Selling ThoughtFarmer: What’s Worked, What Hasn’t

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Here at ThoughtFarmer, we’re software designers, not marketers. Learning how to sell our intranet solution has taken years, and we still have so much to learn. We’re getting better, though, and revenue growth is very strong. Here are a few thoughts about our market, which we’ll call “enterprise social software”, and what’s worked with our sales process — and what hasn’t.

My take on the “enterprise social software” market as a whole.

  1. It’s in its infancy
  2. It may be the first time that technology actually has the opportunity to transform organizations instead of just optimizing business processes
  3. Explaining it is hard
  4. The vocabulary we’re using (“social”, “enterprise 2.0”, “complex adaptive systems”) means nothing outside the industry
  5. SharePoint is presently the only competitor to worry about
  6. It’s going to be a really, really huge market

What’s worked.

  1. We’re pleased with our positioning as intranet software. It’s a keyword we can actually compete on (as opposed to, say, “collaboration software“) and we have a good story to tell about our intranet heritage
  2. We’ve landed some respected reference clients, like IDEO
  3. We’re getting some play on our case studies in books and conferences
  4. Our blogging and tweeting seems to drive lots of interest
  5. Our “Tubetastic” campaign was very memorable and greatly increased site traffic and brand recognition in the industry
  6. We seem to be well-liked. In fact, the Gartner Magic Quadrant even says so. 🙂 “ThoughtFarmer is a well liked and capable product.”
  7. I personally handle 80% of sales. This is not sustainable, but it’s a big reason why we close as many deals as we do. People feel like they’re talking to someone who really understands.

What hasn’t worked.

  1. We haven’t sold much to “regular” people. It’s mostly to early adopters and social software keeners.
  2. We find ourselves fighting against SharePoint too often.
  3. We are too often trying to sell at a level of the company that doesn’t have sufficient decision-making authority.

What’s missing.

  1. No pro-active lead generation. So far, we just answer the phone.
  2. No sales team. Know anyone? We’re hiring!
  3. No PR. We’re looking at getting some.

Our positioning vis-a-vis our competitors.

  1. An intranet solution, not a wiki. Differentiates us from Confluence, MediaWiki, SocialText (more than a wiki, but still perceived as one)
  2. Fast turnkey deployment. Differentiates us from SharePoint.
  3. On-premise installation only, minimum 100 users. Differentiates us from SaaS offerings like PBWorks, Central Desktop, BackPack.
  4. Microsoft platform. Differentiates us from SocialText, Jive.

Our secret sauce.

  1. When people demo it, they “get it”. It’s easy to use. Almost all of our customers say that’s the reason they bought. Unfortunately, ease-of-use is impossible to quantify and difficult to express with any kind of credibility. We try to communicate ease-of-use on our web site without words.

2010 will be a huge year for ThoughtFarmer. If our fourth quarter is any indication, we’ll double or triple our revenue. Our 4.0 release, in Q2 2010, will be transformative. But sales won’t happen on their own — that’s just not the way it works with enterprise software. It will take constant learning and improvement on our part.

I think we’re up to the challenge.

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Join The Discussion

  1. Graham Robson

    Chris – now that’s honest and open approach you have taken with this post. Thanks for sharing, quite refreshing and reflects well on your company and product.

    On the what’s missing front – what about channel partners?

  2. Chris McGrath

    Thanks for the comments, Graham. Channel partners, eh? You wouldn’t happen to know any, would you? Hehe. I hope we can work something out together.

  3. Jed

    I hope you continue to go from strength to strength, and when your ready to open a Toronto office dont forget to give me a call 🙂

  4. James

    I’ve been interested in TF for a while and have been waiting for the 3.6 version to be released to check out the new functionality. I love the simplicity and collaboration capabilities of the solution but wasn’t a big fan of how documents are treated (it would be great to see document libraries on a page with full version control & check out capabilities) which is one of the biggest reasons I hadn’t purchased . However as a company that is using Salesforce.com for CRM I’m a little torn based upon the announcement yesterday of their Chatter collaboration solution that is integrated heavily with their CRM offering (http://www.salesforce.com/chatter/). Of course it doesn’t do everything that TF does but the hooks into CRM and other business apps make it quite compelling.

    Any comments?

  5. Chris McGrath

    @james until Chatter is released later in 2010, there isn’t too much I can comment on. However, they are definitely positioning it as a platform, similar to how SharePoint is a platform. ThoughtFarmer is not a platform. It is a finely tailored solution built for end-users, not developers.

    So I think whether you use ThoughtFarmer or SharePoint or Chatter for internal collaboration will largely come down to this question: Do I have the time, money and people to embark on a development project? If no, ThoughtFarmer will always be your best choice.

  6. Ray

    Really good article, great to get an under the skin view of an organisation. As a developer and business owner myself, I understand the frustrations the sales process can hold in this industry. No matter how much better your product is than the archaic, expensive piece of kit you’re trying to replace – conveying the benefits without having to actually set the thing up and get people to use it can be extremely frustrating.

    Anyway, best of luck with 4.0 and I hope 2010 goes as well as you are forecasting.

  7. Susan Scrupski

    Hey Chris. I make it no secret I’m a fan of ThoughtFarmer. Thomas Vander Wal and I were just talking this morning about you and a few others that continue to be “best kept secrets” in the E20 landscape. I’m considering making this my final blog post for 2009: a roundup up great companies that need more visibility in the space.

    I will say… two of our best case study Council members: Ephraim (Oxfam) and Bev (Penn State) have provided some of the smartest contributions on how to get 2.0 done right. I was just reading Ephraim’s post this morning on tagging and have already changed how I tag in Delicious. ThoughtFarmer is the engine that is driving this great content and experience, so I applaud you for that.

    Also– you need to spend more on marketing. This is where you’re getting killed by bigger players with duller offerings. I know that really is a drag because it’s always a catch-22 with a startup. If you spend on marketing, you lose that development talent you need, etc. I’m very happy to work with you on something affordable for ThoughtFarmer with the Council. (AND this is not a veiled sales pitch: I’ve been flattering you for a long while for no good reason/motivation.) Plus, I’m more interested in helping get your word out, but alas, I’m a startup too.

    Here’s to a great 2010; you guys/gals deserve it in many ways.

  8. Chris McGrath

    Susan, thanks so much for your comments. I’m glad that Bevin and Ephraim are participating in the Council — I learn a lot from them every time they speak or post. They’ve provide great product feedback that’s helping make ThoughtFarmer an even better solution.

    And yes, we need to spend more on marketing! Our marketing budget as a percentage of revenue is probably lower than it should be. Our sales cycle is long, which makes it hard to connect a marketing expenditure to a sale, which leads to us holding back on spending. It’s that old adage, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. Trouble is, I don’t know which half.” We will be working on improving our marketing in 2010, starting with the launch of version 3.6 in January.

    As far as the Council goes, we are definitely interested in some sort of marketing. Send me a note offline about what you had in mind.

  9. VancityAllie

    I love you guys!

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