Overwhelmed by startups? There’s a spreadsheet for that
In 2011, The prominent Silicon Valley investor and inventor of the Netscape internet browser Marc Andreessen said that ‘software is eating the world’.
Over the past five years, this quote has appeared with increased frequency across the technology media landscape and beyond. From nervous CEOs at startup-threatened incumbent businesses, to the founders of disruptive SaaS ventures and intrigued industry observers, the exponential growth in software to solve all sorts of consumer and business problems does not look likely to slow any time in the near future.
Andreessen’s assertion is one I would certainly agree with.
On a personal level, the number of software solutions I have on my mini super-computer (aka my iPhone) is in the dozens. Within our business, we regularly receive requests for product management expertise to help develop and release bespoke specialist software for our client’s businesses, and are just about to kick-off a substantial project in this realm.
Additionally, we have been approached by clients and prospects both within our sectors of interest and also from further afield for advice, introductions and installations relating to the seemingly endless ocean of software options that are now available for businesses.
In fact, what was initially a tertiary service offering has become central to many of our engagements. Clients are looking for guidance on procurement, installation, user on-boarding, and also the longer term sustainability of technology solutions across almost every aspect of their operations.
Where previously there may have been a single or low double digit number of enterprise software packages available to solve a particular problem (or many problems at once), there are now tens or even hundreds or options on the market — from the narrowest niche to the fullest of stacks.
This presents a number of challenges for a consultancy advising clients on software procurement. We have to be on top of everything to compatibility, pricing and feature sets, through to the provider’s track record, chances of sustainability and product roadmap.
Additionally, the breadth of business areas that software can help automate means our role has broadened from the obvious areas of accounting, productivity and sales pipelines through to insurance, employee happiness, office supplies and hiring of partners, to name just a few.
This is a particular challenge for consultancies working primarily with SMEs, as we do. When working with a larger corporation, the remit for assistance and advice on software procurement is likely to be narrowed to a department or business function by either the client, the consultancy or both, thus focusing the requirement into a more discrete area. However, for the consultancy advising smaller independent clients, a wider lens is needed.
Curation platforms like Product Hunt are very useful tools in our armoury, but understandably they have often have limitations on the depth of information they provide about each service.
One tool we revisit again and again reminds us of, somewhat ironically, a guidance point from Paul Graham and others around coming up with ideas for startups.
One of the first things to find out when looking to launch a new startup is what prospective customers’ existing solutions are.
More than one founder in history has come a cropper because they didn’t realise their customers’ existing solution was good enough, and that the new offering was not better enough to make users switch.
Examples of existing solutions range from a SaaS tool with a few miles on the clock, to a pen and paper, a bricks and mortar shop, and, of course, a spreadsheet.
The computer spreadsheet has been around since 1979, and for many decades before that in non-digital forms. The package that launched the spreadsheet into the homes of millions was Microsoft’s Excel, first released in 1985.
(NB: Interestingly, despite the rise of various alternatives in recent years, alongside machinations that Microsoft is somewhat old hat, ‘Excel’ is still ubiqituous both as a software package and as an interchangeable term with ‘spreadsheet’. The question is whether it will go the way of the Walkman, and to a lesser extent Hoover.)
Fast-forward 30+ years and the spreadsheet is still a first port of call for us when ascertaining how to best solve our clients’ challenges. We’re as passionate as anyone about novel and nimble new software startups but often find that a spreadsheet can at least help model and point us towards the right solution, if not be the solution itself.
Although several of our more creatively-led clients can have a fairly strong aversion to spreadsheets, we work hard on developing and customising options that can be genuinely impactful to their business without unnecessarily dulling their creativity or increasing the time they spend on data-led tasks.
Our weapon of choice is Google Sheets, and the range of increasingly powerful add-ons that are being released on a daily basis (and yes, these add-ons are almost mini startups in their own right). These add-ons combined with the powerful built-in functionality of spreadsheet packages, portability, ease of sharing, and the ongoing overlap with technology resources such as StackOverflow make the spreadsheet a key part of the modern consultant’s toolkit.
Often we will first test a hypothesis or a feature within a spreadsheet — this can be thought of as a very rough MVP to ensure we’re building something the clients wants.
The final solution may well end up being a software solution from a 3rd party vendor, but the spreadsheet has often proved invaluable and we have several of robust grid-driven solutions currently running live to make our clients more productive, efficient, and profitable. Some of these are deliberately built for the short-term, some are mid-term and some have been effectively solving problems for much longer — it all depends on the client’s needs.
So the next time you hear that ‘there’s a startup for that’, there’s may just be a spreadsheet solution too.