WizKids 2009

Today’s column is a little different from the usual fare. Beagle Research Group has once again recognized a handful of companies with its annual WizKids award, this time for their innovations in front office computing. The idea behind the award — and a report that goes with it — is that innovation is happening all the time, and the best ideas can change our world. The 2009 WizKids all have that capability.

Luckily, most of the companies singled out for this recognition over the last five years are still around and doing pretty well. Many are established companies today, but there was a time when names like Eloqua, NetSuite and even were household words only at my house — and at the houses of a few other people who track emerging companies, like Paul Greenberg.

Five years ago, Salesforce was already a substantial company, so you might take exception with its inclusion. However, during that time, that successful emergent company decided to double down on the on-demand idea with Platform as a Service, another striking innovation.

Some pretty darned good companies never got a WizKids award. The truth is that the judging is a little fickle, and since only a handful of companies are recognized each year, it’s easy for a Zoho, a SugarCRM or a Neighborhood America to be missed. As we used to say in Boston baseball circles, there’s always next year.

Making It Easy

The WizKids report has tended to be thematic in the last few years, not because the selection process starts with a particular theme in mind, but because a theme usually emerges from what looks good or cool. For example, a few years ago I noticed the dwindling of conventional software companies as WizKids, and I don’t think there have been any WizKids that have not been SaaS (Software as a Service) providers for a while now.

That trend toward themes continues this year, and the theme is all about making your company easy to do business with. You know I have been on this operations kick for a while. Operations might be the flip side of customer intimacy, especially in a recession. Finding ways to lower your costs and make it easy for your customers to do business with you may not sound very sexy, but there is great opportunity in that pursuit.

Some of our best examples include Zuora for on-demand billing and payments, EchoSign for managing the contracts lifecycle, and TimeTrade for making it easy for any business to schedule appointments for their customers. Right90 stands out because it figured out how to make forecasting meaningful again, and Xactly for making it easier for sales employees to work with their organizations and vice versa. Unisfair and its ilk produce on-demand trade shows, and that’s an idea that has long legs.

Finally, there’s Manticore Technology. Very often, a marketing automation company makes the list of WizKids Award recipients. Going back a few years, there’s been an upward trend from providing basic marketing capability to delivering optimum functionality to making marketing automation easy to deliver, configure and use — not to mention low-cost.

Manticore does just that and is an example of why Sales 2.0 is heavily dependent on Marketing 2.0.

Just in Time

Following the last recession, there was a new dependence on Web-based meetings and on-demand software delivery. I think every recession generates some winners like that. From this recession, it is becoming clear that social networking is becoming absorbed into the business software suite. I also think solutions that enable higher levels of vendor operational excellence will be natural outgrowths of this downturn.

These solutions cut fat without damaging muscle — often a tall order — and they prepare us for an upturn that will be tepid. There will be growth, but it won’t be as robust as we had come to expect in the last few years, and we will all need operational solutions that help us cope. Fortunately, the wheels of innovation continue to turn, and we get what we need, just in time.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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