The Great Facilitation ballgame of Multi-sided Business Platforms

Let me start with a simple question. What is common among these, as of 2006 (and, for that matter, even as of today)?

– Visa
– Sony Playstation
– Orbitz
– NASDAQ
– Microsoft Windows

All of these are known examples of facilitation based multi-sided business models. These are not just products or businesses; these are platforms, in the true sense of the word. These platforms have, some even in industrial and so called traditional businesses, created value by “facilitating interactions & transactions” among various groups involved. They depend on network effect to kick in, and then thrive big time.

The concept of the two-sided markets is not new. In fact, the newspapers might have been among the first to exploit it, through low-priced subscription subsidized by the sponsors paying for advertisements.

Networking Events and conferences have been a great example of a non-tech two-sided platform, and they are sold on the same direct benefit as well. The sponsors subsidize the participants’ fees, and hence get presumably higher visibility. Participants get to network; sometimes get direct information or sales leads; and pay for it unless in some cases, fully subsidized by the sponsors.

However, these business models, as represented by the examples above, were still very few & far in between until few years back.

The business world, since, has changed. And, drastically so!

Google and Apple have become the most valuable brands in the world. Amazon, that revolutionized the Books & Publishing market through the e-Commerce strategy, has since transformed itself into a Platform company. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and recently Pinterest have become the household names, beyond the tech world. Travel, Hospitality & Commute have become well-integrated platforms driven businesses – driven through online technologies and ground-level operational integration.

HOW SONY FALTERED, AND HOW APPLE & GOOGLE PROPELLED

Let’s take an example of two companies that seem to be very similar on products stack otherwise. Apple and Sony. Sony actually brought upon the concept of music that you could carry, with its revolutionary Walkman. Apple came in very late, with iPod. Sony has had a premium quality tag in computing machines (with Vaio) for a long time, while Apple’s Mac slugged it out in its own creative/designer/geek space. Sony even had the earliest starts with its Reader as long back as in 2006! They even had a great idea of Reader being the platform, and got the leading publications in Japan to take note that time. Sony, a very relevant company even today in tech world with the quality and huge brand image to boot, (interestingly, it has had at least one product in platforms category in Playstation) has fallen to 31-Year lows. They continued selling products in silos on their own standalone benefits. They are a product company, still a great one, but that doesn’t seem to be enough!

On the other hand, Apple had an iPod – as a standalone “take your music with you device”, around 2001-02. With iTunes, it took the first steps into a platform around 2003. However, it has since transformed into a true platform company, with its formidable all-integrated business strategy that brings together computing, entertainment, and business. iTunes is a comprehensive AppStore, and not just a music store. Apple is a multi-dimensional company at its best – it brings multiple beneficiaries together in this multi-facets products business. iOS developers and Applications users. Musicians, music companies and Music lovers. Local or global businesses and their customers and fans. We’ve even started seeing the serious Enterprises making Apple devices the central to their CoIT (Consumerization of IT) and collaboration strategy. iPod, iPhone, iPad, Mac, iCloud – they sell products but they’re a platform! And, in Feb 2012 Apple became the most valuable company in the world!

Google is an obvious name in the multi-sided platforms strategy. They took forward the newspaper ads model and applied it to search beautifully. And now, with the Enterprise businesses as well as their ever-growing list of vehicles – in GMail, Google Apps, Android, Chrome, Maps, Drive, and so on – have established themselves as an formidable Multi-sided platform. At this time, there doesn’t seem to be a limit on what vehicles Google can choose to drive their platform strategy. Microsoft is now fighting it out on its own turf while Google and Apple make inroads into its huge Enterprise foothold. (This also points to another trend that I’m planning to write about – the blurring of lines between Business & Personal Technologies).

SO WHAT?!

This era clearly belongs to the multi-sided Platforms based business. It’s important, however, to not confuse this with the traditional definition of platforms in technology space. The true business platform is the one that is driven by facilitation and network effect, and which actually has multi-sided business model in the sense of heterogeneous set of beneficiaries that are not directly connected to each other. It is also important to note that this disruption has been caused not only by technological evolution, but also the interlinked effect of the other disruptive patterns such as “Long Tail” and “Free”, both terms made popular by the very respectable Chris Anderson. I will touch upon these in the next couple of posts as noted in my cover post on Game-Changer trends.

If you’re in a business – whether technology or not, whether e-commerce or not, whether products or services – don’t ignore this trend. Think about how you can leverage on this model, or be part of this ever-growing multi-cog machine that benefits all its gears. But, if you really think details, it’s not just a marketing gimmick, and it’s not just a tweak in the product. It should become the foundation of how business of your product is conceived, strategized and operationalized.

PS: This post originally appeared on my blog, but I thought it’s worthwhile to post it here. Very relevant, hope you find it too!

Managing business is about having the right data at your fingertips

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20.  The advantage of hindsight is that all the data that affects a decision has been revealed and is known.  Unfortunately, real life never works that way.  As an entrepreneur, you have to operate on a combination of one part data, one part intelligent guesses, and, if we are really frank about it, one part luck.

Managing a business, when broken down into its simplest form, is about making a series of decisions. And how those decisions are made can make all the difference.  Most entrepreneurs have a lot of faith in their gut or instincts. And why not? The decision to become an entrepreneur itself is one that is based on passion, the belief that you have a winning product or service idea, and the unquenchable desire to do something on your own. Just look at the words – passion, belief, desire. Not really things you can measure and make data points about. But, combine or guide your gut feeling with the right data at the right time, and it could lead to better business decisions.

The trick, of course, is to have access to the right data at the right time.

The data that you need to make decisions while managing your business, in many cases, is about your business itself.  It is about how much you spend, how much is due to you, what is your inventory situation – seemingly simple things. But if you are able to have this information at your fingertips, accessible whenever you want it, it makes your decisions not just faster, but more sound as well.

The first step to having the right data is to collect it.  Do you have systems and processes that ensure that every important piece of information is captured? It could be your CRM, or your financial management software.  Unless the data is captured and categorized, it cannot be utilized to distil useful information. Because raw data is just that, raw; and what you need is the analysis to make an informed decision.

When you are managing a business, you have to have your eye on the ball at all times. And that means having all your data accessible in a form that makes it easy for you to interpret and make decisions.  For example, if you are able to track overdue payments as soon they become overdue, or are able to see the payment pattern of a specific customer with a bad payment record in just a few clicks, it makes it easier to track and take remedial measures.  Having anywhere, anytime access to the right data empowers you with knowledge, and helps you monitor and manage your business with complete and up-to-the-minute information. The closest you can get to the 20/20 vision that hindsight promises.

Which brings me back to my starting point. I have found that the more relevant data I have, the more intelligent my guesses are. And the more confidence I have in going with my gut feeling.

The little Spark with great promise – Inaugural #PNMeetup on Pricing for Enterprise Sales

When a bunch (around 45-50, I didn’t keep the count) of Product enthusiasts – with experience accumulating into decades – gather at a single place to share their learning on specific topic in a compact & well-moderated session of 2 hours, it’s worth every bit. That’s how I felt coming out of the inaugural session of #PNMeetup – Pricing for Enterprise Sales: Specific & Important Topic, Quality Participation, Richness of Experiences, and Quality Conversations.

The location, Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi, carries a constant buzz and energy. Very apt for a meet-up like this. Kunzum Travel Café (Thanks for being a great host for the event!), should be happy because participants used up every nook & corner of the place. Many of us had to settle down on the carpet with no more sitting or standing space left! Of course, the snacks & coffee was great too. But, that’s not what everyone coming in was specifically looking for (especially since the last 500 yards got harder to make with the traffic and parking situation ;-)).

We were looking for some great (practical, experience based, relevant) conversations and takeaways on Pricing. And, there was plenty of it, coming from speakers as well as from the participants. As much as is possible in 2 hours of time, that is, also thanks to some great moderating & counter-questioning by Arvind Jha during speaker sessions, and Rajat Garg & Vivek Agarwal in the un-conference session.

Tushar Bhatia, Founder of Saigun Technologies, set the tone for Enterprise Products Pricing by sharing his experiences on Pricing Strategies and Sales tactics. Tushar emphasized that Pricing is not a linear decision, but a complex process and subject to assessment from multiple parameters. He also differentiated the Pricing Strategy from Sales Process. Pricing, as per him (in the context set of Business Planning, Scalability, Consistency, Standardization, and a reflection of the Value Proposition) is a guide at broader level, while on sales tactics front, one should be willing to consider the customer & geographic circumstances as well. The decision matrix for Pricing decisions typically is pretty complex, and a product undergoes multiple iterations of pricing models

Pricing for Enterprise Sales
Pricing for Enterprise Sales – Tushar

before arriving at the sweet spot. However, various types of customers may need to be assessed in their own contexts when deciding on a deal pricing, especially in the traditional Enterprise Sales scenario.

Tushar also emphasized that the Enterprise Licensing deals should consider not only the product pricing, but also the other costs (such as, hardware) and provisions (such as, for Product Support). The considerations on TCO are critical, because the customers assess the products, not only functionally, but also very critically from an operational viability perspective in longer term. Tushar also laid out few questions that need to be answered while deciding the pricing model. The detailed presentation from Tushar on “Pricing for Enterprise Sales” can be found here.

The discussion, then, veered towards the product pricing strategies in areas such as Telcos, serving also as a cue for Tarun Anand (CTO & Co-founder at Semusi) to pitch in and provide his perspective. He shared his experiences in working with the big Telcos on working out product strategies and pricing models. They tried out various pricing models, in partnership with Telcos especially, and had mixed results over time before arriving at something that seemed to work. However, pricing remains a volatile when dealing with the larger partners and in more complex ecosystems, such as Telcos.

In Tarun’s experience, one needs to ascertain that the partners in the ecosystem are ready to take your product to the market if that is the expectation. It is also important to ensure that the pricing terms & conditions are clear, and you are able to hold the customers as well as partners accountable in the operational limits as much as you can. After all, you want to focus on running the business and do not want complications of financial & legal nature. In the context of Pricing and products strategy, in areas such as VAS, as per Tarun, one needs to be very careful. “VAS is dead” in his words! 🙂

Tarun also emphasized “there are takers for product at ANY price point”. One need to clearly understand whom one wants to target, and also understand that it’s not only a question of moving the pricing point up & down in inverse proportionality with the volume of customer base. There are various triggers for the pricing, one of which is the “premium value perception”, and also the fact that once you move into a market with a particular price point, increasing it later on is almost impossible without hurting your customer base and overall strategy.

App Pricing Tactics
App Pricing Tactics – Prashant

The heat in the Mobile Apps makes the App Pricing a very sought after topic, and that’s where Prashant Singh (Co-founder at Signals) came in and provided a good framework for the high level App pricing approach. There are two clear distinct possibilities – Free & Paid. Complete Free, as per Prashant, directly leads to an Ad based model for revenue that shouldn’t be a preferred model as such for most app developers. In fact the question is not whether to go Free or Paid. Question is when is the user ready for monetization. “You hit when the iron is hot, as simple as that”, Prashant says.

Prashant provided a high level framework to judge which approach should be adopted by the App Developers, based on the two parameters: “App Life Span” and “Time to Realization of Value”. Based on a combination of the two, one can decide on the high level strategy (Portfolio/Platform/Utility/Device Embedding/Brand Apps…) and Pricing model (Advertisement, Paid, Transaction based, Freemium, Development level, and so on). Check out this presentation – App Pricing Tactics for more details.

One key point that drew interest was around the Price Point for App at the launch time. Contrary to the normal belief, Prashant says, one needs to launch the app at a price point that is higher than the Median price point for the App store. That provides the App Store an incentive to showcase the App, and it is important since App Stores control the downloads more than the “content” or “quality”, at least until critical mass. Growth Curve of the app can be maintained around Median and depending on the value prop of the App, the baseline pricing can be used at sustenance phase. Another strong point of view from Prashant came around the Advertisement model, which as per him is the last to be considered. And if Ad model is considered, his advice is to “not” let the control away – “Always have your server in loop”.

While all the content and discussion, and few laughs in between, served well to our appetites, snacks were served amidst a quick “Unconference” session moderated by Rajat and Vivek. We discussed and debated on some great points. I’m finding it harder to capture every bit here and I don’t want to be partial to only what I remember right now! I hope that if you attended and are reading this, you would be able to add your takeaways in comments section! 🙂

Overall, I had a great time. The highlight of the session, for me at least, was the richness of experience and passion for products. And I met some really cool folks! Many of us hung out until later in the night and continued the conversations, which is a great sign. A small impetus can go a long way, and I’m very excited that Avinash has triggered this spark that all of us as a community have to fuel into a passionate ecosystem around products. Great initiative, ProductNation! Looking forward to the next edition on Jan 19th 2013!

PS 1: And, there was a cake-cutting for Avinash on his Birthday! Great gesture!

PS 2: Some Tweets from the session!

How far should you go with Professional Services in your product business?

Turning on a giant switch

For any products company, product support is a given, and part of the products business fabric. However, almost all Enterprise Products Companies end-up offering the professional services beyond basic product support. These services could range from simplistic implementation support, to integration, to solutions-building, to architectural consulting, to IT advisory support. The decision to perform professional services could be driven by customer-demand, or by the intrinsic need of the product being sold, or even driven by the business strategy itself to generate peripheral revenue.

It’s important to understand where the boundaries lie, and what goal does a certain type of professional services serve. The decision to commit to a particular type of professional services needs to be driven by a conscious thought process. This is important because the time & resources required to build various skills & operating models for serving the various flavors, change dramatically from one to the other.

Professional Services in Products Business

1. Product Support

This is the core to the products model and serves as just that – support to the main products revenue, and to ensure customer satisfaction. While the core strategy for any product should be to make it so good that it requires minimal support, there’s always a need for support – offline and real-time for the customers.

2. Implementation Services

An ideal product is ready-to-use off-the-shelf, however, in case of Enterprise products the need to configure & customize could wary. Most times, customers demand for an implementation service packaged in the license deal initially, in order to ensure success. Most times, products businesses have to employ this mechanism also to close sales cycle and to ensure a consistent source of post-sale revenue from such services, and also indirectly to ensure expansion of the product usage through consistent personnel presence on the customer premises.

3. Integration Services

This is where it starts going slightly further away from the core skills that the organization may possess organically. Integration with the existing IT systems and other products at the customer premises would require the skills & management practices beyond the core areas of the organization. An extra source of revenue is one of the temptations, but there are also scenarios where integration of the product is critical to the success of the product, making such services mandatory. This is especially true if the product interfaces are not built with open-standards, and require the integrators to know the details of how the product is built internally. The correct approach would be to build the product interfaces in a way that doesn’t force the business into such compromise to induct professional services for integration. There’s an indirect impact of diversion of core product resources to such integration projects unless such professional services are pursued by design, and resources built accordingly.

4. Solutions & Consulting Services

This is where the game gets strategic, and resources expensive. And the reasons to do this are not any more intrinsically important, but strategically targeted to higher value to the customers and hence, access to the larger pie of the wallet. However, this is easier said than done. Unless there’s enough scale & case in the existing business to allow the focus on such services, strategic, and by design, a business is better off focusing on building the core products business stronger by investing resources there. This makes sense for the products, which are more like Platforms that provide larger leverage than in a Point-solution product.

5. Advisory Services

This is important for the products that are targeted for larger ticket sizes and are built for Enterprise-wide deployments. The IT strategy alignment as well as the strategic positioning of the product becomes important, and it also requires much larger IT leadership level involvement. For Enterprise Platforms, or even for departmental level strategic investments, this approach to professional services can bear fruits. However, building it into a business line requires the core product business to be strong, ready for the leap.

So what?

While the Businesses can look at starting off with the lower scale of Professional Services and build up over time, the decision is very strategic and long term. Professional Services, while offering additional top-line, could actually be a resource-intensice and money-draining proposition if not built properly. The mindset that governs the professional services line of business is drastically different from the product side of business. The operational efficiency is paramount, & profitability can very quickly take a hit. Even more importantly, professional services are more intensely people-driven and the skill sets required to build and sustain this business over long term are not trivial. Look, think, and think hard, before you leap.

PS: There are other considerations on Professional Services that directly or indirectly impact the core product business. I will cover in those in the next post. Until then, hope this helps! 🙂

Untested ideas to increase the effectiveness of your B2B newsletter

What does a typical B2B newsletter look like? An announcement from the company talking about the latest feature. A featured blog post with a link to read more and a list of other “must-read” blog posts. New success stories, white papers and how-to videos. And upcoming events, webinars and job openings in some cases. It pretty much sums up everything the company wants the recipient to know. But what makes the recipient take more than a 3-sec glimpse at the newsletter when he is sifting through tens, if not hundreds, of emails? Wouldn’t he rather hit your website at a time convenient to him and learn all of it from there? What can you do to increase the open rate and time spent with your newsletter? Here are two untested ideas, more simply just ideas, to increase the overall effectiveness of your email newsletter.

How about writing an article exclusively for the newsletter as its main story? The article doesn’t go up on your blog or get tucked away in the resources section after the newsletter goes out, not even after a fortnight. It is for the newsletter and stays just there. If the reader misses it, he misses it. Tell people about the exclusivity when they are signing up for the newsletter. Also, make sure this article teaches the recipient at least 23 new ways of doing his job better. So if you are selling an email marketing solution (how meta I know) give him tips on how to break through the inbox clutter, or how QR codes can be used to get super busy people to sign up for the newsletter. In addition to increasing the open rate of your newsletter, the exclusive content also primes the space for a big bang when you announce a new product.

Now what about the case where your newsletter hits the inbox at a time when the recipient doesn’t want anything to do with email marketing? How can you get him to at least glance through the newsletter and come back to it later if he finds something of interest? How about having a cartoon strip that takes a dig at the jargons used in the email marketing space? Or a meme bringing forth epic email marketing fails? Maybe an email marketing version of Clients from Hell? Anything that gives the reader a quick chuckle yet is relevant to your industry. And if you are funny enough, he might pass around the newsletter to colleagues and friends just for the funnies, who knows?

Over to you. Do you think these ideas will work for you? What else have you tried to increase the effectiveness of your newsletter?

Original Post can be accessed at PokeandBite.com