For awhile, conventional wisdom said the world of CRM was particularly harsh for newcomers. With behemoths like Oracle, Salesforce and Microsoft, there just wasn't much room for startups. But much has changed over the last few years, and the CRM space is now alive and well—and more competitive than ever.
Disruptive technologies in mobile and breakthroughs in big data are finally being applied to major pain points in the world of “salestech,” where tools that weren't necessarily built specifically for sales are being used for sales purposes anyway—because they get the job done.
My earlier posts on CRM examined the challenges LinkedIn brings to this market and the well-funded ventures gaining significant traction in the space. Here, we will look much further down the innovation pipeline to examine early-stage ventures, where one can apply the “barista test” to an array of new tools.
Can I check out this new tool while waiting for my coffee? If it looks interesting, can I start using it while drinking my coffee? This "barista test" eliminates all the enterprise-y systems that that somebody chooses for you or require a backend. It also eliminates the cool-sounding Private Beta tools that you cannot actually try out today. Mobile apps tend to score well on the "barista test," since any actions can be performed with one hand, negating the need to fire up the laptop, but I don't apply that as a mandatory filter because there are still great tools that have not yet translated to the smaller mobile screen.
Here's the real test of greatness: Will you use this tool tomorrow? Can this tool become a habit you use every day?
There are some overlaps between many of the younger salestech ventures—for example, all ventures use email and social in some way—but those companies tend to cluster around four main themes.
Relenta And Streak: For bringing CRM to email
There are only so many hours in the day. If we spend all our time in a CRM system, we have less time in our email inbox, and vice versa. The reality is that when we need to take action—to "follow up" with people—we usually use email. So why not bring CRM into the email? That reasoning led me to use Relenta when I was COO of ReadWrite in 2009, but it had one big flaw: It made me leave Gmail and use Relenta's email system.
Relenta was great for my productivity once I decided to switch, but once I left ReadWrite, I reverted back to Gmail. Now there's Streak, which raised nearly $2 million in VC funding in 2012, which literally brings CRM into Gmail.
Streak is not CRM-specific; its mission is to fix "the frustration of constantly having to switch between their inbox (where they do their work) and separate systems.” So Streak could certainly apply to any executive and any back-end system, but I'm confident it would resonate with salespeople. Mobile email is at a pretty good place right now, so an e-mail centric CRM is automatically mobile-friendly. Streak may work best for those people who do some sales/relationship management but don't necessarily define themselves as "sales professionals" (perhaps 20% of their time is spent selling). Streak is great for those people that don't want to use a CRM system, but would like a bit of CRM functionality in their email.
Nimble And LittleBird: For bringing social to CRM
Self-appointed social media gurus will tell you "how to use social media to drive revenue," but these concrete methodologies usually lead to spam. Social media should be a conversation, and so should selling. The two should be one user experience, and one workflow. Nimble does this elegantly.
Nimble probably won't displace Salesforce or Oracle/Siebel in enterprise accounts, but it may take a big share of the SMB market for CRM that's currently wide open. If sales is what you do for a living and it's up to you, give Nimble a try. You can be up and running in minutes and it could end up saving you a lot of time.
Nimble automates what good salespeople already do manually, which is valuable since time is our most precious asset. However, if you look for something that will give you competitive advantage and put you a step ahead of the average sales guy, try LittleBird. This was built by Marshall Kirkpatrick with investment from Mark Cuban and others. (Disclosure: I worked with Marshall at ReadWrite in 2009 and like him, but no I don't have any financial interest in his venture.)
Marshall built LittleBird from his experience as a journalist where you have to quickly assemble lists of experts and influencers by domain. It's like Klout, but where one's influence measured by their domain. Somebody smart and famous may have a high Klout score, but that's irrelevant if, for example, you are writing about new technology in the cloud stack and you're only interested in connecting with experts in cloud stack technology.
So how does a tool for journalists translate to sales? In the same way journalists seek out influencers and report on their activities, salespeople must also find those domain-specific influencers and influence them to sell others on their technologies.
In both cases, you need to keep track of your influencers, and LittleBird helps you do that. This is particularly useful in sales when you're bringing a horizontal tool into new vertical markets and you need to quickly connect with people that matter in those markets.
DataHug: For bringing business intelligence to your CRM
Mature ventures in this space include InsideView and RelateIQ, which we covered in an earlier story, but there is also DataHug from Ireland, which “analyzes the contacts your company is emailing and scheduling meetings with," allowing teams to "find warm leads into potential customers, partners and recruits.
See also: How To Hire The Enterprise Sales A-Team
DataHug hits on a big issue: Our personal LinkedIn connections are good, but it still feels odd to "connect" to new colleagues just to see their connections. A CIO or sales VP might well get indigestion from all that relationship capital leaving the company.
Business intelligence for CRM still has a long way to go. Salespeople live on snippets of intelligence all day long, and the smart ones keep their ears open for opportunity all the time. The big win happens when salespeople can alert users just in time after an event happens that can a) signal opportunity, b) signal the deal is in danger, or c) provide an interesting talking point to connect with a prospect.
This kind of real-time intelligence requires data collection from many sources (e.g. Glassdoor, Google News, LinkedIn, Twitter) and alerts you on your mobile device while you're on the go. Aggregating external sources on companies is important, but since that data is non-proprietary, you can save time by aggregating it automatically. Though it doesn't always generate a competitive advantage, it allows you to also integrate internal, proprietary data in parallel, which is how you achieve the bigger win.
Trello: For aligning resources to your sales projects
If your image of a salesperson is a door-to-door salesman or one of the guys from Glengarry Glen Ross, it would probably look like the salesman is a solo act. This is simply not true in big ticket enterprise sales, where the sales executive is the point person, the orchestrator of resources—such as sales support, maintenance, product management, senior management and outside partners—to get a deal done.
In CRM systems, coordination matters. (Perhaps that's why they're hated by so many salespeople but beloved by so many managers.) But is it possible to have one tool that everyone can agree upon? I have seen one candidate, and that is Trello.
Trello comes from Joel Spolsky's team—no VC money involved at all. ReadWrite uses Trello for tracking the general flow of stories from concepts to finished articles, but Trello's system of "boards" and "cards" can be easily applied to managing a sales pipeline.
Trello feels like it was “born-mobile." The small screen interface works well, and it totally scores high marks on the barista test. It is the one tool on this list that I find myself using regularly. It is also naturally viral; I get invited onto Trello Boards and invite others onto Trello Boards I have created.
Salestech CRM is finally exciting again, with lots of innovative new tools to try out. These are just six examples, so let us know which CRM tools you prefer in the comments section below.