Looking at the Big Picture for SMB Sales and Marketing: revenue + associates

Laurie: Hi, this is Laurie McCabe from the SMB Group. Today I’m talking to Louis Gudema, president of revenue + associates, which helps companies generate more revenue through measureable sales and marketing improvements. So Louis, I’ve known you for a while and I’ve know that revenue + associates is a new company for you, what’s prompted you to start it? Louis-casual-200-pix-wide

Louis: I had a company before for a dozen years, a digital agency that I sold in 2009 that became one of the national leaders in our niche. Then I did business development for two other agencies for several years. What I saw was a need that wasn’t being addressed head on, which is corporate revenue generation. A lot of agencies and people splinter it and say we’re going to help you with your website, we’re going to help with search, or we’re going help with advertising or with sales training, or whatever it may be, social media, but they’re not looking at the whole picture. Those point solutions may not be what a company really needs, and there may be other places where the best revenue opportunities lie for them.

Laurie: Yes, I think that’s a problem all of us can relate to. We know there’s many solutions out there but we have to frame up the problem and make sure we’re getting the right solution in place for it. How do you go about solving for that because it’s pretty complex?

Louis: I look across what I call a sales and marketing audit. There’s currently over a thousand companies, for example, providing sales and marketing software and dozens of channels from things like social and search advertising to traditional things like print. So in a sales and marketing audit, I look across a company’s whole sales and marketing process, it’s a 100 plus point audit that looks at what technologies are they using, what is the strategy, internal operations, governance, budgets, how are they onboarding people and training people, do they have the staff, are there skills gaps? From that I identify the best short, mid, and long-term opportunities for the company and start working with them to drill down.

Laurie: Who are your services mainly designed for? Small, medium or larger companies, what’s the right size company for this approach?

Louis: It’s a company that really wants to grow revenue. I’ve seen surveys that three out of four small business owners don’t want to get any bigger. So I want to talk to the fourth one. I’m especially focused on mid-market companies with say 10 to 100 or 200 million in revenue. I’ve worked with companies like IBM and Philips Healthcare and Avid Technology and other very, very large companies and done millions of dollars of business with them but in terms of starting this new company and the particular approach, I’m especially focused on that mid-market.

Laurie: I know you recently published a report called Revenue Opportunities, what is that about and what did you find in there? revenue-opportunities-report-cover-190

Louis: What I did was I took a look at 196 mid-market companies in New England that were operating on a national level. Looking from the outside what could I see about how much they were adapting modern sales and marketing programs. This looks at things like did they have analytics on their website, were they doing search advertising, were they doing search engine optimization, did they have a mobile ready site? Nine different things that could be seen from the outside, and it wasn’t only because those nine things can be very valuable and generate a lot of revenue when used well.

I felt they were also an indicator of the maturity and depth of a company’s revenue generation program. What I found was that of these 200 companies that operate nationally, so they all should be really eager to do as much as they can to generate revenue because they’re in competitive national or global markets. In fact, the average among those companies was that they were using less than three of those nine important programs and the median was two. It was a very, very low adoption rate.

Laurie: Why do you think the adoption rate for these things that are so directly tied to revenue so low?

Louis: I think it’s a couple things. The real outlier at the top end were SaaS and venture-backed companies. These are new companies, they’re very data driven and they’re very comfortable with technology, and they’re part of a world, especially that venture-backed world that knows this whole modern and very effective way to really ramp up revenue quickly.

I also get into other industries, like manufacturing or medical devices or engineering or architecture. I looked across a lot of industries. Then adoption rates plummet a lot so I think you have a situation where a company that’s doing okay, and has traditional ways of generating business. They know how those work for them and there’s this massive number of new things flying at them and they don’t know what’s real, what’s not real, what’s important. They don’t know where to start. They may have even tried one or two things but sometimes if you dip your toe in the water you can’t learn to swim, sometimes you have to really go in and embrace something to get the results. For a number of reasons the adoption of these technologies has been very slow, nationally even, from studies I’ve seen.

Laurie: These results you’re getting from these companies that are all in New England, do you think they represent the larger mid-market in the U.S.?

Louis: Actually, if anything, New England may be a little ahead of the national average because half of New England market is Massachusetts and Boston is a big part of that. There’s a lot of newer SaaS and venture-backed companies in Boston and Massachusetts. SiriusDecisions did a report that came out the same week as my report. They only looked at one of the nine factors, which was marketing automation and said just 16% of B2B companies nationally are using it. In my sample it was 28%. So it’s really low.

It’s not that I’m saying that these nine programs are the end all be all. As I said I’m really taking them at kind of a litmus test or thermometer to see how deep, how well built out are the revenue generation programs. There’s lots of other things like events and email newsletters and predictive analytics and lots of other things that companies can be using traditional and digital that may be the most effective for them, but these are the ones I could see.

Laurie: In the report it discusses the upside for the companies who do get more sophisticated in terms of how they generate revenue and what programs they put into place. If you aren’t doing some of this stuff right now where should you go to get started?

Louis: Well, there are several things. First, you need to adopt the mindset and recognize that this is an important area for revenue growth and something you need to invest in. You need to adopt a data-driven mindset and realize that your gut may not always be right and sometimes the data will take you someplace new. You also need to be willing to experiment and even fail because these things will not work 100% of the time and they take implementation and analyzing and optimization to get it right.

You have to invest in people and make sure they have the skills and that you’re adopting the right tools and that you know how to use them, and you have to find someone who can probably guide you through it. That thousand plus programs, those are in dozens of categories. Some of those categories are important to some companies and not others.

Once you’ve adopted a commitment to it and to budgeting and training and so on and so forth you’re going to have to take some time to figure out what are the right things for you and how to get them to all work together. That’s where the big payoff is, it’s not adopting one or two programs, but if you adopt a marketing automation program integrate it with your CRM and integrate it with your email marketing and other things so that everything starts working together.

Laurie: Louis, where can they go to learn more about the services that revenue + associates provides? Louis: Our website is revenue + associates,. I also have a blog.

Laurie: Can they get a copy of the report there?

Louis: Yes, you can get a copy of the report there, you can download it there. There’s actually a blog post which is specifically about an SMB action plan, some of the things for a company that is new to these more modern programs, where are some of the places that you can start.  

Laurie: Sounds great. Thanks again, Louis, for your time today, for joining me on SMB Spotlight. This really looks like something a lot of SMBs will want to look into because I think even if you don’t want to grow your business in terms of people, most businesses want to become more profitable and I think that all comes into play as well. So thank you again.

Louis:Thanks, Laurie.

VerticalResponse: Taking the Guesswork Out of Email Marketing and Social Media for Small Businesses

vrlogo-gradient_1000pxLaurie: Hi, this is Laurie McCabe from the SMB Group, and today I’m talking to Janine Popick, CEO at VerticalResponse. VerticalResponse helps small businesses grow with email and social marketing tools, and recently Vertical Response introduced a new version of their solution which is what I’m here to talk with Janine about today.

So Janine, before we get into what the new VerticalResponse solution is all about, can you just let us know a little background about the company and what you’ve been doing up until now.

Janine: Oh sure, and thanks for having me here, Laurie, this is great. I launched VerticalResponse back in 2001 really with the premise that there was a lot of email marketing solutions out there for big businesses but there’s not a lot of solutions for small businesses. We’re based in San Francisco, we’re still headquartered here today, but really those big companies have that expensive software to manage all of their marketing, especially their email marketing. It was the right time for us to launch a company and get those small businesses from sending email out of their Outlook to more professional looking emails and a more professional solution. Currently here we have about 105 current employees at VerticalResponse.

Laurie: Ok, and about how many customers do you have?

Janine: Well we have over a million businesses that have come to use us over the course of the last 13 years. We’ve got probably on any given month about 40 to 50,000 active customers that are in there using the system.

Laurie: Ok, thanks. That’s a great introduction too. So why are you introducing a new version of VerticalResponse now?

Janine: Well, over the course of years newer technology surfaces so that companies like VerticalResponse can build some really neat stuff for small businesses to use, easier to use technologies, and we really decided it’s time for us to do that. Our self-service platform really lets those small businesses connect with their customers using both email marketing and social media marketing.

Laurie: Right, I did get a look at it last time we spoke and it does look really easy to use, which is always a good thing for any of us.

Janine: Yeah, you know small businesses really want to get in there and get out and do what they do best which is running their business.

Laurie: Exactly. Who would benefit from this? Is it your existing customers, is it new customers? How will it help them?

Janine: Well definitely new customers and existing customers. It really solves lots of problems but two that come to mind are time and money. Right? So with VerticalResponse these customers can keep in touch with their customers through the email marketing and social media marketing without spending, like you said you thought, without spending a lot of time to learn a complicated technology. This new platform has lots of amazing features. We really focused on drag and drop designer and with that drag and drop come templates that are mobile friendly. We’re really over 50% of all consumers today are checking their email on their mobile phone or on their tablet, so we really put an emphasis on mobile friendly templates, but you can also post messages to Twitter and Facebook right from the same dashboard, so you don’t have to log in to all those different platforms to do your social media as well, it’s kind of like that nifty one-stop shop for email and social.

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Laurie: Right, and that’s very convenient. Also, if I remember correctly, once you create your email marketing campaign it will render across any of the mobile devices or somebody’s laptop or desktop without you having to do anything different to it. It’ll render correctly, right?

Janine: Absolutely. We really wanted to take all that guesswork out of it for our customers who are the small businesses.

Laurie: Yep, make it idiot-proof. How about for the customers using the original version that you have, are there any gotchas? Should they switch to the new version or is it something they need to kind of look at some trade-offs or what?

Janine: Well I think at the get-go they should look at the new version, especially if they have under a thousand contacts on their list, it’s free, the whole product is free. That’s one benefit for our current VerticalResponse customers. Over the course of the next two to three quarters, we’re going to be incorporating all of the features that most of the Vertical Response current customers are using into the new platform in an even better and easy-to-use way. As those features come available we’re going to be communicating to those customers that use and love those features that hey, they’re available in the new Vertical Response, come on over and start using them. So that’s pretty exciting for current VerticalResponse customers, I think.

Laurie: Yeah, definitely, so kind of get your feet wet now even if it’s not got every bell and whistle that you want, it will have it and you can learn it and be ready when it’s all available.

Janine: Exactly.

Laurie: So right now the new version is completely free or is it a freemium kind of model where there’s an up charge or how does that work?

Janine: Well it is a freemium model, it is completely free if you have a thousand or fewer customers. Once you go over the thousand contacts on your list it’s as little as nine bucks per month, depending on your list size that’s where it starts. It is completely free but as soon as you start growing and you might want some more bells and whistles, then we’ll ask you for a charge.

Laurie: Yes, sure, typical freemium model. What’s your URL, what’s the website address where they can learn more both about the new product and maybe the existing one too?

Janine: The website is www.verticalresponse.com, they can go, they can sign up right then and there and begin trying it out. It’s pretty easy, they get in there and just try it out and see if they like it.

Laurie: When did you put it up there for people to start trying?

Janine: On the 14th of March.

Laurie: Ok. Have you had a lot of hits or how’s it going with that?

Janine: We have actually. We have the most sign ups that we’ve had over the course of many years, which is just great to see. We think it’s catching on, we think people like it and it’s just going to keep growing, so we’re pretty excited about what we’re able to offer to our business customers.

Laurie: Ok, well that’s great, Janine. I really appreciate your time today and thank you for joining us to share the information and the news.

Janine: Thank you.

Discussing SMB Tech Trends: Part 1, Social Media Marketing and Technology As a Game Changer

Recently, I was a guest on Act Local Marketing for Small Business with host Kalynn Amadio. Each week, Kalynn shares information and actionable tips to help inspire and motivate small and medium businesses (SMBs) reach their business goals.  On this episode, Kalynn and I discussed SMB Group’s 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends and what they mean to the marketing and running of your business. This, the first of a four-part series, summarizes our discussion of  “Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices” and “Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer.”

Kalynn:Welcome back to Act Local Marketing for Small Business, Laurie. I just want to let you know that the show you were on last year, discussing the 2013 SMB trends was the most downloaded interview that I have ever had on the podcast.

Laurie:Thanks, Kalynn and Happy New Year!

Kalynn: This is a perfect time of year for you to be on the show again because SMB Group recently published its 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends.  We won’t have time to go through all of them, and of course I’m more interested in the ones that are more relevant to marketing.

The first one I want to talk about is social media marketing. What you discovered might surprise a few people. Can you give some insight into that?

free social networkingLaurie: As you know, SMBs have been rapidly adopting social media as a marketing tool, whether building a presence on Facebook Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or some combination thereof. In fact, more than half of small businesses and two-thirds of medium businesses are using social media for marketing.

But, more SMBs are realizing that even though they don’t need to spend a lot of money to establish a social media presence, social has a voracious appetite for more and more content. There’s a lot of pressure to keep the content fresh because that’s what keeps people coming back. This is wearing on some businesses.

It’s also tough to keep up with changing social media preferences, for instance as millennials move from Facebook, for instance, to Snapchat or Instagram. So we predict that while social media marketing isn’t going away, it will stall a little as SMBs focus more on figuring out what really works and clicks with their target audiences.

Kalynn: Which makes a lot of sense. Google is a content monster; to get found you have to give it more and more content. But there has to be a happy balance between creating content and promoting your content. You need to promote your content more than once but you do have to find that balance.  All audiences will probably be different depending on what market you’re in, how often they’re willing to hear the message before they start to tune it out, and you do need fresh content.

Laurie: Absolutely, and at the end of the day it’s all about converting social connections that you’re making into customers and advocates. So the first step is to look at how you can repackage and reuse content in different ways to reach a wider audience.

I’ll give you an example. Today we’re talking about our 2014 top ten trends list. We initially published it in December and sent it to clients, prospects and press via email marketing, and got good traction with it.

As the new year started, we created individual tweets about each prediction, and that sparked more interest. Now I’m talking about it here on your show. It’s just not feasible for most of us to create fresh content every day, so it’s important to repackage it in different ways.

We also see more SMBs integrating social media marketing with their marketing and sales applications to get more insight into what’s going on, how what they’re doing is working and to make the information more actionable from a sales and marketing perspective.

free chess image 2Kalynn: Your very first prediction was another one I wanted to talk about: technology as a game changer for SMBs.

Laurie:That’s our overarching theme because of what we’ve been seeing since we started doing our surveys 5 years ago.

SMBs split into some clearly defined segments. One segment is what we call Progressive SMBs, who share a few characteristics. They’re much more likely to view technology as a business enabler; they invest more in technology; and they are also more likely to be growing revenue than other SMBs.

This gap has been widening and we predict it continue to do so. Trends such as generational shifts, the sharing economy and new technology fueled services that you may not even think about as technology solutions are accelerating this and reshaping what it means to be an SMB.

Kalynn: You talk about the generational shifts; I talk a lot about this with my primary audience, baby boomers, age 50 and over. There’s a drastic difference in communication styles between boomers and 20-somethings and millennials…people don’t retire early as often as they used to…that means there are many technologies and ways people are communicating. And also many ways that a business needs to be able to converse with customers and prospects, and it can be overwhelming.

Laurie: It can, and that relates to social media too. I think everyone should be spending at least some time with social media just to keep a pulse on what’s going on. It’s really important.

But we also see how Progressive SMBs are increasingly capitalizing on technology, cultural and demographic shifts to create new market niches and invent entirely new businesses. Just think about the businesses that have started up in the last few years and have been replaced in the last few years. I think the last Blockbuster finally closed. Now we’ve got Roku and we can stream everything whether it’s from Netflix or Hulu or whatever.  There’s also a shift in talent acquisition and management…with more use of outsourced services or Elance for contractors or freelancers instead of hiring salaried employees.

Or, in rethinking office space. Shared office space and shared IT infrastructure services are really growing in popularity. These are all ways to think about your business in a different light. And most often technology provides the fuel that businesses need to really get ahead.

Kalynn: Right, and in case people are not aware, Elance and oDesk, who recently merged, are websites where you can virtually hire temporary staffing, either for projects, or on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis.

They serve as middlemen, but protect you because they help with any disputes if things weren’t done well or not to your satisfaction. And they make it easier to track everything and for somebody not to get taken advantage of; either freelancer or the business owner.

Laurie: Yes, it’s basically a technology platform to help you manage the projects, execute the payments. The take care of all of the transaction stuff for you. People bid on the jobs, and you can see the ratings of each Elancer or oDesker, and you pick the bid you like.

At a higher level, we see that these more agile, Progressive SMBs taking advantage not just of technology per say but of solutions that are built on technology and also the sharing economy. Whether it’s shared workers, shared office space or shared IT infrastructure in the cloud or shared workers, you don’t have to own all your resources.  As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s better not to.

Kalynn: Absolutely; there’s less headache often if you don’t own them.  And, you can adjust more quickly and scale up and scale down more quickly through projects, so it’s actually a really good thing.

In the second of this four-part series, I’ll recap Kalynn’s and my conversation about “Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars.” You can listen to the complete podcast here

Six Technology Resolutions for a Happier and Healthier SMB New Year

Happy New Year! While we often make personal New Year’s resolutions, I don’t think too many businesses make them. But you can start to change that in 2014 by resolving to make better use of technology to power your business, and create a more sustainable, competitive business.

With that in mind, here are a few resolutions that can help you work smarter, not harder, and enjoy a happier, healthier business in 2014.

iphone1. Manage your mobile investment. SMB Group research indicates 67% of SMBs view mobile solutions and services as “critical” to their businesses. SMBs are using mobile apps and solutions to help employees work more productively and efficiently, and to boost customer engagement and transactions. But while mobile apps are often easy to use, you also need to provision, support, and track and manage them on the back-end. Unfortunately, many SMBs are not yet using solutions to manage mobile devices and applications, and to protect valuable data from being lost or stolen. The good news is that vendors have taken notice and are offering cloud-based mobile management solutions specifically tailored to SMB requirements and constraints. Just a few to check out include: AirWatch Professional, Mobile Iron, Tangoe, and Dell Cloud Client Manager.

Social Business People Network  inside Speech Bubble2. Tune up your content marketing strategy. Many SMBs feel overwhelmed by the care and feeding that marketing requires these days. Back in the day, when marketing was a one-way street, businesses could get by with creating a marketing campaign and collateral that would see them through a quarter or even the year. But in the digital age, businesses are under pressure to create new content every week or even every day to keep customers coming back. If you don’t have one, put a plan in place for creating and scheduling content to keep everyone on track. When you create fresh content, think upfront about ways to recycle and reuse it. For instance, if you create a YouTube video, write a blog post about some aspect of it, and tweet out bite-size tidbits from the post. In addition, put a system in place to measure what networks and content click for your target customers. Depending on your business, free or low-cost tools such as HootSuite, SocialMention, Facebook Insights, Twitter Analytics, Google Analytics, Bit.ly and/or Buffer may fit the bill. Or, you may want to investigate marketing automation solutions, such as Infusionsoft and Hubspot, that integrate social more tightly with sales, marketing and content management applications to make your content investments more actionable.

men with puzzle pieces3. Integrate key workflows to get more bang for your software buck. The cloud has made it easy for businesses to add applications to address pain points on a piecemeal basis. But integration is often an afterthought. As a result, many SMBs end up with a hodge-podge of disconnected applications and workflows. People end up wasting time and making mistakes manually re-entering data into different systems, and getting accurate reports for decision-making can become a Herculean task. Things start falling through the cracks because the different applications and processes “don’t talk to each other.” This could be the year you do something about it! If you’re looking to upgrade core business apps, such as accounting, HR or CRM, consider pre-integrated suites from vendors with open application programming interfaces (APIs) and marketplaces. This makes it easier to snap in new, integrated functionality as needed. If moving to an integrated suite isn’t feasible, you can still get plenty of value just from the most repetitive workflows in your business. Many vendors (Informatica, Scribe, Actian (formerly Pervasive), Dell Boomi, Jitterbit and Mulesoft, just to name a few) offer integration solutions that enable you to connect, map fields, and integrate business processes between different applications.

Slide14. Go green to save green. You don’t need to be a tree hugger to get value from green technology. Most businesses waste not only environmental resources, but also money and time as well. Often, these resources could be invested in developing new products or services, or to hire and train employees.But its easy to be green. For instance, when you buy new products, look for vendors with green certifications from ENERGY STAR or EPEAT; use eco-friendly packaging to reduce packaging waste; and use recycled plastics in their products. Use “set it and forget” tools, such as smart power strips, to automatically turn off peripheral devices when you turn off the main device, and recycle old equipment so component materials don’t end up leaching into landfills. Moving up green curve, consider making the switch from paper-based marketing, forms and faxes to digital solutions for email marketing, invoicing, etc. Replace some of your travel with web conferencing and consider creating a telecommuting program (cloud-based collaboration solutions such as Google Apps for Business, Microsoft Office 365 and IBM Smart Cloud make this easier than ever) if you haven’t already done so. Finally, if your business suffers from server and storage sprawl, virtualized server and storage resources, consider solutions such as Dell PowerEdge VRTX, which take up less space, require less power to run, and help simplify maintenance.

baroquon_Add_Money5. Upgrade and integrate payments with accounting and financials. SMB Group research shows that many SMBs still spend a lot of time manually re-entering and reconciling payments back to their accounting and financial systems. This not only saps productivity, but also results in errors that end up taking even more time to correct. If you’re still doing this manually, its time to look at solutions that automatically integrate payments with accounting, cutting time and errors out of payment processing, such as those offered by Intuit and Sage. While you’re at it, investigate whether your business would benefit from being able to accept new payment methods. Chances are, you already take checks and credit cards, but getting set up to accept ACH, mobile payments, gift cards or PayPal may be able to help you attract more customers, gain new business, and enter new markets–or just get paid faster.

cloud6. Take to the cloud–but proceed with due diligence.  Cloud computing promises organizations a faster, easier and cheaper route to get the IT solutions they need to create and run their businesses. So it’s no wonder that SMBs are moving to the cloud. However, not all cloud vendors are created equal–and some have backtracked on the original cloud pledge. They have replaced monthly subscription pricing with annual contracts, tacked on fees for all but the most basic support, and created pricing and contracts that are about as clear as mud. Others fall short when it comes to taking security and privacy precautions. Seek out vendors that stay true to the original cloud promise as evidenced with transparent pricing, clear and flexible contracts, free trials and clearly documented virtual and physical (data center) security measures.

SMB Group Top 10 SMB Technology Trends For 2014

Here are SMB Group’s Top 10 SMB Technology Trends for 2014! A more detailed description of each follows below.

1.     Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer
2.     Cloud Adoption Accelerates, But SMBs Steer Clear of Dark Clouds
3.     Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars
4.     Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices
5.     SMBs View Payment Systems in a New Light
6.     SMBs Prepare for the Insight Economy
7.     SMBs Integrate to Gain Higher Solution Value
8.     The Affordable Care Act Puts Workforce Management in the SMB Spotlight
9.     It’s Easy for SMBs to Go Green and Save Green
10.  Make Way for an SMB Influencer Shake-Up

2014 Top 10 SMB Technology Trends in Detail

  1. Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer. Technology continues to fuel changes in what, where, and how SMB (small and medium businesses, with 1 to 999 employees) work gets done. Back in 2011, SMB Group identified the “Progressive” SMB segment. Progressive SMBs invest more in technology-based solutions, view technology as a business enabler, and are much more likely to expect revenue growth than other SMBs. This gap continues to widen as we enter 2014, and is further fueled by generational shifts–including the rise of millennials in the workforce and older exiles from the corporate world. Progressive SMBs are blending technology and business savvy to reshape business models, carve out new market niches and invent entirely new businesses. Their adoption of cloud, mobile, social and analytics will soar as they strive for both growth and agility. They will also increasingly turn to technology-fueled services—from Elance and oDesk for staffing, to shared office space and IT infrastructure services—in pursuit of these goals. As they forge ahead, they will not only continue to outpace peers, but reshape what it means to be an SMB.
  2. Cloud Adoption Accelerates, But SMBs Steer Clear of Dark Clouds. SMBs have bought into the cloud promise: a faster, easier, cheaper and less risky route to get the IT solutions they need to create and run their businesses. SMB Group research shows SMB use of cloud business and infrastructure applications poised to grow to from 33% to 44% over the coming year. However, some cloud vendors—threatened by Wall Street and high churn rates—have backtracked on their original faster, easier, cheaper cloud pledge. They have replaced monthly subscription pricing with annual contracts, tacked on added fees for all but the most basic support, and created pricing models that are almost as confusing as those of the traditional software behemoths they once berated. As SMBs push further into the cloud, they will favor vendors that stay true to the original cloud promise, and steer clear of dark clouds.
  3. Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars. SMBs have been adopting mobile solutions at a fast and furious pace. SMB Group research indicates 67% of SMBs now view mobile solutions and services as “critical” to their businesses. 83% have already deployed mobile apps to help improve employee productivity; 55% are using mobile apps for specific business functions, such as CRM or order entry. 49% of SMBs are building mobile-friendly websites, and/or deploying mobile apps to engage and transact with customers. However, mobile management has failed to keep pace with this explosion, and with SMBs’ increasing business reliance on mobile solutions. Concerns about security, manageability, provisioning and cost will make mobile management a top priority for more SMBs. They will be looking for easy-to-deploy, cost-effective mobile device and application management platforms and solutions to reduce management headaches and get more value from their mobile investments.
  4.  Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices.  Many SMBs now “get” that they need a social media presence. SMB Group research reveals that more than half of small businesses and more than two-thirds of medium businesses use social media for marketing purposes. Some have invested tremendous amounts of energy to create content to feed the voracious social media beast. But the ever-increasing pressure to create fresh content, keep up with changes in users’ social network preferences, and uncertainty about the return on social investments is taking its toll. In 2014, SMBs will focus more on what networks and content really click for their target audiences, and put more time into figuring out how to convert social connections into customers. Some will integrate social more tightly with sales, marketing and content management applications, and use analytics to develop more actionable social metrics. Marketing innovators will explore new opportunities, such as online mobile advertising powered by geolocation. Others will redirect some of their efforts back to marketing basics–including surveys, competitive analysis, email marketing and attending more conferences and events.
  5. SMBs View Payment Systems in a New Light. SMB Group research shows that although checks and credit cards are still the top forms of payment SMBs accept, there’s no question that new payment methods are growing in use and importance. 27% of small businesses and 43% of medium businesses already equip employees with mobile payment processing solutions, and about one-quarter of SMBs intend to add this capability over the coming year. Meanwhile, mobile wallets and gift cards, PayPal and even Dwolla—a payment network that allows any business or person to send, request and accept money for very low fees—will continue to provide additional payment options for consumers. More SMBs will recognize that having the capability to accept and process a broader range of payment methods can help them attract more customers, gain new business, and even enter new markets. SMBs will also seek ways to cut time and errors out of payment processing with payment solutions that integrate with accounting and ERP, such as those offered by Intuit and Sage.
  6. SMBs Prepare for the Insight Economy.  It’s been hard for many SMBs to relate to the “big data” story that most vendors have been pitching. SMB Group research reveals that only about 18% of small, and about 57% of medium businesses utilize business intelligence and analytics solutions. However, SMBs understand the value of getting the information they need, when they need it—especially as they try to compete with new, nimble born-on-the-Web startups that view data as the new business capital. In 2014, SMB-focused vendors will retool the big data story for the little guy, focusing less on zettabytes, speeds and feeds, and more on how their solutions enable and empower better insights and decision-making. Business solutions vendors will embed better and more accessible analytics and reporting tools within their solutions. Cloud-based, visualization and scenario-driven business intelligence and analytics solutions will also help SMBs take a more data-driven approach to running their businesses.
  7. SMBs Integrate to Gain Higher Solution Value. While the cloud has made it easy for businesses to add a lot of new applications, integration has often been an afterthought. As a result, many SMBs are struggling to make sense of disconnected information silos, and IT is under pressure to integrate cloud-to-on-premises solutions, as well as cloud-to-cloud solutions. In 2013, integration moved up from the #4 to the #1 technology challenge for medium businesses. In 2014, we expect that integration will be a higher priority even among small businesses. After all, it doesn’t take too many disconnected applications to feel the pain of productivity drains, errors, and a lack of solid data to support decision-making. Fortunately, technology vendors of all stripes are emphasizing the importance of a unified, reliable data store as the foundation for solid analytics and reporting. Business solution vendors are increasingly offering SMBs pre-integrated suites, opening up their application programming interfaces (APIs), and creating marketplaces to make it easy to find integrated partner apps. This makes it easier for SMBs to start small, with just one or two applications, and then snap in added functionality as needed. Finally, vendors that specialize in integration solutions, such as Informatica, Scribe and Dell Boomi (just to name a few), are making their solutions more accessible to SMBs. Integration still isn’t sexy, but the improved productivity, time savings, error reduction and decision-making benefits that it enables are.
  8. The Affordable Care Act Puts Workforce Management in the SMB Spotlight. Revenue growth, attracting new customers and increasing profitability are perennial goals for SMBs.  To help achieve these goals, they have been steadily moving ahead to automate and integrate sales, marketing and other customer-facing solutions. Although improving employee productivity has also been a top goal, SMB adoption of automated, integrated workforce management solutions has lagged behind other areas. Many SMBs continue to limp along with a patchwork of disconnected solutions and manual tracking to manage components such as time and attendance, payroll, scheduling, HR and benefits.  But with the Affordable Care Act set to take effect on January 1, 2015 for organizations with more than 50 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees, that situation is about to change. Worried about uncertainty, costs and regulatory risks, SMBs will look for better solutions to calculate employee eligibility and benefits, and to develop proactive strategies to manage ACA compliance and costs. This will drive a significant uptick of interest in, and adoption of automated, integrated workforce management solutions.
  9. It’s Easy for SMBs to Go Green and Save Green. The push for greener IT solutions isn’t new, but in 2014, we’re moving into a perfect green storm. Due to a rash of hurricanes, tornadoes and extreme weather, the sustainability of Mother Earth is taking center stage. According to a recent Harris Poll, over 74% of American adults believe in the global warming theory, and over 73% of U.S. citizens approve of the Kyoto agreement requiring countries to limit carbon monoxide and greenhouse gas emissions. IT vendors are prepared to capitalize on this opportunity with new, energy-saving products. From Dell’s Dell PowerEdge VRTX applications and storage server, which runs on standard 100V-240V AC power and doesn’t require any specialized cooling, to IBM’s patent for a “green” button that helps cloud providers “greenify” their businesses and lets customers choose whether or not to tap clean energy to run offsite servers, it’s easier than ever for SMBs to be green and save green.
  10. Make Way for an SMB Influencer Shake-Up. SMB Group research shows that in-house IT still plays a key role in all phases of the technology solution decision-making process. But now, enabled by the cloud and the swipe of a credit card, business decision-makers are much more involved: in small businesses, 69% of owners/presidents help evaluate potential solutions, and 81% help make the final decision. In medium businesses, departmental and line-of-business executives are the most likely personnel to identify the need for new solutions. This is changing the influencer landscape. Business decision-makers aren’t as likely to turn to traditional technology guidance sources as IT decision-makers. And many of us—especially millennials—are growing skeptical of traditional media sources that increasingly push paid “native content” in the guise of news. So who will the new influencers be? Accountants and other professional advisors (for line-of-business or industry) that the SMBs have an established relationship with will become more powerful influencers. Digital word-of-mouth, references, trade associations and non-technical groups and organizations will play an increasingly important role in shaping technology purchase decisions among both business and IT professionals. Finally, technology vendors that provide unbiased education—and can clearly demonstrate how business benefits from their solutions—will have a decided advantage over those that don’t.

About SMB GROUP

SMB Group focuses exclusively on researching and analyzing the highly fragmented “SMB market”—which is comprised of many smaller, more discrete markets. Within the SMB market, SMB Group areas of focus include: Emerging Technologies, Cloud Computing, Managed Services, Business and Marketing Applications, Collaboration and Social Media Solutions, IT Infrastructure Management and Services and Green IT.

Social Media 101: A Guide for Small Businesses

Originally published on October 1, 2013 on QBSBDC.com as the second of four blog posts in a series designed to help small businesses, and those that serve them, be successful.

Nearly 80% of active U.S. internet users visit social networks and blogs, according to the SMB Group’s 2012 SMB Social Business Study. This explains why social media marketing is commonplace and effective for most large companies.  At the same time, only 28% of small businesses using social tools identify themselves as applying social in a ‘planned, strategic way.’

Small businesses that use social media in a strategic way are more likely to be satisfied with results than those using it in an ad hoc way. Social media can give a small business the boost it needs to advance to the next level. In fact, 42% of small businesses using social media reported an increase in leads or traffic to their website.

What does it mean to be a strategic user of social media? Here are five best practices worth exploring: 

Step 1: Scope out the competition

Spend a little time on the most popular social media networks and check out how your competitors use those sites. Where do they post? What do they write about? How often do they post? Next, set up your own accounts and start experimenting.

Step 2: Explore customers’ use of social media

Discover how often your customers visit social media sites, what information and experiences they seek, what tools they prefer and what kinds of information they share. 

Step 3: Research what people are saying about you

As you become more familiar with social media, look at how people engage with your company online, including positioning, credibility and following on social networks.

Step 4: Ramp up gradually

Start slowly and then maintain a steady pace. If you begin by posting frequently and then peter out to nothing, your fans could lose interest.  

Step 5: Have a game plan and chart progress

Create a series of posts to cover at least three months of social media activity. Think in terms of upcoming holidays, seasonality, your own promotional calendar, and other time-linked events. This will help keep the content fresh and relevant to your audience.

Of course, you should update your scheduled posts if there is a newsworthy event, showing you are in tune with what is going on. Always respond promptly to social media messages about your business to demonstrate that you are listening to customers and engaged.

 

Charting Your Big Data Journey

Slide1In the first post in this series, I examined the underlying trends driving the buzz around big data and its relevance for SMBs. In the second, I discussed how three IBM business partners (FYI Solutions, LPA Systems, Inc. and Waypoint Consulting) are helping SMBs take a pragmatic approach to successfully apply analytics and big data solutions to solve business problems.

In this third and final post, I’ll talk about how to determine business readiness for big data solutions, and considerations to keep in mind as you help your business move ahead in this area.

Big Data Readiness

Today, even small companies are generating and accumulating staggering amounts of data. The question is, can you turn this data into reliable, accessible and actionable information that you can apply to solve business problems and make better decisions?

Many SMBs rely on Microsoft Excel to generate information and reports. If you’re in this category, you can get ahead simply by taking advantage of analytics tools built into the financials, HR, CRM and other core systems that you use. Taking it a bit further, combining Google Analytics data from your website with CRM data can offer you fresh insights about who’s coming to your website, from where, and what they’re doing when they get there.

But as business complexity grows, data and reports are spread across more databases, spreadsheets and applications, and stored on servers, personal computers, mobile devices and in the cloud grows as well. Using disparate data sources and tools to answer key questions such as “what products can I price at a premium” and “what are the best ways to increase repeat sales?” becomes difficult, time-consuming and burdened with inconsistencies.

“When customers approach us, the top reason is because they don’t trust their data and reports. Too time-consuming always comes up as well. They are also struggling to get an enterprise-wide view of their data,” according to Joe Rodriguez, Software Practice Leader, FYI Solutions.

If you answer yes to the questions in Figure 1, your business probably needs to integrate key data sources into a central repository. As Brendan McGuire, Managing Partner, Waypoint Consulting puts it, “You need to pull data from the cloud and on-premise applications into an integrated, rationalized data store. You can do this on your own systems, or you can do it in the cloud in a subscription model.”

Figure 1: Big Data Readiness–Key Questions to Ask

Slide1With a core foundation of common, trustworthy and accessible data in place, you’ll be able to get deeper insights into operations and customer behaviors and preferences. Companies typically start out with “descriptive” business intelligence (BI) tools to dig in and get more visibility into key metrics such as those noted in Figure 1, and make better decisions. For instance, if you’re a retailer, these tools can provide analysis to pinpoint optimal locations for new stores, more accurately forecast customer demand, minimize inventory or negotiate better pricing from suppliers.

Moving Up the Curve

Until recently, having solid analytics capabilities for internal, structured data was enough to give many businesses an edge. But, with more data and different kinds of data pouring in from more places, companies are looking for new ways to help them access, analyze and use data to gain market and competitive advantages.

In broad-brush strokes, big data helps do this in two ways. First, big data technologies crunch through both structured and unstructured data exponentially faster than was ever possible before. Examples of technologies that enable this super-charged data crunching power include hardware with increased memory and parallel processing capabilities, and Hadoop and MapReduce, which harness the power of multiple, distribute computers for problem solving.

Using this kind of technology, you can run analyses that used to take days or weeks in minutes. This make it possible to analyze data that you may have collected for years, but were never able to analyze before, or to weave new, external data sources into your analysis.

In addition, new kinds of analytics tools and solutions make it easier to explore data in more accessible, actionable ways, including:

  • Mobile business intelligence. Nowadays decision-making is as likely to happen in an airport or at a customer site as in headquarters. Mobile solutions let users see, share, report, and analyze data on smartphones and tablets. They take advantage of native, user-friendly mobile interfaces, such as touch screens, and give users the ability to make smarter, faster decisions regardless of location.
  • Visualization. You may be able to look at a hundred of rows of data and make sense of it, but can you look at thousands of rows and figurer out what’s going on? Visualization solutions help people to see what’s happening across hundreds of thousands of data points quickly and easily.
  • Sentiment analysis. Social media and digital sites have given customers and potential customers a much bigger and louder voice. Sure, you can easily tell how many followers or fans you have, but do you really know what it means to your business? Sentiment analysis identifies the user attitudes towards a brand, product or event by using variables such as context, tone and emotion.
  • Predictive analytics. Using mathematical algorithms, predictive analytics helps you to spot what’s likely to happen next. With predictive tools, you can examine large amounts of historical data (internal and external, structured and unstructured) to identify hidden patterns to alert you to future trends and stay ahead of the market.
  • Prescriptive analytics take things a step further, actually guiding you to a course of action, via options for what you should do next. Prescriptive analytics solutions can fine-tune themselves as they take in new data to continually improve your decision alternatives.

Choosing Your Big Data Path

Where you go next depends on where you are today, and your business goals, as discussed in Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs. Often, explains Brendan McGuire, “the greatest opportunity is to make data more consumable…making it easier for the business person to have conversations with the data, whether its structured or unstructured, through better mobile solutions, or visualization.”

Meanwhile, LPA Systems is helping hotel chains use forecasting and planning solutions to get a better idea of expected occupancy rates based on historical transactional data mixed with external information about upcoming events and other factors to optimize pricing and marketing initiatives. As Jesse McNulty explains, “Now they can better assess if they’re going to be overbooked on a weekday in July, and charge more, or if they’re going to have occupancy issues, and need to do a promotion”.

Although prescriptive analytics is still further out on the horizon for most companies, Joe Rodriguez sees customer interest in this area growing. “Just like your GPS provides you with alternate routes, tells you where to go, and what turns to make in your car, prescriptive analytics can be like a crystal ball to help predict outcomes and improve decision-making for the business.”

Perspective

As revealed in the IBM Institute for Business Value and Said Business School, University of Oxford, three out of five midmarket respondents report that analytics, information and big data solutions “create a competitive advantage in their industry,” representing a 66% increase since 2010. Given the rapid rate and pace of change in business and technology, this gap will widen.

While turning information into insights isn’t easy, the good news is that vendors are increasingly recognizing that big data isn’t only for big businesses. Whether you are just starting to think about the relevance of big data for you business, or you have some of the basics in place, more vendors, including IBM, are focusing on SMB customers. Not only are they building more solutions tailored to SMB requirements, they are also developing educational materials to help you learn how more about applying big data solutions to real world business problems. As important, they are growing and training their business partners to help you get up the learning curve, implement solutions and optimize the value you gain from them.

So do your homework. Assess your company’s key challenges, we’re you’re at today, and were you want to go. Talk to colleagues and business advisors you trust. Start developing a strategy to get the wisdom you need to grow your business and stay ahead of the competition.

This is the final post in this blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. The first post, Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs? parses through the underlying trends and hype surrounding big data, and what is important and relevant for SMBs. The second, Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs looks at how IBM business partners are helping SMBs take practical steps to put big data to work for their businesses.

Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs?

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????There’s little doubt that “big data” is the latest “big thing” in the IT industry. But for many small and medium business (SMB) decision-makers, big data is a somewhat fuzzy term. Ask any number of them what big data means, and you’re likely to get different definitions. Making matters worse, the “big” in big data, along with endless discussions of petabytes and zettabytes, make many SMBs skeptical that big data is relevant for their businesses.

So it’s not hard to make the case that “big data” is has become an over-hyped and poorly understood catch-all phrase. What does big data really mean, and what are the implications for SMBs? When we parse through the underlying trends and hype surrounding big data, what’s left that is actually important and relevant for SMBs?

The Realities Driving Big Data Buzz

The big part of big data is easy to understand. Basically, the volume and variety of digitized data is increasing exponentially. Think about how much and how many kinds of information have moved from physical to digital form just over the last several years. Doctors have moved from paper charts to electronic medical records; merchants have moved from paper credit card imprinters to POS terminals to virtual terminals to mobile payment devices. Movies have moved from Blockbuster to Netflix; and photos have move from Kodak to Facebook and Instagram. “Smart” machines–from traffic sensors to seismographs–are creating entirely new digital data streams as well.

As a result, researchers report that we have already created 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, and that 90% of it has been generated in the last two years alone. While quintillions are hard to wrap your head around, these facts make the concept more accessible:

  • 150,000 new URLs are created each day.
  • Twitter sees roughly 58 million tweets every day, and has more than 554 million accounts.
  • 160 million emails are sent every 60 seconds.
  • Over 20 billion credit card payments are processed annually in the U.S.
  • Power companies are moving from physical meter to digital “smart” meter readings, and going from monthly reading to gathering meter information every 15 minutes. This adds up to 96 million reads per day for every million meters–or a 3,000-fold increase in data.

The term “big data” refers to having the ability to dig in to this growing data avalanche more effectively and quickly with tools that make it easier to store, manage, analyze and act on information.

Big is Relative When It Comes to Big Data

According to findings from the IBM Institute for Business Value and Said Business School, University of Oxford, most large enterprises define the “big” in big data as databases with more than 100 terabytes, while most midmarket companies (less than 1,000 employees) consider anything more than 1 terabyte as “big”.

The fact of the matter is, “big” is a relative term–relative to the amount of information that your organization needs to sift through to find the insights you need to operate the business more proactively and profitably. Basically, if the data set is too big for your company to effectively manage and get insights from, then you’re facing a big data challenge.

This isn’t just a large enterprise problem. In SMB Group studies, SMB decision-makers repeatedly cite “getting better insights from the data we already have” as a top business challenge. SMBs may not be dealing with terabytes of data, but many are finding that tools that used to suffice–such as Excel spreadsheets–fall short even when it comes to analyzing internal transactional databases.

Welcome to the Insight Economy

info you need photoWith the amount and variety of digitized growing exponentially, these challenges and requirements will only increase.

Business that can find the right needles in the data haystack more quickly, easily and reliably than competitors can reap enormous market advantages. SMB Group’s 2012 Routes to Market Study shows that SMBs that have deployed business intelligence and analytics solutions are 51% more likely than peers to expect revenues to rise. Likewise, in the IBM-Oxford University study, three out of five midmarket respondents using business and analytics solutions reported that they are realizing significant advantages, most notably to “identify new opportunities in the marketplace” and to “understand and respond to customers better.”

Take the example of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. With one of the lowest public subsidies in the U.S., the zoo needed to increase attendance and boost food and retail sales to operate profitably. But the zoo was unable to easily access the data–which resided on different systems–so it could plan how to do this. The zoo implemented a business intelligence solution to get better insight into customer trends and its own operations, and answer questions such as, “How many people spend money outside of admissions costs?” and “What time of day do ice cream sales peak?” By answering these questions and others, the zoo was able to increase retail and food sales by 35%, save more than $140,000 per year in marketing dollars through more targeted, successful campaigns, and increase overall zoo attendance by 50,000 in one year.

Unfortunately, many SMBs are lagging large enterprises in this area. The IBM-Oxford Study revealed that the gap between large enterprises and the midmarket is increasing, and the SMB Group 2012 Routes to Market Study shows that the smaller the company, the less likely they are to use or plan to use BI solutions.

Perspective

Businesses have always needed the ability to measure critical success metrics and make sound business decisions. Big data solutions are designed to help businesses to do this in a world where the volume and variety of data is growing at breakneck speed.

When you look at the realities that are driving the big data bandwagon, its clear that long after the buzz fades, these realities will have a long-lasting impact on how businesses of all sizes operate. Over time, the performance gap will widen between businesses that can readily get the insights they need, when they need them, and those that can’t.

That said, figuring out where and how to start isn’t easy, especially for SMBs who are often resource-constrained. The good news, however, is that this is definitely an area where you want to take small steps first. In the next blog of this series, we’ll draw on conversations with IBM business partners to learn how they are helping SMBs to chart the big data journey.

This is the first of a three-part blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. In the next post, I’ll discuss how IBM business partners are helping SMBs take practical steps to put big data to work for their businesses.

Infusionsoft: Big Dreams for Small Business

Infusionsoft: Big Dreams for Small Business

Last week I attended InfusionCon 2013, Infusionsoft’s annual user event. In case you’re not familiar with Infusionsoft, they provide web-based all-in-one sales, marketing and ecommerce software aimed at “true” small businesses with 25 or fewer employees.

eventOver 2,000 small business owners attended the event, which featured the launch of Infusionsoft’s 2013 Spring Release, and three days of education, training, networking and presentations. Speakers ranging from Daymond John, founder of FUBU and investor on ABC’s Shark Tank, to David Allen, author of the bestseller Getting Things Done, shared center stage with Infusionsoft “Ultimate Marketer” nominees, who provided insight into Infusionsoft’s unique customer community. And, in an industry where most vendors are easily lured upstream into midmarket and large enterprises, the Infusionsoft team doubled-down on the company’s commitment to serving small business.

How does Infusionsoft intend stick with its small business pledge? Let’s take a look based on what I saw and heard at the event.

Climbing Everest

It comes as no surprise to anyone that has ever owned a small business that in every SMB Group study we do, small businesses cite “growing revenues” and “attracting new customers” as their top business challenges. While the goal is straightforward, getting an effective system in place to connect with and nurture prospects and customers is hard and time-consuming. Many end up with using a disconnected assortment of point solutions to address different requirements for things such as ecommerce, email marketing and content management. Not surprisingly this often gets ugly and hard to manage as a business grows. It becomes increasingly difficult to give customers and prospects the responsive and personalized attention, offers and service they expect without working round the clock.

CEO Clate Mask founded Infusionsoft in 2001 with the intent to help small businesses grow without becoming slaves to their businesses by helping them automate their sales and marketing with an integrated, all-in-one solution. Over the past dozen years, Infusionsoft has grown its customer base to 13,500 accounts and 50,000, with a roughly even split between B2C and B2B companies. Growth is also accelerating: Infusionsoft increased revenues and customers by more than 50% in the past year.

I think its fair to say that in the early going, Infusionsoft’s appeal was limited to those small businesses who saw the value of automating their sales and marketing but were also ready, willing and able to invest a lot of time learning how to use Infusionsoft and getting it to work for their businesses. Many of these pioneers have had great success using Infusionsoft to help grow their businesses.

As Infusionsoft has grown however, it has begun to attract more pragmatic customers who don’t have the time or interest required to tinker with configuring software. Small business owners are already wearing enough hats—they aren’t marketing experts and don’t want to be. They see the value that an integrated sales and marketing solution can deliver, but want a shortcut to it.

photoeverestMask and his team have heard this message loud and clear. They know that they need to simplify the solution to appeal to wider swath of small businesses and spike growth to the next level. Consequently, Infusionsoft is focusing on simplifying the solution and delivering positive outcomes to users more quickly to reach its next milestone—100,000 customer accounts in the next four years.

Towards a Sherpa Style Solution

Infusionsoft’s 2013 Spring Release is all about doing more of the heavy lifting so its users don’t have to. The release features a more visual interface, easier to use drag and drop tools, and templates to help small businesses get going. For instance:

  • The My Day dashboard makes it easier to for users get organized, create quotes and move quickly through sales activities to close more business.
  • Infusionsoft’s Marketplace provides a library of free, pre-built marketing campaigns that have a proven track record of converting leads into buyers. Instead of reinventing the wheel, users can download a campaign to their Infusionsoft app, tweak it and go.
  • A new quoting tool that streamlines the quoting process and helps users create, track and manage quotes.
  • New interactive training tutorials help users learn about how to use additional capabilities from within the solutions with boxes that pop up to explain how to do things relevant to where users are in the application.

Infusionsoft has also integrated GroSocial (which it announced the acquisition of in January) with Infusionsoft Campaign Builder. GroSocial enables users to create and manage social campaigns on Facebook and Twitter, and the integration with Campaign Builder whittles down the time it takes to create, manage and track social media marketing campaigns.

Staying the Course

Earlier this year, it captured a $52 million dollar financing round from Goldman Sachs. Skeptics, myself included, have wondered if Goldman Sachs will force Infusionsoft to go upmarket or position for acquisition. After all, striking the right balance to deliver value and build volume in this very fragmented, diverse market is not for the faint of heart. Once you move past turnkey point solutions, very few vendors have been able to establish enduring scale and success.

photo listencareserveBut Mask says that the investment firm wants Infusionsoft to keep its small business pledge and build a great, long-lived company. It turns out that Goldman Sachs supports small businesses through its non-profit foundation, 10,000 Small Businesses, and Infusionsoft sees potential synergy with this initiative. Meanwhile, Infusionsoft is staying true to its own small business roots. Over 60% of its employees have experience running their own small businesses, and Infusionsoft encourages new employees to continue running their small businesses while they work for Infusionsoft to keep the small business focus sharp and stay true to its mantra to listen, care and serve small businesses.

Infusionsoft is also expanding its ecosystem of developer and service delivery partners, which now includes over 300 partners. This year’s Battle of the Apps, showcased at InfusionCon, showcased 4 contestants who develop plug-ins and add-ons to the Infusionsoft platform.

we empowerIn January 2013, Infusionsoft opened up its new 90,000 square foot building to accommodate the 700 employees it will add to its staff to support its small business growth goals and culture. When you walk in, you’re greeted by a big wall with hundreds of photos of Infusionsoft’s small business customers. The building features:

  • Meeting rooms that small businesses in the Phoenix community can use free of charge.
  • A large space to accommodate training for customers and partners.
  • Prominent displays of the company’s nine core values and performance benchmarks for its Everest climb.
  • A games room, mother’s room and a cereal bar—which harkens back to remind everyone of the early dark days when Mask and his then small team lived on cereal and pizza.
  • Infusionsoft is also expanding its ecosystem of developer and service delivery partners, which now includes over 300 partners. This year’s Battle of the Apps, showcased at InfusionCon, 4 contestants who develop plug-ins and add-ons to the Infusionsoft platform.

Interestingly, the building also includes a Dreaming Room—complete with a library and full-time Dream Manager—to help Infusionsoft employees set and attain their personal goals. Infusionsoft believes that happy employees equate to happy customers—and it is filling the walls with photos of how its employees are achieving their dreams.

Perspective

Will Infusionsoft’s dedication to small business pay off? Will it be able to stay the small business course, and find the formula that eludes so many tech companies. Is it on track to become a scalable, enduring small business solution company ala Intuit? Of course, only time will tell if Infusionsoft’s execution will live up to its intentions.

The company will need to strike that fine balance of creating powerful solutions without complexity—a rare thing indeed. But, so far, I like what I see. Keeping fresh small business blood running through its employees’ veins should also help keep it focused on and in tune with small businesses—especially when so many of the vendors targeting small business are so far removed from the realities that small business owners face. Infusionsoft has the capital it needs to provide a better user experience for its customers, and broaden its partner ecosystem to add the nuanced capabilities that diverse small business customers demand.

Infusionsoft’s goal for next year’s InfusionCon is 4,000 small business owner attendees. I’ll be watching to see if the company meets this objective, because convincing that many “true” small business owners to put day-to-day business needs aside for three days to travel and invest to learn how to use any software solution may be a first. If Infusionsoft pulls this off, it will be a very good omen indeed that it can fulfill on its dreams for itself and for its small business customers.

Dell’s Boston Think Tank: Big Ideas for Small Business

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to participate in Dell’s Boston Think Tank for Entrepreneurs and Small Businesses (#smallbizboston) at the Cambridge Innovation Center. Dell billed the session as a chance for business owners, startups and others to come together to listen, learn, collaborate and share.

dpictInstead of talking heads, the day was interactive from start to finish, with speakers who realized that they have as much to learn from attendees as the other way around. And instead of PowerPoint slides, dpict.info’s scribe captured the story as it unfolded, building this great infographic to sum up the day’s key conversations and insights.

Dell_Boston_2013_printDell’s Entrepreneur in Residence, Ingrid Vanderveldt (who I spoke to in this video interview) kicked off the event some interesting stats about how Boston small businesses view the current business environment and their ability access to capital, talent and technology. Whitney Johnson (@johnsonwhitney), Author of Dare, Dream, Do and Harvard Business Review Blogger and event moderator, introduced the 4 different themes for the day, each facilitated by a local small business expert:

Dell sessionFrom my perspective, some of the most interesting takeaways from the day were that small business owners:

  • Struggle to find qualified people who are also a good fit for the company’s culture. Although small business owners believe that talent and expertise are the most important contributors to business growth, they find it difficult task to access the talent they need. The investment required to recruit, hire and train someone looms large for small business, and the risk of hiring someone who doesn’t work out is a big one. While people have had success outsourcing smaller jobs to contractors via sites such as Elance, TaskRabbit and Zirtual, “you reach a point where you need talent that you can trust, commit to and hire.” Practical advice included to “go where the talent is,” for example, check out http://www.meetup.com/ and go to meetups where you’re most likely to find the types of people you’re looking for, and learn some of the lingo they use so you can engage in a meaningful conversation. Other suggestions included writing down and codifying your corporate values so that you can clearly articulate them to the candidates you interview. Finally, look for people with complementary skills to yours, and those who can do the job as well or even better than you can.
  • See technology as both a blessing and a curse. One the one hand, the Internet and mobile solutions have made it much easier for people to collaborate and connect. On the other hand, small business owners are in information overload when it comes to sorting through all the thousands of available technology solutions and determine which can really help them achieve their business goals–growing revenue, being more productive, and operating more profitably. Dell’s survey indicates that 41% of Boston small businesses see technology needs as becoming increasingly complex, yet only 1 in 10 have full-time dedicated IT people. This mirrors SMB Group’s North America research findings. Most small businesses see the value of technology in making their businesses successful, but need a lot of help to identify which solutions will have the biggest impact on business results.
  • Believe telecommuting and working remotely enables productivity. Sorry, @Yahoo Melissa Mayer, but I think its fair to say that you are swimming against the tide. The general sentiment seemed to be that although live, face-to-face meetings are ideal for some things, the ability to work remotely has given small businesses more flexibility and access to talent. For instance, Sharon Kan, an entrepreneur with four successful start-up exits, kicked of the Access to Technology session by saying she runs her businesses with “a phone and a laptop.”
  • Typically pull their businesses up with their own bootstraps. Only 3% of Boston small businesses relied on venture capital and angel investors to get off the ground. Personal savings are the top source of funding at 44%, followed by banks and credit unions at 23%. Amy Millman of Springboard Investors, which has funded a raft of innovative start-ups, including Zipcar, iRobot and Constant Contact, gave business owners insights into what investors are looking for. First, you must be able to clearly articulate how your company is going to make money, and “learn the language of funders and investors”. More pointedly, when a prospect says “wow”, take it a step further. Find out the “why and how of the wow” and use that in your pitch to investors.
  • Need to get more strategic about using social media. According to Chris Brogan, who led the social media breakout, all businesses must think like “fledgling TV stations and create their own media” and “build trust at a distance.” The challenge is how to do this effectively. SMB Group’s 2012 Social Business survey indicates that of the 53% of small businesses using social media, less than half use it in a strategic way. According to Chris, small businesses need a home base, such as a web site or blog, and two “outposts.” One outpost should be the social media site that’s the best fit for your story and how you want to tell it (I would add that it also needs to be a place where your prospects hang out) and the other is email marketing: bad email marketing may be dead but good email marketing isn’t. Don’t try to spread yourself too thin–concentrate on using these three to help you “articulate, reach, trust, engage and echo” to meet your business goals.

dell session 5Overall, the interactive format, access to experts and eclectic mix of small business owners added up to an event that gave attendees information and inspiration, and new connections with people to get help from and vice versa.

Dell put a lot into the event. In addition to Ingrid and a number of Dell marketing and AR staff, Dell product strategy, management and technology teams were also well represented. With its listening ears on at events such as this, Dell is taking the right steps not only to help small businesses succeed, but to also ensure that it has the insights it needs to provide small businesses with the solutions they need to move ahead.

The Boston event was the last stop on Dell’s inaugural Think Tank tour of nine cities, but I’m told that Dell intends to follow-up with a new tour schedule soon.

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