New Threats From Left Field


Local competition you probably have in check. but what about the unexpected?


Sometimes there's so much competition out there it feels like someone is chasing you. But don't worry about who's pursuing your business; worry, instead, about what's lurking ahead of you, or even in left field.

That's essentially the advice I'm hearing from smart solution providers that are putting more of their energies into trying to figure out what the market will look like in the years ahead, instead of trying to figure

out how to stay in front of foes that have already been vanquished.

Look at it this way: Say you're a regional Microsoft solution provider that competes with other Gold partners in your area. What are the odds that one of them is going to steal one of your customers? If you're on top of your game, not all that great. But what about the markets you want to expand into--the home, perhaps, or emerging enterprises? Well, there you're going to find the landscape a whole lot less certain. That's because it's not yet clear where the competition is going to come from. The only thing for sure is that it won't be limited to existing IT providers.

Take the small office/home office market, for example. Just two years ago, it would have been laughable to worry about losing service business to a big-box retailer. But at the end of fiscal 2005, Best Buy's Geek Squad unit boasted 7,000 IT agents. And it launched plans to hire 5,000 more and push into the small-business market.

What about losing sales to an offshore-outsourcing company? Not a chance, unless you're a tier-one service company that caters only to Fortune 500 giants located in major metropolitan markets, right? Guess again. According to the latest quarterly data from Infosys, India's second-largest offshore IT services provider, two-thirds of the company's sales are generated in North America. And it's not just large enterprise customers calling on Infosys to help them out. Today, it is adding smaller customers at a faster clip than before. As a result, the company's revenue contribution from its largest customers is falling quarter-by-quarter as it embraces smaller engagements.

Then there's the unexpected--the organizations and/or individuals you never considered that crop up to take away some of your business. Who are they, you wonder? Well, they're people like Eric Bertrand, co-founder of LastCallTechSupport.com. Like a number of IT professionals, Bertrand has no formal office and no formal business plan, per se. But he's making a living helping to meet the IT-services needs of individuals and small businesses in the Boston area. He finds work hanging out on Web sites all day long, one in particular: Craigslist.org. For as little as $25 an hour, Bertrand and his business partner help people who have tried other service providers, only to be put off by high prices, more formalized business practices or lack of personal service. In contrast, Bertrand will work on a fixed-cost basis, make house calls and even take a project anytime, day or night.

Individually, Bertrand is not likely to take over the world--if you do the math, he can't make much more than $50,000 annually, unless he charges more. That said, he can have an impact. Just look at the hundreds--if not thousands--of people trying to make a low-overhead-go-of-it by relying on sites like Craigslist.org. Take a peek for yourself at the number of services offered and the types of requests out there. It's astounding how much a makeshift community has spawned in such little time. Moreover, it must be frightening to established sites, such as Guru.com, which started out specifically to create and aggregate what Craigslist.org has so capably amassed.

Over time, IT pros will want to migrate to more robust sites that have more to offer. But all of the above serves as a reminder to never forget what lies ahead, around the corner, and over in left field.