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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. 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 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 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 or

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