Monday, March 09, 2015
Big customer of a small vendor, or small customer of a big vendor
The CEO was perplexed that despite his product having all the features and more when compared to the market leader, most enterprise customers were shy of giving him business. His product was priced at a discount to the larger and dominant players thus providing great business cases and ROI; the technology platform was current versus competition. Customers liked the product and agreed that it met specifications and requirements; however it did not result in business. His company was a young startup and had few customers.
The world of startups is exploding and they offer solutions for existing and imaginary problems that you may have never thought about. Consumer applications are finding their way into the enterprise while the choices for enterprise applications have increased manifold. Convergence across the differing use cases creates opportunities for IT to automate and/or create new process efficiencies. These are beginning to offer viable alternatives to the large vendor solutions with complex licensing models and maintenance contracts.
Meeting a few entrepreneurs exhibited the most prominent feature across all the discussions was the belief and the passion in their ideas. Everyone had a dream to challenge the big players, wanted to solve problems of the world, and almost everyone was born a digital native. For these individuals the pursuit of their dream overshadowed the difficulties they faced learning to survive in fiscal deficit. With loads of infectious enthusiasm they happily demonstrate the value of what they have or plan to build to anyone interested.
They have like-minded teams with great technology skills and ability to create solutions with velocity that puts many enterprise IT teams to shame. They are able to react quickly to market and demands of their sparse customers; the struggle is largely around creating a dialogue with business and IT leaders on how their solutions will benefit the enterprise. They are the advocates and the best salespersons for their companies and solutions and in an endeavor to get first few customers, it is highly probable that they are willing to offer bargain prices.
Most enterprise CIOs and business heads find themselves meeting these entrepreneurs more often, now competing with the larger well established local or global solution providers. The gorillas with loads of muscle power, large number of customers, and an ecosystem of system integrators create doubts in the minds of potential buyers on the stability and longevity of the minnows. Thus in the face of perceived risk most customers end up making the expensive choice of going with the well-entrenched players.
Good news is that there is a wave of fresh air wafting through the crevices in the enterprise fortress – the data center and the application landscape; some successful and early adopter CIOs have taken calculated risks and the call to work with startups. The benefits in almost call cases have been beyond compare with quick and unbelievable ROI; for the struggling beginners these saviors were embraced and they stretched to exceed expectations. The CIOs pleased with success built symbiotic relationships by mentoring them.
For the safety net seekers following conventionally long implementation cycles, the larger players provided rich functionality though with restrictive practices offering ROI over 2-3 years. They became victims of their choices when they could have taken an alternative approach and experimented with the newer generation solutions and enjoyed associated benefits. The loss of agility came with its own set of challenges considering the fact that rarely a solution change is undertaken after long cycle of implementation.
Startups nurture their customers who imposed faith in them; large enterprise customers bring them credibility. They contributed significantly to their revenues which in turn helps them raise money from interested sources. For the large players another customer is just another customer even if you are a dominant force in the industry; exception being companies who are larger than these large vendors and they are just a handful. Relatively size does makes a difference to the treatment the vendors give to a customer.
All things being equal the question is where do you want to be ? A big customer to a small vendor or a small customer of a big vendor ? Your choices will determine not just your success but also your ability to influence the product direction, shape industry solutions, and finally give you a financial advantage. Having been in all the three camps, I would say that being a big customer of a startup outweighs the perceived risks; the sluggishness imposed by big vendors can be a big challenge; finally as a part of startups now I love big customers !