Once again, I have to start with an apology. This is one of several technology conference "seasons" where they pile onto one another. Thus, as I'm writing this, I'll have been to five conferences in about three weeks. I'm going to write individual blog posts for each but they will be much shorter than the norm. I apologize that I won't be giving them the full review of the conference I would have otherwise. It will be in this order:
Infusionsoft (March 25-29)
SugarCRM (April 6-9)
Clarabridge (April 17-19)
Infor (April 21-24)
Lithium (April 23-25)
I'll be repeating this overture in each of these posts — except that as I complete one, the link to it will be in the Overture list. This is going to take some time, too. So don't look for it as a weeks-long project. It might take me a month or two.
I also apologize to Oracle, which is holding its analyst summit at the same time as one of these conferences (Lithium) and I can't go because of prior commitments. Thank you for the invite, nonetheless. Susie Penner, you rock!
I've been to a lot of conferences. A lot of conferences. Some are great in content, not too big; others not too great in content, but huge in size; there are zillions of hybrids. But what has been for the most part the culture of the conferences is the culture that the customers of the technology companies represent — for me, primarily enterprise customers. But there is one great exception to that rule, which is InfusionCon, the conference owned by small business technology provider Infusionsoft — and, as you'll see, I'm being descriptively disingenuous when I say "technology provider".
There are two things that I think I need to say here — both big statements, and both that I'll elaborate on to varying degrees:
The culture of small business is dramatically different to the culture of the enterprise. This is the "duh" statement.
Infusionsoft is not only a dominant small business technology provider now — with 13,500 customers; $39 million revenue in 2012; and a $54 million round of funding from Goldman Sachs in 2012 — but it is going to be an even more dominant small business entrepreneurial command center, with products, services, tools, and expertise that will make it the leader in this area among small business in the next two or three years, which will present it with some challenges that I will outline. This is the "you got that right" statement.
This is not the first time I've written about it (most recently, here's its latest Watchlist 2013 winner post). I've known this company since about 2004 (I think of those I know, only Brent Leary predates me in having some relationship with the company) and I've seen its explosive growth over the years. It has had its glitches here and there, one or two of them notable, but all in all, it has been somewhat amazing because it had so few, and it has succeeded at capturing the hearts and minds of small business. I'm not using "hearts and minds" here so that I can turn a literary cliché or two into some business "thing". I mean it fairly precisely. It not only has a great product, it also has an extraordinary fan base. Its customers love it. That's love with a capital L and O-V-E. I mean, think about it, 2,100 customers showed up. Do the math. Around 4.2 percent of its entire customer base came to this conference.
That fantastic percentage came because Infusionsoft has its act together, a precise laser focus on a target market, a clear understanding of the needs of its customer base and a willingness to not only provide software, but to "business life coach" the companies in its target market. This is a unique differentiator in the small business space.
The numbers that it generates speak for themselves. Not only is it a 13,500-customer organization, but its revenues are off the charts given its tiny business focus. The 2013 revenues were over $45,000,000 — making it by far the largest small business player. It's done so well, it's swayed the traditional investor market. Goldman Sachs, hardly a risk-taking organization, gave it $54,000,000 because it "got" the Infusionsoft premise. Of course, this gives it an insane advantage over its competitors, which just don't have the juice or the muscle to compete in the space at its level.
Make no mistake about it. It is only focused on companies that have 25 or fewer employees. Nothing else. It isn't even tempted to go upmarket, much less planning for it.
With that focus, chief product officer (CPO) Richard Tripp and his intrepid team spent months interviewing their customers to find out what they wanted. They then mapped the desires against their budgets, their existing architecture and frameworks and their already existing roadmaps. They then came out with Spring Release '13, one of the company's more ambitious releases.
What characterizes its Spring '13 release is that it is an ambitious extension of its already eminently practical applications. If I had to abstract the most important pieces, there are these two:
GroSocial: Fully integrated into the marketing campaign builder (check 1), GroSocial does kind of what you expect — outbound "social" marketing. It allows you to build and track primarily Facebook, but also Twitter, campaigns, which, for small business, can be useful for some lead generation purposes — well beyond "like". Of course, in the interest of honesty, the jury is still out on whether Facebook is a good vehicle for marketers. It remains to be seen.
My Day: This isn't just a task organizer. You can literally take actions from this quasi-dashboard. It provides the aggregate of all sales activities, and it is interactive. So if you see that, for example, you need to create a quote, you can do it from My Day, using its vastly improved quoting tools.
With all of its improvements, there is one niggling problem with its applications that has been there for years, and to my purist, somewhat pedantic in this case, self, it needs to be fixed. If you look at its tabs, what it provides is Marketing and CRM. CRM to it is what everyone else would (and does) call "sales". It's time to fix that, since CRM, for those who spend the time to find out, encompasses all customer-facing departments — which means sales, marketing, and customer service, making this label redundant (marketing twice), misleading (no service), and confusing (covering up sales functionality with the wrong name). Is this a major thing? No. But it does drive me nuts. And it should be fixed so its customers can learn the difference between CRM and sales if they don't already know.
OK, OK. It's not a big deal ... it's not ... it isn't ... just change it already!
Even though it has pretty much nailed the software that it provides to the small business market, that isn't its differentiator — or at least the one that drives the passion in its customers. It's Infusionsoft's genuinely customer-centered culture that gives it domination in the market.
Probably the best way — both literally and metaphorically — to understand Infusionsoft is one of the staff positions at the company. It calls it Dream Manager. The actual man with the title is Donovan Roberson, whose job is to meet with every one of Infusionsoft's employees and find out from them what their dreams in life are — and then to figure out how to help each of them realize that dream.
This isn't a marketing thing ... it really does it. Its employees, whether they want to play the piano or become CEO of a company or to write a children's book, aren't just encouraged, but actually supported by Infusionsoft in their effort to get there.
But there is more than that to the culture. It is a mindful culture, which might be the only way I can think to describe it. It has a concern for each employee, and it truly believes in work-life balance and provides for its employees according to that. The best way for me to describe "mindful" is by a sign that you see when you walk in that warns you not to bring anything with pineapple into the area beyond the sign — including even a pineapple-scented whatever — because there is an employee who has a severe allergy to pineapple.
It has a 90,000-square-foot headquarters in Chandler, Arizona, that has a partial football field on the ground level in the dead center. Even though the reason given is that it's one of those "go for the goal line" things, it's pretty obvious that the actual reason isn't inspirational — it's that it's really cool to have a place to throw around a football if you want to, right in the middle of your office. There is also a cereal bar, which is reminiscent of co-founders CEO Clate Mask and VP of Demand Generation Scott Martineau eating only cereal when they first started. Now it's a great hangout with about two or three dozen kinds of cereal — all you can eat. There is a stage for presentations that has these strange, slightly campy, colored blocks as the wall in the back, which also make an appearance in the playroom where people can relax and play games. I'll let them tell you the story of the blocks. Be sure to ask, though. Heh. Heh.
It expects to outgrow this facility by next year, with an expansion in the next couple of years to over 1,000 employees in many cities.
All in all, you can see that this is a relaxed, very friendly, and encouraging corporate culture with a strong layer of courtesy thrown in. Working with each other, for the customers and on one's ambitions, is encouraged and leads this to be a place that people want to work.
This culture and its focus leads to it doing far more than providing technology. It is actively evolving a set of managed services for small business, which range from what it takes to set up a small business to business analysis on improving business; in other words, a wide set of ancillary services that it and its partners provide. Right now, the bulk of its partner network consists of value-added resellers (VARs) and a significant portion of its revenue is derived via these partners. For now, the focus is on "reseller of software". In the foreseeable future, it can easily move (and should) to more of a focus on "provider of value added services".
For years, it has aimed at providing thought leadership to its market. That's best reflected in a book written by CEO Clate Mask, Scott Martineau, and Michael Gerber, called Conquer the Chaos. It's basically a "how to" with some inspirational material mixed in for those very small companies. Unlike 95 percent of the books of this type (meaning those written by CEOs who: a) think they or a ghostwriter can write; and b) they have great pearls of wisdom to dispense to a population starving for them), this particular book is not only engaging, but it has genuinely useful information for small businesses. What the book does do for the company, which is more germane to this post, is provide the foundation that translates directly into the provision of services that the small companies need. That means services ranging from coaching to training to technology to strategy development, not just implementation.
If I was a betting man, I'd say that within the next three to five years, Infusionsoft will no longer be a technology company per se. It will be a small business command center — a services provider, among them technology services. That means it will be where any company of 25 employees or under can go to enter an ecosystem of services, products, and tools to run their business, all managed by Infusionsoft. Someday, I'll elaborate in a post on this new business model and how creating an ecosystem, rather than just a channel, benefits this approach. But not now.
I'm not going to dwell on the conference too much. Suffice to say, for the most part, it, as always, was well managed and informative and fun. The coolest part was a VIP party, with the Infusionsoft Dream Catchers (my name for its informal rock-focused jammers) playing with the lead vocalist of Chicago (the rock band, not the city).
It had its first analyst day, and for the most part pulled it off. As always, as a first analyst day, there were things that could have been better — chief among them to invite more influencers than it did. But all in all, it succeeded.
The one thing overall that could have been significantly improved was the speaker lineup. As with last year, it had speaker after speaker whose sole message was this is how you can make a million dollars or some variation on the theme. Or "this is how I made a million or a billion dollars and ain't I cool?" Massive ego trips that Infusionsoft finances. It did this last year and, dismayingly, it did it again this year. The best speakers, aside from the Infusionsoft management, who are warm, good people, and come across that way, were its Ultimate Marketer customers award finalists, who were speaking to more than just money, but to values.
The reason, at least as far as I can tell, for this blind spot, is that its earliest customer segment tended to be the info-marketer, who of course is the type of person who tells you how to get a vegetable chopper for "only $19.95 plus shipping and handling" at around 4am if you're up and watching TV. In fact, what struck me really funnily was that unlike any other technology conference I ever went to, the collateral stuck under my door was things like "get 10,000 Twitter followers in 30 days or money back" — meaning I actually was getting printed spam, with the junk folder being my garbage can.
However, what it has to realize is that it is far beyond that now. Its customers are small businesses in 200-plus categories, as it proudly (and rightfully so) told me. Meaning the small company mainstream, not the outliers. And with the cultural thrust and its explosive growth, the business model it seems to be looking toward, and its superb internal ethos, it's time to provide some visionary thinking and exposition and some conversation around those ethics and values in business, rather than just fantasy after fantasy spammer on making a million dollars. Sometimes it's not what people tell you they want, but what you show them they have. Companies like Infusionsoft can take that leadership and not be offensive. Small businesses actually listen to them. It needs to take itself more seriously, in that respect, than it does. It's its one blind spot.
Even with this blind spot, this company owns and, if its business model continues to evolve to what I think it will, will continue to own the very small business space for a long time to come.