IITP2013: Ed Robinson on taking an NZ tech business global

Apimize co-founder Ed Robinson says selling in a large market like the United States is not like selling in New Zealand. Sales people in Australia and New Zealand are generalists because our markets are small.

In the US, sales people specialise. They work narrow niches. A sales person there might only deal with, say, network security software for large financial services companies.

It’s a graphic illustration of the scale required. On the other hand, the scale of the opportunity is also huge. Robinson has been there. After building scale and selling to Silicon Valley, his Wellington-based business was snapped up by Riverbed for US$30 million in 2011.

Robinson relocated to California. This week he was back in New Zealand to share the lessons he learned at the IITP 2013 Conference in Tauranga.

Sales are key

Sales are key to going global. It sounds obvious, but Robinson says things only really took off when he moved from a technical role into dales. He says a company should aim to invest in the time taken to learn how to achieve repeatable sales while finding the first 100 customers. This process should take about six months. Once you’ve found 100 customers you can move to scale your business.

His advice is to start by identifying a single customer vertical market where customers face the same problem. Preferably you should target enterprise customers – that’s were there’s money although it can be difficult getting through their formal processes to the point where you get paid.

You should be able to respond to all customers with the same value proposition and deliver the same solution. Once you’ve settled on the right formula you can start repeating the sale as if you are following a script.

Fixing on a price strategy

Finding a price strategy is important. Robinson says there are six possibilities. Traditionally packaged software has been the most popular. The pay per use model works well if you’re selling content. He says you need to charge the same as others in the market if you take this approach.

Subscription is rapidly taking place of packaged software. The good side of the model is that you get recurring, predictable revenue and you start each month with as much revenue as the one before. Customers expect to pay relatively small amounts, go past $10 a month and consumers will resist. Enterprise customers are OK with subscriptions but prefer to pay annually – mainly because they face relatively high costs when making payments.

There’s no much control with the advertising model because it puts you at the mercy of the companies selling the ads. If Google changes its rates for Adwords, your income will change. With Freemium you should expect about one percent of users to pay for your product.

Offering a free product is only a temporary strategy and it requires deep pockets.

The trouble with marketplaces

Robinson says he is wary of marketplaces – like the Apple App Store or Google Play. He says they mainly exist for the benefit of the parent product. The companies running them need them to build their own momentum.

He has praise for the Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco and says many of the New Zealanders in the US are only too happy to help others succeed. Connections like this are important in the US, especially in Silicon Valley where success often depends on making contact with the right people

Mac writing tools 2013 edition

When it comes to writing news stories, the easiest approach is to type directly into WordPress. The editing software has a wonderful, minimal full-screen view which gets out of the way and allows you to quickly and simply hammer out the words.

For other writing jobs I use a variety of tools. Here’s a run down of the most important options.

WordPress

WordPress can be as clean as a blank sheet of white paper in an old-school typewriter. It works. It’s fast, lightweight and relatively painless.

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However, it isn’t without flaws. While it is easy to add lists, embed media, link to web pages or produce elegant pull quotes, adding a cross-head is clumsy. I have to take my hands off the keyboard, mouse to the top of the screen and change the display from Visual model to Text mode then manually add the HTML command <h2> or perhaps <h3> at the start of the cross-head and a closing </h2> code at the end.

While WordPress gets the job done for posting stories like this one, it’s not a great tool for other writing jobs. Although I can’t easily write an interview for a client or newspaper then send it to them very easily with WordPress, it is the jumping off point for this personal look at alternative writing tools.

Microsoft Word

Whatever your opinion of Microsoft Word, it is the de facto standard for sending finished writing jobs to clients.

Most of the people I work with expect to get Word documents. They don’t always, but most of the time I have to convert whatever I’ve written into a format that will easily open in Word.

Given that, there’s a strong argument for sticking with Word when writing for clients.

Sadly Word is disappointing on OS X. I paid for my MacBook copy of Word through my $165 Office 365 subscription. I originally signed up from a Windows 8 PC, but the licence transfers to the Mac.

In fact I can use Microsoft Office on up to five devices. It’s also on my phone and until recently I had a Windows version running the Mac as well as the OS X version.

Depending on how you look at these things, Word is either a powerful, full-featured, professional document creation tool or it is bloated and clumsy. Actually it manages to be both. There are tools like Track Changes which I deeply loath, but sometimes I work with a client who insists I use the feature. Well, maybe not if I see Track Changes coming first.

The current Mac version is Word:mac 2011. It feels as if it is two generations behind the current Windows version of the software. I could live with that, but Word doesn’t do a good job of getting out the way on the Mac.

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Word:mac 2011 has a distraction free full-screen mode – shown above in the screenshot. It’s great, or it would be if it stayed put. If I need to switch to another screen, say to check facts in an email or on a web page, the distraction free display reverts to a normal, distracting display. I jump to other screens a lot and find this annoying.

Pages ’09

Pages ’09 is part of Apple’s iWork suite of apps. There’s the Numbers spreadsheet and KeyNote, a presentation tool. The three work well together in much the same way as Microsoft Office. Each of the three programs are in the OS X App Store and sell for $25 in New Zealand.

Apple sells the same titles for the iPad and the iPhone. New owners of those devices get free versions, it would cost me $14 to add the iPad version of Pages. That’s not a lot of money, but is in marked contrast to Microsoft’s approach which allows one purchase covering all supported devices.

Pages is well overdue for an update, the ’09 is a dead giveaway. Four years ago it may have been ahead of its time, today it feels somewhat old fashioned.

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At first sight Apple’s Pages ’09 resembles Microsoft Word. It has lots of features and options but not Microsoft’s bloat. Unlike Word, it does a great job of getting out of the way, there’s a distraction free screen that works just as you’d expect. It’s easy to produce documents that, as far as my clients are concerned, came from Microsoft Word.

While Pages functions as a perfectly good word processor, that’s not really what Apple has in mind for the software. It’s really a flexible layout tool. In the old days we might even have described it as desktop publishing software – although it has nothing like the power of Adobe’s InDesign for professional work.

You can use Pages to create beautiful documents with images, graphs and tables. If I was preparing a business report, a newsletter or a book this would be my first port of call.

Google Docs

These days Mac writing tools aren’t limited to the apps that run directly on the hardware. Anyone taking a look at the options should at least consider Google Docs and the Microsoft Office Web App version of Word.

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Google Docs is sleek and clean. It’s a great option for collaborating with others although one very specific and annoying flaw in Google’s software means I prefer the Word Web App for online writing.

I have a few personal problems with Google Docs, your experience may differ. First, Google Docs needs a lot more mouse action than Word or Pages. There aren’t so many keyboard short cuts, this slows me down and makes my hands ache more. If you’re not a touch typist this may not bother you.

Second, the text can often be too small to read, zooming Google Docs does strange things to the mouse and cursor so they no longer line up properly with the page – that means you might add a word or delete characters at the wrong place. If you’re working alone, you can just make the text larger, this is harder to do when you’re collaborating.

Another reason I don’t like Google Docs is that its text tends to extend over lines that are too wide for comfortable reading.

It’s possible none of these shortcomings worry you – they are possibly personal or just things that bother people like me who write for a living. I know other journalists who tolerate Google Docs, I don’t know of many who love it as a writing tool.

iA Writer

On one level Information Architect’s iA Writer is my favourite Macintosh writing tool. I first found the software on the iPad and now use it on my Mac for small scale writing jobs – it’s not so great for anything over around 500 words.

That’s mainly because  iA Writer is a text editor. It is not a word processor.

I like it because it is clean and stays right out of the way. As I have written elsewhere, it’s the nearest thing in the digital world to using a mechanical typewriter and a clean sheet of paper. It does spell-check and it does allow minimal levels of mark-up.

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It’s fast and it’s productive, but the reasons that make it great for short writing jobs work against it for longer more complex tasks. That’s because it’s hard to navigate long documents when there are no obvious heads, cross heads or bolded text.

When I purchased iA Writer for the iPad it was just $1.99, it now sells for US$5, the OS X version is US$9.

FocusWriter

Like iA Writer, FocusWriter is designed from the outset for distraction-free writing. The software is free, but you’re expected to make a donation if you use it.

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When you first open the application you nothing, just blank light grey screen. Start typing and the text appears in black, 12-point Times New Roman. On my MacBook Air the characters are tiny, barely large enough to read.

It’s possible to change the font, type size, colour, background colour and the line spacing. To get to the controls you need to mouse to the top of the screen. Once there you can set up themes. Normally documents are stored as plain text. If you need to work with Microsoft Office users you can save as RTF.

FocusWriter is the most basic writing software I looked, but it gets the job done.

Other writing tools

A couple of people suggested I try Mars Edit from Red Sweater Software. It looks fine, but it’s not the tool I’m looking for. BBEdit was also recommended, but again it’s not right. BBEdit could best be described as a text editor, which makes it useful for dealing with HTML or CSS.

For short writing jobs iA Writer is my clear favourite. I’m struggling to find the best tool for longer jobs. At the moment I waver between Word and Pages. Neither is completely satisfactory, neither is awful.

My needs are non-standard. I’m a career journalist and a professional writer. I like tools that get out of the way, layout and all the heavy payload in Word are of little day-to-day interest. I suspect there may be something closer to my needs out there. I’ll let you know if I find it.

Adobe Creative Cloud pricing: much ado about nothing?

Adobe-Creative-Cloud

Adobe’s Creative Cloud looks a lot like Creative Suite 6. There are new features. Some border on revolutionary. Yet overall, the Adobe Creative experience isn’t dramatically different from what went before.

So why have almost 40,000 customers signed a petition against Adobe Creative Cloud?

The customer backlash is because Adobe has moved to a subscription-only model that makes already expensive software more expensive. It doesn’t help that Adobe has a near monopoly on the software used by design professionals.

Adobe Creative Cloud standard

Yes, there are alternatives, but they are often unsatisfactory and rarely as comprehensive. And anyway, these tools are the industry standard. You can’t realistically work without them.

Adobe’s cloud pricing model is more expensive than being able to buy the software piecemeal as needed.

It’s not all bad.

A full Adobe Creative Cloud subscription costs New Zealanders A$50 a month or A$600 a year. Existing customers can upgrade for A$30 a month. That’s also the price Adobe charges students.

So for A$600 a year you can get all the software that would cost close to A$3000 if purchased the old way. The new cloud deal also throws in a few online storage options to sweeten the pot.

Staying up to date

What I like about this deal is the way it means you can always keep bang up-to-date with the software. That’s good for security and its good for staying compatible with everyone else.

On the other hand, it’s also what the complaining customers don’t like. With the old way of buying Adobe software, customers could save money by skipping upgrades. After all, many upgrades are not that necessary. Until Adobe offered me a trial subscription of Creative Cloud, I was still using CS2 – amazingly that ancient version met my needs.

The other counter argument is that the A$50 a month Creative Cloud subscription is all-or-nothing. Adobe does offer subscriptions to individual applications for A$20 a month, but you have to be an intrepid explorer to find these on the company’s website. What’s more you don’t get access to some of the cloud services.

The more you need the cheaper it gets

There’s little question Adobe’s new price regime is designed to increase revenues and margins for the company. Let’s not forget this is the company that appeared to be the worst offender at the Australian price-gouging inquiry.

To be fair to Adobe, there’s no price-gouging with its cloud offering. Exchange rates fluctuate, but at the moment Adobe’s Australian and New Zealand monthly subscription is A$50, that’s less than the US$50 being charged in America

And while many users are unhappy, Adobe’s cloud price scheme is a great deal for the company’s most serious users. Those who rely on multiple Adobe applications and need to stay current get a good deal. These people will be happy with the new price regime. So will start-ups and other less wealthy companies which could use the full suite but might struggle to find the $3000 a pop to equip users.

But is it a cloud?

Despite the name Adobe’s Creative Cloud isn’t software as a service. Users download applications and use them locally. Once a month the software calls home to the Adobe mothership to check subscriptions are up-to-date. If the answer is no, they stop running.

Disclosure: Adobe has given me a one year Creative Cloud subscription so I can review the software – expect to see something on that soon. If I didn’t have the review subscription I’d probably choose to push my old software for as long as possible, but then I’m hardly a hard-core Adobe user these days.  

Xero drops Personal

personal-laptop-1d1561Xero is winding-up its personal accounting product.  The service will close on November 30, 2014.

In a statement to the NZX chief executive Rod Drury said the move will cost the company $700,000. From now Xero will focus its development resources on the core products for small businesses and accountants.

Xero Personal is only a small part of the company’s business. Drury said while it covered its costs, it only contributed $600,000 to the $39 million in revenue that Xero posted for the year to March 2013.

Seemed a good idea at the time

Drury says independent personal financial management looked like a complementary service to accounting, especially for small business owners. But the market hasn’t taken off for Xero or any other players.

Xero says existing Personal users on September 30 will be able to continue to use the service after their annual expiry date at no additional charge. The company will give help to customers wanting to export data.

Comment: Clearly Xero Personal is a distraction from the company’s main business. Dropping it makes sense for Xero. While the move is mildly annoying for users, I doubt many will be deeply upset.

Hopefully another company will be able to pick up the business. This tweet from Rod Drury suggests as much:

As one of Xero Personal’s 12,000 or so paying customers, I’ll miss it, but I won’t be heartbroken. The software is useful, but only up to a point. Most important, it can’t do what I want most from a personal finance application: that is give me an instant snapshot of my overall position.

That’s because of the difficulty it has dealing with my Kiwisaver account.  For readers outside New Zealand, Kiwisaver is a government supported personal savings scheme. Sparing you the details, let’s just say Xero Personal requires work; more work than $600,000 a year in revenue justifies.