The Rise of Opinionated Software
One thing I learned in searching out the current products people are hiring to do their Jobs To Be Done is that the majority of individual workflow at businesses around the world consists of emailing Excel files around.
Most people have — at one point or another — hacked together their own solutions to their problems with the software tools they have at hand. More often than not this involves making up a spreadsheet of some form or other and emailing it to colleagues, either for reference or with instructions to “Fill in the boxes on sheet 2 and send it back to me”.
These makeshift solutions contain two of the key ingredients of any enterprise application software product:
Structured Data + Collaboration
But this approach has so many downsides: replication of data, audit trails, integration, synchronous editing, storage. It is no surprise that in the history of enterprise software development opportunities have existed to take commonly used Excel workflows and other hacks and replace them with an online software product backed by some kind of relational (or more recently NoSQL) datastore.
There are now thousands of SaaS tools available that solve these workflow problems, from sales management (Salesforce), resource management (Forecast), finance (Xero, NetSuite). All of them can make your business more efficient, resilient, and effective by enabling the creation/display of structured data in a collaborative workforce.
But a slide in Mary Meeker’s deck on the 2015 Internet trends reminded me of something I have become convinced of, and that has forced me to bring this article out of a perpetual draft state.
I’m convinced that the next big turn of the wheel for enterprise software belongs to much more Opinionated Software and as a result the next phase of enterprise consulting will be as well.
Opinionated Software is a software product that believes a certain way of approaching a business process is inherently better and provides software crafted around that approach.
Usually enterprise SaaS is to some degree opinionated. The very act of prioritizing which features are included in the product requires the creators to assert what they think is important to complete a workflow effectively. But as these products and the market mature, they become less opinionated. They do so because more features are added to get feature parity with competitors and more customization options are provided in response to customers with particular needs. This then creates a more generic product able to handle more types of workflow (good and bad), are off-vision, and adds features that are excessive to good practice. Intercom writes often about these product anti-patterns
It is my belief that these products are then in danger of being disrupted by new entrants that are not only leaner products but also more opinionated products. I think it is possible to see products now that are using opinion as a competitive advantage. Not just in their content marketing but baked into the software code itself.
Percolate is a great example of an enterprise SaaS product that is looking beyond just using software to create efficiency at scale but actually providing an opinion of the future of marketing and how organizations will have to structure themselves, their partners, and their processes to succeed in a complex modern marketing environment. These opinions then find their way into the software — not as feature-parity — but as new innovation in the product that solves for that vision as well as for the market requirements.
Percolate co-founder and CEO Noah Brier lays out a sophisticated and nuanced view of the history and future of brand management. It’s no surprise that Noah’s background as a marketing strategist at a top agency gives a particular perspective and analytical process that has previously added value to a single client at a time. Instead, Percolate clients get a little slice of Noah’s mind delivering value every single day embedded in the software they use and their now cheap license fee.
At the extreme end of opinionated software are products like GlassFrog which provides a software tool for managing the organizational systems laid out in Holacracy. Holacracy is a organizational idea in favour at companies such as Medium and Zappos that pushes decision making to clear roles within the organization rather than management layers.
HolacracyOne is a consulting partnership that provides training, certification and facilitation around Holacracy. But it also provides GlassFrog, a software “leave-behind” that enables their clients to have the systems to run a Holacracy based organization long-term and provides a much needed reoccurring revenue stream for the consultant.
Business consultants solve problems for their clients, entrepreneurs solve problems for markets.
This model of “software plus service” solves the long term economic problems of individuals and companies looking to bring a new vision to market. Previously a new idea or approach may have found mass adoption through a time-honoured approach of:
Business Consulting -> NYT Bestselling Book -> HBR Article -> Workshops/Keynotes -> More Consulting
Now, however, the new opportunity in consulting is to turn new process ideas into repeatable, scalable valuing adding SaaS software. The revenue potential upside is far greater than consulting models alone.
Consultants will have to overcome the issues associated with running multiple business models at once and deal with the talent and capital requirements required to make top-end SaaS products. Any large consultancy right now would be foolish to avoid asking the question:
“How do we make the software version of what we do?”
On the other side of the equation, SaaS providers need to continue to deliver focused products and have a strong, constantly updated opinions to create a truly differentiated product. No longer is SaaS just about making workflows more efficient. It now holds the potential of delivering vision at scale.