Business Start-up and Raising Funding
May 24,2010 by jcheney • Leave a Comment
Last week I was invited along to the Business Start-up Show at ExCeL in Docklands to talk to budding entrepreneurs about how to raise external funding.
Having recently closed a second round of Angel investment, I was asked to talk about my experiences and what types of things potential investors what to discuss.
In the current financial climate when Banks are seemingly only lending money to established businesses, Angel investors and Venture Capitalists are pretty much the only source of funding for business that needs capital to fund R&D.
Both VCs and Angels are pretty savvy investors, so a key theme of my presentation was about operational execution and the importance of really understanding how to target prospects and execute a sales and marketing strategy.
They know the importance of clearly defining your 'go-to-market' strategy and tracking KPIs within a business, so if you want them to invest their hard earned money in your venture, you really should have good answers to questions like:
- Who is your target market?
- How are you going to acquire your customers?
- How many leads do you need to make a sale?
- How long is your sales cycle?
- Why are you more likely to succeed than your competitors?
The presentation was well attended and lots of people asked for copies of the slides - so I've uploaded them here.
Workbooks at Channel Expo 2010
May 17,2010 by kwells • Leave a Comment
Last week we attended the Channel Expo at London's Olympia. It was the second time we exhibited and we hoped that the move from Birmingham NEC last year to London would attract many more IT resellers.
The show was held over two days but despite the number of visitors being less than we had anticipated (this could have been due to Infosecurity and Internet World during the previous two weeks) we did manage to gain a significant amount of interest and more than doubled our number of leads over last year.
Because Workbooks' founders and many of its management team have come from within the IT channel we have a good understanding of the needs of IT resellers and System Integrators alike. Our Channel solution is designed to make the whole 're-selling' process much easier and significantly reduces the amount of sales admin time needed to process sales orders.
During the show we demonstrated that Workbooks applications offer Sales Directors and Managers a full 'prospect to cash' view of their business. Unlike the leading CRM providers we can create invoices and supplier purchase orders from within the system. This means that Sales leaders no longer have to guess if a piece of business has been invoiced and if they are on target!
For those that could not make it, don't worry we are at the Business Start-Up show at Londons Excel in Docklands later this week on Thursday and Friday. You have time to get tickets by registering at www.bstartup.com. See you there!!
Your data is safe with us
May 13,2010 by jkay • Leave a Comment
How Workbooks ensures your data is held securely
One of the questions we're often asked is "how can my data be secure if it's on the Internet" or some variant of it. Before I give the Workbooks answer (the short version is "at Workbooks we take data security very seriously indeed"), I'd like to run through a little corporate history.
A decade ago (our company then was known as Activis) security became our number one priority - we were responsible for managing and maintaining over four hundred firewalls for a hundred corporate clients from three locations (UK, Germany and the USA). As you can imagine protecting the keys to the firewalls at the heart of our clients' information security was something we had to do in ways which stood up to scrutiny from our clients - often these were Information Security Officers and the like. Multiple layers of security - "the onion model" - and completely redundant systems including redundant operating centers were central to the solution.
John mentioned BlackSpider in a previous article. BlackSpider was our next venture and it specialised in email security - at its core it was concerned with the detection and blocking of e-mail threats including early-stage viruses which the traditional anti-virus industry was unable to combat effectively. From the beginning we built data security into the core of our systems and we extended Information Security - through the implementation of something called an Information Security Management System - throughout the whole company. So we gained certification (to the "gold standard": ISO 27001) not only of our SaaS systems but also of Information Security in our HR processes and our CRM processes.
Information Security - as any expert should tell you - isn't just about keeping your data secret: it's also about ensuring it is available when you need it, and that it can be believed. In the industry jargon you ensure information's "Confidentiality, Availability and Integrity".
With the the advent of Workbooks, information security remains uppermost in our minds. We began with our "clean sheet of paper"; one early decision was to store customer data in completely separate databases - this helps with the Confidentiality bit - for example you no longer need to worry about accidentally picking up some other customer's data when generating a report; it also helps keep performance consistent because within customer-specific databases you have much smaller indexes (but that's probably for a future blog article). The "onion model" at Workbooks looks a little like this:
- Physical security of our servers is achieved through their being located in inconspicuous buildings with 24x7 manned security, CCTV-monitored data centres with biometric systems and certified entry procedures.
- Availability is achieved through using buildings with redundant power and airconditioning systems and through the use of two physically-separate locations with a high-speed network connecting them. Our policy is to implement systems with no single points of failure. All hardware has remote-management capability.
- Network security is achieved through the application of multiple layers of protection, including packet filters/ACLs, firewalls, and other techniques which are confidential. External specialist organisations are used to vulnerability scan at the network level and do more involved penetration testing. All data transfer happens under strong encryption; all access to Workbooks secure website uses 256-bit SSL together with an Extended-Validation certificate.
- Careful design. All systems are built on the principle of ‘least privilege’ such that processes run with the minimum set of capabilities and software is not present on the operational systems unless it is specifically required. The operating system is under tight version control and we monitor for reports of security vulnerabilities in the OS and its components.
- Our Development and QA processes are geared towards a controlled release cycle with a focus on avoiding security vulnerabilities and data corruption. The processes are extensive and include both automated and manual testing at many levels: unit, integration, system and functional. System changes are only permitted under a full Change Control process with signoff by senior Workbooks management.
- Data is accessed and copied only over strongly-encrypted connections. We implement separate databases for each customer to add an additional layer of security above an extensive Permissions/Capabilities model which allows functions to be limited to specific roles or groups of users. Underpinning all data storage is a row-level security model which allows users to hold private data securely and permits control to read, modify, write, change access or change ownership on a record-by-records basis.
- As described above, each customer’s data is held separately which enables us to offer customers the ability to receive a file export of all of their data; this could be used to recover customer data in the complete absence of the Workbooks service.
- Workbooks’ development and customer support staff do not have access to live customer data without the customer’s prior permission which the customer grants through the use of the Workbooks service itself.
Finally, our customers are encouraged to help themselves. By default we set password security options for all our customers to enforce secure passwords. There is no substitute for keeping those passwords secure and hard to guess!
This is a public blog article so I've had to be a little circumspect with some of the details but hopefully I've answered the question; if you want to know more we're always happy to discuss things in a little more detail privately.
Giving your sales a MEDICAL
April 30,2010 by jcheney • Leave a Comment
At Workbooks.com we are frequently engaged with organisations who are looking to improve their sales execution. So I wanted to share a set of slides that Edward Berks our VP of sales put together on the importance of a sales process and a common language in sales and marketing.
We hope you find them useful.
The buck stops here
April 26,2010 by jkay • Leave a Comment
As with IT generally, there are a lot of facets to "cloud computing". Some companies deliver cloud services for end-users (facebook or Microsoft's hotmail for example). Some, like Workbooks, deliver services for other companies. And some companies deliver services to support other companies' delivery of cloud services.
Amazon Web Services is perhaps the leading provider to such services - it is a division of Amazon which many organisations use to power their IT services by providing them with computer and storage capacity "on demand". If you take Amazon's Web Services' main offering - EC2 - then you are renting "virtual machine instances". These are systems on which you can run your own operating system and they share a portion of the underlying hardware's resources. You are of course sharing hardware with other EC2 customers and it's down to chance whether your fellow virtual machine users are resource hogs or not. So there are now cloud services which help you manage your Amazon Web Services and it's perhaps unsurprising that some of them report variations in EC2's performance.
This last category poses an interesting question if you believe in the power of the cloud computing model: if you are going to deliver cloud services yourself, should you rely on other cloud services to deliver some of your underlying components? Certainly a model where Workbooks was built upon cloud services from other providers would have its advantages: we'd only pay for exactly what we used, and it would be very easy and very fast to add capacity: simply order some more and turn it on, on demand.
When things go according to plan, everyone's happy. But if things become unreliable it's Workbooks which our customers would see failing - and those customers would be right to expect Workbooks to stand behind the service and remedy it. Excuses such as "it's our supplier's fault" just wouldn't cut it. When you have very large third-parties delivering components of the service it's unlikely that Workbooks' top priority would be their top priority.
Basically, we think that the cloud model is something which works - brilliantly - where there's a simple customer/supplier relationship but that it can break down when there are hierarchies of services unless you think very carefully about how you will deal with the contingencies. It's a little different from traditional business relationships where you have the luxury of at least a little time to sort out most issues: we need our infrastructure to be always available and reliable. We don't want to be involved in trying to diagnose a third-party infrastructure (like EC2) and having the responsibility to sort out issues within it without having the ability to do so.
So we took a different route. We built our own infrastructure and we are responsible for its management - right down to the hardware. Although we do use third parties for some of the components, there is always redundancy: multiple networks, multiple locations. If a provider fails to deliver a service we can call on an alternative so we can be certain we can deliver the service levels we commit to in our SLA. Maybe we will use some Amazon services in the future but if we do they'll be non-core and we'll be sure to have a backup plan.
5 Reasons to choose SaaS over traditional software
April 19,2010 by jcheney • Leave a Comment
For small and medium size organisations, Web based applications like Workbooks.com provide a much more cost effective way to deliver effective I.T. to your business. Here are five reasons why:
With applications delivered on-line, all the complexity of the underlying IT is no longer your problem. At Workbooks.com our customers don’t worry about upgrading hardware, or which operating system version supports which database, or which VPN will work. We take care of the IT complexity so you don’t have to. You just need a computer with a web browser and you can access your business applications from anywhere.
Guaranteed Levels of Service
At Workbooks.com we guarantee your applications will be available 99.5% of the time. In the event we don’t deliver (which has not happened to date) there are penalties to be paid by us. Typically with most traditional software you get no guarantee on how well it will perform.
Cost Effective Pricing
There are a number of reasons why we are able to deliver ‘enterprise class’ applications to our customers at a much more cost effective price than traditional software. Including the fact our infrastructure is shared across multiple customers, so there isn’t the cost of unused I.T.. Because we don’t ship traditional software and have a controlled environment we don’t have to test our software with different versions of operating systems and databases, or write installations manuals or write upgrade guides for our customers. All these reasons allow us to produce solutions at a much more cost effective price.
For the majority of our customers their key business information is more secure in Workbooks than it was in their previous I.T. systems. At Workbooks.com we run two geographically separate datacenters which contain the I.T. infrastructure to deliver our applications. Both datacenters have virtually identical equipment and your data is automatically replicated between the two. So in the unfortunate event that a disaster occurs such as a bomb or a fire in one of the centers, the second datacenter can continue delivering the Workbooks service. In addition to this highly available infrastructure we maintain a rolling backup of your data. All our customers benefit from this common infrastructure, although we do keep each customers’ data in a separate database to ensure your data remains confidential. Compare this infrastructure to what you have in place today: What would happen if there was a fire at your building? How quickly could you get new servers, reinstall all the relevant software? and How current are your backups? Would you be down for just a few days or would it be weeks? What impact would the downtime and potential loss of data have on your business?
Long Term Customer Relationship
We believe that this last point to be the most significant. At Workbooks.com we charge you an annual fee for the service. The truth is by the time we take into account the sales and marketing costs of acquiring a new customers and the money we have already spent on the infrastructure we don’t make any profit in the first year of the relationship. So it’s important that you stay with us for several years. This means we are very focused on ensuring you remain happy customers over the long term. You can contrast this with traditional software vendors who make the majority of their profit on the initial software license sale and have a relatively small ongoing support fee. Their focus is on getting you to buy the license and not necessarily the longer term view.
The reinvigorated web browser
April 08,2010 by jkay • Leave a Comment
At Workbooks we are very interested in the evolution of the web browser - it has only recently become possible to deliver a compelling rich User Interface like the Workbooks Desktop without requiring all manner of plugins. The good news is that the evolution is accelerating and with it the browser's speed and capability.
Eighteen months ago Google launched Chrome which was dramatically faster than any other browser available at the time. A browser performance and functionality war has been underway since then. In those eighteen months, and despite some hiccups, Chrome has become the world's third most popular browser - after Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox and ahead of Apple's Safari and Opera's eponymous browser. It's well documented that Internet Explorer's market share has been declining at an increasing pace since its peak in 2004 - that decline accelerating further since Google's entrance into the market and likely further still with the advent of the European Union's "browser ballot" screen. Google have also announced Google Chrome Frame, a plugin to Internet Explorer, which brings Chrome's features and performance to Microsoft's browsers for websites that are modified to use it. Finally there is now a proliferation of new ways of accessing the Internet using things other than PCs where there is nothing Microsoft in sight: from PS3s, iPhones and iPads for example.
Internet Explorer was first released nearly fifteen years ago; the other week Microsoft unveiled a "Platform Preview" of the next version, dubbed Internet Explorer 9. It's not even "alpha" software - we have no idea when it will be ready - and yet it has excited a lot of commentary. My view is that it signals a radical departure for Microsoft and they should be applauded for it.
As is Microsoft's way they are still a little picky about which open standards they embrace but IE9 includes much that other browsers are also adopting so eventually if you choose a modern browser from any mainstream vendor it will be capable of rendering video, storing data to work with while offline, and showing beautiful charts which scale smoothly as you zoom your browser - all without requiring any external software ("plugins"). As an added benefit it will get easier for developers to write web sites which work consistently across all major browsers without major compromise through a "lowest common denominator" approach: the lowest common denominator is now getting a lot higher.
IE9 is notable also for the speed it promises. It has become very fashionable - and easy - to criticise the performance of Microsoft's browsers. It's refreshing that with IE9 Microsoft has ditched its denial of there being a performance issue with IE and decided to address the issue: now it's going to be "crazy fast".
Depending on the benchmark IE9 shows upwards of a sixfold improvement over IE8 which itself is twice as fast as IE7. Although it's unlikely IE9 will take the speed crown for most tasks from current leaders Opera and Chrome or overtake Safari it does at least mean we will be able to stop focusing quite so much on IE performance as an issue.
Prior to IE9's announcement it was looking increasingly likely that Microsoft's market share decline would only increase however now it's clear that Microsoft have decided not to abdicate from the browser market; Chrome Frame will likely be marginalised to be a tool for those IE users who are unable or unwilling to migrate to the latest version of IE.
But more significant than any of the above is that I think IE9 is going to be fundamentally different from previous versions of IE: it delivers most of what it does using open standards. It's well documented that many organisations are still stuck on IE6 - even though IE6 has had its funeral - because that browser included a raft of proprietary extensions that did not make it into IE7 or any subsequent browser. Open standards are easier for developers and allow users to avoid lockin.
This is all great news for the user: whichever browser you use it is getting faster, more stable and more functional.
CRM - Can it help manage business risk?
April 06,2010 by rawnet • Leave a Comment
Sales & Marketing systems are not traditionally renowned for the role they can play to help manage business risk. However, when customer service and the sales ordering processes are controlled within the context a single integrated business system, with CRM at its heart, some commercial and operational risk factors can be mitigated.
CRM is recognised as a tool to increase sales and customer loyalty, which of course is what we all want, however we also want our customers to pay their bills on time, in full, and not take advantage of services for which they are not entitled. As a finance man, my tendency is to focus on the ‘bottom line’ rather than the headline sales number, which excludes such costs as bad debts, interest payments on working capital and foreign currency losses. Avoiding these costs as far as possible and maximizing the resources within any business in my view is as important as driving up the sales numbers.
Here are some issues you might like to consider:
- When taking orders from either new or existing customers, understanding their credit status may be a simple case of checking your accounting system, however for those of you who have at distributed sales and accounting processes (i.e. more than one of you!), this is never as simple as it sounds. In addition to the credit issues, pre-existing customers may have been granted special payment terms which need to be considered when discounting or setting customer specific pricing. With very tight margins, allowing customers extended payment periods may make a big dent in any anticipated profits.
- If you deal with very large organisations or government agencies you will know getting paid can be, to say the least troublesome. Very often even the invoice format and associated backing detail has to be a very specific format otherwise they simply will not pay. The amount of management time worrying about this stuff just eats away at the margins.
- With a globalised marketplace, small businesses now have to worry about foreign currency exchange rates. When buying or selling products in any currency other than your own the exchange rate achieved on any given deal can sometimes be the difference between making a profit or not, not to mention the operational activity costs and associated costs importing and exporting.
- CRM is about nurturing our prospects and retaining customers for as long as possible to maximise the return on the investment acquiring them. That said we also need to recognise that we need to control any after-sales services provided within boundaries of what has been agreed. ‘Revenue leakage’ can occur when we provide services which we can legitimately charge for but don’t because we either forget or are not clear whether they are entitled to these services under their contract agreement. Whilst we might be making some customers very happy, receiving services for free, we probably will misappropriate resources away from paying unhappy customers.
There is no silver bullet to any of these problems; they are part of everyday business life, however with joined-up data and processes using integrated customer management systems, we can attempt to mitigate many of these risks and hopefully make more profit!
Easter Bunny at Great Ormond St. Hospital
April 01,2010 by jcheney • Leave a Comment
With Easter nearly upon us, the team at Workbooks.com felt the need to make our marketing more philanthropic.
We ran a survey of 750 UK based IT resellers to gain some insight into their views of CRM and Business applications and for each response we received we donated an Easter Egg to kids at the Great Ormond Street Hospital.
As you can see from the pics below we had over 150 people take the time to fill in our short questionnaire and in the office we have quite a lot of fun packing the eggs for shipment!
In terms of the survey, there were some interesting results. 17% of the respondents didn't have any kind of CRM system in place, which I thought was quite high considering we are talking about IT resellers who you would expect to be pretty savvy with the business benefits CRM can deliver.
Over a third felt their CRM implementations would be more effective if the CRM system contained sales transaction information. This is no surprise to us at all. For sales and marketing folks there is significant benefit in having access to transaction data, which is typically locked-up in the Accounting System. Marketeers can run up-sell / cross-sell campaigns based on customers' transaction history for example.
Another significant advantage is for customer support teams; over the past few months we have come across several resellers who believe they are giving their customers free technical support - because their support engineers don't know if the customer is entitled to support or not. Having a more 'joined-up' view of their business data, provides the opportunity for some quick revenue wins, by ensuring customers are renewing their support agreements.
We hope that kids enjoy the Eggs and make a speedy recovery.
Same Problems Just Smaller Numbers
March 29,2010 by rawnet • Leave a Comment
Whether you run a small private business or you are director of a large corporate, the business challenges you face are pretty much the same, with the difference being a matter of scale. Crucially however, small businesses do not generally have access to well rounded, integrated IT systems to support them in their daily battles and long term strategy planning, let alone the staff to run them.
For the ‘big boys’ and from the ‘big boys’ sophisticated enterprise class software applications can procured and implemented. These large systems, which come with a large price tag and consume huge amounts of management time can, despite these facts, show excellent return on investment because of the economies of the large scale enterprise. Returns such as in increased productivity, better financial controls, and targeted investments all can conspire to produce increased customer loyalty and ultimately increase in sales and profit.
Small and medium sized businesses (SME’s) on the other hand are managing to survive despite their often very limited IT infrastructure. Small business leaders are putting their time and talents and great skill to maximize the benefit of what they have available to them. This unfortunately usually means long days, with rolled sleeves, knitting together and trying to make sense of commercial transaction data and management information residing on spreadsheets, word processors and standalone accounting systems. Just imagine what they could achieve without this drain on their time.
As an accountant myself and having worked for many types of businesses, small and large, employed to improve business processes, I have often faced the choice of either going out and implement an expensive heavyweight or to try my luck and stitch together a range of smaller systems. Neither of these two options was particularly palatable, and the reality was there is only one choice that could pass the ROI test.
With the introduction of a very different economic model, where costs are shared across many consumers or subscribers of a single service, a third way can however be achieved. Sharing the IT infrastructure costs and associated maintenance across many users can generate economies of scale required to allow smaller businesses share in an enterprise class service without the enterprise cost. The ‘TCO’ or Total Cost of Ownership based on this model can show significant savings when compared to owning and managing self hosted and maintained IT systems, assuming the skills and infrastructure is available in the first place.
With the advancement in internet technologies, ‘Cloud computing’ or ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) it is now possible to take advantage of such an economic model. Workbooks is an example of such a service, and competes successfully in this space with the ‘Prospect to Cash’ CRM offering. Workbooks long term will extend far beyond CRM; however the vision of an integrated platform, delivering rich business process functionality is already visible in the Workbooks CRM and Business Editions.
As the Workbooks Product Manager with an accounting upbringing, I am very excited about my future with Workbooks. We will continue to listen to our chosen markets, understand the huge benefits of a single integrated platform and deliver our software in the most efficient cost effective way. We understand that SME’s have the same problems as large enterprise, the numbers are just smaller.