It was 1998 — the same year Google.com was registered as a domain and Apple launched the iMac — that I incorporated an IT software business.
Back then, intranets had to be custom built, were primitive and spectacularly ugly. But web apps were about to dominate the world, so we set about building bespoke web-based intranets for businesses. Because most of our customers were asking for exactly the same things, by 2003 we were busy selling a ready-made version.
But around that same time, Microsoft — then at 79th in the Fortune 500 and generating revenues of $22,956million — had had the same idea. It launched SharePoint in 2001, its web-based platform that integrates with Microsoft Office.
It was an extremely testing time. There were literally two of us working out of a garage, with a space heater for warmth, and our revenues were, comparatively, negligible.
We had heard rumours Microsoft was giving away SharePoint licences for free to lock businesses into Windows. We couldn’t afford to offer loss-leading deals to build our customer base.
We had two choices: pack it all in, or fight. We chose the latter because we supposed that, if Microsoft was willing to invest in intranets, we must be onto something.
We decided their very presence in the market should give us the confidence to persevere and the determination to differentiate.
If Microsoft was to be Goliath, we’d be David.
We got tactical, and set about dissecting SharePoint which was, in my mind, the most hideous piece of software on the planet — just lots of ugly boxes. It was sold as a framework upon which to build, meaning businesses that wanted to use it would need internal IT expertise to make it viable.
Armed with that knowledge we had a clear direction. We decided to focus on building a piece of software that could be used by any business, regardless of having any internal IT expertise. And it had to be both beautiful and easily customisable.
We had been watching what Apple — which was back then an exciting, exotic company — had been doing in upsetting Microsoft with its beautiful, crisp, clean technology that worked straight out of the box, and we knew our strategy had to be similar, even if on a much smaller scale.
Another big problem we faced was the emergence of numerous IT companies that were building on top of SharePoint, making it user friendly, and selling their solutions to the business market.
There was little we could do about this. There’s competition in every market — and if there isn’t alarm bells should be ringing — but we suspected that making ‘choice’ a core business value would help our cause.
We knew we had to support Windows, but our staff were naturally Linux in the early days which led to us offering the customer a choice of servers. This was an extremely expensive strategy, but proved to be the right one.
Later we offered a choice of on-premises and cloud hosting — the former is mainly used by financial services companies that need the tightest controls on their IT security — and custom builds for any customers needing functionality our core product didn’t offer.
Until the last couple of years, we’ve operated very much in the shadow of SharePoint, with Microsoft shaping the competitive landscape. Prospective clients looking for a digital workplace would either be looking to move from SharePoint, or weighing us up against each other.
But a sea change in terms of raising customer expectations of software came from smartphones. Smartphones opened people’s eyes to the idea that technology can be both beautiful, functional and work without much expertise — another Apple legacy. They gave people the confidence to use technologies that aren’t built by Microsoft.
Today, our annual turnover is over $3 million and we have 600,000 users, mainly in the US. By contrast, SharePoint has 190 million users in 200,000 companies and a brand name recognised in the furthest reaches of the world.
Our strategy remains the same: to differentiate through choice, speed, beauty, and easy customisation, but if we are to take down Goliath, it’ll be a slow death, rather than one hit, one kill.
This article was originally published on Forbes