Note: This is an academic essay, not quite my usual writing style!
This essay provides a company assessment of Bloo, Inc (“Blue”), a digital workplace platform that promises “Teamwork, Made Simple.”
How can a self-funded team with fewer than ten people, compete effectively against Business to Business (B2B) organizations with thousands of employees that have raised billions of dollars in venture capital?
The answer is to create a simpler, frictionless product — with a lower-cost structure. This enables customers, who were previously unable to access solutions due to their cost and complexity, to finally enable their digital transformation.
The State of Digital Transformation.
Mark Andersen (2015) famously said that “software is eating the world”.
In other words, every organization is becoming a technology organization. Organizations face a dilemma as technological innovation continues to accelerate exponentially (Bostrom, 2006). Should they build the technology solutions needed to get their work done and keep up? Or, should they buy Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) solutions from third-party vendors?
The case for building technology in-house is not convincing. According to Alami (2006), the track record of enterprise IT projects is dismal, with 25% of IT projects experiencing outright failure. Another 50% of projects require material rework and do not provide a Return on Investment (ROI).
Why is this? Common causes include “poor project management…surprises with system integration and wrong estimate of human performance.” (Lauesen 2020.)
Throwing more money at the problem does not appear to help. IT projects with budgets larger than $1m suffer worse failure rates than projects with smaller budgets. (Alani, 2006) However, this may be a correlation, not causation. Logically, more expensive projects will be larger and more complex, thus prone to failure by their very nature.
On the other hand, buying ready-made solutions is complex, with problems such as lengthy procurement processes and inflexible implementation methodologies. This is an issue across industries, not just enterprise IT. (Kong and Gray, 2012)
One issue is that many solutions marketed as Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) are not genuinely “off-the-shelf.” (Boots, 2020). To implement these solutions, significant modifications and dedicated consultants are required. It can take months or years for a successful implementation.
If an “off-the-shelf” solution takes years to implement, the “off-the-shelf” label is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.
The Growth of B2B SaaS.
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is an application distribution model that delivers software over the internet. All customers use the same underlining platform (the “multi-tenant model”) and do not concern themselves with maintenance or manual updates. (Shankar and Duraisamy, 2018).
In the last ten years, a Cambrian-like explosion of B2B solutions sold as SaaS has occurred. The market has grown from $31.4B in 2015 to $176.62B in 2022, an increase of +400%. (Statista, 2022a)
The proliferation of this distribution model is not surprising, given the numerous benefits to the end customers. These include faster setup, abstraction of maintenance, instant scalability, and to incur operational expenses instead of capital expenditure. (Alotaibi, 2016)
Blue’s mission is to “organize the world’s work”.
Bloo, Inc. is a Delaware-based C-corp with a product development office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Blue started in 2018 as a simple online project management system for small businesses. Initially, it was an in-house product to manage work at a professional service firm. Blue gained traction during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 6,000+ organizations in 120+ countries using Blue.
The key value propositions of Blue are that it is easy to use, affordable (only $50/month/organization at the time of writing), and flexible for almost any use case. Customers can sign up entirely by themselves, without any human interaction.
Blue has won numerous awards and accolades from the industry, including Top Ranked Solution, Trusted Vendor, and Happiest Users. (Crozdesk, 2022)
During this growth, many organisations were not using Blue as initially intended — and many did not follow the typical “customer profile” of small businesses. Atypical customers included a multi-national construction company with over 1,400 employees, a global NGO active in 42 countries, and a popular fast-food chain with over 2,500 employees across 100+ locations.
These atypical customers have compelling use cases, and this essay will develop on this theme to understand what opportunities are available for Blue to build on its success.
The B2B SaaS workplace productivity software market is worth $42.33B (Grand View Research, 2022) and has attracted significant venture capital.
Competitors to Blue include many established technology companies and well-funded technology startups, with key competitors listed and mapped below.
This matrix of the competitive landscape showcases how Blue carves a unique market territory, by focussing on being as simple as consumer software such as Gmail and WhatsApp, but as powerful as business software such as Jira and Salesforce.
Mckinsey 7S Framework Analysis.
The Blue strategy is keeping things simple in a complex world.
Blue’s primary strategy can be summarized as “less is more” — instead of competing directly with the large incumbents, Blue created strong differentiating factors and resisted the urge to complicate the platform. Leslie (2021) argues that there is a specific cycle in technology where “small, simple and cheap supplanting large, complex and expensive solutions.”.
The Blue strategy is about granular improvements compounded over time.
Blue developed a virtuous flywheel right at the beginning, firmly acknowledging the concept by Collins (2001) that “building a great company or social sector enterprise, there is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment.”
This ensures that Blue’s strategy focusses on making long-term investments in areas that will not change, such as ease of us, platform performance (i.e. speed), and innovative features. This strategy provides a high degree of confidence that the investments will pay off.
Keeping teams small.
The team size has been kept intentionally small. Blue has a ratio of customers to employees of 775:1, compared to a typical 300:1 ratio for the competition. (i.e. Notion with 300,000 customers and 1,100 employees).
This choice is because small teams (<10 people) perform significantly better than larger teams due to reduced communication and organizational overhead. (Hoegl, 2005)
As teams become larger, the communication overhead grows exponentially. (Mad Creative, Inc, 2021)
Flat structure and “dog fooding” builds empathy for end users.
The organizational structure is relatively flat. Customer Success and Engineering leads report directly to the CEO.
Sales are done via third-party referral partners who earn a percentage of sales from their customers, which are automatically tracked.
Interestingly, Blue does not have a dedicated testing team.
This is due to a practice known as “Dog Fooding”, where an organization uses its own product. This ensures that bugs surface quickly during internal usage of the platform. Harrison (2006) states that this can showcase to customers that an organization has confidence in the software it makes.
Blue also uses an open Beta to reduce testing load. This allows customers to easily switch to a Beta version of the platform. They access the same data, but can use new features before they are officially released.
Modern linked systems enable automation and reduce manual work.
As a technology company, Blue is fortunate that the business model allows all business data to be collected automatically.
The central systems include Stripe (payment processing), Mercury (banking), Planetscale (database), and Render (web services). All have Application Programming Interfaces that allow data to be transferred with ease.
All system access is controlled via SSO (Single-Sign-On) to guard against unauthorized access, and core system access is limited to the CEO and Head of Engineering.
All core platform usage data is available, in real-time, via a business intelligence platform called Metabase, which allows management to query data at will.
The business is not using any outdated legacy technology and does not suffer technology-related bottlenecks.
Self-Service improves scale and customer experience.
The annual Amazon 2011 Shareholder Letter states the clear advantages of self-service platforms:
I am emphasizing the self-service nature of these platforms because it’s important for a reason I think is somewhat non-obvious: even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation. When a platform is self-service, even the improbable ideas can get tried, because there’s no expert gatekeeper ready to say “that will never work!” And guess what – many of those improbable ideas do work, and society is the beneficiary of that diversity. (Bezos, 2011)
With regards to customer interaction, the entire platform is self-service, which means that customers can sign up to the platform without any assistance and that even sales partners can sign up to our partner sales platform by themselves.
Blue has a cooperative and open environment, with senior employees mentoring the junior employees. The management shares almost all metrics with the team, to ensure alignment with organizational goals.
There is a strong culture of asynchronous work, favouring clear written communication over meetings. This results in employees attending an average of only two meetings per week, which includes a company-wide meeting each Monday for progress review.
Perlow, Constance, and Eun (2017) note that the typical executive spends up to twenty-three hours in meetings.
If the number of weekly meetings is an inverse correlation to productivity, then Blue may be up to ten times more productive than the average organization. The numbers corroborate: competitors that have approximately 10x the number of customers tend to have 100x the number of employees.
The Blue team is predominantly software engineering: 70% work on platform enhancements. There are competency gaps in sales, especially concerning Account Executives (AEs), of which there are none. However, this issue is somewhat mitigated by having third-party sales representatives working on a commission basis.
Due to the small team size, there are no administration or HR roles, and finance is outsourced to a specialized firm.
While this approach may work while the team is small, there is an argument that scaling up the team will eventually require administration roles to keep the company organized. The mitigation strategy here is to continuously invest in technology and automation instead of hiring additional headcounts where possible.
The most vital skills in the organization are building a product that customers want and selling this product to customers globally.
Blue excels at the first skill. The platform has high usage: showcased by Diagrams 7-9 in the “Customer KPIs” section. This results from a clear product development process with regular customer interviews, low-fidelity prototyping, written briefs, and favouring granular improvements vs significant product launches.
However, this granular improvement approach needs to be moderated by ensuring a long-term strategy that does not overreact to short-term market changes. (Edward, Ying, and Nitin 2017)
With regards to the second skill set, there are no in-house capabilities for this, which is a major gap. Almost all sales have been via word-of-mouth, or third-party sales partners, who can take commissions of up to 50% of total customer purchases. Building an in-house sales capability must be a key strategic initiative in the future.
Blue’s values are simplicity, long-term thinking, clarity, attention to detail, customer focus, and deep work. Typical questions asked internally to ensure value alignment are “Can we make this simpler?” and “What decision would we wish we had made five years from now?”
This contrasts significantly with the Silicon Valley motto of “move fast and break things”, which emphasizes fast results over long-term coherence.
There is a shift away from this type of thinking — even Facebook has dropped the motto as one of its corporate values. (Hamilton, 2022)
The main political risk is that there is a substantial change in US corporate tax rates that will impact Blue’s tax liabilities.
Consumer goods inflation is currently at 7.7%, food at 10.9% and energy at 17.9% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022). This is coupled with a deficit of $1.38 trillion in FY2022. (U.S. Treasury, 2022)
The situation appears consistent with a likely increase in tax rates, with record spending and deficit amounts. The corporate tax rate is also the lowest it has been since the early 1940s:
The economic outlook for Blue is positive. Regardless of potential recessions, the SaaS market is projected to grow aggressively because SaaS reduces costs vs legacy distribution models — with legacy deployments rapidly shrinking. (Elixir Technologies, 2015).
The market size for global SaaS in 2022 is expected to reach $207.2B, and to continue growing at 9.8%, reaching $330.6B in 2027. (Statista, 2022a)
The social factors are also favourable for Blue. Knowledge work is taking the lion’s share of new job creation. Since the 1980s in the US, knowledge work has been adding 1.9m jobs per year, with routine jobs (i.e. manual work or administrative work) adding only 100,000 to 250,000 new jobs per year. (Zumbrun, 2016)
The increase in knowledge work requires platforms for planning, tracking work, and project management. Blue’s potential customer base is growing each year.
Threat: Cyber-attacks and lack of full-time security team.
Blue is not large enough to support a full-time security team and Chief Information Officer to monitor technology risks and threats. This is a risk because over 50% of cyber-attacks are against Small and Medium Enterprises. (SMEs) (PurpleSec, 2022)
This is a growing issue, with the cost of cybercrime exceeding 1 trillion USD, which is more than 1% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). (Sviatun et al., 2021)
The average cost per security breach is also increasing, as shown in the graph below:
Opportunity: Bounty Programme for Cybersecurity professionals reduces overheads.
The market for Cybersecurity has a compounded growth rate of 9.5% per year and is valued at $216.1B in 2021. (Grand View Research, 2022).
Blue employs a bounty programme that takes advantage of this growth by paying cybersecurity professionals a fee based on discovering a valid security breach. This enables Blue to remove overhead costs associated with a full-time security team, while still ensuring that the platform is secure for customers.
Threat: Increasingly complex global tax environment
Managing tax at a global scale is a challenge for B2B SaaS companies. For example, the US has over 11,000 sales tax jurisdictions (Fritts, 2020). The issue is that software companies must pay sales tax based on where their customers are located, not where the company is headquartered (Onakomaiya, 2022).
This can become overwhelming for a startup with a distributed customer base once payment volumes reach a certain threshold in a jurisdiction.
Opportunity: Tax Compliance Automation.
Services exist that completely automate international tax compliance, such as Paddle and FastSpring. They act as the “Merchants of Record”, calculating, charging, and paying taxes on behalf of their clients.
If Blue were to switch to this approach for internal tax management, it would be significantly advantageous compared to competitors who manage this process manually.
Key ethical challenges are illegal activities such as planning terrorism and the distribution of child pornography using the Blue platform. Blue does not verify data before uploading and is not legally liable for any content users upload as per Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2022)
However, there are calls to update Section 230. This would likely be done “by tying a platform’s safe-harbor protections to its use of reasonable content-moderation policies.” (Smith and Alstyne, 2021)
If Section 230 were updated in this manner, it would increase Blue’s running costs, requiring employing moderators to review flagged content on the platform.
Low communication overheads.
One of Blue’s strengths is that the organization is small, and thus the communication overhead is negligible. Mad Creative, Inc. (2021) argued that larger organizations suffer from communication issues, as per the following exponential equation:
Where n is the number of people that need to communicate.
Blue’s competitors have orders of magnitude more engineers, but the Blue platform is considered a viable alternative by the market. This is because software development cannot be scaled just by adding more engineers to the team.
The Mythical Man-Month, summarizes this perfectly:
When a task cannot be partitioned because of sequential constraints, the application of more effort has no effect on the schedule. The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned. Many software tasks have this characteristic because of the sequential nature of debugging. (Brooks, 1975)
Last mover advantage: Modern technology enables faster development.
Blue was launched in 2017, compared to many of the competitors who launched in the early years of that decade. As Bostrom (2016) pointed out, technological advancement is accelerating at an exponential rate. So there is a huge difference in the amount of mature tooling, frameworks, and services available to a startup in the latter part of the 2010s compared to the beginning of the decade.
Key Person Risk
Blue does not currently pass the “hit-by-a-bus” test, otherwise known as the “bus factor”. This measures how resilient a business is against sudden employee turnover. (Jabrayilzade, 2017).
The Head of Engineering holds credentials and knowledge that are not documented, which could result in significant business continuity problems.
Lack of venture capital excludes paid advertising as an acquisition channel.
Competitors such as Airtable, Asana, ClickUp, Monday, and Notion have cumulatively raised $3.1B. (Crunchbase, 2022a; 2022b; 2022c; 2022d; 2022e).
Blue has not raised any outside funding whatsoever. This is a weakness because funded startups spend up to 40% of their capital on advertising. (Palihapitiya, 2018).
As capital flows to certain advertisers such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon, the demand for ad placements raises the cost of advertising to the point where it is not economically feasible to acquire a customer for a non-funded startup.
However, it is worth noting that it is much simpler to run a non-venture-funded organization, due to the lack of required reporting and regular meetings and that there is no CEO time spent on investor relations and fundraising.
Resisting the urge to over-feature the platform.
The practical takeaway of competing against an over-funded market is that differentiation is key.
There’s always the temptation to over-feature your product, to build in bells and whistles because server space is cheap and you have the funding and talent to do it. Resisting this urge is your real competitive advantage. (Leslie, 2021)
The question must be asked — what can a small organization do that a large organization cannot do? The answer is to focus on doing less. Fewer and more well-thought-out product features beat a complex, feature-full system.
The latter is confusing to end users, more error-prone, and requires longer setup times. Business software, especially Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, are notoriously complex, with procurement and training significant hurdles to implementation. (Vervile, Bernadas, and Halingten, 2005)
Data leaks and loss of customer trust.
This is always the number one external threat for any technology organization, as the worst-case scenario is a complete loss of business continuity or a large ransom payment. The publicity around such a scenario would cause a sudden loss of customer trust, also known as crossing the trust thermocline:
In large bodies of water, the temperature drops slowly the deeper one dives. That change can, if the descent is slow enough, feel almost imperceptible. Yet at a certain point, the water temperature drops sharply and alarmingly. This point is the thermocline—a near-physical barrier where warm water meets cold. The shift between the two is sudden and dramatic. In business, particularly digital services or businesses relying on a subscription revenue model, trust works in the same way. Wired into those products and services is a “trust thermocline.” It is a point which, once crossed, otherwise healthy businesses and products suddenly collapse. (Edwards, 2022)
Customers would migrate away from the platform if they believe that their data is unsafe within Blue. This would also significantly affect new customer acquisition.
Balanced Scorecard Analysis.
Learning and Growth KPIs.
Blue does not have any structured learning and growth Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). As part of the employee benefits and compensation plan, there is an allowance for purchasing training courses. The company will purchase any books requested by employees, and there is a library with approximately three hundred books on strategy, business, decision-making, and software development.
Improved Process KPIs.
Blue has implemented a process framework to manage and develop the processes used within the company. This includes assessing current processes, understanding improvement areas, and developing solutions. The goal is to make all processes as efficient and customer-oriented as possible. Processes are updated directly within the Blue platform itself.
The most important metric related to customers is how many of them there are.
Blue already tracks customer satisfaction scores via the helpdesk, and a multi-year analysis is presented below:
This improvement is a function of both the platform features and stability, as well as the hiring a dedicated customer success employee in late 2020 who can answer customer queries quickly and efficiently.
Blue also tracks customer usage of the platform, which can be used as a proxy for customer satisfaction, as the higher this is, the more likely customers are gaining value from the platform.
The total amount of files also grew significantly in the period from 2021 to 2022, going from <1 TB to 9.76 TB. This strongly suggests that customers are comfortable storing company documents within the Blue platform.
Financial Metrics KPIs.
The most important Key Performance Indicator for B2B SaaS businesses is Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR). This helps to feed into the calculation of the “Rule of 40”, a popular metric that says that a SaaS company’s growth rate when added to its free cash flow rate should equal 40 or higher. (Roche and Tandom, 2021)
Blue has impressive MRR growth
Blue’s MRR increased 260% from 2021 to 2022, compared to only 17% from 2020 to 2021.
Total revenue increased 189.66% from 2021 to 2022, boosted by many customers subscribing to the platform.
Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) showcases customer loyalty.
Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) has only increased over the years, going from $279.98 in 2019 to $2,789.31 in 2021, a ten-fold increase. This is due to customers staying subscribed for longer periods of time and purchasing add-on products such as the Custom Branding module that adds 40% to the total purchase by a customer.
The current positioning of Blue is “Simple and affordable online project management software”.
The problem with this positioning is that it is limiting Blue to the project management market instead of the much larger process management market (i.e. sales processes, hiring processes, and so on). Many customers already use Blue for these types of processes, but we do not communicate this clearly with potential customers.
Additionally, using the word “affordble”, positions Blue as a low-end and cheap alternative to other platforms. Customers may imply from the price that Blue is less capable or functional.
The new mission statement, “To organize the world’s work”, is far broader and more ambitious. It positions Blue as a market-defining leader instead of a follower. Combined with a new pricing strategy, this will communicate to customers that Blue is a high-end, powerful, and modern solution for their needs.
The rest of the recommendations in this section are tactics to implement this strategic positioning change.
Organizational Chart: Before & After.
The current structure is flat, with few departments, and most lines going directly to the CEO.
The new suggested structure, which would be reached over time as the organization scales, emphasizes in-house sales teams and more specialized product development and design roles.
Reduce Key Person Risk.
One action of absolute importance is to reduce the key person risk that currently exists. Customers trust Blue with all their data and communications, so a contingency plan must be in place against “the bus factor”.
The way to mitigate this risk is clear:
One way to overcome the risk of key people is to ensure that more than one person in your office has the necessary skills to do any task, including any secret emergency information needed to do the job. Cross-training gives your organization a back-up plan in case of any problems or long-term depth. (Çevik, 2020)
Additionally, documenting clear processes and policies will help to make sure that the company can continue running smoothly in case of an emergency.
There are two main reasons to increase pricing: perception and the ability to spend more to acquire an individual customer while still maintaining a positive ROI.
Increasing pricing can have a positive perception concerning quality.
Iwalewa, I (2021) notes that in the consumer market, many companies “set prices at a higher level on the belief that buyers will give more importance to a product if the price is set at a premium level”. While consumer spending and B2B decisions differ, humans still decide both cases, so we can deduce that the same effect will be visible in both consumer and business markets.
Increasing pricing can boost customer lifetime value.
Increasing pricing from $50/month to $200/month means a customer’s lifetime value (LTV) for three years will grow from $1,800 to $7,200, a 300% increase.
The best-in-class B2B SaaS companies have an LTV to Cost to Aquire a Customer (CAC) ratio of up to 7. In other words, they spend $1 to acquire a customer who will pay $7 over time. (Skok 2012)
Move from Self-Service to Assisted Onboarding.
Bezos (2011) highlights the importance of self-service platforms, Blue must also provide assisted onboarding for customers, ensuring that they receive the most value from the platform. This is because one of the main challenges in adopting new SaaS tools is not the software but how to use the software.
The logic is clear. Customers who use the platform more extensively receive greater value, and thus are less likely to stop using the platform.
Launch Enterprise Offering.
As Vervile, Bernadas, and Halingten (2005) pointed out, enterprise software is typically clunky and with a bad user experience. Blue can penetrate this market with an easy-to-use product that brings consumer-level usability to complex business processes.
An Enterprise offering will also improve cash flow, as the customer’s LTV will be greater. Enterprise customers also have less churn because they tend to sign long-term contracts, as the cost of switching platforms in a large organization is significantly more than in a small one.
The more considerable total contract value will also assist in motivating third-party sales and introduction, as more money is available for commissions.
Hybrid Sales Model.
The ideal sales model is hybrid, where Blue partners with third-party sales for introductions only, thus reducing the commission burden. Then, experienced Account Executives (AEs) close the deal directly with the customer.
This requires a structure to consistently find new sales partners on a global basis that can make customer introductions to ensure a busy sales calendar for the in-house AEs. This spreads the AE’s fixed cost across many deals, further increasing capital efficiency.
This will also ensure that the overall sales cycle for Blue has a positive cash flow cycle, due to commissions being paid out 30 days after customers pay Blue.
This can act as a stepping-stone to building an in-house sales team over time.
Blue has built a platform that can define the future of work. Executing a global scaling and sales strategy against funded competitors requires a significant change in market positioning.
The recommendations outlined in this essay will aid Blue in achieving its positioning goals. Raising prices will increase value perception and customer lifetime value. Transitioning from pure self-service to assisted onboarding and launching an enterprise offering will further grow revenues. The hybrid sales model will significantly reduce the strain on available cash, enabling partnerships and commission-based sales to scale globally.
Implementing these recommendations will result in cost-effective and scalable processes making Blue well-positioned to compete against the SaaS giants in the market.
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