Friday was my 59th birthday (yeah, I know. Next year is the "big one."). I didn't have a lot planned because I had promised someone I respect a lot (and a good friend for 12 years), Nikhil Hasija that I would be a judge for something that he was involved with.
See, Nikhil is the guy who oversees the CRM ISVs for Microsoft and the "something" was a "bakeoff" of sorts at the Reston, VA Microsoft Technology Center with companies (pre-selected) who had been chosen to be incubated for about 5 days. During the course of those five days they would develop an application on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform and then present it to a panel of judges which included representatives from 3 venture capital firms and one from the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith Business School's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship - and me.
I was the guy without money.
Sanjay Jain, the ISV Architect Evangelist for Microsoft, was the driving force behind this program. Did a genuinely great job too. He blogged on the entire week here. Dave Drach, Managing Director of the Emerging Business Team and creator of the pretty damned innovative BizSpark program was the behind-the-scenes driver. My bud, Nikhil was one of the mentors/advisors to the five companies that had been plucked from a field of 50 applicant companies. There were, of course, many others. What was as amazing as the program was the commitments of time and money that not only Microsoft made, but guys like Jim Steger, a principal of Sonoma Partners, a Microsoft Certified Gold Partner company that had twice won MSFT Partner of the Year. Jim took an entire week of his time to mentor one of the companies specifically and all of them generally. He came from Chicago to do this and spent his time and money away from his business to be part of this. That's a deep commitment, folks. I wouldn't have done it. Nope.
Honestly, I went in there thinking that I was glad to do a favor for Nikhil and at the same time would be happy to meet some of the folks from Microsoft and to get a better sense of the strange breed known as venture capitalists. I thought it would be kinda cool, but I didn't have any particular expectations of it.
But the whole thing turned out to be a pretty damned good birthday present. Far better than the no particular expectations I had of it.
Before I go on, I want to make something clear. Microsoft is NOT a client. As you all know, I've been hard on them more than once about things that they should do and don't. For example, this recent entry in my ZDNET blog. But this was something they did really, really RIGHT.
Okay, some details.
There were five companies that "competed." They were, in no particular order:
- DubMeNow - their offered up a mobile contact exchange system (at the time for Windows Mobile, Blackberry and Android. IPhone coming.) that tied all changes to contact information to the Microsoft Dynamics CRM database. You joined DubMeNow and then linked the contact data to a database of some sort. When changes occurred to a particular contact's info on the device, it would be replicated automatically back into the CRM (or any other) system. It also had to capacity to push marketing info back to the mobile device when an SMS-like message was sent to the company pushing the info back. The info could be rich media.
- Support4U - The product was SoSell. It was a social document management product that actually analyzed the "conversations" (that were occurring via comment/chat) about a specific part of a document and looked at their importance to different organizational "units" within a company. For example, you had a document in your library - a manual. The manual had an instruction that was not only unclear but had some workarounds. You wanted to get some clarification and discussion going on this document. You then invited a number of people to act within the document. You highlighted the document area that concerned you. A comment/chat window opened up. You would choose to comment, question, rant from a drop down menu and then entered your thinking. This could be over time or in real time chat. The comment was linked to the document. The thread was both written back into the Microsoft Dynamics CRM system.Then there were algorithms run, metrics on document effectiveness were determined. They also had what they called "Careabouts" - a social graph on who "cared about" specific conversations and how they interconnected with people and other conversations. This was built with a heavy dose of Silverlight.
- Channel Blade - this was the most mature company in the bunch. Been there, done that - at least when it comes to boats. They owned the lead management/sales process management market in the Marine Boating space, with 75% of the top 100 dealers in boating as their clients. All told they had 2200 customers. They were feeling some effects from the downturn and were in the process of retooling their thinking and their business model and rearchitecting their applications to focus less on sales process management and more on lead generation. They used the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform as part of an architecture to develop an integrated set of applications that tied CRM, the supply chain and analytics into an series of portals. One group would be customized lifestyle and dealer group portals. But the big deal would be a portal that would be focused around lead generation. Their customers would pay (in some way not yet worked out) for leads generated through this portal.
- Highland Martin - Highland Martin is a CRM consultancy that's the ripe old age of one year. But their management team has LOOOOOONG experience in the field. - especially around Microsoft Dynamics, having worked with it since version 1.0. Their solution was the creation of a dynamic form that, when updated, automatically updated the Microsoft Dynamics CRM database. The form, which was conveniently (and flexibly) packaged in an iframe, if used in multiple locations and even with field changes, would aggregate the data from all the locations and update the information back to the CRM database. It used dynamic web content and was all point and click. It could be OEMed so there was no problem customizing it to any form imaginable under the aegis of the company doing the customization. It was fully standardized and integrated with XML and had drag and drop publishing functionality. Because it was in a frame and web services based, you could embed it on a blog, webpage or external social network like Facebook (with permission of the owners of course). It could be integrated with salesforce.com or, really, any CRM database.
- PrimeTime - The product was called Media Crème. this is a company that's specialized in sales effectiveness training. They had a long standing methodology that they had been using to train their customers - who were in the world of media - especially newspapers. The application they built was a training tool for their methodology which was aimed in particular at providing newspapers with the tools and means to make the sales conversion from print media to mixed media. They showed their initial take on the tool that embeds their methodology -developed on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform. These guys had NO software experience whatever but they had a tool at the end of the week - not complete.
What I found amazing about this whole endeavor is that each of these companies, with widely varying missions and experience - some with no knowledge of the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform - managed to not only do a good presentation in five days, showing at least some understanding of the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform and at least a rudimentary business plan associated with that - but they actually built an application that functioned in five days. Yeah, man. Five days, five apps from companies that differed widely in their experience with CRM, much less the platform. Some of them were outright cool such as Support4U's SoSell product. Highland Martin could go to market with what they developed right now and make money. The Highland Martin dudes were so advanced they came up with a roadmap for the next couple of iterations of their product - which I presume they'll have ready by Christmas at the rate they developed what they had.
This surprised me, because I didn't give Microsoft Dynamics CRM much credit as a platform, though I certainly liked much of it as a software plus services on premise product. (Sidebar: Jeez. I just don't like the software plus services thing that MSFT pushes. Its just hokey and doesn't differentiate them at all) Earlier this year I saw a provisioning application for Microsoft Dynamics CRM 4.0 that could provide an installed instance of the CRM applications within three minutes. That's right. You heard me. Three minutes. I saw it happen. And not in Area 51.
Now I see five widely varying apps built in five days - and that included time for training in presentation style and intense education around the platform itself. Plus the creation of the application presentations in, what else.....Powerpoint. Meaning things other than development time. That is wicked fast for results that aren't kludgy, ugly or broken.
I have to hand it to Microsoft here. This kind of program not only encourages and supports emerging businesses - small and new or even established and moving in other directions - but also showcases their platform in a good way. As a far better development tool than I thought it was. At least as a rapid development tool. I can't possibly explain how well developed some of the applications were (not all) but take my word for it - they were. But what makes this a coup for Microsoft is that they can showcase some of the good of Microsoft Dynamics CRM - something that's sorely lacking with them.
They're not only doing this program with CRM. That just happens to be what I've seen. They have the aforementioned BizSpark program which is tailored to this kind of company and venture.
Now, for Microsoft to really do something with this, they have to showcase it beyond me writing about it. Be bold, Microsoft! Get out there! Develop a PR and marketing effort around this that's exciting but not self-aggrandizing. You have five days.