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Softworld – where are the buyers?

Softworld is UK’s premier event for accounting software vendors. I was a regular attendee during the days of ebdex (my first tech startup), but have not attended the event during the last few years. Those days, the event was held in Birmingham and was seen as the annual showcase event for accountancy software. It was  at least 3 times bigger than the event I attended yesterday, and was buzzing with people. In contrast, yesterday’s event was not just small but it seems that the organisers forgot to invite buyers.

Access Accounting had the largest exhibiting area, and probably worked harder than anyone else to generate some interest. Sage and Intuit/Quickbooks were there, because they needed to show their face, but perhaps not looking hard for new business, as the brands are mature and well established. Version One, as usual were upbeat and well represented. COA rebranded as Advanced Business Solutions were there with First Lady (meeting her was perhaps the highlight for me!). SAP and their resellers with Sapphire were there with a bunch of other less known brands. Financialforce.com seem to have made a token attempt with a smaller stand with Aqilla perhaps being the only other SaaS provider to exhibit.

So where are the new boys, who plan to rule the next few decades? Xero, Kashflow and Free Agent were clearly missing as they do not believe in exhibiting where the returns are guaranteed to be almost nill, given the markets they operate in.

So, is the Softworld just an expo where brands exhibit just to let their competition know that they are still around?

The whole event raised number of interesting questions:

1. What is the expected ROI from such events, and what is this in form of? Its certainly cannot be direct revenues. Events can be useful to let stakeholders know that they are still around and perhaps use the opportunity to generate few press releases.

2. No major announcements – Both Access Accounting and Sage may have used the opportunity to brief or hint their forthcoming cloud strategies. I did not attend individual sessions to verify my suspicions.

3. Is Cloud relevant to these guys? I would say yes, so far it is not a major drive promoted by anyone exhibiting. Sage, QuickBooks/Intuit, Advance Business Solutions, all continuing to offer licensed software. Some have web enabled their products and referring to this as Cloud. Only SAP Business by Design, Aqilla and Financialforce.com seem to be offering cloud solutions.

4. Whilst they may not have implemented cloud solutions, most of them at least are acknowledging it as the future, at least their front end sales staff. I am not yet convinced whether their managements have the same view. Ironically, Iris (except one chap) did not know about (or pretended not to know) their white label Free Agent Central offered through accountants.

5. Is the industry trying their best to hang on to an outdated business model and milk as much as possible before it vanish into thin air?

6. Has SAP got a under rated winner in SAP Business by Design, trading at £97 for ERP? The more I discussed with them it became clearer that they have a winning proposition. But do they understand the market, especially how to sell to small companies, given that they seem to control the process 100%. They are looking for 10 seats upwards, but bundling in consultancy to make the revenue pot bigger and increase profit margins? Could they make profits if the product is developed to such an extent it does not require high consultancy fees? But of course, it is not in the interest of the vendors to do this, due to existing business models. Could SAP change perceptions – a system so complicated that you never finish projects!

7. I used Xero and Capsule CRM arguments many a time yesterday (Duncan/Gary – commission through paypal please!). Whilst Capsule is pouring all their profits into making the product better and simpler, one cannot think how it could be used by a high end smaller business without some help! The customers may not necessary have to the time or resources to streamline their processes to maximise benefit – hence the traditional argument for consultancy.

So in conclusion, the model may still require consultancy to be effective from the customer’s perspective, but the total costs ought to be a small fraction of the past, which undermines the value added reseller model seriously. Would this create a vaccumm that might be filled by a new segment such as value added virtual assistants?

Should Softworld reinvent themselves by bringing the buyers back? If so, what tactics are available to them? Have they not leveraged their existing relationships with folks from Accountancy Age, ICAEW, etc. Why was their large stand completely unoccupied? Was there a press centre? What happened to bloggers such as Dennis Howlett (one point, even I was a serious blogger sponsored by SAP!). What else can they do to make this event fly?

From a selfish stand, both Techcelerate and edocr.com could have helped reaching out, but I will not take this space to talk too much about how! Instead if Softworld is interested, we could help them the next time.

Lastly, I am looking to run a small accountancy event for 40 to 50 people with a session on accountancy for small businesses, say 1 to 25 staff teams, and showcase three accountancy software solutions, in Manchester or Daresbury Innovation Centre in the new year. If anyone is interested, please get in touch.

Disclaimer: I have not researched the Softworld website – all above are my personal views based on many discussions I had and not a reflection of edocr.com or techcelerate.org

Update 1

Here is the Twitter report capturing tweets on this annual event. As you can see, the conversation was some what limited.

Softworld 2010 Twitter Report

Published inedocr.com
  • Gary Turner

    Manoj, good insight. Softworld has become a mid-market to enterprise vehicle and therefore exhibitors will reckon that only a handful of large value deals is actually good value for a £10-£20k cost to pitch up.

    The lower price point cloud vendors you mention engage with hundreds of prospects and trialists every day online, going offline at an event like this makes no economic sense.

    • Anonymous

      Gary, true, but could a model be found where an exhibition such as this serve both SME sector as well as enterprise? Of course, the event has to be marketed to the target audiences more effectively than Softworld has achieved this year.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the mention Manoj. I’m not familiar with Softworld, but all sounds a bit old school. I’d hazard a guess that the likes of FreeAgent, KashFlow and Xero were busy that day generating new customers via marketing techniques that actually work.

    For our part I would say we are putting most of our efforts into make the user experience for Capsule as good as possible. That includes making the sure customers get the right level of support and information to set-up and get the most out of the system. I’m not sure that traditional consulting is a cost effective answer for this market, but we’re considering how we could leverage independent Capsule experts.

  • This format of event simply can’t muster a sufficiently large group of potential buyers to justify the cost (and effort) of exhibiting. The world has moved on, there are much more efficient ways of engaging with the market nowadays. Softworld, in it’s current format, is dying a slow death. Needs a re-think.

  • We had a great event, a bit to the consternation of others. We did a lot of pre-marketing and even had people find Softworld via us. On the flip side we also received a lead five weeks before the show, they found us via the list of exhibitors

    We had people who have attended our on line webinars bring along colleagues to meet us and see the software for real. From our morning sessions (Accounting After Excel and Why You Should Never Buy Another Legacy On Premise Accounting Solution Again) we were non stop through till around 3pm. We went this year because we signed customers (and partnes) on the back of last years event. The venue was a lot smarter than tired old Olympia but the logistics of getting there more of a challenge. There were certainly far less time-wasters than in previous events.

    Jeremy Roche of FinancialForce and myself were wondering whether it would have been better to put the On Line Accounting Zone at the front, however Dennis Keeling pointed out that Incisive are probably following the sweet shop principle, put the good stuff at the back and draw people through. Personally I think Xero and KashFlow should have been there. We passed on their details to a number of SMEs for whom their products would be more of an appropriate offering.

    Apart from the mad dinosaurs with custom stands, most opted for shell schemes and probably paid less than £3k to exhibit. Given we generated lots of leads, on balance we wrapped up the event yesterday pretty happy.

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  • Stuart Lynn
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  • Softworld

    Hi Manoj,

    First of all thank you for accepting our invitation to participate as a speaker at Softworld this year. As you put it yourself, the Cloud Computing end-user panel discussion was a great opportunity for you to speak alongside key industry names and we were pleased to see that this session was particularly well attended and well received by the audience.

    2011 will be Softworld’s 20th year and there are many bloggers out there, you and Dennis Howlett included, who remember the show in the halcyon days when we had many more exhibitors and visitors. So why did it get smaller? As anyone with even a passing interest in the business software industry will know, the industry has consolidated over the past few years and the number of vendors and resellers in the market is simply much lower than it once was. And as for the buyers, they still come to the show, but the number of time-wasters is certainly falling. Our typical visitor is now a serious buyer who has been informed by online research and now plans to have several face to face discussions with potential suppliers.

    Our exhibitors are acutely aware of ROI and anyone trying to suggest otherwise is doing them a disservice. And as exhibitors such as Aqilla and many more will testify, Softworld continues to deliver quality leads. However we also recognise the need for product development and evolution and this year we successfully launched a new event format to complement the exhibition called Softworld Select. This is an invitation only event where pre-qualified buyers meet vendors for a day of one-to-one demos. Feedback from sponsors and delegates has been great and we have lots more scheduled next year.

    It is a pity that you have chosen to make such unfounded claims about us on your blog rather than engaging with us at the show. Our press office on the show floor was always staffed, often with people you know. For the record our organisers’ office was also permanently staffed and clearly signposted. Our sales re-booking stand that you saw was sometimes empty as the team were busy out on the floor talking to exhibitors and re-booking stands for next year’s show.

    If you would like to meet us to discuss ideas for the future then we are certainly open to that. We find your response to Softworld disappointing but if you are genuinely interested in engaging with our exhibitors and visitors for the benefit of the industry then please get in touch.

    Kind regards,

    The Softworld Team

  • Guy Letts

    I recall some market research from a few years ago saying people in small to medium sized businesses will typically only travel up to 30 miles for an event like this. I suspect that distance has shrunk with time rather than grown. I would expect that to mean that only larger companies, those making a more serious investment, would benefit from visiting an event where they could assess several vendors at once.

    So I can’t see the benefit to a low ticket-price SaaS vendor exhibiting at Softwaorld, unless it’s just for press coverage and to be perceived as a players…but I’ve seen lots of companies try that in the past and it doesn’t strike me as an effective marketing investment – none of them succeeded.

    I’ve recently started a small business and taking a day out travelling to a big conference centre to choose a small software package would be inconceivable. Perhaps if it was on my doorstep and I was on the point of choosing or changing. Maybe. But most likely I’d want to select online – using a combination of the vendors’ websites, expert reviews, and comments from existing users. Even better, if I got a recommendation from somebody I knew.

    I have some familiarity with the industry, so perhaps I’m missing something because my point of view is different. But having spent yesterday wrestling with accounting software to try and prepare my first VAT return I suspect not.