Selling “by products”

There’s a good post on selling by products, on the always-insightful 37 signals blog.

Thinking aloud, we’ve developed a number of nifty apps for our internal use, and I do wonder if there’s an opportunity there for us to make them more widely available.

For example we have a really fun market intelligence and “prospecting” system, which is designed to help us find new people to talk with. Our sales guys love it and it’s paid for itself time and again – if I met you last week, it’s because of this system :-).

This is system is important enough that I’d not want to sell it to anyone who might compete with us, but if there’s a nice company with a similar “soft” approach to sales it might be a match made in heaven.

(Note we draw a distinction between “Getting new prospects” and “Manage the conversation with existing prospects” which we do in Salesforce.com right now – and whilst Salesforce is expensive, it’s good enough and replacing it right now wouldn’t bring competitive advantage.)

In addition, the next version of our web site will be similarly funky, doing some “Getting to know your readers better” stuff that I haven’t seen in off-the-shelf products. It’ll also feed into the prospecting/CRM system. For us, our web site is a tool to help people decide to call us, and it supports our people-centered sales process – it isn’t meant to make the sale on it’s own. So it makes a lot of sense to hook the web site into our prospect generation process directly at a very intimate level.

Finally we have an internal business management system, but that’s so specific to our way of working that it probably won’t work elsewhere. There’s a reason we needed to write this ourselves, we’ve got specific issues with multiple companies, currencies, etc. which I suspect most people would rather avoid!

So these systems really help us, we could well have something that’s useful for others. However, the problem is not the development of the application, or even the implementation. We can do that easily! Selling/marketing an application into a new market, that’s tough. The Sales Learning Curve is very real, sadly. On the other hand, it’s a great barrier to entry into the ELN market for potential competitors!

So I think we’re stuck with something really useful but don’t know how to take it to more people in a way that makes sense for everyone involved.

The answer might be “Open Source them” but I’m not sure these apps would generate a worthwhile community, and everything I’ve read indicates it’s the community that matters. We might pick up some consulting but I suspect we’ll make more money selling our stuff than helping other people sell theirs – and our market is still growing strongly, despite the changing economy.

For those that care, all of these are Rails applications, and we commit just under one FTE to developing/maintaining them. Although that’s a big investment we work on the principle that we’ve got excellent people in Sales, Customer Care etc. and it’s easier to find good coders to write applications to support them, than it is to find another good sales person (It’s very hard to find a good sales person – I have no idea what’s gone wrong in that “profession” but I’ve more or less given up on it).

As an aside, the Custodian’s Console grew out of an internal project, and it’s gone down really well with our customers. But that’s a product we’re selling to our current market, which we understand well.

Anyway, some things to think about….

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