Saturday, January 5, 2008

An Embarrassment of Riches

I'm doing some consulting with a 15-year-old 'start-up' company in Boulder who has an unusual problem: too many valuable, potential directions to choose from. You see, these very smart folks applied their deep knowledge and expertise in telecom to building a platform that could serve any number of markets in any number of ways and they're finding it hard to pick one or two to focus on to maximize their current revenue and potential exit valuation.

In a nutshell, their platform can 'harmonize' data from virtually any source - any database, interactive phone-based input (IVR), web forms, text messaging, call center operators, etc. and also turn that data around and push it back out. For example, if I want to know right away when I receive an important email, this platform will read my messages as they arrive and call me to read to me the ones that include the phhrase "term sheet" (or whatever words I deem important - think Outlook Rules Wizard). Or, say I want to ask my customers some survey questions. This will call them and administer the survey by phone, or let them transfer (even mid-way through) to finish with a call center operator or via a website. Need to alert a bunch of people via multiple media of something urgent - and want their verification of receipt of the notification? No problem with this platform.

In essence, they've got an erector set full of very cool parts that can be assembled in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. Unfortunately, this can also feel like a solution in search of a problem. When it comes time to actually sell something where do you market? Who are your potential customers? "Everyone" is obviously not an effective market segment since it can not be targeted.

It strikes me that something like Twitter has essentially the same problem. They put out a tool and left it to users ("everyone") who discovered it to figure out what to do with it to make it valuable. One usage I saw great value in was when evacuees from the SoCal fires this Fall were able to let their loved ones 'follow' them while they submitted updates from their mobile phones. Unfortunately (for Twitter), I don't see that they've discovered how to monetize their capabilities into a business yet.

My goal is to help this company pick the BEST opportunity or two to pursue for the quickest impact and using the least of their limited resources. The SWOT Analyses we're performing are helpful but not quite enough. It seems like most frameworks for evaluation of strategic options assume the industry you are part of is a 'given' and thus your competitors are also clear. I'm in search of an analytical framework for evaluating amongst several potential products and industries (e.g., do we pursue Realtors or Homeland Security?) without creating months' worth of work trying to understand and size each and every prospective segment separately.

Can anyone recommend such a framework or an analogous case study?