For me personally, 2017 has been the year of being surrounded by startup entrepreneurs that all have the Next Big Idea. Since my personal and professional interests overlap quite a bit, I’ve found myself everywhere from on the fringes to in the center of enthusiastic discussions about how to launch a successful tech startup. Almost universally, no matter how tech- or business-savvy the participants are, very few of them actually understand the full scope of what’s needed at a foundational level, and they don’t really want to. In the world of tech--which in 2017 means, basically, the world--information technology is about as ho-hum as it comes.
As we reach the end of the year, I took a look back and tried to distill all of the conversations I’d had into a few main themes that might be helpful for my readers. In general, I think we can group them into three categories of interest to the channel: The Consultant, The Social Startup, and The 4th-Platform Innovator.
When I say 'consultant,' I’m not talking about your 25-year-old neighbor who refuses to work for The Man and instead decides to build a digitally nomadic career out of telling people how to ‘build a social presence.’ The Consultant I'm referring to probably has roots in a pre-Digital Transformation world. The bulk of The Consultant’s subject matter expertise is rooted in old-school best practices, to which they try to apply a digital spin. Maybe it’s the almost-retiree who had a successful 30-year career advising pre-digital companies on how to maximize productivity and motivate sales teams, and is riding out the years to retirement by educating newbies on the merits of tried-and-true incentives. Or the marketing executive who hit the boom of SEO and PPC, but is out of their element in a world where SEM is quickly ceding relevance to social marketing. Whatever The Consultant’s play, they’re determinedly trying to make their own business peddling their subject matter expertise in a digital world.
The Consultant is low-lying fruit for most channel experts, which means they’re perfect for small channel shops or even individuals who are building their own IT consultancies. This buyer is low maintenance, and they know what they don’t know. They need to get in front of an audience, land one or two contracts per month to provide for a comfortable lifestyle, and--most importantly--not have to screw with any more tech than they absolutely must.
Needs: Ironically, The Consultant is looking to procure the same skills that pushed them to the fringes of their industry to begin with. They have no real understanding of social, no web presence, no CRM, and very little automation of any kind. Unless the skill they’re peddling is accounting, they probably need QuickBooks or some sort of expense-tracking software, a content management system, and a way to create and distribute custom content.
How to Sell: Convince them that you’ll provide the missing digital-technology piece to their business. With you, they won’t ever have to think about all those cloud, social, mobile, and analytics pieces. They can advise their clients and build those ‘trusted advisor’ relationships we’re always talking about in the channel, with you behind the scenes making sure they consistently rank in Google searches, their emails are sent and received, and they have basic cloud applications in place for customer management and social marketing initiatives. The Consultant’s biggest tech need is a medium to showcase the expertise they’re building their business on, so give them some easy ways to produce webinars, podcasts, and slide decks.
The Social Startup
In direct contrast to The Consultant, The Social Startup is usually full of young energy, fresh ideas, and a lot of enthusiasm. These entrepreneurs thrive in the digital world. They speak the language of an always-connected society, and the ideas that underlie their business plans are usually born of some observation and identification of a hiccup in the user experience that is 21st century life. The Social Startups are reminiscent of the dot-commers of yore; just like their 1990s precursors, sometimes what seem like the dumbest ideas take off, while ones that make a lot of sense crash and burn.
The Social Startup is a much harder sell for traditional channel partners than The Consultant. These guys and gals have extensive networks, usually within technology, and they know most of the services they need to propel their business through launch and into the realm of attention of investors. Usually, they’ve got a lot of the tech pieces in place before they ever even really define their value prop. Almost from Day 1, they have a web designer, an app developer, a digital marketing team, a social marketing team, and maybe a legal team, and all of these moving pieces are working in an agile, iterative way that together form the go-to-market strategy.
The Social Startup owner isn’t necessarily tech or even business-savvy. Their biggest value adds are their network; their familiarity with social media, the sharing economy, and other hallmarks of digital life; and their willingness to learn.
Needs: Again and again, I’ve been shocked at the failure of The Social Startup to put even the most basic infrastructure and safeguards in place. They use personal Gmail accounts, share sensitive files in Dropbox, and use running checklists created in Google Docs or inconvenient, specialized apps like Wunderlist to keep tasks on hand. It’s barely-restrained chaos, with slipshod best practices and unsustainable business processes that don’t allow for scaling, security, or streamlined operations.
How to sell: Partners have a couple of different plays here. Born-in-the-cloud partner types like agencies and consultancies can sell themselves on their specific areas of expertise. I know many CPAs, marketers, web designers, and small law firms that specialize in startups and do very well for themselves. But The Social Startup also needs a grownup in the room, someone to tell them they shouldn’t store sensitive employee information in an unencrypted or unsecured cloud application, for example, or collaborate on valuable IP over Google Docs. Traditional partners have a big value-add here, basically serving as an outsourced adult who can make sure the systems work together, are secure, and are maintained without interruption.
The 4th-Platform Innovator
Just when everyone was starting to incorporate “3rd platform” into their lexicon, the technologies it refers to are already old news. Such is the nature of today’s tech, when just as we really wrap our minds around one era of innovation, another is quickly coming up over the horizon.
Most of us are familiar with the idea of 3rd platform tech, which broadly encompasses cloud, mobile, big data, and social. But I’ve been having increasingly frequent conversations with brilliant tech minds who are jumping on emerging technologies like machine learning, IoT sensors, robotics, and blockchain to develop innovations that will give them a big headstart in the 4th platform world.
Unlike The Consultant or The Social Startup, The 4th-Platform Innovator is a true tech wizard, with a skillset and technical ability that far outpaces that of most people I know in the channel. These people are so far past SaaS developers, mobile app programmers, and system integrators that they aren’t even in the same realm. Truly unbreakable email encryption, cryptocurrency hedge funds, blockchain-specific data centers, 3D printing on massive and extremely convoluted scales--the areas in which The Innovator plays are barely on the channel’s radar yet.
But they absolutely should be. The Innovator can run circles around anyone in terms of tech know-how, but business is usually not their strong suit, to say the least. They’re in it for the excitement of developing cutting-edge tech, but more than likely don’t have a viable plan for how to monetize it. The Innovator’s tech grabs the attention of investors or vendors on the hunt for new capabilities to acquire, but without a proven business use case, most will pass.
Needs: The 4th-Platform Innovator needs someone who can integrate their tech into a larger system that satisfies a real-world need. A next-gen email encryption technology is great, but a polished product that provides tiered pricing options, scalable models, and easy plug-ins to integrate other security, software, and services applications is even better. Blockchain-specific servers are cool, but knowing how to speak the language of the data center owners in order to get the devices inside the DC is what will make that idea really take off. The Innovator needs the channel if they want long-term success.
How to sell: You’ve been the trusted advisor to your clients for years. Now it’s time to turn that role around and make The Innovator your customer. You speak the language of enterprise technology, which means you at least understand their product on a high-level, and you absolutely understand its business applications. Listen to their value-prop and give thoughtful consideration to possible use cases, then help them craft a go-to-market strategy that covers every step from ideation to acquisition.