Sunday, 15 March 2009

First web-based product released: bSelling

Last week we -- Austhink Software -- released our first web-based product, bSelling Opportunity Management, an add-on application to the web-based Salesforce CRM.

Yay team!

Here are some brief notes about the product (a visual tool to enhance the performance of sales teams), its placement (as an add-on to Salesforce CRM available through's AppExchange), and the development experience (using Adobe Flex + Django talking to Salesforce).

The Product
The best way to get a taste for this add-on, which helps the salesperson to better Qualify (i.e. estimate the percentage chance of closing the deal) , better understand the customer's pain(s), and ultimately pitch more effectively to the customer's needs -- is to check out the 2 minute (approx.) introductory video:

Watch the bSelling demo

bSelling video

For non-sales people, here's my distillation of Solution Selling, one of a family of consultative approaches to sales -- along with SPIN, Strategic and Consultative Selling -- that bSelling is intended to support.

The Placement
Austhink's Softwares previous products, bCisive and Rationale were PC-based and intended to create new markets: Rationale for improving Critical Thinking in education, and bCisive for applying Visual Thinking to business.

For our first web-offering we decided to pick a more targeted application -- consultative selling -- and apply our visual approach more narrowly. This enabled us to go from "let's port bCisive to the web" (a daunting undertaking on account of the size of the pre-existing product) to "let's port the bits of bCisive that will help with consultative selling" (a smaller and more customer-centric) undertaking.

We aimed from the outset to put the resulting application on's AppExchange, as a way to make bSelling visible to our chosen market segment, and to offer easy integration with the leading web-based CRM.

Development Experience
We accomplished this with a team of 3 in just over two months, admittedly making use of some initial work on a web-port from last year, plus our accumulated experience from bCisive, Rationale and some earlier non-commercial web-based projects, most notably Aaron's side-project, Path of a Hero.

We found that Adobe Flex / AS3 gave us the graphic power (and portability across browsers) that we wanted for the front-end, with our architecture hanging off a slightly souped-up version of the PureMVC framework. We use Django / Python / MySQL for the back-end and use AMF3 / PyAMF to get fast communication between the back and front-ends.

The big unknown for us was integration with Salesforce CRM. It turns out that their APIs and docs are pretty good, and we were able to embed our app as a web-page in their S-Control.

Now, it is possible to build apps entirely on their platform, but we chose not to because:
  • It required a steeper learning curve
  • We had a pre-existing technology investment
  • It would couple us completely to their platform
On the negative side this meant that we had to subject ourselves to a nerve-wracking security review. This involved submitting our organization's written policies plus go under attack from their review team. It was certainly "an experience", a bit liking going back to University for another exam, but their liaison was helpful in guiding us through the process, and we achieved a provisional pass first time (much relief).

One note
for start-ups: There is normally a $US5000 application fee for the review (annual!). The two ways to waive this are to develop directly on the platform (i.e. inside the Salesforce sandbox), or to supply a free version of your app. We went with the free version.

Compared to the security review, the final review was less demanding.

The Future
We are putting the finishing touches on an "export to PowerPoint" feature for the paid version, so that a salesperson can grab some snappy visual slides to supplement customer presentations.

Naturally getting the word out is paramount -- thanks to AppExchange we've already had some people checking out the video and installing bSelling-- and we look forward to responding to customer feedback with further refinements. To this end we have set-up UserVoice to help out with this. The AppExchange infrastructure requires people to leave details, so we will also follow up (selectively and politely) with some of the early adopters to find out worked and what didn't.

Beyond bSelling on Salesforce we are also look at integrating it with other online platforms (SugarCRM is an obvious candidate).

And beyond that lie other applications in Sales and other business verticals. We aim to apply our skills and technology to create other "Enterprise 2.0" apps, but in these -- ahem -- challenging times we need to be strategic about picking off targets.

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