Hits and Misses – Six Takeaways on Unify’s Circuit Launch
I attended last week’s Unify event for analysts and consultants, which included several of my colleagues from UCStrategies. We were given an in-depth preview of Circuit, which was just announced this week, and our collective thoughts were voiced on Tuesday’s Industry Buzz podcast. I hope you give that a listen, and to build on that, I’d like share some deeper thoughts here.
The Unify event provided many answers but raised lots of questions as well, and is indicative about how challenging it is for communications vendors get things right these days. I’d like to say that the UCC space is simply ever-changing, so you have to constantly adapt. Now I’m wondering if it’s more like quicksand, where once you wade in, it’s really hard not to get swallowed up. Unify is hardly alone in this milieu, and my take so far on Circuit is mixed. I’ve got six takeaways to share here – three hits and three misses – and hopefully this gets some dialog going. I could go on much more extensively, but we all have things to do, so here we go.
Hit #1 – Business transformation
More than anything else, I was most impressed by how the management team has transformed the organization around what they believe is needed for Circuit to succeed. At the top, deep experience was brought in from the channel space, and they’re creating a new sales organization – a.k.a. pods – specifically to support a SaaS business model. Nobody does this better than Silicon Valley, and that’s where they went to set up shop – “Silicon Beach” in Santa Cruz – allowing them to get immersed in the tech culture and of course hire Millennials who totally get Circuit.
That seems like a smart move, but as an aside, I have to say that Millennials may relate well among their own, but I suspect many of the people they’ll be selling Circuit to will be digital immigrants. It’s too early to tell, but I think it’s fair to ask how effective they will be closing deals in those situations.
Overall, they seem to have embraced a culture that lives and breathes the always-on digital work/life-style, so they’re walking the walk. In that regard, they have taken a weakness and turned it into an advantage. Unify is just a year old, and what came before was not getting much traction in the all-important U.S. market. They needed this transformation to change that, and by having a low profile in the U.S., Unify was able to re-boot carefully and with purpose without drawing too much attention. I think that plays nicely in their favor, as there’s no way Cisco, Avaya or MSFT could ever make such radical changes – those ships are too big to turn around, and they have too much to lose in the marketplace.
Hit #2 – Focus on business problems, not technologies
We heard a lot about how Unify has done their homework to understand what people need and how they work. Their research showed how to get at root causes to understand why they need certain things. From that, they’ve identified 13 “needs groups,” with the idea that each type of customer will need a distinct value proposition from Unify. I’m not sure the market truly buys this way, but kudos to Unify to taking a customer-centric approach so seriously. It was refreshing to hear them say that “customers don’t buy technology,” and will instead engage when talking about solving business problems. Since Circuit is all about the cloud, software and applications, the sales conversation doesn’t get bogged down in the weeds about features, speeds, feeds, etc.
Of course, this also makes for a different sales process, where the CIO is not the only target, and you now need a more consultative skill set that makes Circuit a strategic investment. Whether Unify has that expertise – either via direct selling or through channels – remains to be seen. The same can also be said for the willingness of customers to have those types of conversations for an offering they may not readily understand.
Hit #3 – Building Circuit from the ground up
Unify talked a lot about working with Frog Design to create a seamless user experience that truly speaks to the highly touted “new way to work.” More on NW2W in a moment, but just as they’ve reinvented the company to support the product and address the NW2W opportunity, Circuit has also taken the clean slate approach. Again, kudos to Unify for focusing on the realities of today’s work environment, and leaving earlier models behind. Tech companies don’t often get opportunities like this, and you can’t get a breakthrough unless you first break with the past. A prime example is how effectively they’ve utilized WebRTC, and much like making Circuit cloud-based and mobile-centric, they are leveraging the latest communications technologies that the workforce of tomorrow – Millennials – natively understands.
Miss #1 – New way to work as a differentiator
The NW2W acronym was everywhere during the Unify event, and it’s central to how they’re branding Circuit. If you weren’t paying attention, you’d think Unify invented or discovered remote working – and even if you didn’t, you just might come away thinking what’s “new” is only understood by Unify.
NW2W is certainly hash tag-friendly – and that’s actually new in terms how social media has become part of the workday fabric – and perhaps equally important as a tool for marketing and branding the concept. That aside, NW2W isn’t really all that new – people have been working from home and on the go for years – but tools like Circuit certainly cater to this trend and definitely make it more productive for both employer and employee.
As an aside, all the NW2W examples we saw were basically about working from home, effortlessly joining a concall while walking the dog or getting your kids out the door for school. Work/life balance is a challenge for everyone, but NW2W seems more about multi-tasking, which may have some new elements, but I am not sure if people really work better this way.
Every comms vendor is trying to address this with their customers, and unless Circuit is doing something radically new/different/better, I’m not sold on this being a differentiator for Unify. The company has certainly done the research to understand how people work today, but as per my next “miss,” it’s not clear to me whether Circuit can distinctly deliver on this promise.
Miss #2 – Circuit as a new category
So, what exactly is Circuit? Unify made it clear that it isn’t UC, and for that reason, Circuit is being touted as a new category, different and more natively integrated than the bolted-together “Frankenstein” UC solutions from the usual suspects. I’m not buying that, but their stance is totally in keeping with everything else that’s new with Unify. However, is Circuit really that different, or are we splitting hairs here? It’s fair to say that Circuit isn’t UC in the sense we’re familiar with – it doesn’t support email or phone system integration. Everything is browser-based with the emphasis being on social tools where conversations are spontaneous, and as per the mobile world we live in, the main applications are text and video.
In my view, this makes Circuit a collaboration platform, which is a close cousin to UC, but with fewer frills. To some extent, it’s a walled garden meant for internal users that keeps out the dominant tools we tend to rely on – email, IM, and telephony. If employees can truly be productive in new/different/better ways without these tools, then yes, Circuit should be viewed as a new category.
On that point, in terms of tangible benefits, we only heard one example – with Project Ansible, email usage was down considerably – I think by 30%. Any business would welcome that, and I’m sure that result can be worked up into a time/money metric to show how this saves money. Fair enough, but one should also consider that email use is dropping because it’s not accessible when using Ansible/Circuit. Some people will change behaviors and simply make Circuit their dominant work environment, but others will continue to rely heavily on email, which means a lot of back and forth between Circuit and email – and it’s hard to say whether that helps or hurts overall productivity.
Overall, I think there are too many close associations with UC for the market to see Circuit as a new category, and that’s all that matters. If the UCStrategies contingent doesn’t see enough differentiation here, how can the marketplace possibly see it? I hope to be proven wrong, but I think Unify will need pretty strong messaging to establish that position among the buyers, not to mention the channels that have to sell it.
Miss #3 – Engaging us after the fact
Analysts and consultants are often viewed as influencers, and we have a role to play in Unify’s launch by virtue of us being there last week. However, being so close to launch date, it’s really late for us to provide constructive feedback about everything – Circuit, Unify, the GTM strategy, branding, etc. It’s possible that Unify may have engaged some of us privately earlier in the process, but there’s only so much we can do mere days before going GA.
By that time, all the key decisions and partnerships had been made, so our role seems to be much different than the other external consulting done earlier in the process, such as to design Circuit, identify customer needs groups, and do research to come up with the name to replace Ansible. For the record, our response to the Circuit name was mixed, even tepid, and I even got the same impression among the folks I chatted with from Unify. Am just saying…
Perhaps the best example of this was our collective experience using the Circuit interface during the event. Despite being ready for launch, the experience took a lot of getting used to, was not intuitive, and clearly was missing basic features that were picked up on right away. In its present state, Circuit may be a new way to work, but it certainly isn’t better. These shortcomings were evident from the start and widely noted among us, and this was pretty surprising to see so late in the GTM process. Some of this was news to Unify and some was not, but if the event was held a few weeks earlier, all of these issues could have been resolved in time for the launch.
To conclude on an upbeat, if I was building a new company to compete in the UCC space, Unify would be the model to follow. They definitely have great people, great energy, a clear vision and a sense of what today’s market needs. I know Circuit will evolve – especially for developing a really cool NW2W ecosystem – but product-wise, I’m not sure they’re hitting the market right now with a can’t-miss game changer.
We need more of that in this space, and I sure hope they turn my misses into hits – ideally before the market sees what I see. On that note, I liken Unify more to the KC Royals than the SF Giants, and with Game 7 a few hours from now, I fully expect KC to win, so maybe that tells you which way I’m leaning with Unify.
Also on UCStrategies on this topic: