Sep 302015

Businesses would be wise to stop telling people what they should want and let customers tell them what want says Shel Israel in his latest book, Lethal Generosity.

In this book, Israel’s previous works include Naked Conversations and Age of Context which were both written in collaboration with Robert Scoble, he looks at the technological and social changes affecting business and how they can adapt to a rapidly evolving marketplace.

Key to that evolving marketplace is the explosion of data offering businesses deep insight into their customers. as Scoble describes in Lethal Generosity’s introduction in talking about social analytics service Vintank;

VinTank was acquired by a big PR agency that wants VinTank to do for all sorts of industries what it has done for the wine industry. Are you a restaurant or a winery ignoring that data? Go ahead and keep doing that for a decade. Your competition won’t.

Israel illustrates the need to watch the marketplace in citing a campaign where Canadian brewer Molsons completely wrong footed an oblivious competitor, something similar to how one bank discovered a rival’s successful marketing campaign through real time bank deposits data described  at the recent Splunk conference.

Focusing on the customers

A customer centric outlook, not looking at competitors but focusing on what consumers want is key to success in the new economy, Israel believes. This is enhanced by technologies that allow both products and marketing to be personalised as shown in the chapter detailing how retailers and airports are using beacons and data analytics in their operations.

One good example is AirBnB, while Israel trots out the ‘biggest hotel chain’ in the world fallacy that’s pervasive among commentators, its effects on the established industry has been profound and have forced hospitality operators around the world to re-evaluate their business models.

Israel suggests the best response for businesses affected by the ‘Uberization’ of their industries is to adopt the social and analytic tools and strategies being used the upstart businesses and he provides a wealth of examples.

Seamless sales

Tapingo, the food ordering service for US college students, illustrates the seamless experience that consumers are increasingly demanding in their shopping, business and leisure activities. Israel cites how Tapingo’s merchant partners are seeing an in-store traffic boost of 7 percent and a gross profit rise of 11 percent as a result of using the service.

Shel also illustrates some of the failures in deploying new technologies, specifically London’s Regent Street Alliance that failed due to poor execution and a failure to engage the marketplace.

One of the weakness in the book – which Israel acknowledges – is its focus on US, and specifically Bay Area, case studies. While there are some non-North American examples such as Australia’s Telstra and China’s Alipay, most of the examples cited are of companies based in or around San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Focus on Millennials

Another weakness of the book is the over-focus on Millennials or Digital Natives. While this group is important that obsession risks Israel’s message being pigeonholed amongst the noise of poorly thought out pop demographics and poor analysis that marks much of the discussion around changing tastes and habits between generations.

Israel’s point that the post 1982 generation will soon outnumber older cohorts in both the workforce and the marketplace in the near future though is an important aspect for businesses to keep in mind with the safe certainties and predictable customer behaviour of the baby boom era being long gone.

However the shift in consumer and workplace behaviour is just as pronounced among all the post World War II generations as technology and the economy evolves in the early 21st Century. Focusing on the younger groups risks missing similar shifts among older members of the community.

The value of customer service

Ultimately though, Israel’s message is about customer service. Shel himself flags this is not new, in describing the competition between hiking goods suppliers The North Face and Sierra Designs in 1970s Berkeley.

What is different between today’s businesses and those of forty years ago is technology now allows companies to deeply understand their customers and provide customised marketing, products and experiences to the connected consumer.

For the business owner, manager or entrepreneur, Lethal Generosity is a good starting point to understand the forces changing today’s marketplace. The case studies alone are worth considering for how an organisation can adapt to a rapidly evolving world with radically shifting customer behaviour.

Sep 202015

Probably the best regular session of the annual Dreamforce conference is the final session where Salesforce founders Marc Benioff and Parker Harris answer questions from the attendees.

As with any open microphone session, some of the questions are silly but many highlight frustrations Salesforce’s customers have and some give the opportunity for an insight into Parker and Benioff’s thoughts away from the scripted glitz of the main keynotes.

One questioner asked Benioff and Parker what their advice would be to someone in their position of 16 years ago with a new business.

Forget the tech

“Don’t think about the tools or the technology,” said Harris. “Thing about the problems you can solve. Stay focused and work hard and build a great company.”

While Parker also emphasised a great team is another important element, Benioff flagged an element of luck in building a successful business, “we got the timing right.”

Ultimately though it came down to making the jump from a comfortable, if frustrating, corporate job to a risky startup.

“I remember I was working in a big company for a long time, very unhappy.” Benioff recalled and noted the decision to strike out on your own is very much a personal decision, that can only be done when you are convinced it is time.

The five questions of business

Knowing when that time has arrived comes down to five questions, Benioff believes.

“It all starts with you, you have to get clear about what is it that you really want, what is really important to you, how are you going to get it, how will you know when you’ve got it and what is preventing you from having it.”

“When you can answer all those five questions you’ll have clarity in your direction. The problem with most small businesses – and big businesses – is they can’t answer those questions.”

“If you can answer those questions then you can break out.”

Ultimately Benioff and Parker flag focus as the key individual attribute and being able to focus on answering those five questions is a very good first step to having a successful business.

Aug 242015
Accountants and bookkeeping ledger

The accounting and professional services industries are uniquely positioned as the economy goes digital, while their own sectors are undergoing radical change so too are their clients.

Given the changes facing the accounting industry, the invitation to host last week’s CPA Australia Technology Accounting Forum‘s second day in Sydney was a good opportunity to see how the profession and its clients are dealing with major shifts in their industry.

The accounting profession has been one of the big winners of the Twentieth Century’s shift to a services economy. Last week’s story on how the workforce has been changing illustrates this with a chart showing how the occupation has grown over the past 140 years.


In many respects accountants should be well placed to benefit in a data driven economy given the training and skills they posses. The big challenge for existing practitioners is to shift with the times.

The transition from what’s been lucrative work in the past will be a challenge for some in the profession. Many of the manual tasks accountants previously did are now being automated with direct data links increasingly seeing operations like reconciliations and filing financial returns being done in real time without the need for any human intervention.

In private practice, the shift to cloud computing and direct APIs has stripped out more revenues with useful earners like selling boxed software petering away as services like Xero and Saasu arrived and established players like Intuit, Sage and MYOB moved to online models.

Shifting to the cloud

That shift has already happened with the presenter in one breakout session asking the audience how many practitioners used exclusively desktop software, purely cloud service or a hybrid of the two. Of the twenty in the room, the vast majority were using a combination with three being purely online and one sole operator still stuck with a desktop system.

For accountants the message from all of the sessions was clear; the future is online and businesses based around paper based models are doomed. The question though for them is how will they make the transition to being professional advisers.

Strangely, the big challenge for accountants in private practice may be their clients. A number of panel participants pointed out small business owners are slow to adopt new technologies and this holds both them and their service providers back. Divorcing tardy customers may be one of the more difficult tasks facing professional advisors.

The Technology, Accounting and Finance Forum showed the potential for accountants and professional services providers to be the trusted advisors in an online world, the task now is for practitioners and their clients to learn and understand those tools.

Aug 232015
businesses paying bills and invoices

Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz has a nifty sixteen point guide to evaluating a tech startup’s performance.

This is a handy checklist when looking at the claims of any business – big or small, tech startup or something more conventional.

Pre-booking of contract revenues in particular is one of my favourites and it’s something we’re going to see more of as the subscription economy becomes more widespread.


Aug 222015
420-402 D75 SE boxshot art

“No-one is making money from cloud software, in the early days everyone made money from software,” bemoaned one of the panellists at last week’s CPA Technology, Accounting and Finance Forum.

A good example of this is the US accounting software giant Intuit putting the 32 year old Quickbooks on to the market.

Intuit was built on the back of Quickbooks but today the product today makes less than 6% of the company’s revenues and under 2% of the profits. Making matters worse is the old code base is clunky, proprietary and expensive to maintain.

Apart from getting a captive – and almost certainly dwindling – client base, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to attract buyers for Quickbooks as a desktop based product in a market shifting to the cloud.

The shifting business model hurts more than Intuit; the accountants, resellers and other service providers who were making a decent income from selling or supporting the box products have seen their margins evaporate.

For users, both Intuit and the services providers moving away from the product risks leaving them and their data stranded, something every business should understand about the risks of proprietary formats.

The shift though by Intuit should be a warning to small businesses that the days of box and inhouse software are numbered and running packages on servers and desktops will soon be for large organisations or niche applications.

Almost every business is going to have to plan its move to the cloud, those who don’t are increasingly going to be left behind in a shifting market.

Aug 212015
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore presents the prize to the small businesss award winner

Yesterday I hosted the second day of the CPA Australia Technology, Accounting and Finance Forum that looked at how the accounting profession is being affected by the changing technology landscape.

There’s plenty to write about from the day and how the accounting profession is facing technological change which I’ll write up shortly but one theme from the day was striking – that older small businesses owners are struggling to deal with adopting new tech.

Gavan Ord, the CPA’s policy advisor warns older practitioners are opening themselves to disruption and  the Australian business community is in general is at risk as older proprietors aren’t investing or embracing technology at a rate comparable to their overseas competitors.

Older small business owners

That older skew in small business operators is clear, in 2012 The Australian Bureau of Statistics found 57% of the nation’s proprietors are aged over 45 as opposed to 35% of the general population.

Even more concerning is many of those small business owners expect to retire with a 2009 survey finding 81% were intending to retire within ten years – it would be interesting to see how those ambitions changed as the global financial crisis evolved.

A risk to the broader economy

This blog has flagged the risks of an aging small businesses community previously, but Gavan Ord’s point flags another risk – that older proprietors being reluctant to invest in new technology means a key segment of the Australian economy is unprepared for today’s wave of technological change.

A key message from the CPA forum was that the shift to cloud computing is radically changing the business world as sophisticated data management, analytic and automation tools become easily available. Companies, and nations, that don’t take advantage of modern business tools risk being left behind in the 21st Century.

Aug 142015

“This is a customer driven revolution,” says Zuora co-founder and CEO, Tien Tzuo, of the business shift to a subscription payment model.

While the cloud computing business has been one of the leaders in the shift to the subscription model, the move is happening in industries as diverse as jet engines, agricultural machinery and music.

Zuora is one of the businesses providing the tools to manage customer subscriptions and Tien Tzuo shares with Decoding the New Economy how he sees the subscription economy changing industries.

Tien, who was an early Salesforce employee, describes some of the forces he sees driving this shift and where the opportunities lie for business owners, managers and entrepreneurs.

“We looked at companies like Netflix which at the time it was DVD rental service and Zipcar and saw the same payment challenges we had at Salesforce,” says Tien. “The leap for us was looking at the transformation of companies like Zipcar into a subscription model.”

There are few industries that won’t be affected to the shift to a subscription model, Tien believes, and he sees this radically changing many sectors with Internet of Things providing a huge push towards pay-as-you-go services.