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On SMB, ERP, and Making it Big: An Interview with Chris Tanner of Brightpearl

In our quest to find software that doesn’t suck, we’ve been increasingly impressed with Brightpearl, a cloud-based ERP company that’s targeting the SMB market. Based in the UK but with offices opening in San Francisco, Brightpearl combines CRM, accounting, eCommerce and inventory management in one easy to use cloud-based package. At ~$100 USD/user/month it’s an easy sell for most small businesses, and a serious affront to ERP heavyweights Netsuite. Exciting stuff.

Anyhow, we thought we’d learn more about Brightpearl from Chris Tanner, Brightpearl’s founder and VP of Product. Check out the interview below for his thoughts on Brightpearl, the future of ERP, and how to properly spell “clamoring.”

1. First thing’s first – what’s the Brightpearl elevator pitch? Who are you?

Brightpearl is game-changing business management software for SMBs. Finally a small business can run all their separate systems in one cloud based solution; including eCommerce, Accounting, CRM, Inventory, Point of Sale and Helpdesk. Brightpearl lets small businesses compete at the same level as larger businesses, selling product via more channels and operating more efficiently. Up until now, SMBs have had to move from Quickbooks all the way to expensive solutions like Netsuite, which is overly complex for most SMB needs, isn’t as easy to implement and costs a truckload more.

2. Ok seriously, what the hell does ERP even mean to businesses? You guys don’t really call yourselves that, why does everyone else?

You’re right. We are ERP, but for SMBs but we don’t call it ERP. SMERP maybe, but that doesn’t sound too sexy…. ERP is a term that many SMBs just don’t understand. “Enterprise Resource Planning” typically makes people think of big, heavy software, long and expensive implementation cycles. We’re introducing a new way to run your business, it’s lean, mean and much more agile than the ERP of old. Monthly billing, cloud delivery, close customer interaction, easy configuration and so on.

3. You just announced that new offices are opening in San Francisco. What prompted that decision? Why the US? Why San Fran? What challenges has the move brought about?

20% of our customers are here in the US, and that’s before we’re even got a team on the ground, and before we’re really done any marketing. There’s such a big opportunity to help small businesses become more efficient and take their business to the cloud. We’re expanding globally, and have customers all the way from the Caribbean to China; however the US market is large enough to justify a local team. US East coast is closer to the UK, so having a West coast presence shares the load a bit better between time zones. It’s also a tech hub here in the Bay area; great for bizdev and integration partnerships. US job postings are here!

4. You already have US clients, what’s the number one feature they’re clamoring for? How are they different from, say, UK customers?

Well first of all we’d say what are they clamouring for! [Editor's note: this is so wrong it's not even funny.] Updating the system for US spelling is something we need to complete; it’s not essential but does make users more comfortable to have it localized properly. On the whole, UK and US businesses operate in a very similar manner. There are a few differences; integration with FedEx and UPS in the US is much more prevalent, whereas in the UK businesses switch between couriers too frequently to get embedded with one courier. There’s also the Sales Tax vs VAT; but we have that covered. Printing checks is something that we don’t do in the UK any more; everything is credit card or epayment. We’ve got some real nice integrations with epayment providers like bill.com to help US businesses get online.

5. Competition includes both the old guard like Sage and Microsoft and more recent heavyweights like Netsuite. What’s your differentiation strategy? What are the big guy’s missing?

The big guys that are doing cloud “properly” are not currently targeting the sub-$10M turnover market; Netsuite CEO has clearly said they are not planning to support the smaller customers, leaving the space wide open for an end-to-end solution. We’re moving fast, talking closely with customers, leveraging modern web technologies and REST APIs to become an intrinsic part of a modern business’ operating platform. One big differentiator is the ease of implementation and ease of use. We’re in the generation of new web tech; where usability and fast onboarding matters.

6. Brightpearl started as a CRM and accounting solution in 2006, but thanks to a lot of elbow grease and some significant venture backing you’ve grown into a full-fledged ERP (or whatever you want to call it). How if at all has accepting venture capital affected Brightpearl’s mission and product?

Good question. The main thing from my camp (product land) is that it’s enabled us to focus on strategic features and development for certain markets rather than build whatever the biggest paying customer wanted. We’re focused on product based companies; retailers and wholesalers; dedicated to building a solution that helps them get ahead of their competition. It’s also allowed us to scale up every department in the company; we’ve grown from 5 to nearly 50 people in 20 months; with more structured development/test, a full time support team, marketing, sales and everything else that goes to make up a successful business software company.

7. Mobile is on everyone’s lips these days. How do you see mobile and ERP going forward? How is cloud technology disrupting what’s out there?

Small business owners are used to running their personal lives on-the-go; so why shouldn’t they be able to stay in touch with the rest of their business? We believe that mobile is an essential part of our 2012 strategy. Having full access to view and update your central database whilst you’re on the road is essential for sales people, but also allows the SMB to manage more with a smaller team. Technologies like GoogleVoice, Dropbox, Skype and Google Apps let a user work with their team in multiple locations – and if everyone is accessing a single, live version of the company data then efficiency improves dramatically. I’m here in the US, and I know exactly what’s going on back in the UK, and the UK team know exactly what we’re doing out here – I don’t even have to schedule catch-up meetings. It’s all in Brightpearl.

8. Where do you see cloud-based business applications moving? What major trends do you see? What’s changing? What’s not changing?

Cloud is still in it’s infancy. There are many applications out there that have a smart marketing website, but when you dig under the hood, there’s very little meat on the bones. Business applications with the depth and breadth of ERP simply can’t be built overnight.

I think we’ll see the on-premise solutions move into the cloud space, but how effectively is another question. In the UK we’ve seen Sage launch SageOne – an online solution that is so lacking in features it’s not really useful at all. They have such a huge existing customer base on the on-prem software that it’s going to be a tough ride. Quickbooks online is doing some interesting things in the US market, but it’s still a very long way behind the on-prem version.

Usability is key for cloud apps. Customers are not accustomed to paying much for a web based solution, so it’s important that the vendor designs something that’s easy to understand and use.

9. Lastly, and we’re particularly interested in this one, how do you see consultancy roles changing in the coming decade? We’re not huge fans of the reseller model – we don’t think it’s much of a value-add for businesses. What role do you see consultants playing as businesses and vendors adopt SaaS pricing and service models?

For SaaS products with low price points there’s not a lot of revenue share potential for the reseller model. The software vendor builds a low cost of acquisition strategy that can revolve around channel and partners, but again this typically needs to be a very low touch model to work out financially. However hard we try to make Brightpearl really simple to onboard, there will always be businesses that don’t want to fly solo, or else they just don’t have time to do a formal evaluation and setup. This is where the consultancy partner comes in, with experience of matching business processes to software systems, and charging day rates for the work. Consultants can offer ongoing support to introduce new modules and new processes into a business as they get embedded into Brightpearl; it’s a huge app that very few clients get the most out of until they are a good few months in. We’ve got some exciting stuff coming up at the start of next year that will allow a consultant to customize the interface with better reports, widgets and apps to build workflows, integrate with 3rd party systems and so on – another great route for the technically minded consultants to help out.

First posted on http://www.vm-associates.com.

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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.