In a world of hypercompetition, (almost) everyone is used to the art/science of competitive intelligence, but I can’t help but thinking there’s one competitor that a lot of app developers forget. Let me explain:
I spend a lot of time looking at the massive stream of webapps being produced by today’s software entrepreneurs. Usually, I try and focus on apps that can help you or your business work better, smarter, faster etc (gDocs, basecamp, etc).
If you’re developing apps for business, there are a lot of packages that do contact managment, project management, email newsletters, invoicing, cashflow, diagramming, everything! So, when you decide what you’re going to build (scratch that itch!) you’re probably look at crunchbase or do some googling and come up with whatever 37signals are currently peddling or whatever. You imagine that you can compete on features, or price, or connectivity or style, and against those guys, who knows you might be able to, but there’s one competitor you’re (probably) not thinking about, Microsoft Excel.
The unfortunate reality of the situation, is that Excel, and similar spreadsheet metaphor programs like OpenOffice Calc, Numbers (which is attractive, but kind of useless), and Google Spreadsheets have some genuine advantages that your app doesn’t, namely:
- They are ubiquitous – I can’t remember ever being in a situation where I didn’t have access to excel, and if not, OpenOffice is just a download away, likewise Google Spreadsheets takes about 20 seconds to set up and has all the features 99% of the population use. What does this mean, spreadsheets (even excel at $300 a pop) is free.
- Everyone understands the spreadsheet metaphor – Training is expensive, and although I can pick up most applications in an hour or so you can bet that Bob down the hall who still uses Windows 95 on his home machine doesn’t give a hoot about folksonomies;
- Spreadsheets handle mess – your data doesn’t have to be perfect, you don’t even really have to understand what you are doing to get yourself out of trouble. As a geek, I’m terrified by that concept, but most people aren’t geeks, they just want to achieve outcomes as fast as possible. The other side of this is that requirements change all the time, and the infinitely customisable spreadsheet is always relevant (messiness is another reason twitter is so successful).
- When you know what you are doing, excel is scary powerful – there are things that I’ve done using excel that I couldn’t do with any other program short of Mathematica or another scientific program (language really), try building a gantt chart in basecamp (without an add on).
- Finally, businesses are heavily invested in spreadsheets – I would guess that globally there is more business rules, data, and intelligence embedded in excel files than every other technology (language and data) combined moving those items out to a webapp (if it’s possible at all) would be a massive task and IT support for cloud APIs is only just taking off (assuming the company is big enough for in-house IT, and 99% of companies aren’t);
So, basically, on top of all your webapp competitors you have the spreadsheet monster on your back. So what do you do? I usually thing a good thing to do is look at both what your competitors suck at, and beat it, and what your competitors are good at, mix it up with what your customers value, and go for it. There are a few things that spreadsheets aren’t so good at, that custom apps just can’t be beaten for:
- collaboration – gDocs is pushing back here with multiple editors and a pretty useful form editor, but for the most part spreadsheets are used by people one at a time, and are versioned (poorly).
- integrity – excel is really notorious for having one bad user screw up everyone elses hard work. Custom apps can have both complex security models, and data protection that excel can’t.
- interoperability – beyond mail merging, getting excel to talk to anything else takes a lot of VBA, or a lot of copy-pasting
As a first step, make sure that any webapp you develop can hit it out of the park in these three dimensions (or something else that’s awesome and remarkable). I’m rambling a little (still getting used to blogging), so I’ll try and summarize: businesses need to see a big (and risk adjusted) benefit before investing on new systems; people go with what they know; and finally, just because someone doesn’t run MS Project (or basecamp), don’t assume they don’t have project management software.
I was just looking around for what was going on in the business model(ling) world right now and came across this terrific looking book orchestrated by a team including Alexander Osterwalder (by the way I discovered his website and the Business Model Alchemist blogs are also great) and 470 (!!!) other authors.
A Quick Synopsis (from the webpage)
Disruptive new business models are emblematic of our generation. Yet they remain poorly understood, even as they transform competitive landscapes across industries. Business Model Generation offers you powerful, simple, tested tools for understanding, designing, reworking, and implementing business models.
Business Model Generation is a practical, inspiring handbook for anyone striving to improve a business model — or craft a new one.
I suggest you download the free 72 page preview, it’s actually useful in its own right, and beautiful to boot!
I’ve played around with a couple of ways of storing files online, from google docs, to box.net, to simply having an FTP site (sometimes a man just has to get his hands dirty). Recently, I’m really digging dropbox because of its minimal feature set and because it’s super simple to sync folders across computers (and operating systems). Just go to the website, sign up and download the client. You now have a folder with up to 2GB of space which will sync online, and with any computer you install the client software on.
I’ll be interested to watch the competition between dropbox and box.net in the future. Quantcast, puts box.net users at about 10x that of dropbox, so for now at least it’s winning the market war. But I don’t really know if they are in the same market. Dropbox is super easy to create a folder that syncs with as many computers as you need and you can make folders really easy to share. Box.net on the other hand sucks at syncing, but has all the crazy bells and whistles like previewing files, linking to Zoho suite and so on. In the long run though, the simplicity and low barriers to entry I think are a winning combination and it’s worth giving a shot.
Jillion, a swiss startup, have recently developed a product that aims to simplify the process of getting video into webpages using HTML5 (codecs and other wierdness are a bit of a problem still). Video, being really the biggest ticket item for flash (gaming, and flex/air being the others) is looking like it’s going to get some serious competition from many angles (although H.264 isn’t really my bag).
If you want my opinion on what Adobe should aggressively and completely do to combat the loss of their biggest web asset. Two words: open source.
Jilion Blog – Introducing SublimeVideo. (via WebMonkey)
Over at GigaOM there are some interesting/funny/scary notes about what Om notes as founderitis, a very unique level of creativity, vision and obsessiveness which can “lead you to greatness or the grave”. As someone who’s building his first little app, which might one day make it online, and hopefully not me in the grave (great would be nice) I look forward to such fun.
- You mistake insomnia for work ethic.
- You are constantly looking to add hot new features to your products such as Tweet This & Facebook Connect.
- You obsess over features/details over which you have no control.
- You have the constant urge to do everything.
- You have attention deficit disorder, in that you’re constantly checking Twitter/Facebook/Google Reader and have set up Google Alerts to monitor what people are saying about you and your company — when you should be actually working.
- Your idea of dining out is picking up take-out food rather than having it delivered.
via 12+1 Signs That You Have Founderitis (GigaOm)
Looks like scripting for gDocs is finally open to users who aren’t lucky enough to have access to the Enterprise or Education versions.
A big boon for people who love scripting, but aren’t really into desktop office apps (although Zoho Office does have macros)