Technology swings constantly between periods of best-of-breed or point solutions, when a burst of innovation throws forth dozens of startups, to periods of consolidation where major players gather those many solutions into better value suites. Xero’s addition of Xero Expenses and Projects (and QuickBooks Online’s expansion to the latter), and its acquisition of HubDoc, feel like the beginning of a swing to suites in the accounting sphere, too.
Suites are most common in productivity software. The most famous of all is of course Microsoft Office, followed perhaps by Google G Suite or Adobe’s Creative suite. While the US has led the charge for most of the past 40 years, there are pretty clear indications that it may not always take the lead in mobile and cloud apps.
China’s WeChat is one of the best examples. Most people in the West think of it as just another WhatsApp. But Chinese consumers live their whole lives on it, using WeChat for everything from banking services to video conferencing. It is sometimes referred to as a “superapp”.
FaceBook is clearly trying to emulate WeChat in many ways to become an “app for everything” but given the surrounding privacy maelstrom it is hard to see it succeeding, or at least not to the same degree.
(Honourable mention to NZ-born and bred Xero which describes its accounting software as a small business platform. Will Xero build it up to be a back-office multi-tool, an ERP for small business?)
If China has WeChat, then Zoho could be India’s “business app for everything”. Zoho started out with three browser-based productivity apps that competed with Google’s G Suite and Microsoft Office. It has expanded to 40 products designed to run almost all aspects of a small business. Everything from word processing to recruitment tracking, sales incentives and electronic signatures.
The roadmap for the suite seems to have been driven by what Zoho needed to operate its organisation of 6,500 employees. Yes, Zoho runs on Zoho, so you know that these apps can scale.
Now, from the apps I have looked, at none would win the number one spot against standalone apps in each category. They lack the flashy design and user experience that you get from a software company dedicated to a single type of app.
Yet for the needs of most small businesses these apps are perfectly functional and, if you look past the design, actually quite good.
The killer feature, though, is the price. Zoho took out a full page ad in the New York Times announcing Zoho One, a suite-based strategy that gives you access to every app for just A$35 per user per month.
As indicated by the NYT ad, Zoho has launched a global assault on the small business software market. Although the company has relatively little brand recognition in Australia, it has already amassed a customer base of 30 million users.
The pitch is very strong. Here’s a sample of those 40 apps. They cover sales and marketing (CRM, online forms, electronic signatures, sales tracking, social media, email marketing and more); finance (accounting, inventory management, invoicing, expense management, online payments and more); email and collaboration (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, webinars, password management, note-taking and more); human resources (performance management, recruiting); and a help desk ticketing system.
It is incredible value for $35 a month. Pick any one of those apps and you could be paying on average $20 a month for it. A decent CRM and email marketing app alone is easily $40 a user a month, the same for accounting software.
If you’re a small business or even a sole trader you can pay several hundred dollars a month in software. Trust me, it’s very easy to do. I run a very lean consulting and media business and pay more than $7000 a year. (A lot of the time I’m testing out new apps and new ideas, but still…)
The point is not whether you think the Zoho suite represents a good deal or is just under-baked software. They may lack the bells and whistles but these apps will meet 80 percent of needs at a fraction of the cost.
Zoho can do this because it has grown very quickly in its home market of India and can scale the costs more successfully than Western companies. It has just copied the essential features in each category.
WeChat and Zoho are the first major consumer and small business apps to break out of their respective home markets to challenge US hegemony in the software market. They won’t be the last.
A version of this story first appeared on crn.com.au