Category Archives: Strategy

EPM, Project Orion, and the Beginner’s Mind

I’ll always be thankful for my time at Salesforce both because I met so many amazing people and because I learned so much.  I learned about the importance of Trust in a SaaS company (and was drilled in the mantra, “nothing is more important than the Trust of our customers.”)  And I learned about shoshin, the Zen concept of the Beginner’s Mind.

The Beginner’s Mind
It’s not unusual when working at Salesforce to hear about Zen concepts or get an email reply from Marc containing only a Zen proverb.  But of all the concepts I learned about, the most powerful and elusive was shoshin, a concept that Benioff says he adopted from Steve Jobs.  Per Wikipedia:

Shoshin (初心) is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning “Beginner’s Mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

Shoshin is powerful because it enables you to take a fresh look at an old problem.  Shoshin is elusive, however, because it requires you to step outside your paradigm — the filters through which you see the world — which perhaps sounds easy, but can be incredibly difficult.  In fact, in what I all the paradox of knowledge, the more you know about something the more difficult it is to break out of your paradigm, to get outside the metaphorical box.

As an example of this, our head of products, Sanjay Vyas, recently went to a silent, ten-day vipassana meditation retreat.  Vipassana means “to see things as they really are”  and is a technique that has been passed down from the Buddha by an unbroken chain of teachers to the present day.  At the retreat, the first phase is three days spent simply trying to calm the noise in your mind.  Only then, after three days of silent meditation, are you ready to start to attempt to see things as they really are.  Such is the difficulty in breaking free from a paradigm.

The Problem We Approached With a Beginner’s Mind
What problem did we try to see with a Beginner’s Mind at Host Analytics?  End-user planning, budgeting, and forecasting (three key pieces of enterprise performance management, also known as EPM).  Why did we do it?  Because despite decades of great success within finance organizations, we believe that EPM has under-penetrated the overall market.

Far too many people rely solely on Excel for planning/budgeting and far too many EPM end-users build budgets in Excel and mail them to finance as opposed to using the EPM system.  The same is true for reporting, where far too often users drop out of the EPM system and into Excel to make reports and charts.  (This is less true of Host users due to our strong reporting, but the trend remains true at an industry level.)

While as EPMers, we take great pride in our category and, at Host, in our ability to move enterprise-class EPM to the cloud, we must recognize that at some level EPM has failed to deliver against its broad vision of accountability and empowerment.  To get to the bottom of this, as Clayton Christensen has often observed, you can’t just talk to your customers to understand your market, you need to understand non-consumers as well.  All those Excel-only or primarily-Excel users are Christensen’s non-consumers, so we decided to talk to them.  Here’s an example of what we heard.

“I hate budgeting.  They made me attend the meeting to look at these tools.  I don’t want to use any of them.”  — Chief Legal Officer

We heard this over and over.  The average business user would seemingly prefer a root canal to working on the budget.  Yet we knew these same business users were passionate about metrics, empowerment, accountability, and performance.  So where had the whole category gone wrong?  Thus was born Project Orion.

By Finance For Finance
We realized that for forty years EPM has been designed by finance for finance (or even more specifically, by FP&A for FP&A).  EPM vendors did a great job of listening to EPM customers.  And EPM customers, particularly EPM buyers, often had job titles like Vice President of Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A).  These were the people who selected the tools.  These were the people who bought the tools.  But, these weren’t always the people who used the tools.  An important part of EPM is to roll it out broadly across an organization, meaning to put the tool into the hands of business end-users, budget owners, in all the various departments.

The Perils of “Configuration” to Dumb Down the Interface
The universal answer to the end-user question was dumb it down.  Configure it.  Take the product that was built for a heavily analytical, highly skilled, finance professional — and FP&A people are whip smart — and dumb down the interface for a business end-user.  Hide some menu items.  Remove some toolbar buttons.  Take away some tabs.

That was the conventional wisdom.  Take a product built for one person and configure it for use by another.  Now some EPM vendors were better than others at this bluff, some had slicker interfaces that would be relatively more appealing than others.  But amazingly, nobody ever said,  “wait a minute, what if we designed the product for people who actually used it?

Thank to shoshin, that’s exactly what we did with Project Orion at Host Analytics.

Task-Oriented Design
Instead of starting with what we had, a template-oriented product built for finance people, and a desire to twist/configure into something else, we started with a blank sheet.  We asked business end-users what they wanted to do with an EPM product.  Those end-users gave us a three-part answer:

  • We want to be able to quickly figure out where we stand relative to the plan.
  • We want help in determining where we are going to land on the current quarter — and to optimize that result.  (Not an easy problem, mind you.)
  • We want to get the next period planned in line with objectives and targets.

And we want to do all of the above quickly and easily because, much as we love this stuff (and we don’t), we’ve got a business to run.  This idea, what we came to call the stand / land / planned message, became the center of Orion design.

How We Knew We Were Onto Something
We noticed quickly that people had strong reactions to Orion, which typically fell into one of two types:

  • Reaction 1:  “Holy Cow, why didn’t I think of that?  It’s kind of obvious in 20/20 hindsight.”
  • Reaction 2:  “That’s not needed.  You just need to configure your way out of the problem.”

In the early days, we got a lot of reaction 2 — particularly from our internal EPM experts, who were somewhat blinded by the paradox of knowledge.  The internal resistance was, at times, intense.  But that resistance told me that we were onto something.  We were challenging the conventional wisdom in a way that could lead to a major breakthrough.  And the more we asked people outside Host, and the more we showed Orion to business end-users, the more convinced we were that we had made such a breakthrough.

The same chief legal officer who said “I hate budgeting” above, said this:

“When I look at Project Orion, it’s clear that you are the only folks thinking about me.  I could and would use this tool.” — Chief Legal Officer after seeing Orion.

Tips on Adopting a Beginner’s Mind
We’re launching Project Orion today and proud both of the software we built and how we came to build it.  We believe Orion is a breakthrough product that is going to change the EPM market.  All because we looked at an age-old problem in EPM with a Beginner’s Mind.

I’ll finish the post with some tips on how to take a shoshin approach that we learned along our journey — and which happily don’t involve 10 days of silent meditation.

  • Put a mix of veterans and neophytes on the project.  This will reduce the paradox of knowledge and naturally bring in some fresh eyes.
  • Confront tough facts.  The data says lots of people still use only or primarily Excel despite 40 years of EPM.  That’s a fact.  The question is why?
  • Challenge the team to document hidden assumptions.  Configuration as the solution to the end-user problem was one such huge assumption.  You can only go outside the box when you know its edges.
  •  Talk to non-consumers.  Talking to customers is great, but it can create an echo chamber.  Talk to non-consumers, too, particularly when fishing for breakthroughs, and ask them why they have not purchased in the product category.
  • Embrace resistance.  View resistance as a good sign, as a sign that you’re changing something big, and not just as a yellow flag.
  • Test early and often.  Go back to the non-consumers you interviewed and ask if your prototype would change their mind.  Iterate in response.



Can You Solution Sell without Selling Solutions?

Yes.  And for those who get the distinction, I’d might add, somewhat obviously.

But too many people don’t get it.  Too many folks equate “solution selling” with “selling solutions.”  In fact, they’re quite different.  So, in this post, we’ll try to make the world a better place by explaining the difference between selling solutions and solution selling [1].

What is Solution Selling?

First and foremost, Solution Selling is a book [2].  And it’s a book written by a guy, Michael Bosworth, who, if memory serves, was trying to sell Knowledge Management Software in the 1980s.  Never forget this.  Solution Selling wasn’t written by a guy selling easy-to-sell products in a hot category, such as (at the time) Oracle database or PeopleSoft applications.  Solution Selling was written by a guy trying to sell in a tough category. Look at the subtitle of the book:  “Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets.”

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

When you’re selling in a hot category [3], this is what you hear from the market.

“Yes, we’re going to buy a business intelligence tool and Gartner tells us it should be one of Cognos, Brio, and you — so you’re going to need explain why we should pick you over the other two.”

Nothing about value.  Nothing about problems.  Nothing about ROI.  We’ve already decided we’re going to buy one and you need to convince us why to buy yours.  [4]

When you’re selling in a cold category, the conversation goes something like this:

“A what?  An XML database system?  Wait, didn’t Gartner call that ‘the market that never was’ about two years ago — why in the world would anyone ever buy one of those.” [5]

In the first case, the sales cycle is all about differentiation.  In the second case, it’s all about value.  In the first case, it’s why buy one from me.  In the second, it’s why buy one at all.

Solution selling is the process of identifying a business problem that the product solves, finding the business owner of that problem, and selling them on the value of solving that problem and your ability to do so.

To use my favorite marketing analogy [6], solution selling is the process of selling the value of a ¼” hole.  Product selling is talking all about the wonderful titanium that’s in the ¼” drill bit.

For example, at MarkLogic we sold the world’s finest XML database system and XQuery processing engine.  In terms of market interest, that plus $3 will get you a tall latte.  That is, no one cared.  You could call up IT people and database architects and database administrators all day and tell them you had the world’s finest XQuery engine and no would care.  They weren’t interested in the category.

Certain businesspeople, however, were quite interested in what you could do with it.

  • If you called the SVP of K-12 Education at Pearson and talked about solving the tricky problem of customizing textbooks to meet many and varied state regulations, you’d get a call back.
  • If you called an intelligence officer at your favorite three-letter agency and talked about gathering, enriching, and querying open source content to build next-generation OSINT systems, you’d get a call back.
  • If you called the SVP of Digital Strategy at McGraw-Hill and talked overall about how the industry needed to separate content from the container in building next-generation products in response to the massive threat to media caused by Google, you’d get a call back.

Simply put, if you called a person about an important problem that they needed to solve, they’d call you back.  Whether they’d buy from you would come down to the extent they believed you can solve the problem based on several factors including a technology assessment, conversations with reference customers for whom you’ve solved the problem before, the cost/benefit associated with the project, and whether they wanted to work with you. [7]

What is Selling Solutions?

Geoffrey Moore refers to an important concept called “whole product” in Crossing the Chasm.  And it’s the idea that you’re not just selling technology platform to your beachhead market, you’re selling the fact that you know how to solve problems with it. Solving those problems might require hundreds of hours of consulting services, integration with complementary third-party software packages, and data integration with existing core systems.

But nobody said the “whole product” had to be packaged up, for example, as a set of templates that you customize that help accelerate the process of solving the problem.  This is the zone of “solutions.”

Many companies, early in their lifecycle for focus reasons or late in their lifecycle to increase the size of a saturating market [8], decide they want to package up a solution after repeatedly solving a problem in a certain area.  This often starts out as leftover consulting-ware and over time can evolve into a set of full-blown applications.

At most software companies, particularly bigger ones, when you start talking about packaged solutions, this is what you mean:  the combination of know-how and leftover intellectual property (IP) from prior engagements not licensed as software product but nevertheless used to both accelerate the time it takes to build the solution and reduce the risk of failure in so doing.

For example, during my time at MarkLogic, we often debated whether and to what extent we should create a packaged custom publishing solution or simply think of custom publishing as a focus area, something that we had a lot of know-how in, and re-use whatever leftover IP we could from prior gigs without glorifying it as a packaged solution.  Because the assignments were so different (publishers used as the the platform to build their products) we never opted to do so.  Had we been selling a business-support application as opposed to do product development platform, we probably would have.

The Difference Between Solution Selling and Selling Solutions

Solution selling is an approach to (and a complete methodology for) the sales process.  Selling solutions means selling packaged, typically application-layer, know-how typically built into a series of templates and frameworks that help accelerate the process of solving a given problem.

They are different ideas.

You can solution sell without a single packaged solution in your product line.  To again answer the question posed by the title of this post:  Yes, you can solution sell without selling solutions.

Solution selling is simply an approach to how you sell your product.  Certainly it can be easier to solution sell when you are selling solutions.  But it is not required and one is not tantamount to the other.

# # #


[1] In fact, rather perversely, you can sell solutions without solution selling.  If your company built a custom-tailored solution to solve a specific business problem and if you sold it emphasizing the features of the solutions (i.e., “feeds and speeds”) without trying to understand the customer’s specific business problem and its impacts, then you’d be guilty of product-selling a solution.  See end of the post.

[2] Which has largely been replaced by the author’s next book, Customer Centric Selling, but which – like many classics – was better before it was “improved” in my humble opinion.

[3] Which leads to one of my favorite sayings:  “if you have to ask if you’re working in a hot category, you’re not.”  If you were, two things would be different:  first, you’d know and second, you’d be too busy to ask.  QED.

[4] Which results in what I call an “axe battle” sales process, reminiscent of knights in heavy armor swinging axes at each other where each is blow can be thought of as feature.  “We have aggregate awareness, boom.”  “We have dynamic microcubes, boom.”  And so on.

[5] Gartner did, in fact, say precisely this about this XML database market, but that didn’t stop us from building MarkLogic from $0 to an $80M revenue run-rate during my six years there.  It did, however, provide a huge clue that we needed to adopt a solution-selling methodology (and bowling-alley strategy) in so doing.

[6] “Purchasing agents buy ¼” holes, not ¼” bits.”  Theodore Levitt.

[7] Because a startup can only develop this fluency and experience in a small number of solutions, you should cross the chasm by focusing on an initial beachhead and then build out into other markets through adjacencies (aka, bowling alley strategy) as described in Inside the Tornado.  In many ways, the solution selling sales methodology goes hand in hand with these strategy books by Geoffrey Moore.

[8] Geoffrey Moore calls these +1 additions that help grow the market as the once-hot core technology market saturates and you need to switch back to a solution focus if you wish to increase the market size.

The Strategy Compiler: How To Avoid the “Great” Strategy You Couldn’t Execute

Few phrases bother me more than this one:

“I know it didn’t work, but it was a great strategy.  We just didn’t have the resources to execute it.”

Huh.  Wait minute.  If you didn’t have the resources to execute it, then it wasn’t a great strategy.  Maybe it was a great strategy for some other company that could have applied the appropriate resources.  But it wasn’t a great strategy for you.  Ergo, it wasn’t a great strategy.  QED.

I learned my favorite definition of strategy at a Stanford executive program I attended a few years back.  Per Professor Robert Burgelman, author of Strategy is Destiny, strategy is simply “the plan to win.”  Which begets an important conversation about the definition of winning.  In my experience, defining winning is more important than making the plan, because if everyone is focused on taking different hills, any resultant strategy will be a mishmash of plans to support different objectives.

But, regardless of your company’s definition of winning, I can say that any strategy you can’t execute definitionally won’t succeed and is ergo a bad strategy.

It sounds obvious, but nevertheless a lot of companies fall into this trap.  Why?

  • A lack of focus.
  • A failure to “compile” strategy before executing it.

Focus:  Think Small to Grow Big

Big companies that compete in lots of broad markets almost invariably didn’t start out that way.

BusinessObjects started out focused on the Oracle financials installed base.  Facebook started out on Harvard students, then Ivy league students.  Amazon, it’s almost hard to remember at this point, started out in books.  Salesforce started out in SMB salesforce automation.  ServiceNow on IT ticket management.  This list goes on and on.

Despite the evidence and despite the fame Geoffrey Moore earned with Crossing the Chasm, focus just doesn’t come naturally to people.  The “if I could get 1% share of a $10B market, I’d be a $100M company” thought pattern is just far too common. (And investors often accidentally reinforce this.)

The fact is you will be more dominant, harder to dislodge, and probably more profitable if, as a $100M company, you control 30% of a $300M target as opposed to 1% of a $10B target.

So the first reason startups make strategies they can’t execute is because they forget to focus.  They aim too broadly. They sign up for too much.  The forget that strategy should be sequence of actions over time.  Let’s start with Harvard. Then go Ivy League.  Then go Universities in general.  Then go everyone.

Former big company executives often compound the problem.  They’re not used to working with scarce resources and are more accustomed to making “laundry list” strategies that check all the boxes than making focused strategies that achieve victory step by step.

A Failure to Compile Strategy Before Execution

The second reason companies make strategies they can’t execute is that they forget a critical step in the planning process that I call the strategy compiler.  Here’s what I think a good strategic planning process looks like.

  • Strategy offsite. The executive team spends a week offsite focused on situation assessment and strategy.  The output of this meeting should be (1) a list of strategic goals for the company for the following year and (2) a high-level financial model that concretizes what the team is trying to accomplish over the next three years.  (With an eye, at a startup, towards cash.)


  • First round budgeting. Finance issues top-down financial targets.  Executives who own the various objectives make strategic plans for how to attain them.  The output of this phase is (1) first-draft consolidated financials, (2) a set of written strategies along with proposed organizational structures and budgets for attaining each of the company’s ten strategic objectives.


  • Strategy compilation, resources. The team meets for a day to review the consolidated plans and financials. Invariably there are too many objectives, too much operating expense, and too many new hires. The right answer here is to start cutting strategic goals.  The wrong answer is to keep the original set of goals and slash the budget 20% across the board.  It’s better to do 100% of 8 strategic initiatives than do 80% of 10.


  • Strategy compilation, skills. The more subtle assessment that must happen is a sanity check on skills and talent.  Do your organization have the competencies and do your people have the skills to execute the strategic plans?  If a new engineering project requires the skills of 5 founder-level, Stanford computer science PHDs who each would want 5% of a company, you are simply not going to be able to hire that kind of talent as regular employees. (This is one reason companies do “acquihires”).  The output of this phase is a presumably-reduced set of strategic goals.


  • Second round budgeting. Executives to build new or revised plans to support the now-reduced set of strategic goals.


  • Strategy compilation. You run the strategy compiler again on the revised plan — and iterate until the strategic goals match the resources and the skills of the proposed organization.


  • Board socialization. As you start converging via the strategy compiler you need to start working with the board to socialize and eventually sell the proposed operating plan.  (This process could easily be the subject of another post.)


If you view strategy as the plan to win, then successful strategies include only those strategies that your organization can realistically execute from both a resources and skills perspective.  Instead of doing a single-pass process that moves from strategic objectives to budgets, use an iterative approach with a strategy compiler to ensure your strategic code compiles before you try to execute it.

If you do this, you’ll increase your odds of success and decrease the odds ending up in the crowded section of the corporate graveyard where the epitaphs all read:

Here Lies a Company that Had a “Great” Strategy  It Had No Chance of Executing

How To Get Your Startup a Halo

How would you like your startup to win deals not only when you win a customer evaluation, but when you tie — and even sometimes when you lose?

That sounds great.  But is it even possible?  Amazingly, yes — but you need have a halo effect working to your advantage.  What is a halo effect?  Per Wikipedia,

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer’s overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties

There’s a great, must-read book (The Halo Effect) on the how this and eight other related effects apply in business.  The book is primarily about how the business community makes incorrect attributions about “best practices” in culture, leadership, values, and process that are subsequent to — but were not necessarily drivers of — past performance.

I know two great soundbites that summarize the phenomenon of pseudo-science in business:

  • All great companies have buildings.” Which comes from the (partly discredited) Good To Great that begins with the observation that in their study cohort of top-performing companies that all of them had buildings — and thus that simply looking for commonalities among top-performing companies was not enough; you’d have to look for distinguishing factors between top and average performers.
  • “If Marc Benioff carried a rabbit’s foot, would you?”  Which comes from a this Kellblog post where I make the point that blindly copying the habits of successful people will not replicate their outcome and, with a little help from Theodore Levitt, that while successful practitioners are intimately familiar with their own beliefs and behaviors, that they are almost definitionally ignorant of which ones helped, hindered, or were irrelevant to their own success.

Now that’s all good stuff and if you stop reading right here, you’ll hopefully avoid falling for pseudo-science in business.  That’s important.  But it misses an even bigger point.

Has your company ever won (or lost) a deal because of:

  • Perceived momentum?
  • Analyst placement on a quadrant or other market map?
  • Perceived market leadership?
  • Word of mouth as the “everyone’s using it” or “next thing” choice?
  • Perceived hotness?
  • Vibe at your events or online?
  • A certain feeling or je ne sais quoi that you were more (or less) preferred?
  • Perceived vision?

If yes, you’re seeing halo effects at work.

Halo effects are real.  Halo effects are human nature.  Halo effects are cognitive biases that tip the scales in your favor.  So the smart entrepreneur should be thinking:  how do I get one for my company?  (And the smart customer, how can I avoid being over-influenced by them?  See bottom of post.)

In Silicon Valley, a number of factors drive the creation of halo effects around a company.  Some of these are more controllable than others.  But overall, you should be thinking about how you can best combine these factors into an advantage.

  • Lineage, typically in the form of previous success at a hot company (e.g., Reid Hoffman of PayPal into LinkedIn, Dave Duffield of PeopleSoft into Workday).  The implication here (and a key part of halo effects) is that past success will lead to future success, as it sometimes does.  This one’s hard to control, but ceteris paribus, co-founding (even somewhat ex post facto) a company with an established entrepreneur will definitely help in many ways, including halo effects.
  • Investors, in one of many forms:  (1) VC’s with a strong brand name (e.g., Andreessen Horowitz), (2) specific well known venture capitalists (e.g., Doug Leone), (3) well known individual investors (e.g., Peter Thiel), and to a somewhat lesser extent (4) visible and/or famous angels (e.g., Ashton Kutcher). The implication here is obvious, that the investor’s past success is an indication of your future success.  There’s no doubt that strong investors help build halo effects indirectly through reputation; in cases they can do so directly as well via staff marketing partners designed to promote portfolio companies.
  • Investment.  In recent years, simply raising a huge amount of money has been enough to build a significant halo effect around a company, the implication being that “if they can raise that much money, then there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere.” Think Domo’s $690M or Palantir’s $2.1B.   The media loves these “go big or go home” stories and both media and customers seem to overlook the increased risk associated with staggering burn rates, the waste that having too much capital can lead to, the possibility that the investors represent “dumb money,” and the simple fact that “at scale” these businesses are supposed to be profitable.  Nevertheless, if you have the stomach, the story, and the connections to raise a dumbfounding amount of capital, it can definitely build a halo around your company.  For now, at least.
  • Valuation.  Even as the age of the unicorn starts to wane, it’s undeniable that in recent years, valuation has been a key tool to generate halos around a company.  In days of yore, valuation was a private matter, but as companies discovered they could generate hype around valuation, they started to disclose it, and thus the unicorn phenomenon was born.  As unicorn status became increasingly de rigeur, things got upside-down and companies started trading bad terms (e.g., multiple liquidation preferences, redemption rights) in order to get $1B+ (unicorn) post-money valuations.  That multiplying the price of a preferred share with superior rights by a share count that includes the number of lesser preferred and common shares is a fallacious way to arrive at a company valuation didn’t matter.  While I think valuation as a hype driver may lose some luster as many unicorns are revealed as horses in party hats (e.g., down-round IPOs), it can still be a useful tool.  Just be careful about what you trade to get it.  Don’t sell $100M worth of preferred with a ratcheted 2 moving to 3x liquidation preference — but what if someone would buy just $5M worth on those terms.  Yes, that’s a total hack, but so is the whole idea of multiplying a preferred share price times the number of common shares.  And it’s far less harmful to the company and the common stock.  Find your own middle ground / peace on this issue.
  • Growth and vision.  You’d think that industry watchers would look at a strategy and independently evaluate its merits in terms of driving future growth.  But that’s not how it works.  A key part of halo effects is misattribution of practices and performance.  So if you’ve performed poorly and have an awesome strategy, it will overlooked — and conversely.  Sadly, go-forward strategy is almost always viewed through the lens of past performance, even if that performance were driven by a different strategy or affected positively or negatively by execution issues unrelated to strategy.  A great story isn’t enough if you want to generate a vision halo effect.  You’re going to need to talk about growth numbers to prove it.  (That this leads to a pattern of private companies reporting inflated or misleading numbers is sadly no surprise.)  But don’t show up expecting to wow folks with vision. Ultimately, you’ll need to wow them with growth — which then provokes interest in vision.
  • Network.  Some companies do a nice and often quiet job of cultivating friends of the company who are thought leaders in their areas.  Many do this through inviting specific people to invest as angels.  Some do this simply through communications.  For example, one day I received an email update from Vik Singh clearly written for friends of Infer. I wasn’t sure how I got on the list, but found the company interesting and over time I got to know Vik (who is quite impressive) and ended up, well, a friend of Infer.  Some do this through advisory boards, both formal and informal.  For example, I did a little bit of advising for Tableau early on and later discovered a number of folks in my network who’d done the same thing.  The company benefitted by getting broad input on various topics and each of us felt like we were friends of Tableau.  While sort of thing doesn’t generate the same mainstream media buzz as a $1B valuation, it is a smart influencer strategy that can generate fans and buzz among the cognoscenti who, in theory at least, are opinion leaders in their chosen areas.

Before finishing the first part of this post, I need to provide a warning that halo effects are both powerful and addictive.  I seem to have a knack for competing against companies pursuing halo-driven strategies and the pattern I see typically runs like this.

  • Company starts getting some hype off good results.
  • Company starts saying increasingly aggressive things to build off the hype.
  • Analysts and press reward the hype with strong quadrant placements and great stories and blogs.
  • Company puts itself under increasing pressure to produce numbers that support the hype.

And then one of three things happens:

  1. The company continues delivering strong results and all is good, though the rhetoric and vision gets more unrelated to the business with each cycle.
  2. The company stops delivering results and is downgraded from hot-list to shit-list in the minds of the industry.
  3. The company cuts the cord with reality and starts inflating results in order to sustain the hype cycle and avoid outcome #2 above.  The vision inflates as aggressively as the numbers.

I have repeatedly had to compete against companies where claims/results were inflated to “prove” the value of bad/ordinary strategies to impress industry analysts to get strong quadrant positions to support broader claims of vision and leadership to drive more sales to inflate to even greater claimed results.  Surprisingly, I think this is usually done more in the name of ego than financial gain, but either way the story ends the same way — in terminations, lawsuits and, in one case, a jail sentence for the CEO.

Look, there are valid halo-driven strategies out there and I encourage you to try and use them to your company’s advantage — just be very careful you don’t end up addicted to halo heroin.  If you find yourself wanting to do almost anything to sustain the hype bubble, then you’ll know you’re addicted and headed for trouble.

The Customer View

Thus far, I’ve written this post entirely from the vendor viewpoint, but wanted to conclude by switching sides and offering customers some advice on how to think about halo effects in choosing vendors.   Customers should:

  • Be aware of halo effects.  The first step in dealing with any problem is understanding it exists. While supposedly technical, rational, and left-brained, technology can be as arbitrary as apparel when it comes to fashion.  If you’re evaluating vendors with halos, realize that they exist for a reason and then go understand why.  Are those drivers relevant — e.g., buying HR from Dave Duffield seems a reasonable idea.  Or are they spurious —  e.g., does it really matter that one board member invested in Facebook?  Or are they actually negative — e.g., if the company has raised $300M how crazy is their burn rate, what risk does that put on the business, and how focused will they stay on you as a customer and your problem as a market?
  •  Stay focused on your problem.  I encourage anyone buying technology to write down their business problems and high-level technology requirements before reaching out to vendors.  Hyped vendors are skilled at “changing the playing field” and trained to turn their vision into your (new) requirements.  While there certainly are cases where vendors can point out valid new requirements, you should periodically step back and do a sanity check:  are you still focused on your problem or have you been incrementally moved to a different, or greatly expanded one.  Vision is nice, but you won’t be around solve tomorrow’s problems if you can’t solve today’s.
  • Understand that industry analysts are often followers, not leaders.  If a vendor is showing you analyst support for their strategy, you need to figure out if the analyst is endorsing the strategy because of the strategy’s merits or because of the vendor’s claimed prior performance.  The latter is the definition of a halo effect and in a world full of private startups where high-quality analysts are in short supply, it’s easy to find “research” that effectively says nothing more than “this vendor is a leader because they say they’re performing really well and/or they’ve raised a lot of money.” That doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know already and isn’t actually an independent source of information.  They are often simply amplifiers of the hype you’re already hearing.
  • Enjoy the sizzle; buy the steak.  Hype king Domo paid Alec Baldwin to make some (pretty pathetic) would-be viral videos and had Billy Beane, Flo Rida, Ludacris, and Marshawn Lynch at their user conference.  As I often say, behind any “marketing genius” is an enormous marketing budget, and that’s all you’re seeing — venture capital being directly converted into hype.  Heck, let them buy you a ticket to the show and have a great time.  Just don’t buy the software because of it — or because of the ability to invest more money in hand-grooming a handful of big-name references.  Look to meet customers like you, who have spent what you want to spend, and see if they’re happy and successful.  Don’t get handled into meeting other customers only at pre-arranged meetings.  Walk the floor and talk to regular people.  Find out how many are there for the show, or because they’re actual successful users of the software.
  • Dive into detail on the proposed solution.  Hyped vendors will often try to gloss over solutions and sell you the hype (e.g., “of course we can solve your problem, we’ve got the most logos, Gartner says we’re the leader, there’s an app for that.”)  What you need is a vendor who will listen to your problem, discuss it with you intelligently, and provide realistic estimates on what it takes to solve it.  The more willing they are to do that, the better off you are.  The more they keep talking about the founder’s escape from communism, the pedigree of their investors, their recent press coverage, or the amount of capital they’ve raised, the more likely you are to end up high and dry.  People interested in solving your problem will want to talk about your problem.
  • Beware the second-worst outcome:  the backwater.  Because hyped vendors are actually serving Sand Hill Road and/or Wall Street more than their customers, they pitch broad visions and huge markets in order to sustain the halo.  For a customer, that can be disastrous because the vendor may view the customer’s problems as simply another lily pad to jump off on the path to success.  The second-worst outcome is when you buy a solution and then vendor takes your money and invests it in solving other problems.  As a customer, you don’t want to marry your vendor’s fling.  You want to marry their core.  For startups, the pattern is typically over-expansion into too many things, getting in trouble, and then retracting hard back into the core, abandoning customers of the new, broader initiatives.  The second-worst outcome is when you get this alignment wrong and end up in a backwater or formerly-strategic area of your supplier’s strategy.
  • Avoid the worst outcome:  no there there.  Once in awhile, there is no “there there” behind some very hyped companies despite great individual investors, great VCs, strategic alliances, and a previously experienced team.  Perhaps the technology vision doesn’t pan out, or the company switches strategies (“pivots”) too often.  Perhaps the company just got too focused on its hype and not on it customers.  But the worst outcome, while somewhat rare, is when a company doesn’t solve its advertised problem. They may have a great story, a sexy demo, and some smart people — but what they lack is a core of satisfied customers solving the problem the company talks about.  In EPM, with due respect and in my humble opinion, Tidemark fell into this category, prior to what it called a “growth investment” and what sure seemed to me like a (fire) sale, to Marlin Equity Partners.  Customers need to watch out for these no-there-there situations and the best way to do that is taking strong dose of caveat emptor with a nose for “if it sounds too good to be true, then it might well possibly be.”

Don’t Start a Customer Relationship with a Lie

As a manager, I like to make sure that every quarter that each of my direct reports has written, agreed-to goals.  I collect these goals in a Word document, but since that neither scales nor cascades well, I’ve recently been looking for a simple SaaS application to manage our quarterly Objectves and Key Results (OKRs).

What I’ve found, frankly, is a bit shocking.

Look, this is not the world’s most advanced technical problem.  I want to enter a goal (e.g., improve sales productivity) and associate 1-3 key results with that goal (e.g., improve ARR per salesrep from $X to $Y).  I have about 10 direct reports and want to assign 3-5 OKRs per quarter.  So we’re talking 30-50 objectives with maybe 60-100 associated key results for my little test.

I’d like some progress tracking, scoring at the end of the quarter, and some basic reporting.  (I don’t need thumbs-ups, comments, and social features.)  If the app works for the executive team, then I’ll probably scale it across the company, cascading the OKRs throughout the organization, tracking maybe 1,200 to 1,500 objectives per quarter in total.

This is not rocket science.

Importantly, I figure that if I want to roll this out across the entire team, the app better be simple enough for me to just try it without any training, presentations, demos, or salescalls. So I decide to go online and start a trial going with some SaaS OKR management providers.

Based on some web searches, PPC ads, and website visits, I decide to try with three vendors (BetterWorks, 15Five, and 7Geese).  While I’m not aiming to do a product or company comparison here, I had roughly the same experience across all three:

  • I could not start a free trial online
  • I was directed to an sales development rep (SDR) or account exec (AE) before getting a trial
  • That SDR or AE tried to insist on a phone call with me before giving me the trial
  • The trial itself was quite limited — e.g., 15 or 30 days.

At BetterWorks, after getting stuck with the SDR, I InMailed the CEO asking for an SDR-bypass and got one (thanks!) — but I found the application not intuitive and too hard to use.  At 7Geese, I got directed to an AE who mailed me a link to his calendar and wanted to me to setup a meeting.  After grumbling about expectations set by the website, he agreed to give me a trial.  At 15Five, I got an SDR who eventually yielded after I yelled at him to let me “follow my own buyer journey.”

But the other thing I noticed is that all three companies started our relationship with a lie of sorts.  What lie?  In all three cases they implied that I’d have easy access to a free trial.  Let’s see.

If you put a Free Trial button on your website, when I press it I expect to start an online process to get a free trial — not get a form that, once filled, replies that someone will be in touch.  That button should be called Contact Us, not Free Trial.

7Geese was arguably more misleading.  While the Get Started button down below might imply that you’re starting the process of getting access to a trial, the Get Started Now button on the top right says, well, NOW.

Worse yet, if you press the Get Started Now button on 7Geese, you get this screen next.

Tailored tour?  I pressed a button called Get Started Now.  I don’t want to setup a demo.  I want to get started using their supposedly “simple” OKR tracking app.

15Five was arguably the most misleading.

When you write “14 days free. No credit card needed.” I am definintely thinking that when I press Get Started that I’ll be signing up for a free 14-day trial on the next screen.  Instead I get this.

I didn’t ask to see if 15Five was right for my company.  I pressed a button that advertised a 14-day free trial with no credit card required.

Why, in all three cases, did these companies start our relationship by lying to me?  Probably, because in all three cases their testing determined that the button would be clicked more if it said Get Started or Frial Trial than if it said something more honest like Contact Us or  Request Free Trial.

They do get more clicks, I’m sure.  But those clicks start the relationship on a negative note by setting an expectation and immediately failing to meet it.

I get that Free Trials aren’t always the best way to market enterprise software.  I understand that the more complicated the application problem, the less a Free Trial is effective or even relevant.  That’s all fine.  If you haven’t built a viral product or work in a consumer-esque cateogry, that’s fine.  Just don’t promise a Free Trial on your website.

But when you’re in a category where the problem is pretty simple and you promise a Free Trial on your website, then I expect to get one.  Don’t start our relationship with a lie.  Even if your testing says you’ll get more clicks — because all you’ll be doing is telling more lies and starting more customer relationships on the wrong foot.

The Evolution of Marketing Thanks to SaaS

I was talking with my friend Tracy Eiler, author of Aligned to Achieve, the other day and she showed me a chart that they were using at InsideView to segment customers.  The chart was a quadrant that mapped customers on two dimensions:  renewal rate and retention rate.  The idea was to use the chart to plot customers and then identify patterns (e.g., industries) so marketing could identify the best overall customers in terms of lifetime value as the mechanism for deciding marketing segmentation and targeting.

Here’s what it looked like:


While I think it’s a great chart, what really struck me was the thinking behind it and how that thinking reflects a dramatic evolution in the role of marketing across my career.

  • Back two decades ago when marketing was measured by leads, they focused on how to cost-effectively generate leads, looking at response rates for various campaigns.
  • Back a decade ago when marketing was measured by opportunities (or pipeline), they focused on how to cost-effectively generate opportunities, looking at response and opportunity conversion rates.
  • Today, as more and more marketers are measured by marketing-sourced New ARR, they are focused on cost-effectively generating not just opportunities, but opportunities-that-close, looking all the way through the funnel to close rates.
  • Tomorrow, as more marketers will be measured on the health of the overall ARR pool, they will be focused on cost-effectively generating not just opportunities-that-close but opportunities that turn into the best long-term customers. (This quadrant helps you do just that.)

As a company makes this progression, marketing becomes increasingly strategic, evolving in mentality with each step.

  • Starting with, “what sign will attract the most people?” (Including “Free Beer Here” which has been used at more than one conference.)
  • To “what messages aimed at which targets will attract the kind of people who end up evaluating?”
  • To “who are we really looking to sell to — which people end up buying the most and the most easily – and what messages aimed at which targets will attract them?”
  • To “what are the characteristics of our most successful customers and how can we find more people like them?”

The whole pattern reminds me of the famous Hubspot story where the marketing team was a key part forcing the company to focus on either “Owner Ollie” (the owner of a <10 person business) or “Manager Mary” (a marketer at a 10 to 1000 person business).  For years they had been serving both masters poorly and by focusing on Manager Mary they were able to drive a huge increase in their numbers that enabled cost-effectively scaling the business and propelling them onto a successful IPO.


What kind of CMO does any CEO want on their team?  That kind.  The kind worried about the whole business and looking at it holistically and analytically.

Kellblog’s 2017 Predictions  

New Year’s means three things in my world:  (1) time to thank our customers and team at Host Analytics for another great year, (2) time to finish up all the 2017 planning items and approvals that we need to get done before the sales kickoff (including the one most important thing to do before kickoff), and time to make some predictions for the coming year.

Before looking at 2017, let’s see how I did with my 2016 predictions.

2016 Predictions Review

  1. The great reckoning begins. Correct/nailed.  As predicted, since most of the bubble was tied up in private companies owned by private funds, the unwind would happen in slow motion.  But it’s happening.
  2. Silicon Valley cools off a bit. Partial.  While IPOs were down, you couldn’t see the cooling in anecdotal data, like my favorite metric, traffic on highway101.
  3. Porter’s five forces analysis makes a comeback. Partial.  So-called “momentum investing” did cool off, implying more rational situation analysis, but you didn’t hear people talking about Porter per se.
  4. Cyber-cash makes a rise. CorrectBitcoin more doubled on the year (and Ethereum was up 8x) which perversely reinforced my view that these crypto-currencies are too volatile — people want the anonymity of cash without a highly variable exchange rate.  The underlying technology for Bitcoin, blockchain, took off big time.
  5. Internet of Things goes into trough of disillusionment. Partial.  I think I may have been a little early on this one.  Seems like it’s still hovering at the peak of inflated expectations.
  6. Data science rises as profession. Correct/easy.  This continues inexorably.
  7. SAP realizes they are a complex enterprise application company. Incorrect.  They’re still “running simple” and talking too much about enabling technology.  The stock was up 9% on the year in line with revenues up around 8% thus far.
  8. Oracle’s cloud strategy gets revealed – “we’ll sell you any deployment model you want as long as your annual bill goes up.”  Partial.  I should have said “we’ll sell you any deployment model you want as long as we can call it cloud to Wall St.”
  9. Accounting irregularities discovered at one or more unicorns. Correct/nailed.  During these bubbles the pattern always repeats itself – some people always start breaking the rules in order to stand out, get famous, or get rich.  Fortune just ran an amazing story that talks about the “fake it till you make it” culture of some diseased startups.
  10. Startup workers get disappointed on exits. Partial.  I’m not aware of any lawsuits here but workers at many high flyers have been disappointed and there is a new awareness that the “unicorn party” may be a good thing for founders and VCs, but maybe not such a good thing for rank-and-file employees (and executive management).
  11. The first cloud EPM S-1 gets filed. Incorrect.  Not yet, at least.  While it’s always possible someone did the private filing process with the SEC, I’m guessing that didn’t happen either.
  12. 2016 will be a great year for Host Analytics. Correct.  We had a strong finish to the year and emerged stronger than we started with over 600 great customers, great partners, and a great team.

Now, let’s move on to my predictions for 2017 which – as a sign of the times – will include more macro and political content than usual.

  1. The United States will see a level of divisiveness and social discord not seen since the 1960s. Social media echo chambers will reinforce divisions.  To combat this, I encourage everyone to sign up for two publications/blogs they agree with and two they don’t lest they never again hear both sides of an issue. (See map below, coutesy of Ninja Economics, for help in choosing.)  On an optimistic note, per UCSD professor Lane Kenworthy people aren’t getting more polarized, political parties are.


  1. Social media companies finally step up and do something about fake news. While per a former Facebook designer, “it turns out that bullshit is highly engaging,” these sites will need to do something to filter, rate, or classify fake news (let alone stopping to recommend it).  Otherwise they will both lose credibility and readership – as well as fail to act in a responsible way commensurate with their information dissemination power.
  1. Gut feel makes a comeback. After a decade of Google-inspired heavily data-driven and A/B-tested management, the new US administration will increasingly be less data-driven and more gut-feel-driven in making decisions.  Riding against both common sense and the big data / analytics / data science trends, people will be increasingly skeptical of purely data-driven decisions and anti-data people will publicize data-driven failures to popularize their arguments.  This “war on data” will build during the year, fueled by Trump, and some of it will spill over into business.  Morale in the Intelligence Community will plummet.
  1. Under a volatile leader, who seems to exhibit all nine of the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, we can expect sharp reactions and knee-jerk decisions that rattle markets, drive a high rate of staff turnover in the Executive branch, and fuel an ongoing war with the media.  Whether you like his policies or not, Trump will bring a high level of volatility the country, to business, and to the markets.
  1. With the new administration’s promises of $1T in infrastructure spending, you can expect interest rates to raise and inflation to accelerate. Providing such a stimulus to already strong economy might well overheat it.  One smart move could be buying a house to lock in historic low interest rates for the next 30 years.  (See my FAQ for disclaimers, including that I am not a financial advisor.)
  1. Huge emphasis on security and privacy. Election-related hacking, including the spearfishing attack on John Podesta’s email, will serve as a major wake-up call to both government and the private sector to get their security act together.  Leaks will fuel major concerns about privacy.  Two-factor authentication using verification codes (e.g., Google Authenticator) will continue to take off as will encrypted communications.  Fear of leaks will also change how people use email and other written electronic communications; more people will follow the sage advice in this quip:

Dance like no one’s watching; E-mail like it will be read in a deposition

  1. In 2015, if you were flirting on Ashley Madison you were more likely talking to a fembot than a person.  In 2016, the same could be said of troll bots.  Bots are now capable of passing the Turing Test.  In 2017, we will see more bots for both good uses (e.g., customer service) and bad (e.g., trolling social media).  Left unchecked by the social media powerhouses, bots could damage social media usage.
  1. Artificial intelligence hits the peak of inflated expectations. If you view Salesforce as the bellwether for hyped enterprise technology (e.g., cloud, social), then the next few years are going to be dominated by artificial intelligence.  I’ve always believed that advanced analytics is not a standalone category, but instead fodder that vendors will build into smart applications.  They key is typically not the technology, but the problem to which to apply it.  As Infer founder Vik Singh said of Jim Gray, “he was really good at finding great problems,” the key is figuring out the best problems to solve with a given technology or modeling engine.  Application by application we will see people searching for the best problems to solve using AI technology.
  1. The IPO market comes back. After a year in which we saw only 13 VC-backed technology IPOs, I believe the window will open and 2017 will be a strong year for technology IPOs.  The usual big-name suspects include firms like Snap, Uber, AirBnB, and SpotifyCB Insights has identified 369 companies as strong 2017 IPO prospects.
  1. Megavendors mix up EPM and ERP or BI. Workday, which has had a confused history when it comes to planning, acquired struggling big data analytics vendor Platfora in July 2016, and seems to have combined analytics and EPM/planning into a single unit.  This is a mistake for several reasons:  (1) EPM and BI are sold to different buyers with different value propositions, (2) EPM is an applications sale, BI is a platform sale, and (3) Platfora’s technology stack, while appropriate for big data applications is not ideal for EPM/planning (ask Tidemark).  Combining the two together puts planning at risk.  Oracle combined their EPM and ERP go-to-market organizations and lost focus on EPM as a result.  While they will argue that they now have more EPM feet on the street, those feet know much less about EPM, leaving them exposed to specialist vendors who maintain a focus on EPM.  ERP is sold to the backward-looking part of finance; EPM is sold to the forward-looking part.  EPM is about 1/10th the market size of ERP.  ERP and EPM have different buyers and use different technologies.  In combining them, expect EPM to lose out.

And, as usual, I must add the bonus prediction that 2017 proves to be a strong year for Host Analytics.  We are entering the year with positive momentum, the category is strong, cloud adoption in finance continues to increase, and the megavendors generally lack sufficient focus on the category.  We continue to be the most customer-focused vendor in EPM, our new Modeling product gained strong momentum in 2016, and our strategy has worked very well for both our company and the customers who have chosen to put their faith in us.

I thank our customers, our partners, and our team and wish everyone a great 2017.

# # #