BigIdeas 2011: Of BigMachines’ Quantum Leap - Part 1

The fall of 2011 marked Theo Epstein’s move from Boston Red Sox to Chicago Cubs, whose fans have been yearning for a championship ring for well over 100 years and are fervently hoping that Theo’s curse-breaking success as the general manager in Boston will be repeated in the desolate Cubs nation. Well, 2011 also marked a much less important detail: after having to regretfully decline a few previous times, I was finally able to clear my calendar and attend BigMachines’ annual user conference dubbed BigIdeas, also in Chicago as the company’s base.

I have to confess that the attendance has changed my perceptions of the upbeat cloud software vendor somewhat. Namely, every time when we would meet in the past (most often at past’s Dreamforce and Oracle Open World events) the company’s staff struck me as too formal and somewhat standoffish. My earlier opinions on the vendor can be seen in this blog post from 2010 here.

Well, during the recent two-day event, I realized that the company’s employees seem to enjoy their work environment. There was plenty of professionalism and pride in their product, but there was also plenty of camaraderie and even silliness during the 2012 roadmap keynote presentation (let alone during the late-night party at the House of Blues in Chicago downtown). “All work and no play makes…”--but I digress.

I wasn’t the only one to attend BigIdeas 2011 for the first time, since in May 2011 the company’s financial backers brought David Bonnette, a seasoned Oracle executive in the customer relationship management (CRM) realm, as the new president, who has since gradually replaced the company’s founder and former CEO Godard Abel. The practice of installing a professional president after the entrepreneur founder has completed the first successful startup stage is not uncommon by any means.

Abel’s run during the company’s first 11 years has been laudable: BigMachines is now a global company with about 300 employees, a growing customer base, estimated 2010 revenues north of US30 million, and a healthy ecosystem of partners – all from an initial idea scribbled on a few napkins.

New BigMachines’ Charter: Predictable and Repeatable Results for All

Bonnette started his keynote presentation by explaining why he decided to take the helm at BigMachines. The list of reasons was as follows: an extraordinary configure, price, quote (CPQ) market’s potential, BigMachines’ market leadership & innovation, high caliber of talent, customer base, and the company’s results and outlook. While these bullet point sounded like platitudes to me at first, Bonnette sounded quite plausible after explaining them further.

Indeed, the company grew by a whopping 92 percent in the first half of 2011 while adding 47 net new customers on top of its existing 250 customers. BigMachines has been profitable since 2010 and is committed to profitability in the future. The vendor might now begin to control its rampant growth in favor of delivering best industry practices and frameworks to drive predictable outcomes such as improved agility and customers' experience, and everyone’s stronger balance sheets. Improved user experience relates to better return on investment (ROI), as simple as that.

Bonnette pledged to invest heavily in research and development (R&D) and innovation, as opposed to the current skimping political sentiment in the United States (US) politics of only obsessing about cutting to the bone (which is not conducive to growth and innovation, to put it mildly). To that end, do-it-yourself (DIY) administration capabilities, enterprise agility, out of the box (OOTB) modules, intuitive user experience, and performance/scalability/security are the 2012 roadmap themes for BigMachines.

Currently, over 70 percent of customers are on the current BigMachines 11 release, and the idea is to bolster that number by making it easier and less disruptive for customers to upgrade and be current. One breakout session presented the BigMachines Implementation Framework, which is based on more than 10 years of experience and developed to help customers achieve success more quickly. The session outlined the following key factors to a successful BigMachines implementation:

  • Follow best industry practices and processes (as much as possible); this approach allows companies to think small and incremental rather than in a “big bang” manner

  • Take ownership – BigMachines should be like buying a car and not a limo with a chauffeur; for some customers that still require some handholding (chauffeuring), BigMachines offers packaged Admin Services, but the idea is for the majority of customers to be self-sufficient.

  • Supportability and scalability of the product

  • Constant interaction between customers and BigMachines’ project team members

Some Functional Enhancements

The upcoming BigMachines 12 release will focus much more on the ease-of-use and simplicity issues than on introducing major new functional capabilities and broadening functional scope. The three major BigMachines 12 themes (which were voted by customers via the Big Idea crowdsourcing mechanism) are as follows:

  1. Easy (DIY) Administration – examples of this are the ability to change a configuration layout in a drag-and-drop manner and nested grids with product options and attributes

  2. OOTB Modules -- one example of this is the ability to hide configuration and commerce rules and constraints in the BigMachines E-Commerce module based on the role of the user (i.e., how much detail he/she should be allowed to see) in AJAX-based interactivity

  3. Enterprise Agility – via the ability to move changes from test to production systems

These three major themes are enshrouded by the enhanced user experience (UX) and performance/scalability/security themes. For the first issue, BigMachines previewed an HTML5- and cascading style-sheets (CSS3)-based OOTB user interface (UI) for multiple tablets: Apple iOS, Google Android, etc. The screen will work not only via touch but also via gestures (a la Microsoft Kinect).

To be fair, there will be some functional enhancements in BigMachines 12, in the realm of document management, contract renewals, request for proposal (RFP) automation, and so on. The major buzz at the conference was about the recently released E-Commerce platform that offers self-service directly to BigMachines’ customers. This is a major growth engine for the vendor, as its internal survey has shown that about 80 percent of its customers have already deployed or have plans to deploy the module.

One can buy just about anything on the Web, and what about BigMachines customers’ products or services? B2B e-commerce macro trends, according to the US Census Bureau, show that B2B volume was US$3.1 trillion in 2009, up 198 percent from 1999. As such, online commerce can be some insulation against recessionary pressures. For more information, see the slideshow entitled “The 10 Points Every Business Should Know About B2B E-commerce.”

To that end, BigMachines’ e-commerce module can be used both as an open storefront for anonymous customers (who might come to the site in multiple ways, mostly via search engines’ and social media recommendations) and as a dedicated personalized portal for known (loyal) repeat customers with all of the customer’s preferences known and preloaded based upon login authentication.

The e-commerce module typically features standard catalog items, but it is possible to combine these with more complex configured products including accompanying services and contractual terms. BigMachines 12 will introduce the aforementioned commerce rules hiding and uncovering abilities (which was previously possible only in the BigMachines Sales Configurator module).

It was interesting to note that the most voted (desired) future wish-list capabilities by the BigIdeas 2011 attendees were as follows:

  • Admin navigation (more intuitive and less time to task),

  • Document engine (improved usability and reduced use of XML snippets),

  • Lookup attribute fields (dynamically populate menus from other data sources),

  • Tablet UI (platform agnostic).

Part 2 of this series will discuss BigMachines’ partner ecosystem and some notable keynote presentations by high-profile partners. Your comments, thoughts, suggestions or individual experiences with BigMachines’ Q2O and CPQ workflow-based engines are welcome in the meantime.
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