Thoughts on what businesses actually need from the Cloud, not what vendors wish they needed.

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Nimble, new media and the SaaS revolution: an interview with Jon Ferrara

Recently we had the pleasant opportunity of interviewing Jon Ferrara, co-founder of the old-school GoldMine CRM platform, and founder of the upcoming Nimble, a social CRM. Check out his thoughts below.

VM: Tell us a bit about your newest project, Nimble. What’s the pitch?

JF: Just like with Goldmine, Nimble was inspired by a real need. I was “swimming in the social river” and saw the immense power of social. I couldn’t find a relationship platform that unified social listening and engagement with internal and external collaboration. So I created a platform that did just that, wrapped around a relationship platform, that’s lean and, dare I say it, Nimble!

Nimble is a relationship management platform that allows you to listen and engage externally, as well as collaborate internally, through unification of the “3 Cs”: contacts, calendars and communication. Nimble unifies your contacts and communication history from your email and social platforms, and brings in new ones from the social stream. You can then tie this action directly to the contact, manage the existing pipeline, externally listen and engage. Now you can delegate, communicate and collaborate with your team, so you can see what’s pending, what’s been done and who’s done it. Nimble unifies your team, brings you closer to your customers and your network. Our extendible API allows for customization by our community to help them solve their needs. And Nimble is also really easy and fun to use.

VM: Social media has changed how millions of people interact everyday. Nimble clearly understands this in terms of tracking clients but I’m curious if Nimble itself leverages new mediums for its users and their clients. For example, how, if at all, have Facebook and Twitter influenced Nimble’s UI and design? Conceptually speaking, how does Nimble leverage new media?

JF: Because of Twitter and Facebook, users of social media are now used to realtime information streams that unify events, comments, posts and other social gestures. We designed Nimble with that notion in mind: everything appears as a stream, and you can comment on tasks and events that your team members are involved with. In addition to messages, tasks and calendar entries, Nimble associates each contact’s social stream with his / her profile, so that you always have a clear view into that person’s life. This way, you always have context for your communications and a clear 360-degree view.

VM: You’re best known for pioneering GoldMine in the ‘90s, well before the cloud-computing revolution. In your opinion, why should organizations be looking at cloud-based CRMs? What do they offer that CRMs of the GoldMine generation don’t?

JF: Cloud-based CRM systems offer the flexibility of use and ease of deployment that more traditional CRM systems can’t. Systems like Nimble are engineered with the constantly on-the-go end user in mind. This user needs a mobile and portable system that he / she can access from anywhere.

Moreover, cloud software offers API extensibility and interoperability with other systems and platforms, which allows a higher degree of customization and ability to tie into other cloud-based apps. Finally, cloud apps allow you to create a design that’s more modern and in line with the trend of consumerization of business apps.

VM: In a recent survey conducted by Appirio, respondents unsurprisingly listed security as one of their largest concerns about cloud-computing. What is your reaction to that? How do you mitigate privacy and security concerns? Did you see the same concerns in your GoldMine days?

JF: Goldmine was hosted by users on their own servers; therefore they were in charge of maintaining their own security. While companies worried about their own external firewalls, all we had to worry about was internal privacy.  Goldmine created a user layer in the application layer that allowed users to define their internal privacy and security parameters.

On the other hand, at Nimble, we had to add an extra layer of protection to not only secure the application layer, but also ensure that the servers and databases are adequately secured. We take this very seriously and have set up appropriate system controls to make sure we do everything possible to protect our users’ data. We comply with industry standards and encrypt all user sessions much the same way that banks do. Whenever possible, we don’t ask for or store user names and passwords; instead, we support standard open authentication (OAuth).

In addition to providing security of access, we also need to live up to expectations of reliability, ensuring maximum uptime and redundancy by creating failsafe environment via backups with multiple level of redundancy.

VM: Unlike many software sectors, CRM software is still relatively competitive. There are big fish like Sage and Salesforce, but there are thousands of minnows as well, some of whom are doing quite well. In terms of market share and competition, where do you see the CRM market heading? Does SaaS make markets more competitive?

JF: Social CRM will continue to be a meaningful evolutionary step for CRM. SaaS sales will continue to grow, with an emphasis on on-demand CRM applications and communication / collaboration software. Worldwide SaaS sales surged 17.7% in 2009 to $7.5 billion from $6.4 billion in 2008, according to market research from Gartner.  Nearly two-thirds of that revenue came from on-demand CRM applications and content, communications and collaboration software.  By 2013, SaaS application sales worldwide are projected to exceed $14 billion.

Although there are a lot of “old-school” CRM platforms that have done well historically, if you look at their acquisition rates, many have topped out or are declining vs. the more nimble SaaS startups. This can be attributed to maturity of platforms that have seen their complete lifecycle and haven’t stayed sufficiently current with technology and customer needs. They haven’t been able to adjust to the changes brought about by the social revolution and still rely on their legacy systems, which do not integrate social.

Even though the market has typically been dominated by these more expensive, harder to use and complex systems, the market need now is driven by the demands of the social business. The social business requires externally and internally social workflows, in a system that’s easy to use and implement and is accessible from anywhere, while remaining powerful and scalable.

VM: Our blog is followed by quite a few IT consultants. Do you see the role of IT consultants and IT support changing as more businesses migrate to cloud computing?

JF: In the old days, IT consultants set up servers and installed applications to sit on top of them, as well as extended functionality of these applications. In the age of cloud computing, applications still need to be customized and extended, and IT consultants need to leverage the cloud in the same way that they leveraged server installation. It still takes a human know-how to translate and execute on the needs of the business, as well as a certain amount of acumen to understand and translate business needs of their constituents.

Moreover, IT professionals have to understand how various programs integrate, how information flows through APIs, and how internal collaboration around customer-driven events can be enhanced. IT also has to understand security of third party sites and work alongside social media leadership to ensure security and privacy.

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Chris Bliss works at VM Associates, an end-user consultancy for businesses looking to move to the cloud from pre-existing legacy systems.