Not going to Spectrum because… ?

There is a discussion in CDP about the 2011 International Spectrum Conference and who’s going this year. I have a lot of thoughts about why people don’t go, why they should, and how to fix many of the problems that ail this Pick/MultiValue market. Oh, how audacious. 😉

Tracy Raines wrote: Tigerlogic was not there last year, and it doesn’t appear that they will be there this year. Does anyone know why the have stopped going?

I want to preface by saying that there’s nothing here intended to disparage anyone related to Spectrum. I don’t blame them for the state of our market. I see them more as a barometer for measuring the market – maybe the canary in the coal mine. If you look at my summary you’ll see I actually encourage support of International Spectrum as a community resource.

In CDP I said I’m not going, in part because the conference this year is on the east coast, and our colleague Glen Batchelor says he may not go if it’s on the west coast. TigerLogic, like other MV DBMS providers, had their own conference a while back and, like other MV DBMS providers, probably doesn’t want to spend Marketing money on Spectrum.

These are problems that Spectrum has had for at least the last decade. The value of the conference, to vendors and other attendees, must be greater than the cost to go, which includes travel time away from business and family. Most people just don’t see that value. It’s the fault of the industry, not Spectrum. I’ll try to summarize some of the dynamics as I see it, but of course there are many other dynamics that others see, and more that many of us couldn’t know.

Why are Spectrum conferences so much smaller than in the past?

One major reason why Spectrum continues to get smaller is that Pick VARs isolate their end-users. That means there aren’t enough end-users going to shows to see what’s possible. End-users drive change. They tell their VAR/developers to do things that keep us all employed. When VARs isolate them from what’s possible, they come to believe that things are not possible, they stop asking for changes, and eventually the end-user sites go away.

I welcome a private note from VAR/developers as to why they isolate their end-users. And for those who argue that they don’t, well, when was the last time you sent a blast to your end-users about the annual DBMS conference? I guarantee you that Oracle and many SQL Server shops get these notices, and end-users are eager to go.

Because VARs aren’t getting asked for new things from their end-users, they don’t see a reason to go to shows to see what’s new. Spectrum includes both the consumer and supplier audiences in this market. As we see either side get smaller, ultimately so goes the other side.

Because there are are so few VAR/developers coming to the conference, vendors don’t see a need to be there, so the number of booths shrinks and Spectrum becomes a shell of what it once was. When word of that gets out, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, there aren’t a lot of vendors at Spectrum anyway, so why should VAR/developers or end-users go? And on continues the spiraling downward motion of our self-destructive market.

Gus Giobbi tried to combat that dynamic by having more conferences in different parts of the world, even dual-coast conferences. Of course not only was each conference smaller, but this became too much of a financial and personnel strain on the DBMS providers. In most cases I think what happened was that each local show had local vendors, which is fine for people looking for local providers, but the show lost the depth of the worldwide collection of tools as well as the expertise of worldwide presenters on a variety of topics.

As to the DBMS vendors, they see the shows getting smaller over the years and that influences their actions. (The following may not accurately reflect Spectrum financials, it’s only my guess on how things have played out.) So they scale down their booths, and they cut back on their sponsorships, thus removing some of the funding that Spectrum used to have. That drives up costs for booths and only further deters vendor participation – giving conference goers even less to look at, less motivation to show up. At some point the DBMS providers don’t see the point of showing up anymore. They do their own shows and draw decent crowds, so they cancel their participation in Spectrum entirely, simply because Marketing budgets can’t support as many shows as they used to. When Marketing dollars are perceived as a mostly unrecoverable expense, we’re going to see a lot less of it.

Note – I am not blaming the DBMS vendors for shrinking Spectrum shows either. I believe their lack of participation is an effect of smaller shows, not a cause.

Why do Pick VARs isolate their end-users?

You can argue against whether any of this describes any of you personally but I’m telling you what people tell me.

I’ve heard many say that they don’t want end-users to go to the shows because they will get asked for things that they can’t provide. The end-user sees some cool reporting tool “and all of a sudden I need to support it”. I could write a whole blog on that topic alone. It defines the short-sighted character of this market and provides yet more insight into why this market continues to get smaller. I’m not saying this characterizes everyone in the market of course, but the mindset is representative of enough people that I think the market is influenced.

Others are afraid that their end-users will find another package or start talking to other people who are more satisfied with their application solution. This is another common mindset that individuals can argue with “I’m not afraid of competition…” but again, this is a factor in our market. Sheer paranoia about losing business causes all of us to lose business. The smaller the market gets the more paranoid people get about losing business, and that only serves to further reduce the pool of paying customers.

Some VARs don’t like the idea that their end-users will be talking to DBMS vendors because they’re afraid their clients will ask them to port to another DBMS. Yeah, this one is strange but I’ve heard it. If some feature isn’t in D3 then VARs are afraid their end-users will ask for an application port to Universe or something. One problem here is that D3 (or insert any MV platform here) is as capable as the others for all practical purposes but the people who are most paranoid about losing business are frequently the same people who don’t know about all of the features of their platform of choice. So they can’t respond that their current platform does in fact include the features found at the other guys. The mindset is that it’s better to avoid the questions, to prevent the questions from occurring, rather than learning how to respond to the questions, and perhaps driving the DBMS vendors to respond to competitive features.

Again, I won’t put this on the VAR channel. Not all VARs think in some specific way. I’m sure some people will be insulted by the above because they think I’m talking about them. As always, if the above doesn’t reflect your views then I’m not talking about you – and if the above does reflect your views, don’t get mad at me for what you’re doing to yourself, your clients, and our market.

You’ll note that most DBMS providers don’t announce Spectrum conferences to their base of user/developers. I think this is in part because they have a suicidal respect for the paranoia in their channel. They know their resellers don’t want end-users to go to Spectrum or user groups or other trade shows, so they don’t push the topic. I think it’s also partially because they are just as afraid of competition as the resellers in their channel – “why invite our customer base to go talk to competing providers”? I don’t know if it’s cause or effect but the DBMS vendors often have the same sort of short-sightedness as the reseller/developer channel – and both sides unfortunately reinforce one another.

What happens is that we see the market fragmenting into DBMS-specific shows, and product-specific shows, each of which is as large or larger than Spectrum itself. How can that be? Because the DBMS providers actually tell their channel about _their_ conferences.

What we see is that there is in fact demand for conferences. People want information. The problem is not that people don’t want to go to Spectrum but that they’re not being encouraged to go. Nathan Rector does his best to get the word out – but how many MV VARs get the magazine or email newsletters into the hands of end-users? (To some that would be as bad as getting end-users to the show.) It’s possible that some perceive that Spectrum doesn’t present enough compelling DBMS-specific value to warrant encouraging specific end-users to go to a general industry show, and that they do see such value at a DBMS-specific show. But I don’t think that theory holds true. It’s difficult to over-generalize that products and information at Spectrum are so platform-specific that there isn’t enough cross-over. No, what we’re seeing is that some DBMS providers and VARs will encourage their end-users (or not discourage them anyway) to go to DBMS-specific shows, but not to a more general show like Spectrum.

If every DBMS provider with a conference of 100 (or 1000?) people encouraged their channel to go to Spectrum, the entire cycle would change:

  • More vendors and presenters would be at the shows.
  • There would be more for people to look at.
  • There would be more reasons for VAR/developers to go to see what can help them to earn a better living.
  • More end-users would go to find out what’s possible so that they can ask their VAR/developers to enhance their systems.
  • With a more visible community, fewer end-users would be likely to leave for larger markets.
  • DBMS vendors may be more inclined to do presentations about their technologies, further reinforcing purchase decisions.

Is Spectrum better with, or without the DBMS vendors?

I’ve said in the past that I personally believe a Spectrum conference should be attempted without DBMS vendors present, but with encouragement of DBMS providers to the end-users channel. Hey, the DBMS vendors are backing off from shows anyway, so why not? This addresses the concerns of application providers who are afraid that their clients will seek out new vendors. You generally don’t see booths for applications at Spectrum, but if an end-user asks a DBMS provider if there are any good accounting packages on their platform, you know they’re going to be brought into the prospect cycle. If the show only has new tools to add to the current platform, most of those concerns should be addressed. And this should also remove DBMS provider concerns about other DBMS providers stealing their clients from them.

That approach doesn’t address the fact that there will still be presentations talking about how to use features in other databases that are not present in the VARs platform of choice. C’est la vie.

I think the presence of DBMS providers at Spectrum is a double-edged sword. If they’re there people feel threatened. If they’re not there people don’t get the sense that there is any depth to this market. The MV market, the Pick DBMS community, continues to live, in part, because there are so many platforms. If there were only one provider of the Pick model, we’d all be doomed. To each end-user and developer in isolation, it doesn’t matter that there are other Pick models out there. But when people ask themselves why they’re using this platform, the presence of competition validates the market as a whole.

It would be interesting if we could try an experiment. Have one Spectrum show where all DBMS vendors were conspicuously absent. Advertise this is a big way throughout the entire market, to every end-user that can be reached. Let’s see how many people show up. Now have another show the following year in the same location, where the DBMS vendors are as big and boisterous as they were back when Dick Pick was with us and the market was thriving. Let everyone see just how big it is one more time – compared to tiny shows with huge vendor representation that a lot of people regretted from about 1998 through 2005.

It’s all about end-users … or should be …

It all comes down to getting more end-users to the show, despite the fears of the vendor channel. I think isolating end-users from information is a bad idea. An educated consumer becomes a better client. If your clients are on the edge of walking away, if they can be swayed by new features in another platform rather than asking for those features to be built into the current one, then the relationship is already strained for other reasons that should be addressed. Spectrum isn’t the problem there, it’s only a reminder that you already have problems. It’s the canary you don’t want to bring into the coal mine because you know the air is already unbreathable.

It’s end-users who buy the products, who pay for DBMS licenses, and who pay employee developers and contractors to write code.

This market is where it is because the reseller channel holds on too tightly to their grip on their client base. We’re paralyzed by the small business mentality, that “grassroots DIY spirit” for which so many in this market are so proud. The one-man-shop developers want to hold on to what they have so they don’t allow their clients to see what’s beyond their scope.

The DBMS providers are on one hand watching their market shrink because of the prevalent mindset, and on the other hand they foster, facilitate, and perpetuate it. The DBMS providers say they’re motivated to generate revenue, but they continue to coddle the lowest common denominators of the market which only keep them from their goals. (Again, if this doesn’t describe you, don’t get offended – only get offended if this does describe you…) The DBMS providers should be interested in getting the end-user base excited about a larger market because we’re all competing against an even larger market, which is the RDBMS market. If you lose a customer to another MV DBMS provider, it’s simply because you’re not doing a good job – they like the model, they just don’t like you. If you lose a customer to the relational world, it’s because you’re not properly representing your interests. These are two completely different things though I don’t know a single company that differentiates their MV-market marketing from their open-market marketing. (And yes, I know there are few companies that actually market to the “open market” at all.)

Whether DBMS provider or VAR, to represent your interests as part of the Pick/MultiValue ecosystem, you must continue on an on-going basis to keep end-users aware of the capabilities of their platform, of the products available in the industry, and aware of one another. Human beings like to congregate. They don’t like to feel alone whether in a large room or a technical community. By fostering community amongst end-users, those who earn their living in this industry influence the next round of budgeting and help to ensure their continued income.

Fear of losing your customers causes you to lose your customers.

Spectrum shows, representative of the market as a whole, are smaller because you (collectively) make them smaller.

And the DBMS providers are not helping themselves or any of us by blaming the state of the market on resellers – though of course as I’m saying above, many of the resellers are as much to blame as anyone else.

Summary and solutions

Many of us are not going to Spectrum for the same reasons that we don’t do a lot of things, like time and money, but a lot of the fundamental reasons are largely self-induced by how we approach day to day business.

If we don’t do Spectrum I think we should put more effort into user groups, which used to be huge but now there are only a few worthy of mention.

DBMS providers can fix a lot of the problems if they take a firm stand with their reseller channel : “We need to move forward and we want you with us. Let’s partner to keep end-users happy. Keep your end-users educated or we will. We will no longer allow the people who pay us licensing fees to live in the dark and without any contact from us, the upline providers. We respect your business, you must respect ours, for mutual benefit.”

Everyone needs to put on a Marketing hat. We need technical newsletters from application and product providers, from DBMS providers and from in-house developers. Technical material should not be confused with being technical – this is Marketing! VARs as well as in-house developers need to market their platform to management at all tiers to keep people from looking for other solutions. If you want job security, spend less time making your code hard to understand, and more time making sure that everyone knows how great your platform is. We need more internal and external blogs, how-to’s, wiki’s, and white-papers.

We need more webinars that people can afford. Weekly or monthly get-togethers, recorded, brief, and at low-cost or no-cost. This will get people familiar with the technology and the product offerings in our market. It will get end-users to ask for things that we should provide, even if it scares developers.

If I could make a living being an MV market evangelist, I’d gladly do that, and work with companies at every tier to address the problems that we all face. Unless and until we can scrape up the cash to make that happen, it’s up to each company to do some part of this independently. If you’re not evangelizing to your own downline, then you’re not helping. If you’re not asking your upline to do something about improving this market, then you’re not helping yourself or anyone else.

International Spectrum is one of the few threads that bind the very loose fabric of this market. If nothing else I think we should do more to support that single independent resource. We can’t do much about this year, but we can always look forward to 2012 … Assuming of course that the ancient Maya, Nostradamus, and others are wrong, and that the world isn’t going to end. Now that would be a solid reason for not going to Spectrum. 🙂

Leave a Reply