fishing with shiny objects: the trouble with apps vendors.

Apparently we have an mobile app vendor on a fishing expedition around campus. He’s dangling shiny objects and looking for bites. This probably happens a lot, and it’s generally bad news for your college.

If this were, say, the 19th century, I could totally see app vendors being snake oil salesman, going from town to town vending miracle tonics that cure whatever is wrong with you. It’s no coincidence that app vendors almost never contact any college’s web communication office — they don’t want to talk to those who think about content, audiences and goals for the web on a professional basis. Instead, they fish around the fringes, trying to sell their Miracle App that can, well, cure your boredom and need for a shiny object.

When the conversation turns to mobile apps, two main questions tend to follow:
1) Will this provide a mobile solution to a particular problem or meet a specific goal? If so, then consider exploring it, but be wary of overpromising and underdelivering on the vendor’s part.
2) Wouldn’t it be cool for my office to have an app? No. Just no. Do not pass Go, please don’t pay a mobile vendor $200.

Our college explored and released a mobile site which, by all research, is the more reasonable way to address things like user need, content delivery and tasks people would handle on a mobile device. But apps — for the right task, the right price — are not totally out of the question. Once we learned the apps vendors were on the prowl, we’ve started discussing some kind of app policy. I’m not a huge fan of policies, but I feel like there should be some kind of check before someone bites on that shiny object and gets reeled in at great potential expense. Plus the consistency of things like names, logos and colors are important … as well as the hub-and-spoke model to let users know where they can go for other campus-related tasks.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “fishing with shiny objects: the trouble with apps vendors.

  1. Hi Tim,

    I saw your post via Georgy Cohen (@radiofreegeorgy) and Andy Shaindlin (@alumnifutures). By way of quick background, I founded a mobile company called EverTrue (www.evertrue.com) after spending 5 years serving as a frustrated alumni volunteer for my own alma mater, Brown University. I was consistently disappointed with the lack of innovation among legacy vendors in the space. I believe that alumni connections and networking happen not because of the tools employed by colleges and universities, but in spite of them. We decided to try to do something about it.

    I agree strongly with the criteria you’ve laid out for selecting a mobile (or any) product: Does is solve a problem or help us meet a goal?

    Should any school (or company, or person) purchase an app (or any product) because it’s cool? Absolutely not.

    But your comment comparing mobile vendors to modern day snake oil salesman feels unfair. I can assure you there are many, many easier ways to make a quick buck than to build a company that sells software to the education sector. My co-founder and I took substantial pay cuts and gave up great benefits to pursue something we were passionate about, and it has been the most fulfilling experience of our lives. We’ve created over 10 new jobs in Massachusetts in the last 12 months and we attracted investment from leading executives at Brightcove, Constant Contact, PayPal, TechStars and other great companies.

    But the sentiment you’ve expressed in your post is precisely the reason investors are hesitant to fund companies like ours, and why you’re left with a smorgasbord of uninspired options on the vendor menus you order from. The RFP process, centralized decision-making and red tape scare away investors. And those characteristics scare away entrepreneurs as well. Most SUNY-Oswego graduates would rather get a job at Microsoft, Facebook or Twitter than try to build a company in the higher ed context. That is sad to me, because it helps ensure that the present will be our future.

    Rather than debate the merits of mobile apps versus web sites, why don’t we question how we are still supporting the print alumni directory industry. In 2012! Are print alumni directories cool? Do they solve a problem? Do they align with President Stanley’s green initiative (http://www.oswego.edu/student/green101.html)? No, but they still hang around year after year generating over $100 million dollars in sales while edtech startups never get off the ground due to a resistance to change. Do alumni like the status quo? No!

    What you call “fishing around the fringes” is what we call identifying a decision maker. Have you ever tried contacting a central web communications office? If we even receive a response, it can literally take months to navigate the system and schedule a conversation with someone who might have purchasing authority. I understand that it must be frustrating to see your colleagues make decisions to purchase shiny objects. But it’s equally frustrating for entrepreneurs to get stuck in drawn out processes that can take six months even to get “no” for an answer!

    Our vision is to develop a new category of advancement solutions at the intersection of mobile and the social graph. It isn’t about apps or sites, it’s about starting from scratch in a world that could not look more different from when Blackbaud, SunGard, Datatel, Harris Connect and iModules were founded. Post-Facebook. Post-LinkedIn. Post Apple and Android. It could not be a more exciting time. If innovation is going to happen in this sector, it will come from entrepreneurs. I hope the public sector and the private sector can work together to shape the future our graduates deserve!

    Ever True!
    Brent Grinna

  2. This is a discussion too juicy to avoid diving in…

    Your two posts, while both completely valid, perfectly highlight the total schism that exists in HigherEd today. There is so much bad baggage from old vendors who offered crappy products, minimal customer service and maintained business due to cronyism that HigherEd have thrown up unnecessary barriers to innovation. These barriers, whether they be how to find and research vendors, internal collaboration(or lack thereof) for purchase requirements and the RFP process itself prevent any new, innovative solution from ever having a fair chance to be chosen, implemented and nurtured on campus. Hell, the sales cycle to colleges and universities is long enough for a startup to live and die 5 times over – I’ve seen this in my former roles and now with RecoVend as well.

    Tim, it can’t be held against the vendors that they’re calling multiple departments to pitch their goods…for god’s sakes, if anyone can figure out the actual organizational hierarchy at a college, they deserve a MacArthur Award. Vendors gonna vend – the onus has to be on the college to create internal policies and systems empowering admins to share information, expertise and opinions on prospective purchases with one another quickly and easily (Full disclosure: I’m totally biased since this is what we’re building at RecoVend). If awesome people in HigherEd like yourself are being turned off to the possibility to new solutions, apps or other, based on the Carthage-esque track record that most vendors have left on the industry, then there’s no hope for HigherEd to ever pull out of it’s current tailspin.

    Brent, to Tim’s point, most vendors in this space are historically awful. I’ve found EverTrue and a handful of others to be the exception to this rule, and lament that this is the sad state of the industry we both love. You guys will always face an uphill battle to educate colleges not only about how your product is a legit game changer, but how your company and attitude are totally different to what they are used to. We need more entrepreneurs like you to help change the perception of and stigma associated with being a HigherEd vendor. The more honest and open dialogue we have between the two camps, just like this, the better for all of us.

  3. Jon Boeckenstedt

    I wrote a while ago about the intersection of NFP administrators and sales people. It’s perhaps a bit angular to this discussion, but I did address a few points that I see here.

    http://wp.me/plp6B-3Q

  4. Tim Nekritz

    Great feedback and discussion. I appreciate seeing the varied viewpoints, and it’s clear dismissing all app vendors as snake oil salesmen is far too broad a brush. But there are a lot of people in higher ed frustrated because salespeople are good at playing FLIP (Find the Least Informed Person), infecting them with Ooo Shiny! Syndrome, and selling them something as if it were a miracle tonic. I hear complaints from colleagues from colleges all over about this kind of thing on almost a daily basis. Such as the $40,000 “solution” that solved nothing and got abandoned when a potential answer at 1% the cost existed. Or the shiny virtual tours that lack what NuCloud can do at a fraction of the cost. Or the 5 different CRMs that don’t talk to each other because vendors just wanted to make a sale, not look at actual needs and what was best for an institution. Practitioners in every industry range from good to bad; some deliver like Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, others are the Adam Dunn or Chone Figgins of their professions. As a Mariners fan, I keep hoping maybe Figgins will have a bounceback year (i.e. hit over the Mendoza line long enough to be traded for a cow or used fax machine) and the Seattle brass tries to have him play the outfield to get some worth out of him; similarly administrators who buy solutions that aren’t the magic pills they thought they were try to rationalize any way they can to keep this product (and keep buying other products) … which usually involves turning to the web team (which they never consulted) and demanding they “make it work,” then complaining if that team doesn’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. As I said, it’s a story I see way too many places.

    On my wall hangs a copy of the John G. Saxe’s translation of “Blind Men and the Elephant.” The poem where the men each take a part of the elephant and judge it to be a fan, a tree, a wall, a spear or a snake. When vendors try to convince a manager to focus on getting an earring for the “ear” or fancy decoration for the “wall,” they distract from the whole animal and what it serves — the students. When someone comes to me all excited about an app vendor “telling them they need an app,” and I ask the person why, and their response is they don’t know “but the salesmen said we need one,” that’s not good. The idea of a mission-based solution that looks at what’s best for the elephant is *exactly* what’s needed. An example I always use is that you can find private communities for incoming students (discontinued after the first semester) and private communities for alumni … but why not communities that start at the incoming student stage and take them through being students and into alumni communities? Lifecycle management, not treating students as parts on an assembly line, is the way to go. But people get riled up about buying fans and walls and snakes and don’t want to yield this purchase (not matter how poorly it works) for the sake of buying something that nurtures the whole student body past, present and future.

    So please accept any apologies for implying that all app vendors were nasty creatures, as this is clearly not the case. It’s part of a bigger picture/frustration of a difficulty challenging a mostly awesome field of higher education. As I mentioned over on Twitter, this kind of topic really could be a fascinating session for a conference or Higher Ed Live. Clearly such a reasoned dialogue from varied perspectives could do everyone a lot of good!

  5. Tim Nekritz

    I should also add that I’d differentiate between “partners” and “vendors.” Working with an outside group or company that considers itself a true partner is outstanding. They aren’t trying to make a quick sale and then walk away when you need customer service (something we’ve experienced way too much); they’re all in trying to solve your problem. And they probably enjoy it. And after you’ve launched the project, they’re looking for ways to improve upon it *not* for the sake of billing but from a desire to provide great service and helpful experiences to everyone in the partnership.

  6. Great discussion. I can see both sides of the coin on this, and that isn’t just because I’m now working as a vendor. I think that the key here is structural: who holds the purse strings? If the least informed person has the money they will spend it unwisely, whether that is on vaporware or something else. Web departments need their own budgets and control over their own destiny, but too often their financial future is predetermined without any input from them.

    Timing is the second issue. At my previous job I was hired to implement a private alumni network installation after the vendor had already been decided upon. I spent the next year fighting down the expectations that the vendor had instilled in everyone based on the promises they made. Hiring the position before the vendor decision was made would have helped save a lot of time wrestling people back to reality, and wouldn’t have made me the bad guy for telling everyone it wasn’t going to be nearly as good as they were sold to believe. On the other hand, products like EverTrue deliver on the promises they make, but have a tall hill to climb to get past historical disappointment in vendors. I think it will get better but it will be a struggle for some time.

  7. Pingback: Higher Ed’s Love/Hate Relationship with Vendors | Higher Ed Live

  8. Pingback: higher ed, vendors find common ground; webcast at 11. | InsideTimsHead

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