Dell 2.0: A Progress Report from Dell’s 2012 Annual Analyst Conference

I’ve been tracking and writing about Dell since the late 1990s, when Dell was riding high on its success in essentially reinventing the PC and x86 markets with its direct and efficient supply chain model. Over the years, I have watched Dell go through several fits and starts as it struggled to move past its traditional hardware and product-centric comfort zone.

Fast forward to 2010, when I attended Dell’s Solutions for a Virtual Era industry analyst event, where Dell first outlined its new vision to move from a product-centric to a solutions centric company. By the 2011 conference, Dell had put some more meat on the bones, highlighted by several acquisitions that leveraged cloud computing, remote services, and an expanding services play. Here are some of the things I heard this week that shaped my impression of Dell’s progress.

  1. Focus on the midmarket. Dell’s acquisitions over the past year have continued to reflect this strategy. In addition, Dell’s newly minted Software Group has the potential to build on Dell’s vision of providing “end-to-end” solutions that are modular and configurable for small, medium or large business needs. But, as Dell scales solutions up to satisfy the needs of larger companies, the challenge will be to also scale them down for smaller ones. Large customers can exert tremendous control, and make it all too easy to divert resources away from SMB needs. Dell needs to proactively include and plan for small business requirements from the get-go across solution areas to make this commitment stick.
  2. Services and solutions growth. Enterprise services now account for 30% of Dell’s business, and have doubled over the past five years. This means Dell is successfully changing the conversation from products to solutions, and that customers view Dell more as a trusted partner and less as a commodity vendor. The best proof points here were the Dell customer stories from Current Motor, which makes electric scooters; Pixomondo, which won an Oscar for visual effects, or VFX, in Hugo; and Blackbaud, which develops cloud solutions for non-profits. These companies see Dell as an end-to-end IT solutions vendor, and as a partner that can help them use technology to disrupt and create competitive advantages in their markets. Show these guys and others like them off at every opportunity! In addition, I’d like to see Dell offer things such a cloud-based, turnkey infrastructure management (including mobile) for SMBs, or a service to help them manage their social media activities. IT expertise and staff are scarce in most SMBs, and Dell can fill a big gap with these types of offerings.
  3. Filling the gaps to reshape the company. The focus is on stringing together innovative, successful and manageable acquisitions (especially when compared to HP’s seemingly ill-fated Palm and Autonomy debacles). It’s impressive that many of the companies that Dell has acquired, including Boomi, Compellent, SecureWorks and KACE, are growing faster now than they were on their own. It’s also a good sign that Dell is significantly boosting R&D spending. That said, it would be great to see Dell place a few bets to create an early mover advantage in newly emerging areas so that it can shape a market from the ground up.
  4. Taking a channel-friendly approach. One company can rarely do it all in terms of providing end-to-end solutions to SMBs. But building, growing and nurturing the channel is never easy–especially for a vendor who pioneered the direct sales model in the PC industry, and whose first priority is to bring greater efficiency to the market. But I think that Dell is really moving the needle here, based on the evidence that Dell’s channel has grown to more than 100,000 partners and that $14 billion went through these partners last year. And, Dell is creating some innovative new programs, such as a social media training program to help give its partners an edge. Dell will also need to create targeted strategies to woo partners that can add value in vertical markets, new geographies, and in hot solutions areas such as mobile, business intelligence, social and cloud.
  5. Listening to the voice of the customer. Dell has brought corporate listening to a new level. Whether crowdsourcing new product ideas via IdeaStorm making this year’s analyst event much more interactive based on our feedback from last year or conducting extensive customer surveys for input, Dell is listening. Dell is acting on this input as well: CMO Karen Quintos told us that Dell has incorporated over 450 ideas from IdeaStorm into Dell solutions. In addition, 88% of Dell team members understand how important Dell employees are to the Dell brand and their role in listening to customers. The customer-centric mindset that Dell team members have could prove to be one of Dell’s biggest assets in an increasingly social and transparent marketplace.
  6. Tackling consumerization on the client side. In an era of consumerization, mobile devices and bring your own device, Dell is in a tough spot. Building clients with enough consumer appeal that “prosumers” will prefer them won’t be easy. Unlike Apple and now Google, Dell can only control the hardware design. Arguably, Dell’s new Ultrabook XPS 13  is more physically elegant than a MacBook, but is that enough? The question remains, how much exponential innovation can Dell bring to bear when it doesn’t control the operating system or developer ecosystem? Obviously, Dell will face the same challenges in the tablet and phone markets. Unless it can find a way to create breakout differentiation, this will continue to be one of Dell’s most vexing challenges.
  7. Developing an internal IT strategy that maps to Dell’s external goals. Sanjeev Aggarwal and I met with Dell’s new CIO, Andi Karaboutis, and were impressed with her disciplined approach to ensure that Dell’s systems can support Dell’s new end-to-end solutions business model. It’s not easy to change systems to accommodate the new workflows required for service solutions. But she seems to be making great progress, and is using a lot of the technology that Dell has brought in via its acquisitions. This approach should stress test these solutions–and Dell’s success in using them is a great marketing testimonial.

I don’t think that market perceptions have quite caught up with the progress that Dell has already made. Dell should accelerate the shift by making sure that all of its customer-facing channels–from web site to ads, Facebook page to sales people, fully reflect the Dell of today.

The net-net is that while Dell clearly has some challenges ahead, the event left me with the impression that Dell’s transformation is well under way.

Tech Tidbits for SMBs: AnyMeeting, and Xero

All too often, I don’t have the time to write a full-fledged post on many of the SMB solutions that vendors brief and demo for me. Which is a shame, as many of these come from smaller vendors that you might not know about, but could provide just what you’re looking for.

So, I thought it might be helpful to at least serve up the ones that seem really useful and/or interesting in bite-size portions. With that in mind, here are my picks for this introductory sampler. I’ll try my best to publish new ones every couple of weeks–so stay tuned. And if you use or try any of these, please let me know what you think!

  • AnyMeeting. If you’re looking for a new web conferencing solution, or want to try one for the first time, check out The service is designed for small businesses and is super easy to use. Whether you’re a host or attendee, there’s nothing to download, and it offers screen sharing, live video conferencing (for up to 6 users), polling and recording features. It has easy to use forms to send meeting invites and create custom registration forms and reports, and you can publicize your meetings on Facebook and Twitter. AnyMeeting  also has integrated option so that you can sell tickets to your webinars, and take payment by credit card or  PayPal. If you can deal with a narrow vertical (and business-appropriate!) band of advertising on the side of the screen, AnyMeeting is free–with no time limits or restrictions–for up to 200 attendees per meeting. If you want to lose the ads, pricing is very competitive: $17.99/month for up to 25 attendees, and $69.99/month for up to 200 attendees. iPad and smartphone apps are in the works.
  • Maybe you know them by their old name–Assistly. Or maybe not. Either way, liked so much that they bought the company, and its easy to see why. embodies the cloud-social-mobile mantra that preaches. bills itself as a simple, social, mobile, affordable customer support help desk. It organizes all of your support in one place, so you can connect with customers where they want to connect, whether its Facebook and Twitter, or via email, phone and web. And with Mobile, employees can support customers anytime, anywhere via iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry devices.’s pricing model is affordable even for the tiniest company. The first full-time user (or agent in help desk speak) is always free. That’s right forever, with all the features, and without ads. Then, if like many small businesses, you have a couple of people who do support part-time (while they juggle the other parts of their jobs), you can sign them up for $1 per hour in’s Flex Agent model.  Bigger companies pay $49 per user/month for additional full-time agents. Just recently, the company launched new reporting and analytics capabilities called Business Insights, which gives you a way to get summaries and drill downs into customer service metrics without having to learn or integrate a complicated BI tool.
  • Xero. Xero focuses in on the accounting needs of companies with 0 to 50 employees with its online accounting solution. It shields us non-accountants from accountant lingo: instead of labels such as receivables and payables, it speaks of money in and money out. The solution provides online accounting, reporting, bank reconciliation, invoicing and bill payments, and a great built-in expense reporting tool. It comes in 3 versions–small, medium and large. All pricing plans feature unlimited users for a flat monthly fee. The large size features multi-currency capabilities to reconcile foreign currency accounts in real time. You can login to from a mobile device to view accounts, and follow up on outstanding invoices. iPhone and Android phone users can also create and send invoices, submit expense claims, and add customer notes. The free Xero iPhone app lets you also upload photos of receipts and login instantly with a 4-digit passcode. Xero was founded in New Zealand and initially took roots there and in Australia. But Xero has been expanding. It now has 200 employees in total, including a U.S. office in San Francisco–and 240,000 users. Although it competes with several online accounting startups (not to mention Intuit QuickBooks Online) Xero is fortified for staying power. Former PayPal founder and Facebook’s first external investor, Peter Thiel, recently re-upped his investment in Xero in a 16.6m USD round this February; to date, Xero has raised $80 million in funding.

Host Analytics’ New Twist on an Old Problem: Connecting CPM and Siloed Data in Midsize Companies

Host Analytics, which provides cloud-based corporate performance management (CPM) software, recently launched Business Analytics, a new business intelligence toolkit designed to give finance departments in midsize companies a more comprehensive view of their businesses–without having to deploy an enterprise BI suite.

With this announcement, Host Analytics is giving companies a new, pragmatic and streamlined approach to solving the very real problem of integrating and analyzing the ever-increasing amounts of data that they need to understand to make better business decisions.

First, A Little Background on Host Analytics

In case you’re not familiar with Host Analytics, the company was founded in 2000, and has focused on providing cloud-based CPM solutions to midsize companies. More specifically, Host Analytics’ has geared its efforts to the needs of growing companies with complex requirements, providing a comprehensive CPM suite that includes budgeting and planning, revenue planning, forecasting, financial consolidations, reporting, dashboards, scorecarding, advanced modeling capabilities, executive management reporting and data services.

Host Analytics’ formula includes:

  • A cloud-based approach to relieve companies from having to buy and maintain IT infrastructure, so they can focus on using the solution to help create competitive and market advantages. This also enables faster deployments.
  • An Excel-like user interface to make it easier for new users to get productive quickly.
  • Flexible packaging and pricing options, so that customers can buy the suite or individual functional modules–which can be added to and integrated on as-needed basis.
  • A partner ecosystem that includes technology and implementation partners such as ERP Logic, Cervello and Paradigm Analytics, to help customers optimize Host Analytics solutions.

The formula has been working well: Host Analytics grew 78% year-over-year in 2010 and 118% in 2011, and is approaching 250 customers. Host Analytics plans to expand to the UK shortly.

New Approach to an Old Problem

With its new Business Analytics capability, Host Analytics tackles an old problem with a new approach. The tool gives finance professionals integrated access, views and reporting tools for data that is siloed in other departments–such as hiring from the HR system, or what’s in the pipeline from CRM. This broader view provides users with a more complete, accurate and up-to-date view of business drivers and issues to help them make better decisions. At the same time, the tool can give other line-of-business managers insight into how their information and performance impacts the rest of the organization.

Host Analytics is doing this by embedding new BI functionality, from cloud-based BI partner Birst, directly into the CPM suite, which Host Analytics manages on their servers to give customers a one-stop shop.

Birst connectors also have Hadoop connectors that companies can use to pull in unstructured data. The tool pulls all this data together to give companies a holistic view for reports, dashboards, scorecards, etc. across all their data fields. The tool also features some nice capabilities to enable users to view reports and dashboards from their mobile devices.

Quick Take

Host Analytics Business Analytics solves an important problem for many midsize companies, who want a standardized way to access, view and report across applications, but lack the time, money or expertise to deploy traditional on-premise BI tools. For customers already using a BI solution, Host Analytics’ open architecture enables customers to use their BI tool on the Host Analytics Corporate Performance Management data for broader reporting needs via open database connectivity (OBDC) drivers.

The new offering provides both a one-stop shop to address CPM requirements and the means to get the benefits of a broader BI tool without having to deploy a big BI suite. This should hold clear appeal for existing Host Analytics midmarket customers who want a more integrated and holistic view of the business. It should also help Host Analytics get on the short-list of more midsize companies that are evaluating CPM, as it offers them a flexible way to expand BI functionality into other parts of the organization when they’re ready without having to deploy more complex BI packages.

Top Customer-Facing Mobile Apps for SMBs Today–and the Trajectory for Tomorrow

How are SMBs using mobile solutions to interact with their customers, suppliers and partners? What are top mobile apps that SMBs offer for their external customers, partners and supplier to use? Just as important, what mobile applications are they planning to deploy?

We found out in our recently completed SMB Group 2012 SMB Mobile Solutions Study, in which we asked 717 U.S. SMB (small business is 1-99 employees; medium business is 100-999 employees) decision-makers and influencers about their mobile solutions environment, including:

  • Mobile Device and Service Provider Use and Plans
  • Use and Plans for Internal (Employee) Mobile Business Solutions
  • Use and Plans for External (Customer, Partner, Supplier) Mobile Business Solutions
  • Use and Plans for Mobile Web Sites
  • Benefits and Obstacles to Using Mobile Solutions
  • Use and Plans for Mobile Payments
  • Mobile Budgets
  • Mobile Procurement, Policies, Governance and User Roles
  • Mobile Management Adoption, Solutions and Services

Rising SMB Adoption of Mobile Web Sites and Apps for External Users

As noted in The Yin and Yang of Mobile Applications Benefits For SMBs, the study revealed that SMBs increasingly see that customer-facing mobile applications can help them grow revenue, attract and retain customers, and keep up with the competition.

SMBs are using both mobile-friendly web sites and mobile apps to offer functionality to foster this interaction, as shown on Figure 1.

Figure 1: SMB Use and Plans for Mobile-Friendly Web Sites and Mobile Apps

Top 10 Mobile Apps that SMBs Provide for Customers, Suppliers and Partners

Regardless of whether SMBs are employing a mobile-friendly web site, mobile apps, or both, what are the top capabilities that they are providing to external audiences? And what do they plan to add in the next 12 months?

Among a field of 26 possible choices, the solutions in Figure 2 came out on top across small and business respondents.

Figure 2. Top 10 Mobile Functions that SMBs Provide and Plan to Provide to External Users

The study also revealed significant differences in the types of mobile apps SMBs choose to deploy based on industry. For example, the top customer-facing mobile app that professional services firms use is for scheduling appointments, while the top app for retail firms is to enable their customers to buy products/services.

Expanding SMB Digital Presence Via Mobile Solutions

Until recently, most SMBs got along just fine with a corporate website and/or a Facebook page. But SMBs are increasingly finding that they need to make sure that customers can interact with them anytime, anywhere and from any device.

But there are many options and/or trade-offs to think about–mobile web sites, mobile landing pages, mobile payments, mobile apps, etc. Does the company need mobile apps, or will a mobile-friendly web site and landing pages suffice? In addition,

Given limited IT staff and expertise in developing and managing mobile solutions, most SMBs will need help in thinking through these issues, evaluating solution alternatives, developing an effective mobile strategy, and implementing and managing it (Figure 3).

Figure 3: SMB Use/Plans for Mobile Management Solutions

The bottom line is that while mobile apps may be the headline, helping SMBs develop a solid strategy and framework for deploying and managing their mobile environments is likely to provide vendors with an even bigger opportunity in the mobile space.

The Yin and Yang of Mobile Applications For SMBs

What are SMBs top business challenges, and how well do mobile solutions help them meet these challenges? Interestingly, that depends on whether you’re asking them about the benefits of having their employees use internal mobile apps, or the value of offering mobile apps and mobile-friendly web sites for external customers, partners and suppliers to use.

We asked more than 750 SMB (small business is 1-99 employees; medium business is 100-999 employees) decision-makers and influencers these questions in the recently completed SMB Group 2012 SMB Mobile Solutions Study, which provides a detailed examination of mobile devices, services and solutions that SMBs use, including:

  • Business background
  • Information sources and decision-making for mobile solutions
  • Penetration of mobile devices and services
  • Types of mobile devices used and who uses them
  • Policies and governance for mobile solutions
  • Mobile applications for internal users (employees)
  • Mobile applications for external users (customers, partners, suppliers, etc.)
  • Budgets for mobile solutions
  • Mobile management

SMBs Top Business Challenges 

In every study we do–including this one–attracting new customers and growing revenue top the list of the most significant business challenges that SMBs face. Maintaining profitability and dealing with economic uncertainty also are raised as significant challenges (Figure 1).

Figure 1: SMB Top Business Challenges

SMB Perception of Business Value from Mobile Applications

In this study, we asked SMBs several questions about the kinds of mobile applications they use. We asked them specifically about what mobile apps their employees use for business purposes, and what external mobile apps and/or mobile-friendly web site capabilities they use to interact with customers, suppliers and partners. We also asked them what they think are the top business benefits they get from using both internal and external mobile apps.

Interestingly, while SMBs believe that they’re receiving significant business value from both internal and external mobile solutions, the primary benefits they associate with these two categories are quite different. As shown on Figure 2, SMBs associate using internal employee-use apps with things like increasing productivity and getting access to people and information more quickly.

Figure 2: Benefits SMBs Associate with Internal (Employee) Mobile Apps

Meanwhile, as indicated on Figure 3, they view external applications as a key means to help them grow revenue, attract and retain customers, and keep up with the competition.

Figure 3: Benefits SMBs Associate With External (Customer, Partner, Supplier) Mobile Apps

Gearing Up for Mobile Growth

The top benefits that SMBs associate with external mobile apps and mobile-friendly web sites align much more closely to their key business challenges–growing revenues, attracting and retaining customers and increasing profitability.

Not surprisingly, this also means that we tend to see somewhat higher demand for the external, customer-facing mobile apps. Some of the areas with the strongest plans to deploy in the next twelve months are applications for external users to: check delivery status of my orders (34%); shop/buy products (31%); and pay for products, goods, or services (29%).

However, SMBs clearly perceive significant business benefits from both internal and external mobile applications–and survey results also reveal that SMBs have healthy plans to increase their use and spending for both internal and external mobile apps. As mobile applications proliferate, vendors can best capitalize on this growth with articulate marketing and messaging that helps SMB customers assess which solutions will best meet their needs.

YouDazzle: Where Cloud Collaboration Meets Network Marketing

In SMB Group studies, small business decision-makers consistently put colleagues, friends and family at or near the top of the list as key sources for advice when it comes to selecting technology solutions for their businesses (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Who SMBs Turn to for Guidance About Technology Solutions

So when start-up YouDazzle CEO and co-founder Cary Cole told me that YouDazzle will sell its newly launched cloud-based collaboration, storage and online meeting platform via a network marketing distribution strategy, he got my attention. Although companies from Avon to Tupperware have successfully deployed this model, YouDazzle is, as far as I know, the first applications vendor to take this approach.

What YouDazzle Offers

YouDazzle offers small businesses with cloud-based collaboration software that integrates online file sharing, web meetings and screen sharing into a unified service.   As with other small business cloud collaboration offerings, the goal is to make it easy for people to share, access and store any type of file via any type of device. Some of the interesting differentiators include:

  • Integration with Dropbox to provide customers with branded data rooms and other extras. You can sync desktop files to YouDazzle with Dropbox  and vice versa; instantly share Dropbox files with up to 100 people at once via YouDazzle web meetings; and add comments to  files.
  • Built-in analytics to monitor trends and decision-making processes and provide feedback on deals and projects. You can see who has visited your data rooms, uploaded and downloaded files, provided comments, etc., and  customize how you’re notified about user activity.

Pricing includes three options, all of which include live file sharing, screen sharing, unlimited rooms and guests, activity analytics, Dropbox integration and custom branding. Plans start with the entry-level Pro Plan, at $19.99/month, which includes 1 host and 20 GB of storage, and work up from there. YouDazzle offers a 14-day free trial and discounts on yearly subscriptions.

Taking Network Marketing to the Cloud 

Like companies such as Avon, Silpada, PamperedChef and others, YouDazzle intends to deploy a network marketing strategy to sell its products. Here’s how network marketing works for YouDazzle:

  • A $49 sign-up fee gets you in the door to sell YouDazzle. Once you’re signed up, YouDazzle provides you with a business launch pack, which gives you a co-branded replicated web site and storefront (which interfaces with the YouDazzle web site). YouDazzle also provides training via local in person events, webinars, and materials that educate marketers on the network marketing compensation model.
  • When you start selling YouDazzle, you earn a 20% margin on your first 3 sales. After that, you make 35% on subsequent sales–and you get a retroactive bump to 35% on the initial 3 sales that you made. Then the network component comes in, where you can make money on top of the network of other YouDazzle marketers that you recruit when they sell.

Cole believes that cloud solutions for small businesses are a good fit for the model, for several reasons.

  • The cloud has eliminated the need for marketers to install any hardware or software.
  • Unlike network marketing for physical goods, marketers don’t need to invest in inventory (such as the suitcase full of Avon cosmetics).
  • Small business owners look to colleagues, friends and family for guidance on technology solutions (as our research also indicates).
  • Social media is overtaking traditional advertising and marketing.

Will it Work?

There are many competing collaboration solutions on the market for small business–from Citrix’s “GoTo” solutions to Google Apps. And some of these services are free. But YouDazzle believes it has a good blend of collaboration tools, and that custom branding, an easy to use interface, and strong entry point to current Dropbox users will help it develop a foothold in the market.

Of course, the most intriguing bet that YouDazzle is placing is in its marketing and sales model. Cole thinks the network marketing will appeal to marketers that want to capitalize on the cloud opportunity. As important, he believes that their local, personal touch with prospective customers will differentiate YouDazzle from the typical self-service trial approach that is most prevalent in the small business cloud solutions market (although other approaches are emerging — see Going Beyond Free Self-Service Trials: Raising the Bar in Cloud Computing). The rationale is that a little bit of TLC will help prospects see how to use the tool more productively, boost conversion rates and nurture retention.

In my view, this will be interesting to watch. Although network marketing has worked well in the consumer space for products such as personal care products and jewelry, will it work to sell business solutions to small companies? Sure, small businesses turn to friends and colleagues for guidance, but do they actually want to buy from them?

Another challenge is that people seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum in their perception of network marketing. Although some people love it, for others network marketing has negative connotations–ala “pyramid marketing.” These people get one whiff of network marketer coming and cross the street–they just can’t face another basket party or make-up demonstration from someone that they may feel some obligation to buy from.

That said, I think a lot of YouDazzle’s success–or failure–rests on how well it can train its marketers. YouDazzle will not only need to teach them how to sell and implement the solution, but also how to make it most relevant to the different requirements of each small business. It will also need to structure things to ensure that marketers strike the right balance between recruiting new marketers, signing on new customers and supporting existing customers. Finally, it will need to help marketers avoid being pinned with the negative network marketing stereotype, by helping them understand things such as when a situation is appropriate for selling and when its not.

Let me know what you think!

Intuit: From Products to Services, Applications to Platform

Last week I had the opportunity to attend Intuit’s Innovation Gallery Walk in NYC. Intuit uses the Gallery Walk to showcase new solutions that it is bringing to market as well as ones that are still in R&D.

This year’s Gallery Walk featured simulated storefronts and back offices to help demonstrate how Intuit’s solutions work for consumers and small businesses in the “real world.” It also provided some great insight into Intuit’s strategic direction in the areas of services and partner programs.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit every demo at this interesting event! But here are my thoughts on a couple of things I was able to see and learn about–and how they are underscore Intuit’s ongoing transformation from a products to a services company, and from an application vendor to a platform provider.

From Products to Services

My first stop was to see Intuit’s new 401k Plan and Intuit Health Debit Cards. These two services have been in soft-launch mode for the past year or so. Each zeros in on a big pain point for small businesses with 2 to 10 employees–how do I provide benefits for my workers?

The average U.S. worker has less than $10,000 in savings–putting both individuals and the U.S. economy in potentially dire straits. Although small businesses may want to offer 401k plans for their workers, many simply don’t have the time, money or resources to research, set up and administer a 401K for their employees. Intuit’s 401k plan is priced at $75 a month (which is tax-deductible) for businesses and $3 per quarter for employees. The plan gives small businesses a simple, affordable way to offer 401ks to employees. It integrates with Intuit’s Online Payroll solution–and will integrate with QuickBooks and QuickBooks Online soon. I was told that tens of thousands of small businesses have already signed up for this plan.

Given ever-rising healthcare and health insurance costs and all the politics surrounding these issues, Intuit’s Health Debit Card is arguably tackling an even more daunting challenge. Many small businesses simply can’t afford to provide their employees with traditional health insurance plans. Using this program gives, small business employers can set aside pretax dollars in Health Reimbursement Account accounts for their employees. Employees can draw on these funds with a debit card to cover medical costs–doctor visits, prescriptions, glasses, etc. About 1,000 small businesses are currently using this service.

These programs can provide small businesses with options to do more for their employees, helping them to attract and retain the kinds of employees they’ll need to help their businesses grow.

In addition to a broader market launch, more integration to other Intuit solutions, new functionality and options, Intuit is also examining how it might take on a bigger change-agent role in these areas. For instance, the vendor is testing an employee-funded Health Savings Account (HSA) offering, and starting to explore options to offer pooled health insurance small businesses.

These are just two of the areas that highlight how Intuit is transforming into a services vendor in the small business market.

From Applications to Platform

The other area in which I gained a lot of insight into is the ongoing growth of Intuit’s App Center and Intuit Partner platform. I’ve been following this since it launched, and blogged about it in these earlier posts (Intuit Partner Platform: Changing the Rules of Cloud Platforms with Federated Applications and Intuit and Salesforce Partner Up: Who’s the Big Winner?).

Basically, Intuit App Center and Partner Platform help small businesses extend the power of QuickBooks through third-party solutions. At the event, Intuit took the wraps off Intuit Anywhere, which gives developers the ability to reach millions of QuickBooks customers and build data integration directly into their mobile and Web apps. This gives developers the ability to connect their users directly to QuickBooks via a button on their page as easily as connecting to Facebook.

Over the last couple of years, Intuit’s App Center has really taken shape. Over 250 applications are now in the App Center, from big name providers such as and eBay to a wide range of smaller vendors, including some that might be categorized as Intuit competitors, such as FreshBooks. Through the Intuit Partner Platform, developers get a sales channel, platform services, and a direct route to Intuit’s large installed base.

Data is at the heart of this ecosystem. This means that developer partners not only get access to the two million registered App Center users– they also get a more seamless way to get discovered by potential users. For instance, QuickBooks customers that process a certain number of invoices each month are automatically introduced to partner’s billing app. This type of in-context discovery coupled is helping Intuit’s partners convert trials into purchases at a considerably higher rate than standalone free trials.

By connecting more partners and customers into this platform and to each other, Intuit reaps the benefits of the network effect.

Quick Take

As Intuit’s CEO Brad Smith noted in his remarks at the event, Intuit’s mission is to “improve the financial lives of people.” As Smith also remarked, Intuit’s approach to solving for this is to “Get managers out of the way and let people work their magic.”

Judging from the Innovation Gallery Walk, Intuit’s 8,000 employees are working their magic to help Intuit execute on its mission–transforming from a products to a services company, and from an application vendor to a platform provider in the process.