Four digital strategy tips for SMEs

I first came across Peter Thomson when he was a Brand Strategist with Brian Richards. We worked together for around 18months or so as we redeveloped the Cadimage Brand and then more Umbrella Bradning for the entire Cadimage Group.

Peter and I always had some very interesting conversations around all sorts of topics from marketing to pricing to charging for disbursements! Since initially meeting we have kept in touch and met up around the world when we could.

Since starting Cerulean Labs I have reconnected with Peter and he has provided early advice around Lean Marketing and how to get started.

Peter discussed his approach and more recently the following four tips were published along with a profile of Peter who is currently Head of Technology at the Ice House.

Start a newsletter: Email is an under-appreciated channel for building ongoing customer relationships. No matter what your industry, starting a company newsletter will give you a chance to speak more directly with your customers

Blog the journey: Share honest stories of the highs and lows so your audience can get to know your business better

Do things that don’t scale: Don’t rush to automate everything too early. Sometimes it’s worth the effort to personally provide a service to your early customers so you get to know them better

Sweat the small stuff: Details matter with product experience. Make sure you put time into touch points like user onboarding, login pages, the password reset process and your eCommerce checkout

Peter Thomson

These four points are all very useful, number four resonates especially for me as customer focus and customer experience are both critical to business success.

A brief look back

2020 is coming to a close and for obvious reasons it has been an interesting year for us all. Aside from the obvious the year had a number of challenges for me as it was the longest period I have been without a ‘job’ since I first started full-time work over 24 years ago.

I am thankful that to a large degree I don’t need to work however I still find having a professional focus and purpose is a critical part of who I am.

It wasn’t too difficult to fill my time and for the last few months have been focused on establishing my new business.

Here is brief recap of some of the achievements of which I am both proud and grateful for:

  • Moved into a new House with my family here in Budapest
  • In February visited friends and family in New Zealand and then a conference in the UK before air travel ceased for the remainder of the year
  • Supported my family working/schooling from home
  • Went for 138 runs, covering over 1370km – my biggest year yet – though a couple of injuries prevented me achieving what I had hoped, I did manage four solo Half Marathons – my first for over 10 years
  • 177 Sessions of mindfulness/meditation
  • Read 45 Books – an increase on 2019 but down on my book/week target
  • Learnt Swift & SwiftUI (basic level) and created numerous prototypes of various ideas
  • Wrote 70+ Blog Posts (I had some catching up to do and the Cadimage Story ended up about 10 times longer then expected)
  • Continued my work with Buildmedia and helped Gareth, Tim and Mandy navigate the covid challenges
  • Established Cerulean Labs and raised early capital from friends and family and completed our first [private] release

2021 is shaping up to be an exciting year and I can’t wait to get into it

2020 – Beginning a new challenge

2020 has been an enormous challenge for all humanity and while I could write a Covid-focused post and focus on the New Year as a way to put 2020 behind us that is not the focus of this post. The challenge I refer to in the title is the new business that had the seeds planted a few years ago when I sold Cadimage Group and embarked on the next step of my life journey here in Hungary.

From my point of view life and business are both journeys and each run through various cycles of ups and downs, joy and pain. 2020 – while unprecedented in my lifetime – can be seen as another one of these cycles which brought change to all our lives in a number of ways.

At the start of the year I was very much in the frame of mind to build a new business. I’d always expected that at some point I would give it a crack and had always been searching for ideas.

January saw me, along with a couple of others, exploring a BIG idea, in fact it was probably a little too big! While having big goals is important, the main trouble we saw with our idea was it was very difficult to start with a small piece and add to it over time. For our solution to be accepted by the market it really needed to be close to 100%. I realise this simplifies things and could be seen as running from a challenge but being bold also requires confidence and whichever way we looked at things it was hard to be totally confident about the idea. (We still keep it in mind though 🙂 )

Confidence is a core value I have always felt strongly about in business. Confidence sets businesses apart and confidence builds confidence. If you project confidence to your customers, they become confident in working with you and your product.

Anyway, Covid came along and I saw my consulting business dry up so I started focussing more and more on ideas and opportunities. Prior to air travel being restricted I attended a conference which was very stimulating. Covid obviously saw a huge move to working from home, however even before Covid I knew any new business I would create would be based on a remote team.

As have many people, I used the opportunity to learn new things and taught myself the basics of iOS, Swift and SwiftUI. I started building some prototypes and exploring ideas and further refining them.

I continued to engage with my co-founders and the idea started to crystallise and we started to put the foundations in place for a new business. We established the business and set about building the first version of our product. We put in a small amount of money to help us get things moving and within a couple of months had made sufficient progress to do a very early pre-seed round to give us some runway to double down on our development. In parallel with development I started some Lean Marketing.

Building a business can be viewed like building a house, with the ground work and foundations being the first part and critical to creating a strong platform on which the rest is built. To a large extent this applies, however the actual process is probably more like building an entire town of houses. As a startup we build foundations for what we need to achieve, doing just enough of some things in order to keep going. In some cases we know what we build today, we need to rebuild (or replace entirely) down the track.

I have been involved with owning and managing businesses for almost 20 years. I’ve been involved in all aspects across building and growing businesses, developing, selling and supporting software and all the marketing, service and admin that surrounds these activities. However, this time instead of joining a well established and profitable business we’re starting from zero.

This is a new, exciting and at times scary challenge. I am confident in the abilities and experience of my team and while a huge challenge lies ahead by the end of 2020 we have begun our journey and have enough pieces in place to start 2021 with confidence.

To be or not to be… Freemium

When I was first thinking about setting up a business I touched briefly on the concept of Freemium.

Now that I am underway with my new business it is now time to give it serious thought.

There are a wide array of articles in relation to freemium, and to boil them all down – there is no one right or wrong way – as always it depends on a number of factors.

Mailchimp for example spent 8 years refining their product and pricing before they felt confident a Freemium offering would be beneficial. While companies like Dropbox, Evernote and Slack embraced Freemium from the beginning and the majority of their success is based on their Freemium model.

That said, businesses that target markets above 100 million, can be quite happy with 1% conversion rates as 1 million paying customers can generate an extremely healthy business.

My general feeling is that it is extremely important to truly understand what customers value in your product before embarking on a Freemium journey. This need not take eight years like Mailchimp, but really understanding and your market for a period of time prevents the guesswork associated with launching Freemium from day one.

Also you don’t need to be worried about not launching, you can always introduce Freemium when the time is right.

This quote from a recent article I read encapsulates my current thinking:

“If implemented right, Freemium can be a long-term revenue driver for businesses. However, this can only be realized by measuring metrics that showcase this strategy’s impact over time.”

Freemium: Playing the Long Game

Freemium is definitely something I want to explore in the future but in the first instance I want to measure and understand value. That said, I will have a Free Trial Version so that at least allows potential customer to access the product before committing.

Making a start…

Quite often things take longer then expected! But today marks the official start of something new.

Ive been trying to get something off the ground for over 12 months and after a few misguided attempts today marked the incorporation of a new business.

We’ve got a lot ahead of us before we’ll be in a position to talk about it but it is a great feeling to have my own business again.

Today marks the point where various prototypes from the last 6 months get put to the side and we start development of what will hopefully be v1 of our product.

Getting started is always a hump to get over, but while we have lots of challenges ahead of us as we begin to build a new business from the ground up, we now have a single minded goal and focus to aim at.

The B1M – 1,000,000

Great recognition for the work the team over at The B1M are doing with an amazing milestone reached recently:

The B1M becomes the first construction YouTube channel to reach one million subscribers

Wow! Thats a great achievement – congratulations Fred and team.

In Fred’s words, he

“loves construction and wants the whole world to love it too”

Fred Mills

Well 1,000,000 is a good first step!

What Platform?

This is a tougher question for me as there is no clear cut answer and the ideas I have are spread across all platforms – web / phone / tablet / desktop. All platforms have different pros and cons and also require different development skills.

I’ve been developing web based apps for over 20 years. The original ARCHICADselect Website was powered by early ASP and SQL Database. This evolved over time and became a whole front and back office system integrated with accounting, support, payments, subscriptions.

More recently I have been learning iOS development with Swift and SwiftUI. This has certainly been fun and has been great to see some early ideas come to life on my iPad – even if they are very primitive!

When considering platforms I’m also coming back to business models like subscription and freemium.

Freemium is where you have a Free Version and a [paid] Premium Version of the software. The general idea (and the details should be a post on themselves) is that the Free Product is a marketing Tool to capture as many users as possible and then convert a number of these to paying customers.

A key consideration with regards to Freemium is the “cost to serve” that is, how much does it cost to serve each freemium user. There are many businesses that have failed purely due to the excessive costs associated with supporting their ‘free’ users.

A fairly simplistic view admittedly is that free customers on a “web based” system will have costs that can increase significantly as the number of customers increases. While a piece of software installed on a users iPad has a very margin cost to serve which (should) stay under control with large volumes.

This is not the only consideration but an example of how different platforms can have different affects. Like I say Freemium is a strategy in itself and I’d be jumping the gun a little to be deciding my business model detail without first knowing what I am developing.

In short, this is one area I still need to give considerable thought, though based on some prototypes to date I can at least reduce the options to web or iPad – or ultimately maybe a mix.

Subscription Based

For those of you who know me or are readers of this blog you’ll know I have a passion for creating business models based on recurring revenue – the majority of my consulting projects have been based on this aspect of business.

While Salesforce is generally credited with making Subscription based Software / Software as a Service mainstream, the last 20 years have seen

In the architecture space all the major players have introduced Subscription licensing either in parallel or as a replacement for perpetual based licensing. Cadimage was the first in the world for ArchiCAD and I then went on to lead the GRAPHISOFT SE Introduction of Subscription Worldwide.

Subscription businesses build revenue over the long term so have high cash requirements during the short to medium term. However, the pay off, if executed well, can be very rewarding.

Another advantage is that the cost to get started can be very low if based on a monthly model. This is not to say that sales are or will be easy – value still needs to be delivered at any price – but having a fee based on a period of time reduces risk for the customer.

The flip side of this is of course the ability for customer to stop paying if they don’t see value. Therefore the sales process for a subscription business continues long after the initial purchase.

As a person who has always had a customer centric mindset I see subscription models and the associated customer journeys as compliments to the overall strategy.

“I want the product to be my own IP”

I’m currently Thinking… about a new business and these posts take a look at different aspects and thoughts

While this may seem obvious, it also requires more explanation. With Cadimage we created a series of Tools for ArchiCAD. While the Tools were our IP, our customers also needed to own ArchiCAD before they were even a prospect for us. 

Some estimates indicate there are 3-4 million architects worldwide. Let’s keep it simple and say 2,000,000. If you create a product that you hope will see a 15-25% uptake (tough) you could have 300,000 – 500,000 customers.  But if you rely on that customer already owning a particular piece of software the 2,000,000 total addressable market is considerably reduced.

We found with Cadimage that even simple marketing like Google Ads was fraught with difficulty, as we’d constantly pay for clicks that were worthless as the people didn’t even own ArchiCAD.

I want to create something that can be assessed completely on its own merits and provide value in and of itself. Depending on what we end up deciding it may need to work alongside other software, but I don’t want other software to be a pre-requisite.

While there is huge potential to create add-ons for the different BIM systems other issues we faced was customer expectations that the primary software should “just do that” ie the tools we were delivering were expected “out of the box” this led to many people not investing (even a relatively small amount) to buy tools that could increase their productivity. They would say “the product will do that at some time so I’ll wait” I could never understand people who would prefer to wait in order to increase productivity.