Top tips for IT startups in academic publishing

This month sees DataSalon’s 5th birthday and the anniversary of our first client (Oxford University Press) signing up for our customer insight solution MasterVision. Like any startup we’ve definitely had our ups and downs, but 5 years down the line we’re still here, and so it seems like a good time to share some insights into what works well for us:

Specialize. It took us a couple of years to fully work this one out, but it’s a smart move to specialize in one industry. From a product point of view, it means we can fully embrace all of the industry’s quirks and special problems (of which publishing has plenty, such as institutional sales and ‘big deals’). And from a sales perspective, it has helped us enormously when prospective clients feel we really understand their business, and, to coin a phrase, know our articles from our eTOCs.

Focus. We’ve worked incredibly hard over the last 5 years almost exclusively on one single product (ie. MasterVision). To give an idea of just how hard we’ve worked on the software (a hosted service which we can upgrade any time): to date we’ve averaged over 450 minor versions per year. Diversity can be a great strategy for bigger players, but as a startup with limited resources, what works is putting all of your team’s energy into doing one thing very well.

Listen. Perhaps contrary to startup folk wisdom, we haven’t tried to ‘get big quick’, and we’ve spent a lot more time talking to existing clients than we have ‘doing sales’ to potential new ones. With a subscription product like ours, it’s fairly common for IT suppliers to ignore existing customers (they’re paying you anyway, right?). We’ve tried hard to avoid that by staying in regular contact, not least because all of our best product ideas tend to come from listening to what the end users have to say.

Lead. Listening only gets you so far, because being exclusively client-led tends to produce lots of small, incremental changes. We’ve also tried to show some leadership in the overall direction of our product, by looking out for bigger problems in need of a solution. This is what led us to create various ‘hierarchy’ features, to help publishers get to grips with the issues of selling at one level (eg. a university) and how that relates at lower levels (eg. departments within that university). That’s also why we recently published the Customer Insight Framework as a way to lead a wider industry discussion on that topic.

Deliver. For a client, there’s nothing quite so annoying as a supplier saying ‘yes’ to everything when pitching, then, having won the project, explaining how everything is in fact immensely complicated. Our top startup tip: don’t do that! Tell the truth about what you can do and how long it will take, and then meet your deadlines, even if it means working weekends, evenings and nights to do so. It’s simple stuff, but it’s so often done badly within the world of IT, that getting it right really helps you to stand out.