Many people might not be familiar with the name Palo Alto Software, but I bet if I said “Business Plan Pro” or “Marketing Plan Pro” you would probably say “oh, yeah, I have heard of that” or “I used that to kickstart my business plan process”. This is a credit to their branding and ability to be on almost every retail shelf where software is sold.
Jake Weatherly is VP of Customer Experience, which covers all customer service, support, retail presence and non-web sales efforts. He has been with the company since he was 19 as a part time employee while in college. He was the 12th person hired by Tim Berry, the company’s founder, President, and original author of Business Plan Pro. Over the years he has been responsible for everything from partner engineering, to product marketing, education, training, and product evangelism. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk about effective business planning and the role of software in helping small business owners grow their business. Here is a transcript of that interview:
Steve: Jake, Palo Alto Software has been around for over 20 years and as technology and business models have evolved, how has your product mix evolved to help businesses large and small?
Jake: For businesses large and small, the value of planning is about the process, not just the plan. Over the years our business planning and marketing planning lines have grown to include a UK version, products for nonprofits, social enterprise planning software, programs to write business plans in Spanish, a monthly recurring revenue model, and the list goes on. Our customers have benefited from our software constantly evolving with new technology, and we have made business planning exponentially easier and faster year after year.
Looking just at products and features, however, does not tell the true story. Our software catalog has evolved from an original focus on creating a document to become a comprehensive set of tools and services to help you start, run, and grow business. Sure we consistently help small business owners and executive teams all over the world obtain their start-up and subsequent rounds of funding, but our customers quickly realize that the value of planning lies in the process itself; it’s not just about creating the document. Business Plan Pro and Marketing Plan Pro help companies large and small take action and develop leadership in their respective markets. Palo Alto Software customers compare their monthly and quarterly achievements against what they planned, and as simple as it sounds, that’s the difference between achieving successful results versus being slow, reactive, and cumbersome in the marketplace.
Steve: Palo Alto Software has shifted its mission to not just providing software to help a business stay on track but to teach them how to be more effective with your tools. Could you elaborate on that more?
Jake: Simply handing off a tool and moving on to the next potential customer will not lead to long-term success. Our responsibility is clear; we help people succeed in business, and central to that role are our training, implementation, and support services. For entrepreneurs who wish to work with experts, we have a team of business success coaches who hold people accountable to achieve their objectives. For the do-it-yourselfers, we offer a vast library of training and help resources. Our support and product specialists are available to ensure successful implementation of ongoing planning and forecasting. The bottom line? Our customers are succeeding everyday by turning to us to help with starting, running, and growing their businesses.
Steve: You have adapted best practices of software as a service and the move to web based software. What are some things you are doing to build community or streamline the planning process with these kinds of offerings?
Jake: We have created web-based tools and a long-standing community of experts and entrepreneurs who contribute content that we make available for free on our websites www.Bplans.com and www.Mplans.com. We were early adopters of live and on-demand online training, we’re big in the blogosphere with our own blogs and partners, and we are part of the entrepreneurial community online using social networking technology like Twitter and Facebook. With these kinds of offerings we are able to be anywhere anytime and everywhere all the time. In the end, it’s about effective collaboration, and all of the stages of business from start-up to growth and maturity benefit from being part of the conversation instead of observing from the sidelines.
Steve: Many people are familiar with Business Plan Pro or Marketing Plan Pro. What are some other products and services that Palo Alto provides that small businesses should be aware of?
Jake: Very near and dear to my heart are our two latest products: Email Center Pro, and Start, Run, & Grow Your Business.
Email Center Pro helps companies respond to their customers quickly and accurately every time. It’s the result of five years of engineering for my support, customer service, and sales teams to decrease their email response time to customers. Before we created this SaaS offering, our customers were getting responses between 24 and 48 hours after asking their question – unacceptable. We now respond to customer emails in less than an hour, and so we released Email Center Pro just over a year ago to help people achieve the same results to manage customer email and get out from under their inboxes.
Start, Run, & Grow Your Business is huge. Years of discussions with hundreds of thousands of businesses about their needs and a solid history of quality partnerships brought the program together. Start, Run, & Grow Your Business combines best-in-class solutions with educational content to help you reach more customers, sell more products and services, and improve business productivity. Successful business owners today are using awesome logos; they’re sending email newsletters; they have great web sites, and they love learning from industry experts. Start, Run, & Grow Your Business delivers all of this for a super low price, and that means we will be working with more entrepreneurs than ever before. That’s really exciting.
Steve: To wrap up I always like to ask a “five things” question. So for you, what are five things a small business should consider when beginning the planning and forecasting process?
Jake: I am going to keep this one simple by focusing on actions and not words:
- Start anywhere, and start now.
- Forecast your sales and expenses and then regularly compare against what you achieve. Adjust your plan accordingly, and repeat the process.
- Only do what you need now. Get to the other parts as you need them.
- Don’t get stuck in the details. Remember to stay focused on the future.
- Use the Internet, join the online conversation, and get out on the street to research your customers, your competitors, and build your strategies.