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Techaisle Blog

Insightful research, flexible data, and deep analysis by a global SMB IT Market Research and Industry Analyst organization dedicated to tracking the Future of SMBs and Channels.

Dell Technologies’ Small Business Advisors Program is deeply devoted to small business success

Small businesses are increasingly dependent on information technology. 78% of small (1-99 employees) businesses consider technology critical to their success. These small businesses are dealing with an ever-expanding portfolio of increasingly complex applications and platform technologies. Techaisle's small business research data shows that 73% prefer to purchase from a supplier who provides business issues focused technology advisory guidance and 64% want an IT supplier vested in customer success. In an IT environment that is already very complex and likely to become more so, trusted advisors are essential to small businesses. Launched in May 2016, Dell Technologies' Small business Advisor program has been consistently simplifying the technology complexity and removing the friction from purchase decision inertia.

There is a perception that Dell advisors only sell PCs. Reality is quite different than perception. The advisors advise and sell end-to-end solutions. For complex needs, such as digital transformation, Dell has a clear second-level escalation path. The front-line advisors can raise the small business needs to large order specialists or technical resources to work on complex solutions. These specialists have the depth to look over the needs and the entire customer account from an end-to-end perspective, provide infrastructure guidance, including VMware products, and configure solutions based on the customer's requirements.

The advisors are not sales agents. Instead, they have the expertise to determine where a small business is in its technology journey and thereby provide contextual guidance. Their goal is to advise customers on what they need and what they could get, what needs to get fixed, how to fix it, and how to get the right next solution. It is a much more holistic way to drive the customer experience. For example, over the last year, a vast majority of advisor conversations were around the following topics:

  • Migration to a remote workforce – What is needed to support a work-from-home environment and individuals looking to maximize their home office setup?
  • General solution guidance – If using software applications such as QuickBooks, Office, or CAD, what system would work best?
  • The move from cloud to on-prem or hybrid environment – What are the benefits of data management, application performance, cost, and security?
  • Supporting the rapid expansion of specific industries, as a direct response to the pandemic. For example, private healthcare, transportation, and niche service companies in the market.
  • Private schools and other entities enabling remote learning/training.
  • Upgrading outdated technology – End-of-life software applications, operating systems, expiring warranties, and low-performing/over-tasked hardware.
  • Ensuring proper security in a rapidly changing IT landscape.

None of the above are simple technology adoption questions. They are also not point-and-click PC purchases. Techaisle data indicates that there is an interesting opportunity to connect high-value guidance with click-to-buy type options. However, this kind of offering needs a more extensive consultative capability in many cases. For example, nearly three-quarters of small business buyers would like their IT suppliers to provide technical advice directly connected to business issues. In addition, almost two-thirds want an IT advisor who is "invested in customer success." Dell has a very rigorous model of getting to know the customer. Customer conversations revolve around what solution the advisors are trying to help with and what problems they are trying to solve through technology.

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SMBs innovating at the Edge to address business challenges

From the perspective of the technology world, 2021 and several years following will witness the benefits of the interconnection of all types of resources: platforms/environments, information, devices, and applications. With the connective fabric rapidly becoming ubiquitous, SMBs of all types and sizes will move beyond a focus on network access and concentrate instead on using edge technologies to drive progress across business processes and enable innovation.

Connectedness is an intrinsic component of the edge. It applies in two directions: client devices ranging from PCs to smartphones to sensors connect to more gateways and other powerful edge systems, which process time-critical responses and then communicate data safely back to clouds at the core of the infrastructure fabric.

Consider these data points from Techaisle's latest SMB technology adoption research study covering 2410 SMBs:

  • 30% of SMBs have a "very innovative" mindset and are investing in edge technologies that drive innovation; 51% are in the "somewhat innovative" segment with a focus on transitioning to being very innovative and are evaluating edge solutions
  • 38% of SMBs are investing in digital transformation to initiate innovation in products, services, and business processes
  • 9.9 is the number of technology categories that very innovative SMBs use, which is 1.8X non-innovative SMBs. Cloud, security, virtualization, mobility, AI, analytics, IoT, SD-WAN, AR/VR, HCI are the leading technology areas where very innovative SMBs are increasing investment and deploying edge solutions

Innovation at the Edge

Cloud is not only the IT business infrastructure; it is also the essential business infrastructure for SMBs. While the cloud replaces conventional data centers at the core of the network, an entirely new technology tier – "edge" – is emerging as a complementary IT infrastructure source. Edge supports many innovative technologies that promise to extend technology's use and impact into entirely new domains.

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Zoho business analytics platform is knocking on the doors of more established players

Techaisle SMB and Midmarket AI and Analytics adoption trend research shows tremendous analytics scope to deliver more forward-looking predictive or prescriptive perspectives. In addition, there is a need to support the development of evidence-based corporate cultures that value positions and decisions based on data. Still, there are a mix of technology, organizational and cultural issues that businesses need to address along the journey to this future point.

Zoho is on a quest to enable the future point. One of Zoho's primary goals has been to offer end-to-end business applications that allow businesses of all sizes to automate business workflows. But it is not enough to enable companies to automate the workflows or collect data. It is also vital to have a platform, which gives businesses the capability to understand the data, analyze it and drive insights. If analytics is the key to connecting data to executive objectives, the cloud is the platform on which analytics and data – and digitalization and many other impactful solutions – will reside. With 13,000 paying cloud customers, separate from 50,000 who are using Zoho bundles (Zoho one – a collection of 45 apps), the Zoho analytics platform is knocking on the doors of established players.

Zoho has built its analytics platform vision on four pillars providing an end-to-end solution:

1. Self-service data preparation and management:

Zoho DataPrep, an AI and machine-learning driven self-service application, enables users to retrieve data from a wide range of sources, smartly cleanse, transform, enrich and prepare the data for practical analysis. It includes auto modeling and ML-based enrichment. Because of its popularity and ease of use, Zoho also offers its DataPrep tool as a stand-alone service.

2. Visualization and analysis leading to data stories:

An integrated enterprise portal builder (Zoho Sites) and presentation software (Zoho Show) enables business users to analyze data through self-service interfaces like drag and drop interface or natural language processing as well as other automated analysis for developing insights.

3. Augmented analytics for insights and actions:

Augmented analytics component enables business users to get both prescriptive and predictive insights from data. What-if analysis and forecasting models are a core component of augmented analytics.

4. Marketplace apps:

Developers and partners can develop analytical apps and publish them on Zoho's marketplace. Applications such as Jira, ServiceNow, and Shopify have seen the highest uptake within Zoho Analytics customers.

AI and ML seamlessly embed into all the components of the analytics platform. A crucial part of analytics initiatives in any business is preparing the data for insights. Marc Fishman, Director of Sales and Marketing, Call Center Sales Pro, could not contain his excitement when speaking with Techaisle about Zoho's DataPrep tool. He said, "the recent release of DataPrep honestly blew us away, causing us to explore that potential sharing of call center data. Depending largely on the toolset available to us after successful import, we have many options to consider — both internally and potentially externally for our customer base. It's beyond exciting!"

Many lenses can assess the importance of analytics and AI in the SMB and midmarket segments. One that illustrates the pace of these segments is the often-cited 'hype cycle,' which begins with a "technology trigger," soars to a "peak of inflated expectations," crashes down to the "trough of disillusionment," and then rises through a "slope of enlightenment" to a "plateau of productivity." Analytics and AI provide excellent examples of how this process plays out in the IT-centric world. As a concept, AI has lived at the peak of inflated expectations for many years, borne aloft by an amorphous vision of systems that will automatically know what's needed next. This is because, based on some elixir that combines a large quantity of data with fuzzy algorithms, supported by computational capacity delivered by Moore's Law, the rising quantum, or some combination of future breakthroughs. Meanwhile, analytics has followed a more gradual path, showing both real current benefit and the promise of additional value in the future – at which point, naturally, it will become a sidekick to AI.

Unfortunately, this is not an entirely apt description of the evolution of analytics and AI in the real world, especially in the midmarket segment. Despite bold claims to the contrary, businesses have primarily deployed analytics applications to consolidate data from diverse sources into an intelligible whole. Analytics as a discipline has been mainly concerned with using that data to create dashboards that illustrate current status and immediate or potential problem points. That is, as a descriptive or diagnostic tool. Techaisle research shows that 53% of US midmarket firms use analytics to provide a diagnostic view of the business, and 39% use analytics to recommend actions, in other words, prescriptive.

Zoho's unified business analytics platform may well change the adoption from diagnostic to prescriptive. Zoho's simple, cost-effective BI tool enables collaborative analytics and quickly provides 360-degree views of customers or the entire organization.

So what do SMBs and midmarket firms require of an analytics solution, and does Zoho meet those needs? Techaisle's survey respondents provided a definitive perspective that surprisingly reinforces the pillars of Zoho's analytics vision. "Solutions that enable self-service for non-technical users" is at the top of the requirements list for both small and midmarket organizations. It is a wise point of emphasis, given that research has found that utilization rates, satisfaction, and ROI increase if users can access analytics systems without IT support. As a result, Zoho has developed its platform for non-technical users. The following most frequently cited attribute, "platform technologies that integrate analytics and presentation," is ranked second by small businesses and midmarket firms. This focus reflects frustration in trying to integrate different tools to meet parts of the overall analytics requirement. For example, the Zoho Show platform integrates with Zoho analytics to create a slide deck and seamlessly embed reports and dashboards to make an interactive and immersive presentation. The third-ranked component in the midmarket findings, "big data designed and enabled database," reflects an immediate need. Similarly, "well-defined security and privacy implementation" reflects a segment-specific need for supplier assistance in ensuring that security is applied to the system of insight, ensuring that data analysis doesn't lead to data leakage. Of course, we all know that Zoho zealously protects user privacy.

Zoho is hitting on all the requirements of midmarket firms, and businesses are noticing. As Marc Fishman, Director of Sales and Marketing, Call Center Sales Pro, said, "We selected Zoho because of the ease of data sharing and integrated Desk, CRM, and connectivity applications. No other suite compared — both in price and breadth — that offered us so many tools we could immediately use."

Zoho analytics platform is built for non-technical, non-analytic users but has the depth and capabilities for technical staff and data analysts. Its best feature is data preparation, which alone is enough to justify using Zoho analytics platform. The platform delivers rapid time to value.

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We do not sell, customers purchase - Raju Vegesna reflects on 25 years of Zoho

Zoho was founded in 1996, twenty-five years ago, with a mission to deliver easy-to-use and deploy CRM solutions to the SOHO market segment (Small Office, Home Office). Even the Zoho name was a spin from SOHO. In the last 25 years, Zoho has transformed from a fledgling startup to an enterprise serving small, midsized, large, and public sector organizations. In contrast, Salesforce was founded 22 years ago. It is a similar timeframe as Zoho, but each is at different levels – revenue, awareness, customers, and employees. How does Zoho keep itself grounded with such a lopsided competition? Today's business world admires Unicorns, applauds valuations, overlooks SaaS suppliers' profitability. Not that there is anything detrimental about chasing unicorn status with little to show profitability, Zoho founders have been tracking employee empowerment and customer success. In the last 25 years, Zoho has become well-known for its easily deployable, easy to use, full-featured applications. Recently Zoho is being recognized for its top-down driven, empathetic culture.

What is more critical to Zoho, delivering customer success or empowering organizational culture? Each organization goes through several essential points of decision in its journey. What were some of those decision points? Would a different decision have changed the trajectory of Zoho and on a collision course with Salesforce? Did Zoho ever reach a crossroad, break-it, or make-it stage? Many questions had been swirling in my mind, which I decided to address to Raju Vegesna, Chief Strategy Officer, Zoho.

True to the initial mission of empowering employees, Raju has no regrets. Instead, he describes Zoho's achievements as fulfilling. He has great admiration for Salesforce but quips that Zoho does not sell, customers purchase, and he is thrilled to be on the path Zoho has chosen.

Read on, excerpts from my very detailed interview with Raju Vegesna.

Fulfillment is the name for Zoho's 25-year journey

Can you describe Zoho's 25-year journey in one word? What is that word?
It's tough to describe our journey in one word. There is an internal perspective which is fulfillment. If we do not have that, we cannot have confidence in what we are doing and satisfaction with what we are doing. The feeling of fulfillment started early on and has continued. Even on Zoho's website's homepage, we showcase it as a life's work which is only possible if we inner fulfillment.

Customer success vs. organizational culture

What is more critical to Zoho, delivering customer success or empowering organizational culture?
We cannot separate customer success and organizational culture. They are two sides of the same coin. If we do not have organizational empathy and that culture right, then it will show up on the customer side. And if we do not have one side right then, the other side is not going to work. We often say, when you have a customer problem, it means you also have an employee problem. These are interlinked - one is external facing, and the other is internal facing. And if you have that inner empathy to humility, it will show up as a positive impact when servicing a customer. And this is ingrained and built into the organization. It is a simple mandate. If it is an employee's responsibility to keep the customer happy, the employee should have the freedom to think and act, and so it has to be built into the organization's DNA.

Chasing Unicorns

How do you keep yourself grounded?
We do not pay too much attention to valuations. We do not think about it. We have been through multiple bubbles, up and down cycles, so they do not bother as much. Then we also realize that the market, to some extent, is biased towards public companies. How often do you hear about private companies? For example, Tableau versus SAS, which is a private company. Or Walmart versus Aldi. There is an inherent bias in the market. Bias puts private companies at a disadvantage because they don't have the mindshare. Why didn't someone hear about Zoho earlier, partly because private companies do not get enough exposure? They are not talked about it because there's no inherent gain for other people. But then there are also a few things that are on our side that public companies don't. So, what, how do we play the advantages. For example, we don't have a timeline and a time horizon to operate. Now we can plan out a decade in advance. Some projects have been in the last 6-9 years in Zoho that haven't seen the light of the day. And when you have a public company running on a quarter-by-quarter basis, they don't have the advantage to plan it out. We try to focus on the process and what is in our control and do it the right way.

Critical decision points

What were critical decision points? Do you think those decisions changed the trajectory of Zoho? What would have happened if you did not make those decisions?
I'd say some early lessons helped a lot. Initially, our primary customers were optical companies. When the telecom bubble burst. We had about 305 customers, of which 300 or 301 of them died. Over a year or two, imagine that when 99% of your customers vanish, you might as well. We had zero debt, and we had some savings. And we had very hungry engineers. We took all the savings and invested in the engineers, and pivoted. Even from the beginning, we always believed in zero debt, which is a crucial reason for survival. Another lesson we learned was that diversification becomes vital for the product. Now we are fully diversified - product portfolio, regions, countries. We don't have a customer that is contributing to more than 1% of our revenue. The exciting thing is that not all the products we created back then exist today, but most of the employees who made the products still exist and are just creating new products. One hundred people have been with the company for at least 20 years, and they are just creating new things.

Deciding product roadmap

How did you decide to develop which apps and in which order?
It's one of the extremely simplest ways to decide. What are the apps that we do not use to run our business? What are the apps that we need to run our own business? And, and if there is a missing piece, we build it. So we believe that if we run our entire business on our own products and benefit from it, other companies will have the same benefits. We have 50 apps now, but I look at the road ahead and say we still have a long way to go. More importantly, can we make the boundaries between these applications disappear and appear as a single application? Why should users pick and choose the apps they want? Why can't everything contextually tie together? Why are there walls? A business may not have segregation between a front office or a back office. Why should there be a separation in software, support, sales system, marketing system, and several vendors that serve the needs? As simple as that. And that segregation has to, and separation has to go away. And that is one of the walls. So, it's a journey, but our tools and the missing pieces define our roadmap.

Surviving and thriving

Did you ever reach a crossroad, break-it, or make-it stage?
Survival instinct comes immediately after the break or make moment. I vividly remember when we pivoted, we created a product to address the IP market. And we demonstrated the product at a Vegas show. We were so tense because our future was dependent on that product. As we kept on demoing the product, more and more people started liking it. And that is when we said; now we have a future. Survival was a priority. And then, later, we started focusing on expansion and thriving.

Mentors and learnings

Who do you turn to for learning and mentoring?
We have a tightly-knit team. The management team has been sitting next to each other for a couple of decades. We go through the journey together. We also learn a lot from external companies. We study companies. How did all the private companies become one of the top leaders, for example, Aldi? Or the makers of M&Ms, which have been around for 100 years. Or how has Marvin Window been successful for the last 115 years? Or take a company like Bata. If you grew up in India, it is ingrained in you but is not an Indian company. It is a company out of the Czech Republic.

Salesforce admiration – purchasing vs. selling, small and enterprise customers

Salesforce started with a focus on small businesses but pivoted to enterprise customers. Now it is re-engaging with SMBs. Did you ever want to become a Salesforce?
There is one area that I admire in Salesforce. It educated the market about SaS. I have respect for the Salesforce platform on the technology front because they lead the way. But on the sales and distribution model, we decided to take a different approach. We are primarily an engineering-centric company, so and won't be a sales and marketing-centric company—money matters. We instead re-invest the money in our engineers than on sales and marketing. We like the bottom-up approach, where we started selling to small businesses. We named Zoho itself after Soho, small office, home office market. Slowly, we started serving larger companies. It is the customers pulling us into their organizations and not Zoho selling to those organizations. It's a subtle but essential difference. In other words, in a lot of cases, our products are chased, not sold. And that changes the dynamics. We see lately an increase in mid to large size customers adopting Zoho. If you look at our sister division ManageEngine the target market is mid-sized to large enterprises, and 60% of fortune 500 companies are our customers.

Respect for competition

Do we ever want to become a Salesforce or SAP? We are not sales-focused. We have a good number of salespeople, but it is a tiny percentage of the total workforce. We will continue to be an R&D company. We understand that there is competition, and we respect them. But then we respect our customers a lot more. We will build products, focus on R&D, and have these local, transnational teams, which will be on the ground, looking at customers developing solutions to meet their needs. Our business model is relatively simple, mainly because we are a private company. We only worry about two sets of people – customers and employees - because the third set, investors, are no longer at play.

Next 25 year changes – transnational localism

What will you change in your evolution for the next 25 years?
There are a few things that won't change - culture, values, people, and the investment in R&D. What will change is what we call transnational localism, which means we will have local teams available in multiple countries, geographically. We are strengthening our local presence in every country we are present in to serve the local customers. And that's an important strategy. We are present in about 20 countries, and we will see our team expanding in each of these countries, and that team will be solving the local customer's problems.

 raju vegesna headshot

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