SaaS for Very Small Businesses – Show Me the Money

Recently, in SME / SMB Have Become Obsolete Acronyms I discussed how now, that business software and services have become affordably available to small businesses, the SME term has become inadequate to describe this market, especially from the software industry's point of view. Simply because the needs of a $100M company, which SAP and Oracle consider a "small" business are not even comparable to a 6-10 person company – traditionally referred to as SOHO, while recently a new term is popping up: VSB – very small business, the absolute "S" part of SMB.

Innovators in the software business are increasingly focusing on this segment. The result of this change is that "Enterprise Software" is no longer the luxury of large corporations. This might sound like a shocking statement, since "Enterprise Software" typically means the world of SAP and Oracle, and the traditional heavyweight, expensive, pay-huge-license-fees-upfront, then try-to-implement-forever model that does not work anymore.

But there is another definition that is largely being overlooked:
Software that allows a company to conduct it’s everyday business, supporting most of the core, fairly standard business processes any company performs repeatedly.

With this definition, Enterprise Software has a whole new, largely unpenetrated market to enter: that of small businesses. Such business functionality has traditionally been beyond reach for a typical small business, for two major reasons:

  • Cost (license, hardware, implementation, maintenance ..etc)
  • Lack of IT resources (integrating applications, designing processes, dealing with multiple vendors ..etc)

SaaS is the right answer for both, since it allows the SME user to start using the functionality without an upfront investment, does not require implementation, upgrades, maintenance, worrying about backups and security ..etc.

Of course several Open Source packages are available completely free, which is a perfect solution for the cost problem, but frankly most of these packages are by geeks for geeks; i.e. you really have to be quite IT-savy to implement, integrate, upgrade them, and as we stated most small businesses simply do not have that type of resource.

Stefan, Winweb's Founder and CEO started an excellent mini-series on Saas Benefits detailing a lot of technical, delivery, usage aspects – now I am going to look at the changed economics from the other side, the software vendors' point of view.

If SME’s could not in the past afford Enterprise Software, the same held true for the Software Industry: they could not afford SME’s, since there was just no way to profitable reach millions of small businesses. The cost of customer acquisition vs. the very low license fees made it an uneconomical model, whether via direct or channel sales. A common "dirty secret" of the industry is that about 80% of a an enterprise software company's cost is Sales and Marketing. There's a lot of "fat" in that sales process that needs to be cut out.

Once again, technology comes to the rescue: the Internet, and largely Search Engine Marketing changes everything. Joe Kraus, Founder of JotSpot and previously Excite sums it up:
“ Ten years ago to reach the market, we had to do expensive distribution deals. We advertised on television and radio and print. We spent a crap-load of money. There’s an old adage in television advertising “I know half my money is wasted. Trouble is, I don’t know what half”. That was us. It’s an obvious statement to say that search engine marketing changes everything. But the real revolution is the ability to affordably reach small markets. You can know what works and what doesn’t. And, search not only allows niche marketing, it’s global popularity allows mass marketing as well (if you can buy enough keywords). “

Another benefit of SEM (search engine marketing) is that while traditional advertising can pick the right demographic groups, it cannot pick the right time, only a fraction of the target audience is in “change mode”, looking for a solution. That’s the beauty of Search Engine Marketing: obviously if you are searching, you have a problem and are looking for a solution, which is half a win from the vendor’s point of view.

Small Business Trends published a survey on “Selling to Small Businesses”, which supports the increasing importance of SEM: “A full 73% of vendors attract small business customers through search engine results”

Joe has another excellent article worth reading; especially the last two bulletpoints are relevant to our discussion here.

What we're seeing is that the SaaS model changes not only the technology and the delivery of software to customers, but the marketing and sales process, too, which is perhaps where most of the excess "fat" can be cut from. Software companies can now directly and affordably reach millions of small customers. The entire marketing, sales, delivery, implementation, support, upgrade process is seamless, highly standardized, conducted via the Net, teleconferencing, Webex-like sharing in new low-cost ways.

So how do software companies make money on small businesses? Ziff Davis has the answer: “Products for the long tail and SMB market, where 72 million businesses spend $5k or less each year, are a much easier play” Wow, I don’t know where those numbers come from, but if I were a SME-focused software vendor, I’d certainly like them … there’s a goldmine out there.

AMI Partners confirm: U.S. SMBs to Spend $2.2 Billion on Software in 2006

(This article, with minor changes is cross-posted on my personal blog)

Tags: Enterprise Software, Sales, Enterprise Sales, Demand Generation, SAP, Oracle, Jotspot, web20enterprise, business model, Open Source, SEM, Search Engine Marketing, SMB, SME, VSB, Small Business, Winweb

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