How can an all-in-one platform compete against a set of best-of-breed tools? Best-of-breeds are often loved, easy-to-use, and innovate quickly on a set of narrow user needs. In short, they are delightful to use. All-in-ones are often associated with clunky enterprise products that only bring value to the C-Level and are increasingly losing favor in organizations.
In this article, I dive into how I brought a product strategy that utilizes system design and leverages new cloud / agile development to Accelo’s Product team.
Lean development with best-of-breed
Many recent entrants (like Harvest – a timetracking app) are launching with a small scope and are iterated on through agile development and market testing with a goal to move from MinVP to MaxVP as fast as possible to win the market:
- Minimum Viable Product (MinVP): First entrance into market. The product has just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future development such as having a simple place for employees to log time on a timesheet. It’s a useful software.
- Medium Viable Product (MedVP): Growth within mid-adopters. New features include dollar budgets, bill rates, and client invoicing. It’s a helpful software.
- Maximum Viable Product (MaxVP): Market leader and satisfying many customer use-cases. The UX team makes it as easy as possible to add time with timers, time apps, and a Chrome extensions. It’s a delightful software.
The traditional path of an all-in-one
There’s two traditional paths of an all-in-one – both with flaws that limit their value:
- Unplanned, Minimum Viable Product (MVP) Path: This is a common strategy for SaaS – cloud products to land on a single product and then to expand their offerings wide. A singular initial product such as timetracking is funded by many early adopters and your product team develops different areas as customers express their various needs. Over time, there’s a tendency to drift towards increasing complexity and more features.
- Planned, System Development Lifecycle (SDLC) Path: Early enterprise, all-in-one tools were funded by large corporations and could take up to 18 months to develop a MedVP. After the initial release, the product is untouched until the next major release a year or two down the road.
Building a Solution: combining best-of-breed and all-in-one paths
The company I work with, Accelo, is an Operations Automation Platform for professional service business such as digital agencies, IT consultants, accountants, and architects to better run their new business, proposals, projects, time, team schedules, ongoing work, and billing – and to do better work with their clients. In short, it’s an all-in-one.
Accelo has two parts that we design for as a product team: the overall system design and the component design. We use a system design that is somewhere between unplanned and MVP and planned SDLC so that we can guide the product value. We invite the component MVP path of best-of-breeds into our system structure through a market that iterates their products. This gives us a rough idea of the best solution to adopt.
By combining traditional enterprise system thought with lean tool component MVPs, all-in-one tools have a much better chance of succeeding in the market and satisfying customers.
The system as a whole is it’s own product and needs to be design for; the interconnectivity (“synergy”) produces something greater than it’s parts (Orwell says 2+2 = 5). We scope out a big vision for what Accelo could be five years from now, but let the market decide where the components will take us.
Most of our UX team’s uniqueness and thought is spent on the overall system design of combining the components of the system in a smart way. Very few UX teams of our best-of-breed competitors are asking the questions that we do:
- “What ways can we show team effort and priorities across every customer touchpoint so that we are profitable and deliver great service?”
- “What if the CRM and project management can share the same design language?”
- “How should tickets interact with projects and retainer / support contracts?”
- “Should client emails be universal or team-focused?”
- “In what ways should we replace a traditional Google / Office 365 calendar?”
Methods that we use to delve into this uncharted territory include user testing and research, card sorting, beta and click-throughs, product ideas customer community, account management reach out and feedback, and client support requests.
Companies with best-of-breed products spend a lot of their resources bringing their tools up to MaxVP and then trying to maintain them as market leaders. For all-in-one solutions, a best-of-breed can do most of the heavy-lifting on the component front.
Accelo’s UX goal is to get as close as possible to their innovation on the granular level to quickly build up to Med/Max (understanding we are not going to – and probably don’t want to – achieve perfect parity). We get inspired by outside sources that honestly do a better job thinking about how to solve the smaller, best-of-breed sections of our product.
Because we map our components onto the market’s products, we can innovate faster on the tail end of implementation after the best-of-breed products have been lightly tested in the market.
Methods we use to gain insight into the market and to adopt component design differ between our products, so here are some examples:
- Project Management: We have a few running paid accounts with our closest competitors so that we can always keep dummy data to quickly run use cases and see differences in UX. Since we are paid users, we also get invited to exclusive product release webinars that we would otherwise read in a press release later. This gives us a few month’s head start in case there is something groundbreaking that hasn’t been our radar. On the task management side, we use three project management tools in-house to teach us the difference between our tool and others. No tool does budget tracking at MaxVP, so we use some of the System approaches in the last section to make this a fantastic and unique experience.
- Team Schedule: Customers send us their Excel and Google Sheet examples of how they manage resources now. Under NDA, we have dozens of spreadsheets that detail the business logic our customers use when forecasting workload. Spreadsheets are powerful because they give the entire product team a deep understanding of the math (within the sheet’s formulas) that underpins these solutions and a mutual understanding of the customer’s thinking. Most times, a product already exists in DIY form, so it’s our job to interpret what’s already been tried and to build a smarter, easier version.
- Ticketing: A customer recently left us for a competing system. He shared his screen using Zoom and demoed the same use case in Accelo as with the competitor’s tool. For example, we asked, “What happens when a client hasn’t gotten back to us for 3 days, how do you continue to resolve the issue in Accelo vs. the competitor?” Then we watched the differences and took notes.
- Retainers: Because no system covers all ongoing work / contracts, customers share their spreadsheets with us or components of other systems that work well.
- Time logging: We run a free 30-day trial of Harvest every few months for inspiration and best practices.
- Billing: We run user interviews and research using data apps like Fullstory and HEAP Analytics to show us how our customers are invoicing within Accelo. There are few design patterns for universal billing, so we took a look at our favorite accounting integration (Xero), and found the best apps that connect to it to see how they did it.
- Client Portal: Since there are relatively few competitors in this space, we ask our customers to show us what they have built in-house to collaborate with their clients. We have many web-fluent customers, so it was amazing to see all of their solutions out there!
A winning solution equation
Now that we have a framework/process for getting our all-in-one components up to at least MedVP – and some ideas of how to focus on our system as a product itself – we’ll take a look into how an all-in-one wins against a collection of best-of-breeds in the market.
One approach is through the following Value of Solution equation. Since best-of-breeds solve a very specific problem, their value is usually reserved for the specific user need it narrowly solves. All-in-ones, while a sum of their components, also have the product of system to add to the value equation – a.k.a. Network Effect of the System. On the other side, there are Detractors, which are negative values that come with any solution including cost of communication / data siloing, switching between tools, change management, user adoption, etc.
Value of Solution | All-in-one (VoS A) = Component X + Component Y + System Network Effect – Detractors
Value of Solution | Competitor Best-of-Breeds (VoS CBoB) = Product 1 + Product 2 + Integrations – Detractors
To find the value of each area, we use the following:
Value of each Product or Component = Viability* Need
Viability of Product : MinVP = 40% of use cases covered , MedVP = 70%, MaxVP = 95%
Need for Product Area (Priority / user influence / business impact): Low = 1 , Medium = 2, High = 3
Lastly, to be a market leader – i.e., a clear choice to buy and to move over – let’s assume that your all-in-one solution needs to be at least 20% better than the competition / status quo.
VoS A > (1.2) VoS CBoB
Comparing the Components
Accelo all-in-one components.
VoS A = Time tracking + Project Management + CRM + Team Scheduling
= 3 (70%) + 2 (70%)+ 1 (40%) + 2 (40%) = 4.7
Status quo or also considering best-of-breed components:
VoS CBoB = Harvest + Asana + Salesforce + Scheduling Spreadsheet =
= 3 (95%) + 2 (95%) + 1 (70%) + 2 (70%) = 6.85
Adding Detractors & System Network Effects (keeping it simple with using 1s)
VoS A = Components + Sales Quote to Project + Central client database +
Email integrations – Change Management & Training
= 4.7 + 1 + 1 + 1 – 1
Status quo or also considering best-of-breed components:
VoS CBoB = Components + Zapier Harvest to Asana Integration – Data Siloing
= 6.85 + 1 – 1
Will the all-in-one beat the collection of best-of-breeds?
VoS A > (1.2)VoS CBoB ?
6.7 !> 8.22
Nope. At least not now.
Adding to the Network Effects of the System
As a UX team, we need to make up for about 1.5 value points to win over new users and to keep our current customers happy with the choice they’ve made: a clear market leader.
We could improve the value of our components, but let’s say the barrier to entry of incremental improvement from MedVP to MaxVP is too hard with certain features. Additionally, our uniqueness and skills lay in system design, so we should leverage those to move up 1.5 value points.
What we did:
- Dashboards are a quick win to show value across an entire system by visually connecting components of a solution. In 2015, the Company/Client Dashboard showed something similar to Salesforce: address, phone number, contact information, attachments. That was about it. During our re-design, I helped conceptualize an area on the company page called “Work” which brought in everything a service business was doing with their clients: new opportunities, request, projects, tickets, and retainers. This gave a better overview for management at a potential +1 strategic value and made it easier for the team to access the client work with a potential +1 efficiency value.
What we are thinking about now:
- If we include quoted future project work on the team schedule view, agencies could forecast upcoming client work much more effectively. This would bring value in helping an agency make hiring decisions or to understand where new business is needed by bringing in more business or having a team in place to deliver successful and profitable projects. This would surely add a +1 to the equation.
If you’re a startup, you can use these frameworks as a general strategy and conversation topic of what makes your all-in-one system unique, not just a collection of copied components. Adding a bunch of bells and whistles causes feature bloat that runs the risk of not significantly increasing – or worse detracting from – the Value of the Solution
If you’re a large organization, then using these equation modelling numbers, in addition to opening up to faster releases by having a finger on the pulse of the market, will help ensure your product is providing the most possible value to your customer.
As products get naturally more connected through the growth of cloud-based applications, APIs, and easy-to-use connectors like Zapier and MuleSoft, business owners and operation teams will increasingly be their own UX and Product team of system designers. They will have the power to connect the best-of-breeds to each other while using data overlays to give a constant user experience. Thus, the competition for all-in-ones will get increasingly fiercer.
To stay valuable in the market, all-in-one Product teams need to let best-of-breed MaxVP products guide their components while designing a system that is better than their users can design. This means not only understanding the customer’s voice but also interpreting their unsaid needs, not only building a system that they want but going beyond their own connecting abilities to connect systems in unthought of and uniquely valuable ways.
Written for CoFoundersLab with Accelo.