Open source and business pleasure vs. business pain

A European PR firm was pitching my company for business last week and putting out a few ideas on how to generate demand in different countries across Europe. One of the ideas that they presented was a “business pain barometer” to indicate how much pain companies might be feeling using existing enterprise systems.

A European PR firm was pitching my company for business last week and putting out a few ideas on how to generate demand in different countries across Europe. One of the ideas that they presented was a “business pain barometer” to indicate how much pain companies might be feeling using existing enterprise systems. This didn’t exactly resonate as a value proposition for open source, but it is a tried and true campaign strategy for traditional enterprise systems. Selling pain relief has worked for the last three decades to sell enterprise software, but has it run its course? For the last 30 years, business pain and pain relief have been the primary value proposition for selling enterprise business systems. Solution-based selling was developed originally by big iron companies like Xerox and IBM during the 1970s, although it probably has its roots going back much further. By concentrating on the primary business pain that a customer was feeling and demonstrating the solutions relief, the enterprise sale person could get his or her foot in the door and have a basis for engaging the customer in the selling process. This was often accompanied by that other staple of the enterprise sales process, the ROI study. Pain and its relief as measured by ROI was the reason to part for a big chunk of money. There is now a whole ecosystem of analysts and consultants to either build or debunk these value propositions. Solutions are important, but perhaps the industry has overdone the pain.

After three decades of this process, it’s reasonable to say that customers have pain fatigue. The software industry has produced so many pain and pain relief stories, that people just don’t believe it any more. Any software product that claims to reduce costs, increase compliance, avoid attrition or eliminate customer churn is met with a demand to prove it. Even customer success stories are viewed as helpful, but not necessarily proof. Customers now view ROI calculators as a joke. It’s a clear sign of the maturation of the enterprise software industry. Customers are now looking to brand and bigness as proof of the ability to address solutions. This has been good news for IBM, Oracle, EMC and other enterprise vendors. It has been bad news for anyone smaller.

Open source on the other hand is about something you want even more than you need. The want must be something where need is already well established. It could be something as simple as providing an enterprise system that has enough of the features I need and doesn’t cost much or anything. It may also be the desire to have access to the source code to modify it for my own needs. It could be the attractiveness of having the latest hot downloaded piece of software. Finally, it may be about participation in a development community that recognizes the work that I have contributed. All of these wants or desires drive open source adoption rather than being convinced by a sales person.

Examples are all over open source. MySQL does the job that most projects need from a relational database. The integrated LAMP stack enables anyone to get web sites up and going quickly. JBoss provides an application server that enables Java developers to get their applications up and going without analyzing all the other options. BitTorrent manages distributed downloads with no hassle. Audacity lets podcasters manage their audio files simply and efficiently. MediaWiki enables even small organizations the Wikipedia experience of sharing and developing information without agonizing over why they are doing it. There is no tortured business analysis, RFP and ROI study to convince people to use these systems, just a desire to give it a go.

Between open source that users just try, highly desirable Web 2.0 sites like MySpace and YouTube, and the latest gadgets like the iPod, the notion of using pain to coerce people into enterprise software is likely to look very old fashioned in the not too distant future. Vendors will be put into a position to present their products in a desirable light rather than conjuring up fears. It benefits all enterprise vendors to think about how to increase the business pleasure of their software and not concentrate on customer’s business pain. Running a business is hard enough as it is, so make life a little easier.

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