Intuit is one of at least five companies that I plan to profile in depth for my new--still nameless--book. The others are essentially big business-to-big business players.
But Intuit is business-to-small business and consumer. My particular interest is the small business side an area generally considered to be too fragmented, limited in budget and late to adopt to be a profitable area to serve.
Yet, every small business needs to manage its books and tax records and Intuit is the overwhelming supplier of automated products in this area.
Scott said Intuit has 50 million individual and small business users. It started its online communities about three years ago and today has 3.5 million active users. About 400,000 are small business users. Both numbers are growing.
Last week, I talked with Scott Gulbransen, a senior PR/Social media manager for Intuit's TurboTax group. It was an overview, the first of what will be a series of talks with Intuit, its customers and third-party developers.
Like other companies, Intuit did not wake up one morning and devise a grand strategy for online communities. In fact, it was more an outgrowth of issues that would keep company officials awake at night: how to migrate from a company whose products sold off retail shelves to one whose products are downloaded from the internet.
Scott didn't say it, but in the early-to-middle 2000s, Intuit lost luster as an innovator and some wondered if the company would remain as an independent entity. The company started to fumble with an online strategy and as it did, Scott told me, "a sense of community was woven into corporate DNA."
Like SAP, the communities are part of a larger something that both companies call "ecosystems." Both companies see the ecosystem as core to corporate strategy, but they've structured them differently. SAP has folded its network of communities into an Ecosystem and Partners Group, Intuit's communities are assigned to product groups and operated separately from each other.
Still, it assembles into an ecosystem strategy. At Intuit, developers collaborate at the back end, telling each other how to make applications succeed. And the strategy makes traditional command and control approaches obsolete.
“An ecosystem makes you get out of the way. You build a platform and enable. At the end of the day everybody benefits. Your marketplace becomes a living breathing thing,” he said.
Despite these different approaches, the outcome seems to be the same. The lines between company, customers and third-party vendors and partners get blurred as products, services, policies are developed, delivered and refined in transparent, collaborative style, somewhat ad hoc style. While marketing may be responsible for communities, these communities have diminished the importance of traditional marketing tactics of drum rolls announcing releases and updates. Stealth modes make no sense in collaborative environments where companies ask customers how to make the products better.
While the company built these communities, and they host them on company space, Intuit does not presume to run these communities from what Scott told me.
The lines between customers and the company have became less clearly defined. Third-party vendors who might previously have been regarded as competitors or irrelevant, became partners.
The key issue in the communities "is no longer what's good for Intuit," Scott said, but "what's best for the customer." Coincidentally, it turns out that what's best for the customer is almost always best for Intuit in the long run.
To understand the core benefit to Intuit, Scott quoted Scott Cook, Intuit founder and chairman “In the moment feedback is a huge gift to companies. You want to do everything you can to foster more and more. This was not possible 30 years ago.”
The communities created a partnering process for product development and for helping each other, sometimes without an Intuit representative being involved at all. The communities become a "connection platform," one where ideas and information are shared and spread faster than was previously possible.
Scott feels that the social networks have a special value for small business practitioners. "Running a small business can be lonely. The biggest obstacle is to connect with others like yourself."
Intuit can help proprietors find others like themselves and because its online, they do not need to take time away from their operations to attend a workshop or events.
The social networks also serve as development platforms, giving independent software developers unprecedented access to a community of millions of small business operators and you can affordably address them as property owners, or dry cleaners or coffee shop proprietors.
"If you can build for QuickBooks, then you have a massive market opportunity," Scott told me.
One such example is Propertyware.com which helps smaller property owners and operators to manage cost and flow of rental properties. It lets small landlords better manage their properties, understand profits, cash flows. The company has no brick and mortar, but exists exclusively in the cloud.
Through a variety of services including Intuit Marketplace and old-fashioned email newsletter, Intuit has given this small virtual company the ability to speak to Intuit's customer base. When Propertyware acquires a new customer, that customer can go directly to Propertyware to purchase additional products. Intuit is fine with that. The customer benefits and Intuit's value to that customer goes up.
One other place that SAP and Intuit seem to agree. Online communities do not reduce the need for face-to-face meetings between people who primarily know each other through online communities. They increase it.
Both companies host a series of social events for their most passionate community members. It seems there still is a business value to handshakes, smiles and occasional hugs.[NOTE: Do you have a story about Intuit or any other enterprise social network? Please let me know. This book is in the early phases of development. And I can use the wisdom of this crowd. Leave a comment or send me an email.]