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Monday, June 29, 2009

New Learning Solutions

For the past 15 years, I've spent a lot of time working on start-ups both inside and outside the world of eLearning. As I mentioned in Blogger Outreach, I'm now getting quite a few emails that are announcements of new services, products, events, etc. One thing that really surprises me is the number of new products that constantly appear that leave me scratching my head. Why am I scratching my head? Because I'm not sure that they've really done any market research, competitor analysis and have come up with a unique value proposition.

In some cases, I'll connect back to the vendor to ask how it's different than some of the other products in the market. In most cases, they will mention some neat new feature that makes their product marginally better.

A marginally better new product is not going to do anything in the market.

You only need to read a few marketing books to understand why that is. You won't be able to get above the noise.

And this isn't just me. Stephen Downes – What Not to Build. Notice how a lot of the solutions he suggests not to build falls into the category of marginally better. The places he sees opportunity are significantly different. I don't necessarily agree with him on some of his suggestions – too bleeding edge. We'd need a lot more market research before I invested much time and money. But the point is to make sure you are not a "me too" solution.

What's going to make a new learning solution interesting?

Addresses Real Pain Point

Tell me the pain that customers are feeling that will make them pay for your eLearning Solutions – or adopt your free solution. Even if you are free, you still have to have enough pain with how they are doing things today to get them to adopt.

A corollary to this is to make sure you tell me who your customers are. It's surprising how many times I run into new products where it's not clear who they think will be using it.

Different Type of Solution

I'm going to be more interested when you tell me about a new solution that doesn't fit into the existing categorizations of tools. Actually, this is the same thing as differentiating a solution. For example, let's say that you are building a web conferencing solution that includes an easy to use 2.5D representation and avatars. You would categorize the space from faceless (WebEx) to 3D/complex (Second Life) and your solution is this new category of approachable 3D. You get the feeling of presence and personality, without the complexities of Second Life.

Integrates in Interesting Ways

Another way to get my attention and possibly get the market's attention is to have a solution that integrates with existing, already adopted solutions. For example, if you build something that integrates with Facebook, Twitter, etc. that can take advantage of an existing audience in order to help you solve particular issues. Or maybe it's a product that lives on top of SharePoint. Or integrates with all the major LMS products.

Islands have a hard time making it.

Interesting Market Entry

This somewhat relates to the integration issue. If you can integrate with Facebook, Twitter, or similar products and you have some kind of viral aspect, then that could make you more interesting. For example, create a business simulation that integrates with those products. Or a learning tool that leverages those products to help aggregate activity.

But interesting market entry can also be things like the strategy that Yammer took. They allow you to set up a corporate twitter that is based on your email domain without ever asking permission from IT. It's a similar idea to the original groups that Facebook had where you couldn't be part of it unless you had an email with the appropriate domain. Yammer thus provides a very interesting market entry model that can effectively beat out competitors who need to go through a full IT sales cycle.

An Example – New Survey Tool

What sparked this post was an email I received that was a new survey tool. I'm not going to mention the specific tool because they didn't provide any of the information I would need to assess whether it's an interesting offering or a me too.

On the surface, the tool looks very similar to many other survey tools on the market. Actually, in terms of reporting and some other aspects, other tools look like they are way ahead. This new survey tool appears to have additional multimedia question types, but I was not clear on why that's any better than providing some media or a small embedded captivate piece and having the question there.

Some thoughts and questions I would have for this company -

Customers? Pain Point?

Who do they perceive to be their customers? What is the pain point?

From my experience using survey products, there are definite pain points that are encountered in specific situations. You want to create a survey with a particular purpose, but the reporting doesn't seem to work out for you quite right. Or you want to create surveys that need to have reporting done in specific ways. Or maybe these surveys are aimed at employee satisfaction and the goal is to feed it back into the LMS? Maybe there's a unique roll-up of results? Or unique aspects of sending it out to the right people and tracking who's completed it?


Notice how several of the above pain points relate to integration. Quite often integration is the barrier to adoption of tools. If this survey creates something that can feed back into the LMS, then it might be able to get traction in the market.

Of course, most survey tools today really are aimed more at integrating with social platforms. If you could create a survey and have it work seamlessly with Twitter, as a widget on your blog, with Facebook, with your LinkedIn connections, etc., that represents a pretty interesting offering. Or maybe there's something about being able to report back out through these same tools?

You need to be a little careful that you still find customers and pain points.

Market Entry

Survey tools can have a very nice viral aspect to them. You see someone use the tool and then you want to use it. It's a bit like hotmail in the early days. And if you are able to use it with twitter, Facebook, etc. it will be that much more viral.

Maybe this tool could be bundled with other authoring tools?


Anonymous said...

For the past year and a half I worked for a company called Transcensus. Although I have moved on, I feel that their solution SHO Guide meets the key points described here and is a truly revolutionary product. I would urge companies looking at performance support to consider SHO Guide.

You can review the product at

I hope this helps...


Brian said...

What new elearning companies, in your view, are getting it right? As I go to elearning conferences (ASTD, eLearning Guild), I'm seeing the same vendors there, without any seemingly breakthrough elearning products.

LMS providers, rapid elearning development tools, custom copntent creators, games & sims -- is there anyone out there is is changing the industry in a significant way.

I hear presentations on mobile learning and immersive learning trends, but not sold on either.


Steamin_gustuv said...

Well when it comes to product I think having a know brand is the most good choice to do when it comes to computer programs products. Because when is said a known brand it already has the signature on the market and already known for it services. Specially when it comes to computer hijack protection programs or what we called anti-virus, anti-spyware, fire wall and other security products. Because now at this age computer virus programmers or so called hackers approaches computer users that doesn't have those security programs and advertise a generic brands of anti-virus which is called Rouge anti-virus.

So to prevent this ind of product information is a must for the computer user and inform them the latest ways and information about the brand of the product and what it's uses. Like for example newsletters form the sites like these
Those are really good example for a kind of technology news source where you can have the latest info and the most news that is related today about the latest programs there is which are branded and known on the market. So having those kind of info is already the best guide for the most computer users to know which is the best for them to use.

Vic Uzumeri said...

If the discussion is limited to 'products' then Downes list is pretty good. However, I would suggest that people might want to consider some of the other genres of marketable things that often serve as substitutes for classically-defined products.

In particular, I am convinced that there are huge opportunities for clever and innovative new services. Even better are services built around open source software.

Look at some of the more active projects on Sourceforge. Many of these are championed by for-profit businesses that derive most of their money from selling services and add-ons. Companies like SugarCRM, Intalio, MySQL (oh well, it did).

If you offer a product/service combo, you can build unique ways to add value on the service side - and that service component can maintain differentiation against even the biggest and nastiest competitors. The open source aspect can leverage free labor and reduce customer support costs.

Tony Karrer said...

@Brian - true innovation generally occurs from outside the established providers in a space. I agree that a lot of what you see seems the same. But we are also seeing lots of innovation at the edges. But from a dollars standpoint, it's small in comparison. (And I want to dodge your question of specific companies for now - but would be curious if other folks have thoughts like Dan.)

@Vic - that's a great point and I found myself changing the title of my post to "solutions" as I was writing because of exactly that.

Rodolpho Arruda said...

@Brian, Tony - I totally agree. Mainstream vendors have trouble to update their software with the latest innovations just because they became too big for that, too monolithic. As Tony said, you have a lot of people working on the edges (including myself) with their niche oriented startups providing software that really brings innovation to the process.

We saw the same thing happening in the ERP market 6 or 7 years ago. There were hundreds of small startups building innovation and then selling their businesses to giants like SAP, Oracle and Microsoft when their technology was consolidated/ready or when their customer base was big enough... whatever happens first.

Communication Mercenary said...

Not sure my last post made it in. I'm looking for some leads on those smaller firms that are cutting edge. We need content that will include customer service, leadership, communication, sales, innovation etc. But we are not enamored by the large providers i.e. skillsoft, element K Not that they are bad, just as you said, so much content and hard to keep up. Less, but cutting edge would be great. Any ideas?