“The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.”
― Karl Marx
Rarely will I quote Karl Marx, but in this case it works too well to ignore. Reviewing the latest research and surveys of technology adoption in the SMB space in an attempt to see a bigger picture, it struck us that the “decades-long Black Swan event” represented by accumulated IT investment impacting all at once, as mentioned by Nicholas Taleb in his great book: ”The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”, has come to pass. This, in combination with moving manufacturing industries offshore en masse and concentration of distribution away from small business retail into super warehouse outlets - whose singular objective is lower price - contributed to the economic upheaval. After ten more years of disproportionate IT investment in the Financial sector that enabled profits out of thin air by moving markets with super-high-speed trading and creation of financial instruments with no underlying value, we were almost there. Then optimization of every penny that could be squeezed from government programs – stated-income negative amortization ARMs, home equity extraction, wheelchairs, diabetes sensors, catheters, Social Security benefits, etc. - “at no cost to you whatsoever, we will even take care of all the paperwork”. These are all examples of how the economy has been changed forever using Information Technology as the key enabler. But this post is not about the economy, it is about the influence of network technology and the resulting Virtual Solution Stack for Small and Medium Businesses (SMBs) that allows them to leverage the new IT adoption model that has emerged with Cloud Computing.
Things were getting a little expensive…
The Cloud Computing model has firmly emerged out of the ashes of the dotcom implosion and financial crisis of 2008 with the unrelenting objective of increasing production and reducing costs - more for less. Information Technology had become a critically important part of being competitive in a global marketplace, even for SMBs, but unfortunately it had also become increasingly expensive and complicated to implement. By the time we started to realize the benefits of distributed network computing in the mid 2000s, we had created an insatiable appetite for this new technology that could eliminate space and time to truly optimize business. Ironically, by doing so we also created a huge business pain point: How to feed the Beast?
A New Financial Structure Please…
The reality is that no company, large or small, could drink from the fire hose of new technologies flooding the market and bringing the ever-increasing IT investment beyond reach. It begged the question of how to access these benefits through leverage rather than outright purchase. What has emerged - directly or indirectly - is a Cloud Services model where infrastructure such as computing power, disk space, system software and databases can be centralized and distributed much like electrical power was at the beginning of the 20th century, allowing companies to stop buying their own generators; a new model where physical location of data is less important than the security protecting it, and where robust business functionality can be delivered remotely over the network using only a browser and an internet connection, with highly qualified experts at the other end whose costs can be distributed among many clients rather than a single company, and last but not least - the ability to access all of this capability at very low risk, with low cost start-up and pay on a subscription basis rather than from capital budgets. Beginning with web hosting and co-location on the infrastructure side and CRM in the applications arena, SMBs began committing to the model and we have arrived at a stage where the majority of SMBs have adopted the new architecture using IaaS, SaaS, PaaS, and other services based on their needs; many in surveys already use multiple services, averaging over 3.5 per for small business and doubling every year. And there is an extremely high level of satisfaction - much higher than when customers owned and operated all of the solution components.
Being the Trusted Advisor for the Virtual Solution Stack
We have found that in the rush to implement Cloud Services, users especially among Small Businesses, are beginning to rely much more on independent IT Consultants as their new source of advice, threatening to dis-intermediate the traditional channel. SaaS and horizontal application service providers, such as Salesforce.com, Citrix and Central Desktop are putting pressure on at the other end with vendor-direct, centralized inbound marketing that also threatens opportunity for third-party value add in many cases. Although, it must be said that Salesforce.com has built a massive following of channel partners from independent consultants to corporate VARs. And it contributes to the success of Salesforce.com. We have also found that once decisions are made for Cloud Services, the incumbent channel has a big advantage for future business as both advisor and implementer. The critical issue, now more than ever, is to be the trusted advisor early in the SMB’s lifecycle. The following are some suggestions on how to accomplish this as a Cloud Services Vendor or partner.
1) The old Asset-Intensive model of IT Adoption is over; to be successful vendors and their partners will need to deliver and explain cost-effective Infrastructure and Applications, either together or as separate components, depending on offer and customer needs.
2) IT as Cost Center is rapidly evolving into IT as Profit Center; applying Cloud Services to drive competitive advantages based on new marketing and business intelligence technology will usually be far more productive than having IT staff updating PC software, swapping out PCs, adding disks to storage, configuring a new server, etc. Offloading these tasks from SMB IT Teams and becoming the trusted advisor while the company is young will pay long term dividends for both vendors and channels.
3) Staffing is usually the most expensive variable among business expenses. Demonstrate ROI and TCO models that emphasize the ability to reduce staffing, travel and distance from the equation and allow IT to be more productive with fewer staff.
4) As they expand, SMBs typically have to grow their operational and IT footprint by hiring specialists in different domestic and international locations; helping customers reduce the growing pains by centralizing many IT operations and managing infrastructure, communications and applications from a headquarters location is a good approach to helping them expand more cost effectively.
5) Purchasing, managing, configuring, updating, and patching software licenses is a major expense and headache for small companies and can be a full time position in many medium-sized organizations, not to mention internal user satisfaction, and ongoing maintenance fees. Cloud Services, particularly SaaS solutions, do an excellent job eliminating the majority of these issues, one reason why they continually rank extremely high on the satisfaction scale in our surveys. These are easily built into the ROI/TCO model.
6) As new Cloud Services are rolled out across Infrastructure, Communications, Productivity and Vertical Market categories in ever changing variations of public and private clouds, it is not possible for most companies to maintain the internal expertise to make the most appropriate choices. Helping customers emerge without being overwhelmed and providing relevant knowledge of how to effectively apply the new technology will strengthen the relationship.
7) SMB customers have made the leap to cloud-based infrastructure and will rapidly move to multiple services that leverage their investments. Much like the early days of client/server systems where HP had the hot box and Oracle provided the fastest affordable database engine, offers will consist of integration of infrastructure and software layers of the solution. Also as with client/server, users want the ease of dealing with a single supplier where possible, for simplicity and “one throat to choke”. The new solution stack is virtual and relatively standalone at this point; the next stage will require vendors of more complex applications (Integrated CRM, ERP, SCM) to make it as easy as possible for customers to buy their services, even if it means giving up some control and profit in exchange for more volume.
8) The independent IT consultant as trusted advisor is a phenomenon that has arisen as a slew of relatively easy-to-deploy SaaS applications have matured to where individuals can configure them quickly. The current economy has also spurred a lot of activity among individuals to support their SMB friends with web presence, hosting, social media, part time IT support, etc. Although the influence wanes as companies grow in size, and with the complexity of their deployments, the independent IT consultant has emerged as a force to be reckoned with at the low end of the market and vendors should develop these evangelists while channels bring them into marketing to combine strengths for the benefit of the customer.