Few things can sound the death knell for a business quite like a one-track deep dive into a niche industry. Sure, specialization and expertise are great, but without a good bit of differentiation a niche business can pigeonhole itself, and that can be tough to reverse.
For The Neat Company, the need to differentiate became clear early on. Neat made a name for itself as scanner company, with a throng of consumer-directed commercials showcasing how the NeatDesk scanner turned receipts into a log of expenses right on a home computer.
And while the company had other offerings that targeted the expense-tracking needs of small business owners (Neat actually got it's start developing software that extracted data from receipts), the scanner became the company's totem — a dangerous proposition at a time when business applications were evolving and the use of paper dwindling.
I recently spoke with Chris Barbier, Neat's VP of product management, about how the company has worked to move beyond the scanner and into the world of cloud, mobile and big data — with the goal of becoming a complete ecosystem of SMB expense and workflow tools.
It all started with managing receipts. Neat began as a company more than 12 years ago under the name NeatReceipts. The premise of its business was pretty self-explanatory, with a primary focus on pulling data from receipts in order to help businesses manage expense reports. Back in the dark ages of the early 2000s, image capture was a major challenge, as cell phones were still dumb and their cameras basically useless — hence the birth the Neat's core scanner product. As Barbier said, the scanner was always about "helping customers get the data out of their data."
The trouble with those commercials. Before I began to learn about Neat as a company for the purpose of this story, those nifty scanner commercials were the only background I had. Neat promoted its scanner line heavily, and the success of the commercials played a big part in the company's growth, but as Barbier said, "the direct television branding was seen more as more consumer focused advertising. The perception is that we are consumer tool but the reality is that we are an SMB tool." Barbier said Neat has started to soften the consumer angle of its advertising to appeal to more SMBs, as well as focus on the software side of its offerings.
Moving to mobile and cloud. Barbier said acquiring data from receipts has always been the differentiator for the company. But in today's world, there are far more options for data retrieval and image capturing. So the NeatConnect was born, the company's direct cloud scanner that still does the basics like extract data from receipts and make the data searchable, but then goes the extra step to integrate that data into Neat's digital filing system NeatCloud, or other third-party systems such as Box, Dropbox, Evernote and Google Drive.
"We also have mobile image capture on devices; we have the ability to send digital receipts and documents through email — we are constantly expanding the sources of data acquisition. That's all because of the concept of having access to information everywhere. We had traditional desktop software but that became difficult for people on the road and traveling. So the evolution of us to the cloud has been more about collaboration and expanding the capture sources."
Going forward, Barbier said Neat plans to push on with its software and cloud-focused approach to appeal to small businesses in search of expense and workflow tools that require minimal technical skill. He said a complete interface change is on the horizon as well as Neat software compatibility with other scanners. Barbier also hinted at upcoming partnerships with third-party tools for accounting and customer relationship management. "Those changes will be coming the next couple of months," he said.
"We are expanding beyond just scanners. We like our scanners, but we are not a hardware company, we are really a software company."