs must keep pace with a rapidly changing technology landscape and provide consistent, high performance cloud services. After all, that’s precisely why their customers are outsourcing infrastructure and application management to them in the first place. In their view, IBM provides them with the proven solutions and expertise that they need to deliver superior quality of service. As Tom Bruno, President & CEO, Velocity Technology Solutions, noted, “IBM has the most stable infrastructure. We can tap into the strength and girth of IBM to get the peace of mind that we need to deliver high-availability service.”

Some of the specific areas in which MSPs find strong value in the IBM partnership include:

  • Resources to scale and grow. By standardizing on IBM hardware and middleware, they are able to efficiently create and manage a high-availability environment. For instance, Velocity Technology Solutions works closely with IBM to identify and standardize the server, storage, and middleware stack to support “just about any application the customer wants,” according to Bruno.  “One of the biggest challenges is that ERP is advancing so fast–with a rush of analytics, mobile apps, collaboration and process flow. Customers want to upgrade, and with IBM, we can get these upgrades down to a science, and offer customers freedom of choice.” Or, as Craig Gunderson, President & CEO of Oxford Networks told me, “When we acquired the data center, it wasn’t up to snuff. IBM technologists helped us to reconfigure it and build for the future.”
  • Speed and agility. The bar to stay ahead of the technology curve is rising quickly, and MSPs must move at warp speed to stay ahead of it. While MSPs are often small or midmarket companies themselves, their IBM partnerships help give them the agility they need to take advantage of leading-edge technologies. “The IBM SmartCloud, DataFlex, V Systems and other IBM solutions are core to our PaaS and IaaS offerings. This means we can make more capabilities available more quickly to customers,” notes Gunderson.  MSPs need a stable but flexible technology foundation, says Perimeter E-Security’s Andrew Jacquith. “We add a terabyte of data per day to our cloud email and archiving platforms. IBM helps provide a secure, scalable cloud fabric to support our growth.”
  • End-to-end services. MSPs don’t want to or can’t provide everything a customer may need across the entire technology spectrum. But they are taking advantage of IBM’s ecosystem to broaden their service portfolios and give their customers a one-stop shopping experience. At Oxford Networks, for example, “Customers are asking us to be more of a business solutions provider. This wasn’t our core competency, but we can provide end-to-end solutions via IBM SaaS partners’ says Gunderson. “Partnering with other partners in the IBM ecosystem gives us the ability to meet the converging needs of our customers.”

In late September, IBM launched new global initiatives for MSPs, which provide additional resources to help them meet core technology challenges, including:

  • Access to four new Global Centers of Excellence (in addition to 40 existing IBM Innovation Centers). These centers provide MSPs with hands-on technical skills in technologies such asIBM SmartCloud, PureSystems, storage, security and collaboration.
  • A new virtual briefing center for MSPs to share ideas and knowledge about industry trends, customer requirements and best practices with their peers and with IBM experts.
  • PureSystems, which provides a new, integrated, by-design platform to tune hardware and software resources for data intensive workloads, and gain more flexibility to configure applications for either an on-premise or hosted environment.
  • More options for IBM SmartCloud, giving MSPs the choice to either integrate SmartCloud as an IBM-backed solution, or provide SmartCloud under their own brand.

Profitable business growth is another key challenge for all companies, and MSPs are no exception. The MSPs I spoke with believe that IBM sets itself apart with the quality of business planning and marketing support that it provides. “IBM partners with us to help us plan and capture more midmarket business,” states E-Perimeter’s Jacquith.  “The level of partnering is very deep.”

In the case of Oxford Networks, IBM and its advertising firm, Ogilivy and Mather, helped Oxford to determine which markets to focus on and how to grow intelligently. IBM also brings in Avnet personnel to help Oxford educate customers and prospects.  “IBM is very hands-on. We have never seen another company provide this level of support,” says Gunderson.

IBM new global initiatives for MSPs also offer more marketing and operational support. These included dedicated marketing and sales support, and a new program to help MSPs build a complete marketing plan. Other assistance includes a four-part education seminar to help MSPs use social media to grow their businesses, and IBM analytic capabilities to identify new customers and drive more repeat business.

IBM Global Financing (IGF) is stepping in with flexible, affordable financing options to help MSPs acquire the solutions and services they need to grow. Plans include 12-month, 0% loans for IBM Systems, Storage and Software. MSPs that select PureSystems platforms can also defer their first payment for 90 days.

All told, IBM’s focus on MSPs adds up to a tremendous value not only for MSPs, but for their customers. Instead of just throwing resources at them, IBM has put together an integrated program to address their technology and business challenges. In addition, IBM’s dedicated marketing and sales support provides MSPs with real people who get to know them and understand their individual goals and challenges. With this coordinated and personalized approach, IBM can to get the right resources to MSPs when and how they need it. In turn, these MSPs will be able acquire the skills and resources they need to help their midmarket customers achieve their goals.

This is the fourth of a five-part blog series by SMB Group that examines the evolution of midmarket business technology solutions and IBM’s Managed Service Provider Channel programs. In the next post, I’ll discuss upcoming IBM’s MSP program announcements slated for November.

A View From the MSP Trenches: Cloud Opportunities in the Midmarket

As discussed in my blog, IBM’s Managed Service Provider Initiatives for Midmarket: An Interview with Mike McClurg, IBM views MSPs as an increasingly critical channel for delivering cloud-based technology solutions to midmarket companies. Just a few days after I posted this interview, IBM announced that it would further strengthen its initiatives to help MSPs meet the growing midmarket demand for cloud services.

Now, all research (including SMB Group studies) points to a rise in midmarket adoption of cloud solutions. But, what do MSPs see as the key midmarket hotspots, how are they turning these into opportunities for their businesses, and how is IBM helping them? To help answer these questions, I spoke with three very different IBM MSP partners to find out their views on the cloud opportunity:

  • Oxford Networks characterizes itself as “a 112 year-old start-up,” which began as a phone company and has since reinvented itself a couple of times over to become a high-end carrier’s carrier transport network. Oxford recently acquired an MSP and is building on this to offer a spectrum of IT and telecom services SMBs.
  • Perimeter E-Security delivers highly secure infrastructure protection and compliance solutions via its security-as-a-software platform, including: firewall management and monitoring, vulnerability scanning, intrusion detection and prevention, hosted email, hosted collaboration, email security, message archiving and mobile device management. Perimeter offers its on demand in the cloud, and on customer premises.  About two-thirds of its customers are small and midsize businesses (SMBs).
  • Velocity Technology Solutions provides virtual private cloud managed application and hosting services for its customers’ ERP solutions. It also hosts and manages connected applications, such as analytics and workforce automation; and complementary technical solutions, such as imaging. In addition, Velocity offers remote managed services for customers’ on premises applications, including a full replication service for disaster recovery.  Velocity’s customers range from businesses with about $50M in annual revenues to the Fortune 500.

Despite different technology and market footprints, these MSPs share a similar view of the compelling opportunities to provide cloud services in the midmarket. They are zeroing in to meet  customers’ requirements in several key areas:

1. Offloadinfrastructure management. More midmarket companies want to outsource management of the “IT plumbing” that their businesses require—from infrastructure and telecom to middleware and applications. Demand for IaaS services is spiking as customers seek to move resources from IT to other, more strategic areas of the business. Often, the need for application upgrades trigger a move to an MSP. “Businesses have been there, done that and have little appetite to go through the headaches again”, according to Tom Bruno, President & CEO, Velocity Technology Solutions, “Our opportunity is to take software and turn it into a utility or dial tone for our customers.”But, says Bruno, “the most important thing we can have is our customers’ trust—trust translates into availability. Partnering with IBM gives us the peace of mind that we can deliver.”

Many companies aren’t ready to put all of their applications into the cloud, but still want to offload management. Offering remote managed services for customers’ on-premises applications gives MSPs with another healthy revenue opportunity in the near term.  And, as Bruno puts it, remote managed services also provide these customers with “an on ramp to the cloud.” Bruno envisions that IBM PureSystems will give Velocity even more flexibility to tailor offerings for either an on-premise or private cloud environment.

2. Implement the leading edge technology solutions necessary to grow their businesses. Midmarket businesses increasingly recognize that they need leading edge IT solutions to be competitive. But in most cases, they lack the IT skills and expertise to keep up with these technology changes. According to Craig Gunderson, President & CEO of Oxford Networks, “Our customers know that technology is moving very fast and disrupting the status quo. Moving to the cloud and outsourcing is often the only way that they can maintain a competitive position.” By providing customers with a fully managed data center, PaaS and IaaS solutions, Oxford can “give them far more capabilities than they could have on their own, with fewer limits, and at a lower cost.”

Mobile is a prime example of an area in which SMBs need to innovate, but struggle to keep pace. Perimeter recently rolled out a new mobile security offering that provides best practice guidance and services to help SMBs comply with privacy statutes in world in which “bring your own device” is becoming the norm.

Oxford’s Gunderson and Andrew Jaquith, Chief Technology Officer, Perimeter E-Security, both view new access to IBM’s four new Global Centers of Excellence as key to helping them keep up swiftly evolving market demands. By leveraging IBM’s technical and best practice expertise, they can develop the scalable and reliable new solutions that their clients will require.

3. Provide stronger security, availability and performance levels. Companies know that an IT outage or security breach can seriously compromised or even destroy their businesses. Jaquith asserts that as industries become more regulated, they are increasingly held to higher security standards, similar to what banks have become accustomed to. As a result, “Demand is rising for end-to-end security solutions for messaging—including mailboxes, archiving, encryption, control and reporting, content filtering and more. But the technology needed for this is getting very complicated.”

Jaquith sees IBM as “a technology leader that gets the cloud, and a partner to help us achieve our goal to provide instant-on, scalable and elastic cloud services.” IBM storage and security solutions underpin Perimeter’s current offerings. With IBM’s new MSP initiatives, Jaquith sees opportunities to develop new services built on IBM SmartCloud, which provides enterprise-class cloud computing technologies and services for securely building and using private, public and hybrid clouds.

 The demand for higher availability solutions is also rising. Velocity’s Bruno notes that “Midmarket businesses may have 5 to 20 applications in the back office alone. They want providers to get the formula down for higher availability.” Velocity does this by providing standardized virtualization solutions and a single source of support across applications—from break/fix to functional, “how do I do this” support.

One of the common threads I heard was that midmarket companies are looking for comprehensive services. Although they may want to tap into discrete services in an incremental way, they want them to integrate with each other in a Lego-like fashion. Since few MSPs can provide everything, those I spoke with emphasized the importance of being part of a strong ecosystem. For example, at Oxford Networks, the focus is IaaS and PaaS services. But Gunderson and team work with IBM and its ecosystem partners to also provide SaaS solutions to customers when they are a good fit. Meanwhile, as Velocity’s Bruno explained, “Everything is advancing so fast in the ERP world. There’s a rush of analytics, industry apps, mobile apps, collaboration requirements and more. This creates more complexity in the infrastructure.  We can tap into IBM and its expertise to provide new services more efficiently.”

Clearly, the rapid rate and pace of change in technology—and what it means for business—creates an enormous opportunity. MSPs can leverage economies of scale and skill to provide better-performing and more cost-effective IT solutions than midmarket companies can attain relying only on internal IT resources.

But capitalizing on this opportunity also presents challenges for MSPs, who need to keep ahead of the technology learning curve, improve their marketing skills and programs, and identify and enter new markets. In my next post in this series, I’ll discuss these challenges, and how these three MSPs work with IBM’s MSP program to help address them.

This is the third of a five-part blog series by SMB Group that examines the evolution of midmarket business technology solutions and IBM’s Managed Service Provider Channel programs. In the next post, I’ll look at what MSPs see as their top challenges, and the role IBM plays in helping them to meet them.

Tech Tidbits for SMBs: What’s Behind Xero’s Online Accounting Discount for Non-Profits

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak with Jamie Sutherland, U.S. President of Operations for Xero, which provides an online accounting solution for small businesses. Jamie discussed what makes non-profits tick, Xero’s latest announcement, which is a 25% discount for non-profits, and other Xero news.

Laurie: Jamie, can you start by giving us a little bit of background about what Xero is and what it does?

Jamie: Definitely! Xero is beautiful online accounting software designed specifically for small businesses. At the very outset, when we built the application, we went around to a number of small businesses around the world, and uncovered their workflows and the way they do business. We set out to solve key processes for them in an easy to use fashion. What was born was Xero as an application. Ever since we’ve been expanding rapidly with customers in over 100 countries now, and doubling our customer base and revenue every year. So it’s quite exciting.

Laurie: How do you define small businesses?

Jamie: Our definition is between 0 and 100 employee businesses, with a specific effort around the lower end of that spectrum. Now businesses take many shapes and sizes, and one distinction is around services-based businesses versus those that carry inventory or are involved with manufacturing or wholesale. So we’re more focused on the services-based businesses.

Laurie: So Xero announced this week that it is offering 25% off to all nonprofits?

Jamie: Yes. We know that non-profits are essentially small businesses, and are experiencing the same types of challenges other small businesses have. With the slow rebound of the economy, non-profits also have challenges around fund-raising and managing their finances. We did a panel and discussed this with a number of non-profits. We learned that managing their funds is one of their biggest challenges. So we want to make it easier for them to manage their finances.

But what we also know is that not every non-profit has an accountant or bookkeeper on staff—they typically use a volunteer to staff this position. The volunteer may not be as adept as an accredited accountant or bookkeeper. So we want to make it very, very easy for non-profits to do finances. Again, Xero is built in a very user-friendly fashion, which is helpful for the non-profit sector.

Laurie: So how does the 25% discount for non-profits work?

Jamie: Xero has 3 pricing plans. We have a $19/month, a $29/month, and a $39/month plan. All three plans include unlimited users. So no matter how many people are working in the business or non-profit, this one monthly fee covers everything, there are no additional charges. That’s unlike many of our competitors. That 25% discount is right off the monthly plan price.

Laurie: What are the differences between the three plans?

Jamie: The $19/month plan is our entry-level plan, which allows you to send up to 5 invoices a month and a certain number of bank reconciliations. For $29/month, you get the full feature set of Xero minus the multi-currency capability. The $39/month plan includes multi-currency. The majority of our customers are on the $29/month plan.

Laurie: When we do our SMB surveys, we always include non-profits, because we also see a lot of similarities with small businesses. So I’m just wondering, in what ways did you find that non-profit needs differ from those of commercial small businesses?

Jamie: We did research across the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. We found that non-profits’ needs don’t differ that much from small businesses. They focus on cash flow to make sure that cash coming in can cover expenses. Like small businesses, they have issues with employee turnover, complying with rules and regulations, etc.

But non-profits are unique in that they typically have a volunteer workforce. Whether small or large, this is very different from the typical small business.  The other big difference is that people running non-profits tend to understand finances less than the average small business owner. So something like Xero accounting, which makes it really easy to understand your finances, can help out.

Laurie: Are there some tips or best practices that came out of the panel that you can share?

Jamie: Budgeting is a big thing. There’s a budgeting tool in Xero to budget and forecast. It’s important to any business. You can import and export from Excel, and track what’s going on. So if you have a lot of volunteer turnover for accounting or bookkeeper roles, you can still have consistency around your financial and monthly reporting. With an online solution like Xero, you have real-time access to info anytime, anywhere in the world. This is helpful to anyone doing accounting or bookkeeping.

Laurie: Before we wrap up, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if there is anything else on tap for Xero that you can fill me in on?

Jamie: Yes. It’s been a busy 6 weeks or so. We recently announced 100,000 paying customers across the globe. It took us 5 years to get to 50,000 and then we added the next 50,000 in 10 months. So we’re starting to see much more rapid growth and adoption.

We also announced  payroll integration with ADP, the world’s leading provider of HR and outsourced solutions. The payroll integration we developed with them lets you do your payroll online with ADP and seamlessly sync with Xero. This alleviates the need for duplicate entry between the two applications, which is also exciting.

We’ve also put together a partner advisory council in the U.S., the Xero Partner Advisory Council. The council will look at the things we’re doing in the market, the products and our strategy and help us really try to cater to the needs of small businesses and make everybody better off.

Tech Tidbits for SMBs: Elance

I’ve had several interesting briefings in the last couple of weeks to tell you about. Since I won’t have the time to sit down and write them all up at once, I thought I’d dash them off as individual snippets instead.

First up is this post about Elance. Do you have too much on your to do list? Elance can help you find a contractor to help you get the job done. Or maybe you’re on the flip side of the coin as a contractor looking for work. Either way, Elance can benefit you. Its mission is to provide companies with “instant access to talent” through an online network of contractors and tools that make it easy to find, hire, manage and pay them.

Since my last briefing with Elance, it has grown at an impressive pace. Today, Elance has 1.3 million tested and rated contractors in its fold, and garners about 2,500 new job posts per day. While its original focus was on IT professionals, Elance has diversified to add lawyers, accountants, designers, writers and accountants on its roster.

No doubt that Elance owes part of its growth to the trend we labeled as that of “The Accidental Entrepreneur” in our SMB Group 2012 Top Ten SMB Technology Predictions. We discussed the fact that as unemployment has increased, so have the number of freelancers, contractors, independent consultants and others choosing to go it alone. According to the Census Bureau, small business without payroll makes up more than 70 percent of America’s 27 million companies, with annual sales of $887 billion.

The good news for these solo entrepreneurs is that Elance recently surveyed 1500 small businesses and found that 73% plan to hire more contractors online in the next 12 months. Why? Because it provides them with the competitive advantage they need to get things done faster, better and at lower costs–and helps them to present a larger, more professional image to their customers.

While it’s always tough to take that first plunge to hire a contractor online, Elance provides a community rating system to help you vet potential candidates. Once you select someone to work with, the Elance platform provides tools, such as a workroom with Skype, to help you connect and work together more easily. Real-time time tracking and status updates are built into the system, as are invoicing and payments. Elance also has an escrow process that protects both parties by pre-funding work and releasing payments only when results are approved. And Elance takes care of basic paperwork (such as 1099 forms) to help ensure compliance.

Whether you’re a small business that needs an extra pair of hands, or a solo entrepreneur looking for a new project, Elance could be a great fit.

Beyond the Hype—What You Need to Know About the Cloud: Recap from Small Business Summit 2012

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel at the always-enlightening Small Business Summit 2012. This was the seventh annual Summit, a terrific event coordinated by Ramon Ray and Marion Banker.  As always, the energy in the crowd of 500 or so attendees was high, and I think everyone attending gained valuable insights in the information exchange. I know I did!

I was part of the keynote panel, Beyond the Hype—What You Need to Know About the Cloud (stayed tuned for slides and video link!), which was sponsored by Dell, and moderated by Rhonda Abrams, small business author and columnist for USA Today. Fellow panelists included Bill Odell, Marketing and Product Management Executive, Dell Cloud Business Applications, and Kathy Fable, CEO and President, Quinn Fable Advertising. The goal of the panel was to cut through the hype surrounding the cloud buzz, discuss what’s driving cloud adoption, and provide guidance on how small businesses can best leverage cloud computing for their businesses. In this post, I’ll discuss the conversation around three key topics of the session.

The Cloud IS the New Normal

The theme of the panel was similar to one of our SMB Group 2012 Top Ten Technology Predictions for SMBs, Cloud Becomes the New Normal. As we shared with the audience, small businesses need now—more than ever–to harness new technology-based solutions (social, mobile, analytics, etc.) in order to maintain a business edge. As a result, demand for cloud-based solutions is accelerating in almost all solution areas (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Source: SMB Group 2011 SMB Routes to Market Study

Those areas showing the biggest potential for cloud gains are marketing automation, business intelligence/analytics, and desktop virtualization solutions and services. But even solution areas that have lagged in moving to the cloud are starting to see a good growth spurt. For instance, while in the past 24 months, only 7% of small businesses purchased or upgraded cloud accounting/ERP solutions, 13% plan to purchase cloud accounting/ERP solutions in the next 12 months.

Small Business Summit attendees affirmed these data points. Early in the session, Rhonda asked for a show of hands to see how many attendees are currently using cloud solutions in their businesses—and everybody except one person raised their hands!

Our panelist Kathy Fable discussed how Quinn Fable Advertising uses cloud computing to run virtually every aspect of its business, including support for many client campaigns. For example, Quinn Fable is running a campaign for Girl Scouts USA to help troop leaders connect with girls across the United States. Like most of Quinn Fable’s clients, the Girl Scouts don’t have the hardware and software to turn something like this on quickly. In this case, print pieces and email marketing will all drive to an online toolkit, which will also serve to capture emails, build databases, and generate engagement via a cloud-based solution—which allows Quinn Fable to quickly and flexibly turn these campaigns on and off to meet client requirements.

This spike in adoption of and enthusiasm for cloud computing doesn’t surprise me. Although cloud computing solutions (aka software-as-a-service, or SaaS) have been around since the late 1990s (when companies such as NetSuite and Salesforce.com were first launched), much has happened in the last few years that has spurred the momentum that is resulting in a hockey stick effect:

  • High-speed broadband has become pervasive.
  • The advent of the “great recession”—and continued economic uncertainty-the no upfront capital, has made the subscription-based cloud computing model almost irresistibly attractive from a financial perspective.
  • Early cloud applications have matured and at the same time, a new generation of cloud applications has launched that incorporate social and mobile technologies from the get-go—which enables these solutions to provide small businesses with even more access and value.

As Kathy discussed, Quinn and Fable use their cloud-based collaboration solutions to make sure that they’re all on the same page, even if they’re not talking to each other or in same time zone, whether on a laptop or a smartphone.

Bill also shared research that Dell just completed which echoed the growing momentum for cloud computing. Study data revealed that among small and medium businesses with 50 to 500 employees that use cloud applications, the average number used has doubled since 2010. This year, Dell expects these SMBs to be using an average of 7 cloud applications.

Small Businesses Need “No IT Staff Required” Solutions

Marc Benioff created and made the “no software” symbol famous. I think “No IT Staff Required ” is probably an even more compelling mantra for small businesses. As evidenced in Figure 2—as well as another show of hands at the Summit—most small businesses simply don’t have any IT staff, let alone the IT expertise or capital budgets needed for do-it-yourself IT. As important, they can’t afford the time it takes to get business payback from a solution that they need to vet, buy, install and deploy in-house. They need to focus their attention on other things, such as making sure the salon’s customers leave looking their best, or that the legal firm is winning cases for its clients.

This reality makes cloud computing even more appealing for small businesses than for larger companies that have the luxury of IT staff.

Figure 2. Source: SMB Group 2012 SMB Mobile Solutions Study

Integration—the Link and the  Missing Link

Cloud computing makes it easier for SMBs to deploy new applications—and more applications—to help their businesses grow. The panel discussed that as SMB adoption rises, integration requirements rise too. Ideally, different apps should be able to share data or “talk to” each other.  For example, if you’re running Intuit QuickBooks, a CRM solution and an email or social media marketing application, the best scenario is to have data flow from one application to the next. This not only increases data accuracy, but gives a company a much more complete picture of things such as conversion rates, order to cash, business performance and other key metrics.

But integrating business solutions with each other and with other applications shouldn’t cost more than the business solutions themselves. Cloud computing takes a lot of cost and complexity out of the application deployment equation, but integrating cloud apps with both existing on-premise software and other cloud applications can still be difficult, expensive and “one-off.”  Lacking IT staff, expertise and budget, SMBs often go without integration and the benefits it provides, both in streamlining business processes and providing the foundation to easily pull in data from across different business applications.

Bill discussed how Dell’s Cloud Business Applications address this issue by providing SMBs with cloud applications, along with turnkey integration services and built-in, cross-application analytics and support. Today, Dell’s analytics dashboard incorporates data from both Salesforce CRM and several SMB accounting solutions (with additional applications on the way).

Dell is one of several vendors (others include IBM Cast Iron, Informatica, Pervasive and Scribe) making big investments in the integration space—for good reason. Cloud-based “integration-as-a-service” solutions can help make integration more affordable and accessible for SMBs. And some, including Dell’s solution, are geared specifically for SMB requirements and budgets.

The Net-net

Small business adoption of cloud computing is on the upswing–and for good reason. But, integration is the missing link that can help small businesses get the most value from these solutions. Targeted integration can help companies operate more efficiently, reduce errors, get a better view of the business and make better decisions. While Integration may not be as exciting to talk about as the latest social media app, in the greater scheme of things, it may be much more important to the overall health of your business.

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