The other competitor for your app

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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;
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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