Software firms get serious about selling

22 May 2003

It said much about the current perils and unpredictability of the software market an intended keynote speaker at the Irish Software Association’s annual conference in Dublin, Iona’s former CEO Barry Morris, was replaced at the last moment by the man who hired and then fired him, Chris Horn.

It was fitting that Horn, seen as the founding father of the Irish software industry, should have been addressing an industry that is seen as having lost its edge. The root of the problem – and the theme of the conference – is the growing perception that Irish software firms are great at technology but lousy at selling and marketing their products.

Referring to the surgery that Iona would need to restore its fortunes, Horn said he would be focusing on bringing back the entrepreneurial vision that had been blurred by too many layers of management.

Earlier, Dr Mike Lynch, founder and CEO of software firm Autonomy, had warned delegates that Ireland needs to get smarter at marketing its technology edge. “If you examine the great American IT companies, their technology may not be the best but their marketing is superb. If Ireland can combine its quality reputation with great marketing then it can truly become a global leader in this sector. ”

He added that while companies had to control costs, it was impossible to succeed without investment in marketing. “Many of us come from the old school of engineers who believed that if you built a better bridge, the world would beat a path to your door. This is not the case. There’s no point having the best software in the world unless you market it.”

Noreen O’Hare, CEO of Sepro, a fast-growing firm specialising in billing software, advised delegates to be very focused, both in terms of the types of customers and the sectors they target. “We decided to concentrate on wireless operators in Europe and then to focus on the tier two and tier three players rather than tier one firms because the sales cycle would be shorter and we would be able to show revenues to our investors.”

O’Hare added, however, that there is a thin line between being focused and being blinkered and that young firms should covet their entrepreneurial spirit. “Strategy is a guideline, not a straightjacket.”

This call for flexibility was echoed by Cathal McGloin, CEO of Performix Technologies, a provider of software systems to the contact centre industry. “Not even the best go-to-market plan will survive the first meeting with the customer or the first scrape with a competitor,” he noted ruefully.

With first-hand experience of the US market – he moved to Boston two years ago to establish Performix’s US beachhead – McGloin offered some advice on now to crack the world’s largest software market. Companies need to ensure a revenue flow while they burn cash on setting up their US operation, take great care in recruiting salespeople and channel partners and then invest in proper training programmes, he suggested.

More tales from the trenches came from Pat Donnellan, CEO of security systems firm AEP Systems, who suggested that the road to success lay in making as few mistakes as possible. High on any start-up’s hit-list of priorities should be choosing the right target market, hiring the right people and building an effective organisation. “Products are very interesting but if you don’t have an organisation that can establish a network, know your partners and see the pitfalls it can set you back a long time.”

Striking an upbeat note, Cathal Friel, chairman of the ISA, emphasised that the problems facing the industry are not insurmountable and the outlook is looking more encouraging. “These are tough times but many experienced professionals now feel they are at the bottom of the cycle and there is some comfort in knowing that it can only get better.”

By Brian Skelly