Back in 2019, Arvind Narayanan presented a simple statement on the popular startup/developer forum Hacker News that kickstarted quite a bit of conversation: "why enterprise software sucks." The replies were, of course, full of hearty passion and general disdain for how utterly terrible enterprise software experiences are.
And you know what? They're absolutely right. Enterprise software sucks. Everybody knows it, but it's been accepted as just "one of those things" that we hope will get better with time. "The next person will take care of it," people think, as they sip their stale coffee and type away in a UI that was invented for Windows 98, in a company still hanging dusty "employee of the month" photos on the wall and calling it culture.
All in all, enterprise technology has been really slow (actually glacial) to adopt new demands in consumerism: specifically the trend toward clean, simple, one-touch solutions that take the guesswork and bloat out of the user experience and tech stack.
One would argue that this issue of hellish business software stems from a disconnection between the actual B2B consumer and the non-professional consumer: it's no secret that individual consumers have preferences, but businesses have needs! Build the software to solve the needs of the business and you have a winner... right?
Two decades ago this strategy worked beautifully. Today, it's wrong.
You see, in a "work from anywhere" world, the lines are getting continually blurred between a person's labor and lifestyle. Work is no longer that annoying chore you must chip away at, but simply an increasingly intertwined part of life—the thing that's never quite put away in your moments of rest, and that never quite felt the same after March 2020.
Accelerated by this ideology is the concept that business software doesn't have to suck any more. B2B SAAS can, in fact, be beautifully designed, simple to integrate, and delightful to use—all without sacrificing the core need of the software in the first place: solving a niche, often overlooked and underdeveloped issue that's dramatically impacting the bottom line.
In my opinion, founders and product designers pioneering the next wave of B2B SAAS technology should focus their initial efforts on three areas:
Ease of software adoption
Seamless and direct integration into modern professional tech stacks
Let's dig into the specifics as to why.
Worldwide spending spree on enterprise technology
Identifying business tech trends isn't rocket science. For this conversation, we're going to look at two data points:
Where money is currently moving in B2B SAAS spending (trends, areas of focus, what's driving decision-making)
How that money is being directed once a decision to spend has been made (that is, what drives the ultimate decision between competitor A vs. competitor B?)
According to PwC's 2021 CEO Survey, 84% of CEOs plan on investing moderately to significantly in their corporate tech stack (with the majority of that expenditure in digital transformation products, followed by cyber security). But unlike previous years, we're seeing a dramatic trend toward businesses using their technology to adopt a partnership mentality over just a customer mentality.
This might look like a slight—potentially even meaningless—change in buying habits, but the reality is that today's businesses are purchasing with dramatically different standards than before COVID.
Right now, companies are strongly prioritizing a blend of cost-effectiveness (the savings from automating potentially inefficient tasks); workforce stabilization (maintaining productivity and efficiency in a hybrid or completely remote model); symbiotic partnerships (both the tech and the business are better because of their relationship); and achieving better outcomes in a cheaper, more sustainable manner.
What does this mean for your new B2B technology startup? If you cannot clearly and definitively prove how your tech achieves each of these four goals, your customer can't either, and you will lose long-term in the market.
It's a fallacy that much of the world successfully went remote in 2020: the truth is that people just went home.
Companies were left needing to solve increasingly complex problems with a decentralized workforce, and now have the added challenge of doing so with technology that's built to enhance—not encumber—the lives of their employees away from their desks. Put in layman's terms: a remote workforce will not thrive on technology that's just built to solve a core business need. Now more than ever, enterprise SAAS startups must consider the context, not just the core purpose, of their product's use.
The term context refers to the more ambiguous aspects surrounding enterprise SAAS applications: factors such as a positive impact on the quality of an employee's work life, and sustainability in a decentralized infrastructure. Purpose refers to what SAAS founders have traditionally considered: factors linked to the software's product-market fit.
Purpose of B2B SAAS
As mentioned above, enterprise software founders have always needed to answer several fundamental questions about the purpose of their SAAS:
Technology: Does your software efficiently integrate into the business's current tech stack? Is your SAAS duplicating previous solutions the business might have already solved?
Workforce: Does your software help upskill a workforce, positively impact culture, or help the business retain talent?
Scalability: Does your software break at a certain level of scale or depth of implementation?
Governance: Is it your software company or the end client who ultimately controls the data, privacy, and security of the software?
Modern context of B2B SAAS
Several new and crucial challenges have emerged since March 2020:
Technology: What specific feature would make the end user want to continue using your software when they're not in the physical office?
Workforce: Are you able to clearly define how your SAAS brings a positive impact to the quality of work life for the end user and not just increased productivity measured against their KPIs? To what degree does your SAAS support a widely decentralized workforce?
Scalability: In addition to not breaking at scale, does your SAAS properly serve the needs of a large national—or in most cases—international talent force? Are regional- and location-based bottlenecks present?
Governance: Since most enterprise SAAS outsources their server and data-handling demands, how are you ensuring the protection of professional data if you're contracting those services out to a third party?
A generational shift is coming
In addition to these considerations, a more subtle underlying expectation is creeping into businesses—some have noticed, but many have not. That is, the technology expectations of the most tech-savvy generation the world has ever seen: GenZ. If you own a company and aren't considering GenZ's expectations in your growth/employment strategy, you're already losing. In fact, GenZ will make up approximately 27% of the workforce by just 2025... the time is now to adjust for this new wave of talent.
According to a recent Dell finding, 80% of GenZ professionals aspire to work with cutting-edge technology, and as much as 91% of interviewed GenZ stated that a business's tech stack would influence job choice among similar employment offers. SAAS companies that overlook GenZ's revulsion toward boomer tech will wither and die in today's market.
Cathy Hackl, in her recent Forbes article outlining the relationship GenZ has with their technology, brought to light more futuristic—yet still relevant—thoughts around this subject, by extending the conversation into Web3 and the metaverse. Oh yeah, that "crypto" thing you've been hearing about? It's kind of a big deal, and GenZ is all over it.
Just look at Walmart's latest jump into Web3 with Walmart NFTs and a Walmart Metaverse, or how Adidas continues to dominate in virtual worlds like Decentraland with collaborative virtual projects. If you thought virtual currency, NFTs, and the metaverse were just fads, think again.
Now I'm not implying that you need to stop accepting fiat currency and start minting NFTs of animated shoes with your company logo, but I am bringing to light a very important shift: the world is moving toward immediate adoption of new tech, instant shifts in global markets, decentralization, and remote-first connection. Adaptable, consumer-friendly enterprise technology is going to be dramatically relevant within the next few years.
The bottom line
Many conclusions can be drawn about how the future of work will look amidst an increasingly global and decentralized workforce... I'm of the belief that it's impossible to truly predict how exactly things will play out. Yet I am confident in certain predictions, based on the simple math of where the current data falls:
CEOs are spending more on tech than ever before + most B2B tech options are crap + GenZ cares—A LOT—about their work tech stack = perpetual issue/disaster waiting to happen.
As a starting point, I recommend asking yourself the following questions:
How does our SAAS provide a relevant solution without adding any unnecessary steps to our UI? The fewer steps you have to add to your SAAS, the better.
If our software wasn't built for businesses, would it fit in as a consumer app? Audit your design to test the friendliness and stickiness of your app with "work from anywhere" consumers.
Would a non-professional consumer be able to navigate our software without issue? Audit your software's ease of use.
Are we prioritizing function or design? You should have a balance between both.
I'm a believer in running to where the world is going—not staying cemented in where it's been. But the difference between aimless wandering and deliberate pursuit is focus.
This year, let's direct our focus toward the systems that affect every facet of our lives. By prioritizing simple, beautiful enterprise technology, B2B SAAS founders have an opportunity to make even the most mundane aspects of one's work a little more enjoyable; help companies retain top talent; and positively impact the professional lives of millions of people.
That's a future of work that works for everyone.