Web 2.0 breeds go-to-market mavericks

They avoid advertising, PR or working directly with IT departments. But some think it’s time for such companies to embrace old methods

You can find a lot of information on the average Canadian Web 2.0 company’s Web site – products still in the alpha stage, a manifesto of corporate philosophy, forums galore – but don’t expect to see an office phone number.

Instead, firms such as Vancouver-based Dabble DB list e-mail links and refer visitors to their executive team’s blog as the primary sources of contact and communication. It’s not that they don’t want to hear from early adopters and prospective users. Having released a hosted combination of spreadsheets, custom databases and intranet Web applications two months ago, Dabble DB is as hungry for revenue as Microsoft and Oracle. But according to Avi Bryant, Dabble DB’s co-CEO, this is simply the way Web 2.0 business is done. 

“It’s a generational thing that there is a world of users and of communities out there that have gotten really used to communicating over e-mail and online forums. The first stage is to tap into that world,” he said. And resources are also an issue for a four-person startup. “Everyone is actively involved in developing the product. Just to take a phone call can take a huge amount of time.”

The same holds true for a growing number of Canadian entrepreneurs who are developing social networking tools, file-sharing applications and other products built on AJAX or similar platforms. Marketing is strictly viral, through word of mouth or the blogsphere. Products evolve far more quickly than the stately pace of more traditional business software. And more often than not, the IT manager or CIO is not the prime target in the organization.

Wild Apricot, which is based in Toronto, is an example. Earlier this year the firm launched hosted software aimed at non-profit organizations and associations which automates routine tasks such as organizing events, handling registrations and managing member databases. Dmitry Buterin, Wild Apricot’s CEO, said many of his potential users work in organizations too small to have an IT manager, or one that would balk at the use of online tools that interoperate with those of other firms.

“IT people, because they want security, they want stability. If you open the system to an external audience, they think it will be a problem and hard to maintain,” he said. “On the other hand, it gives you so many other benefits, such as contributions from all over the world.”

Because many Web 2.0 applications are hosted online and can be delivered as a low-cost monthly service, business users choose to use their discretionary funding and pay for it on a company credit card. This can happen without the CIO being any the wiser, said Nathan Rudyk, who helps develop strategies for startup firms at Market2World Communications in Ottawa. 

“A lot of that stuff was to sidestep the IT department. Not that the IT department shouldn’t be involved, but people felt there were barriers to purchasing,” he said. “They’d get a response like, ‘Until we can purchase a server or make sure that’s inside our secure firewall, we can’t do that.’”

Going directly after business users is not as easy as it sounds, however, according to Bryant, who said small companies usually have at least one technically savvy employee who becomes a trusted advisor of sorts.

A religion
Rudyk said it has become a religion among many Web 2.0 companies not to darken their marketing strategy with traditional outreach techniques, but it’s important that they don’t ignore avenues that could get their products used. More traditional companies such as Microsoft and HP are starting to adopt Web 2.0 as a means to get their message out, but Web 2.0 firms should be similarly open-minded to tried-and-tested marketing techniques as well, he said.

“I don’t know if it’s a form of arrogance or something that gets ingrained in the culture of those companies, but they’ll brag about how they’ve never paid a PR firm or spent on traditional advertising,” he said. “At some point, you have to get out of the basement with your buddies and become a real company.”

Some Web 2.0 companies are changing tactics as they become more mature.

Like its peers, Toronto-based BlogMatrix gained attention through its executive team’s professional contacts. Three years after it was founded, the company is now developing a more aggressive go-to-market strategy for its products, which facilitate corporate blogging projects, as well as podcasts and webcasts. For the first time, for instance, BlogMatrix will be hiring a sales force, and will partner with service providers in vertical markets that would offer its products like a reseller might.

“We want to accelerate our sales,” said David Janes, BlogMatrix’s founder and president. “I didn’t want to be the company that’s bleeding until it’s bought by Yahoo.”

As the sales process becomes more refined, so might the product cycles. Buterin said Wild Apricot originally started out with 300 features, which made it hard to test properly, but user feedback allows the firm to make changes on the fly.

“We don’t have one long development cycle. We can release a product at any moment,” he said.

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