The Formula for Product Success: Focus on Flexibility and Cooperation




A Pleasing Product, for Starters

This note, which elaborates on the discussion begun in Competition from a Small Vendor, began with Jeeves—Thriving Organically As a Humble Servant.

This is Part Two of the series Jeeves—Thriving Organically as a Humble Servant.

One pillar of the success of Jeeves Information Systems AB (JIS) is the way it has developed its main product from scratch. While most competitors work painstakingly to rewrite or merge their many (often recently acquired) complex and rigid systems, Jeeves has always had a product with built-in open and flexible architecture. Recent studies by an independent market research company, DPU Research, show that Jeeves Enterprise repeatedly receives the highest rating among European users in terms of ease of use, value for money, functional breadth and depth, and so on. Jeeves Enterprise tries to emulate the user thought process, and to accommodate multiple ways of building systems, according to needs. It is modular, flexible, and customizable, with an integrated, broad-scoped, functional footprint catering to many business processes and industries.

Often, Jeeves can match requirements without the hefty price tag usual for the industry. Its modular structure, with preconfigured modular integration, enables users to pick exactly what they need, when they need it, without having to pay for unnecessary features. Other notable characteristics include a web interface for the entire product, integrated workflow management (with escalation capabilities), and full search capabilities. The product also supports multiple records and companies, and eighteen languages. There is only one version of Jeeves Enterprise, for all markets and all languages. Although the system is multilingual, administrators can change the language for the whole system with one click on a menu option.

As its name might imply, Jeeves aims to please—the system can easily be adapted to existing (or future) business processes. To that end, the product contains a single location for all user customizations, and unless users have played with what they were not supposed to play with (meaning source code), the vendor will never alter these customizations when enterprises upgrade to newer versions.

In sharp contrast to the older peer enterprise systems commonly used today, all adjustments and adaptations are kept separate from the core system in the Jeeves site repository. The purpose is to make the system easy to install and upgrade, and at the same time, easy to integrate, through its open architecture. All business data, business logic, and customizations are stored in the database in the form of structured query language (SQL) procedures, whereby for every table there is a trigger which makes consistency checks on all data fed into the database. This open architecture enables users to integrate and communicate with other systems via Microsoft-compatible technologies like dynamic data exchange (DDE), open database connectivity (ODBC), object linking and embedding (OLE), ActiveX, extensible markup language (XML), and so on.

The distinctive construction of the interface makes all information searchable, in all fields, in any combination of fields, and on multiple levels, without limits. Jeeves's business model is based on the ability of partners or customers to modify the system themselves. Accordingly, the modifiability is embedded in the system. This is one of the system's prime strengths, and in many cases, it represents the system's superiority over competing systems. Jeeves Enterprise's macro language is the key to its modifiability, and through use of this tool, unique modifications and new functional capabilities can be developed. Cosmetic modifications which have recently become easier to implement (without having to resort to touching the source code) include the addition of designing forms, drop-down lists, reports, and user-specific functions.

Smart design, with source code availability (if required) and a macro language, makes it easy to change or develop business logic. In an ever-changing environment, this is vital for almost any business aspiring to agility, as it allows them to maintain flexibility and minimize consulting hours. If users are accustomed to another system, Jeeves can even imitate the incumbent user interface and workflow, thus minimizing additional training costs. The user interface can be tailored according to what the customer is accustomed to. This is a strength that has emerged progressively, and that has been recently enhanced. The long-term objective is to be able to mimic other systems entirely. This opens up major opportunities, given that businesses can thereby swap their old systems for Jeeves without extensive training initiatives or organizational involvement. Moreover, with all business data, logic, and customizations being stored separately, specific modifications migrate automatically during upgrades. This means that the costs and efforts coincident with upgrades can be minimized, while retaining numerous integration opportunities.

Benefits of "Modify It Yourself"

According to Jeeves, one of the benefits of their modify it yourself (MIY) approach is that users are empowered to take charge of their own system environment and to adapt it to their business, which allows them to respond more quickly to a constantly changing business environment. Users should thus feel secure, knowing that they have acquired a future-proof solution with no limitations or restrictions on self-sufficiency. To tailor the system, adept users do not even have to consult the vendor, the program developer, or an expensive consultant. And of course, fewer consultants means reduced IT costs.

As an illustration of the system's modifiability, users can modify any screen layout as they wish. Every field is searchable, and users can create and save their own search questions. As indicated earlier, Jeeves has a macro language based on Pascal syntax and SQL procedures, which allows users to create macros and to add them anywhere in the system for additional functionality (be it simple or complex). This functionality can be invoked in a number of ways (by an event, by clicking a button, or when a particular condition has been met, for example). Users can set their own parameters, and create their own SQL triggers and procedures, to further enhance the functionality.

Jeeves often says that its product "loves to meet the others," meaning that it is quite interoperable, and works with all widely used enterprise applications. To make programmatic links to other Jeeves programs or other external applications, users simply add the link to a button on their screen, which enables free exchange of information (as seen earlier) with Microsoft Office software like Excel, Word and Outlook.

Again, all business logic is stored in the database, which protects the integrity of the user's data, since typically the data—while still protected—is thus easier to integrate with other systems, even without the help of consultants. This simplified design also minimizes the need for additional consulting, since, as mentioned above, a lot of the integration work can be done by the customers themselves (although for those without the in-house competence, one of Jeeves's local partners will gladly oblige). All these adaptability traits give Jeeves Enterprise not only one of the market's lowest total cost of ownership (TCO), but also possibly the greatest total value of ownership (TVO).

The Technology Platform

The system's technology platform, which provides the foundation for the wide assortment of modules in Jeeves Enterprise, currently consists of a Microsoft Windows NT/2000/XP/2003 operating system and a Microsoft SQL Server database. The focus on a 32-bit application based on the Microsoft standard has so far been successful, since it provides an inexpensive, mass market platform, with a solid relational database. But as mentioned in Part One of this series in connection with IBM, the idea is to expand the platform choice to Linux in the next version of Jeeves Enterprise. The current database is distributed (with a two-phase committing process), and responsive (all business logic is handled by stored procedures; there are triggers for consistency checks on all data fed into the database, and a separate site repository stores adaptations).

Additionally, by using native online analytical processing (OLAP) capabilities in Microsoft SQL Server, or by using other business intelligence (BI), software users should have solid analysis tools. Recently, Jeeves entered into collaboration with a fellow Swedish BI provider, QlikTech, whereby Jeeves Enterprise will be extended with a new analysis tool, Jeeves Business Intelligence, which should simplify analysis and reporting for Jeeves customers. This tool introduces new conditions regarding data analysis; built on patented technology, it gives the user unlimited access to analyses of large amounts of data. Dimensions and output can be changed in a matter of seconds, and the response time is virtually instantaneous. Some Jeeves customers, such as Ridderheims Delikatesser, Mora of Sweden, and HL Display, already use QlikView for analysis and follow ups on purchases, deliveries, invoicing, and various business ratios. Jeeves Business Intelligence will be sold via Jeeves's European and US partner network.

Furthermore, server configuration is scalable as needed. As all modules are Internet-ready via low-bandwidth transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) communication, users can access the system via a two-tier fat/rich client at the office, a three-tier thin client for in-house or remote connection, or a web interface.

The vendor has also integrated a native security system for both data integrity and data protection, in order to keep all transactions safe. This system is also based on Microsoft-compatible security standards, although Jeeves admits that some customers have issues with the security of Microsoft products (and therefore with the future expansion to Linux as well). Security issues are handled at different levels, providing users with a secure environment (whereby data integrity is protected by database logic, or triggers), since the data in the database is secured by the Transaction Rollbacks feature in case of errors.

Data is transferred using a proprietary protocol based on TCP/IP, and compressed and encrypted with a 128-bit key. Additionally, all data communications are doubly secure, with (in addition to Jeeves's own encryption algorithm), IDEA's 128-bit secure sockets layer (SSL) algorithm, which is a symmetrical block cipher developed in Switzerland at Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich. Also, Jeeves Client Broker secures Internet traffic routed via the firewall and proxy server, whereas Jeeves Access Control System handles user- and program-level security. The system can limit and restrict users with respect to data access, on the module, program, function, and field levels, while integrated security within the operating system provides single-sign-on capabilities too.

Differentiation in Focus

This brings us to another pillar of Jeeves's ongoing success: its butler-like servicing and nurturing approach to partners and customers. We will explore the Jeeves vision of partnership in more detail in the final installment of this series. There is basically nothing to prevent its reselling partners from creating their own packaged ready-to-run solutions for industry verticals, as a platform for further adaptation to each individual client's business. A considerable number of such industry solutions built upon Jeeves Enterprise are in fact available today. Thus, Jeeves might be offering the better of two worlds; that's to say, a measured balance of packaged and adaptable solutions.

As Jeeves Enterprise is easy to modify, install and upgrade, Jeeves believes that it can replace virtually any other business system in its segment, while the converse is not very feasible. Indeed, a number of recent announcements from Jeeves refer to the replacement by Jeeves of some well-known competitive products, or to poaching partners from these vendors' camps. For example, in 2005, eQstend Business Solutions GmbH chose Jeeves to target German manufacturing companies with a process-oriented enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution based on Jeeves Enterprise. Also in 2005, Jeeves and Belgian's ICASA Consulting Group formed a strategic partnership covering Belgium and Luxembourg, regarding sales and implementation of Jeeves Enterprise (ICASA had chosen not to pursue Microsoft Dynamics NAV). Prior to that, Jeeves started a subsidiary in France and recruited several key top-ranking managers from Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) to lead operations, which all goes hand in hand with one of the highest levels of customer satisfaction, and the lowest churn rate, in the market.

It is no big secret that focus is the key to the success of any business, but Jeeves's notion of focus is in sharp contrast to the "entire applications value chain" or "as much as possible" approach that illustrates the business model habitually preferred by most of its competitors. Conversely, Jeeves prefers to focus only on product research and development (R&D) and sales support, while completely leaving lucrative sales, customization, implementation, training, and support to trusted and competent partners. This resembles the model of Lilly Software Associates (now part of Infor Global Solutions) and of the recent MBS Industry Builder or SAP PartnerEdge initiatives, albeit with Jeeves giving partners much more leverage to develop and own the intellectual property of their own tailored industry solutions.

The market Jeeves creates is nearly ten times the size of its own turnover, since partners with experience and skills operate critical links of the software value chain, such as sales, modification, and installation. These kinds of revenue scales and ratios could only be wishful thinking for other vendor ecosystems, not to mention for the internal competition amongst the hundreds of resellers covering the same market segments.

Additionally, since Jeeves protects existing solutions or product instances (all modifications are stored in the database and are not affected by upgrades; the practicality of this feature cannot be overemphasized), upgrades purportedly can take less than a day, with sufficient preparation. It might be sometimes easier and cheaper to switch to Jeeves Enterprise than to upgrade the existing system, which Jeeves believes puts it in a solid position to actively contribute to further consolidation of the industry. Extensive product development, with systems modified for a particular sector or type of business, is another trend which is going in the opposite direction of mere corporate-wide consolidation and system standardization (see Standardizing on One ERP System in a Multi-division Enterprise). At the very least, the software is well suited (future-proof) for replacing obsolete, internally developed systems. Accordingly, strong local or national players with large install bases and aged technologies could save product development costs by offering Jeeves Enterprise as an embedded original equipment manufacturer (OEM) product to their customers.

A Focus on International Markets

The vendor has made great strides towards creating a concept for a new market launch, which it hopes to be able to reuse in other countries. Although recognizing the daunting task of penetrating the crowded North American market (currently representing only several Jeeves customer sites), Jeeves believes there will be great opportunity there, albeit only in the long run. In Sweden the total turnover by all Jeeves partners comes to about $100 million (USD) annually, and there are 15,000 target companies in that market segment. Almost each US state is a bigger opportunity than all of Sweden, with the top two markets being California and Texas, respectively.

Jeeves North America, Inc (JNA) was established in 1997 and is a subsidiary of JIS. The vendor has other subsidiaries in Germany, France and Sweden (via recent acquisitions of Reveny and Microcraft). In addition to distribution, marketing, and sales support for partners, JNA markets and distributes Jeeves Enterprise on the US market as a master reseller, with reseller establishments in Orlando, Florida (US), which is where JNA's headquarters are located, and in Chicago, Illinois (US). The subsidiary also provides services like project management, implementation support, training, and help desk support.

Globally, Jeeves Partner Group is a cooperation between the major Jeeves resellers, with the focus on users' business needs and on increasing product quality. The Jeeves sales and implementation process is based on the premise that building relationships is the key to success. The group has adapted its project management model through years of extensive and successful implementations, with focus on quality throughout the whole process. The process starts with an initial contact, followed by a web-based demo, an on-site demo, and negotiations in case of a good outcome. Once the deal is closed, a preliminary study follows. And after that, there is project setup; technical installation; "power-user" and end user training; product configuration, modifications, customizations, or integration of conversions; and, finally, workshops and realistic (to the degree possible) live simulations. After going live in reality, there is usually support, along with continued process improvements (CPI).

The most important phase is the so-called preliminary study—an extensive analysis whereby Jeeves and the partner go through the user's processes, requirements, and needs, so as to decide how Jeeves will best support business development. The starting point is a focus on the existing ways in which the user conducts business (for example, with respect to workflows or business processes, or with respect to areas which are functioning well or poorly). Then the focus shifts to the user's goals for the future, whether they be strategic goals (what do we want to achieve?), or operational or tactical goals (how do we want to work?).

Finally, the preliminary study analyzes the relationship between Jeeves Enterprise and the solutions needed to achieve these goals. Perhaps the existing workflows in Jeeves and its assortment of functional capabilities (supplemented by the partner's vertical solution) will suffice; or perhaps the customer will still have to develop unique solutions. The preliminary study is the foundation for the project plan, the project budget, successful implementation, and continued improvements of the system in use. Jeeves recently started operating a quality assurance (QA) system, mainly for product development and support. The main purpose of this phase is to assure quality in different activities, and to make project management more efficient (which is important, since virtually all product development is done on a project basis).

This concludes Part Two of the series Jeeves—Thriving Organically as a Humble Servant.

 
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