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The case for verticalizing your cloud services portfolio

We are living in a world that is becoming increasingly specialized, from how we consume information, to the brands we buy, to the resiliency in supply chains. This has become increasingly true post-pandemic as companies look to adapt and transform their business models. That focus on specialization is happening in cloud computing as well.

Industry-aligned cloud solutions and companies are taking the market by storm, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the same is happening in cloud-focused professional services, where combining business process and industry expertise is critical to deliver innovations faster. If you are a cloud IT services firm who doesn’t have an industry-driven approach in your portfolio, you may be ignoring a critical path to delivering sustainable value to your customers.

 

If you are a cloud IT services firm who doesn’t have an industry-driven approach in your portfolio, you may be ignoring a critical path to delivering sustainable value to your customers.

 

In its 2021 State of the Cloud report, Bessemer Venture Partners predicts that “the vertical SaaS wave will become a tsunami” in the coming year. Veeva, a cloud-based CRM company focused on the life sciences industry, is perhaps the most cited example. With nearly $1.5 billion in annual revenue, Veeva continues to grow 33% year over year. Brightwheel, Procore, Majesco are just a few other vertically oriented SaaS companies. The larger cloud platforms (e.g. Salesforce, Microsoft, Adobe, AWS) have also been placing a larger emphasis on verticals over the past decade.

During the first two waves of cloud computing, software providers focused on building out their underlying platforms, leaving it to services partners and clients to customize and integrate them into industry-specific business processes. That worked well, but it leaves customers to finish the job — to manage and evolve those platforms to serve a business that is always changing.

In the cloud’s third wave, customers are looking for more help guiding them in the context of their business. That need is accentuated in regulated industries such as healthcare, financial services and government agencies that have specialized security requirements and risks. For example, a digital healthcare solution may require an operational transformation, analytics and workflow redesign, but it also needs a deep understanding of what patient/clinician engagement looks like across the value chain and how that aligns with HIPAA compliance.

Breaking the horizontal mindset

Specializing in one or two verticals is a smart move for almost any cloud-driven services firm. Unfortunately, many have been slow to adopt an industry-focused approach for a couple of underlying reasons. First is the assumption that you need to be at scale to verticalize. Many companies think they’re too small or simply don’t have the resources to do it well. The second revolves around fear. Fear that it requires significant effort without immediate ROI, or that they might pick the wrong industry, or that it will limit them in some way.

Let’s start with the scale issue. When consultancies get started, many begin with a more general approach to build their customer base and reputation with channel partners. The natural inclination for many founders, especially those who are technologists rather than industry experts, is to build up the firm around a specific platform or technical capability, rather than specializing in an industry. However with a generic approach, differentiation starts to diminish over time as more partners enter a space and there is a risk for services to be commoditized.

 

However with a generic approach, differentiation starts to diminish over time as more partners enter a space and there is a risk for services to be commoditized.

 

An interesting case study for verticalizing a portfolio is Onica, a cloud specialist in Amazon Web Services (AWS) consulting and managed services, which was a spin-off from a larger IT services firm. It delivered cloud migrations, big data and cloud-native development with a razor-sharp focus on AWS, but in parallel, also strengthened its competency in industrial and manufacturing oriented solutions with IoT and AWS. Onica was <$50 million at one point when it started focusing on industry solutions and grew 800% from 2016 to 2018. In late 2019, it was acquired by Rackspace for $323 million.

To alleviate initial fears, a vertical approach doesn’t have to be big-bang. A lesson from the above case study is the approach can be incremental and complementary to what a firm is already doing. For example, it may make sense to start with an industry-specific accelerator that speeds delivery or sets you apart in your go-to-market. Cloud vendors have made it a lot easier to create vertical IP and reusable assets by architecting their platforms to be more open and accessible. Or instead of building organically, consider a tuck-in M&A transaction to get the industry vertical expertise needed.

 

The bottom line is you no longer need the scale and resources of an Accenture or Deloitte to have a vertical play. It’s less about size, and more about having focus, picking the right vertical and partner(s) for that industry, and having confidence in your strategy.

 

When it comes to developing the right strategy, here are five areas where I recommend focusing your efforts: 1) Target your industry bets; 2) Align with your partners; 3) Co-create with customers; 4) Innovate at the intersections; 5) Tie your strategy to execution.

Target your Industry bets

Not all industries are created equal — like people they come in different sizes, and have different requirements, and not all will be the right match for you. The traditional approach is to look at the Total Addressable Market (TAM). David Kidder, CEO of Bionic and author of the book “New to Big” instead suggests looking at the Total Addressable Problem (TAP).  According to David, “the TAP model is based on discovering brand new customer problems or uncovering new untapped markets and that can lead to exponential growth.”

 

The TAP model, disruptive trends, unique expertise, and industry micro-segmentation should all play a role in finalizing your industry bets. The goal shouldn’t just be to have an offering in the space, it’s to be positioned within the top three service providers for that particular vertical or micro-vertical.

 

Start by looking at your unique expertise, and the verticals or micro-verticals that are a fit for that expertise. A great example of this is Snowflake, the cloud data platform that allows businesses to unlock insight from data. Snowflake’s financial services solution provides a strict approach for security and regulatory compliance that can be tailored to the needs of customers in banking, insurance, or mortgages. It is the services partner’s role to implement, integrate and amplify the solution.

If you’re a cloud services firm aligned to Snowflake helping clients monetize the large amounts of data being generated in financial services industries, don’t stop at banking or insurance. Instead specialize further in micro-verticals such as consumer finance, commercial banking, life insurance or property & casualty insurance. Or think through how you can help clients create new fintech offerings that take advantage of the disruptions happening in eCommerce and cryptocurrency.

The TAP model, disruptive trends, unique expertise, and industry micro-segmentation should all play a role in finalizing your industry bets. The goal shouldn’t just be to have an offering in the space, it’s to be positioned within the top three service providers for that particular vertical or micro-vertical.

Align with your partners

The partner ecosystems for large cloud platforms have grown substantially in the last two decades. Salesforce alone has more than 1,600 services partners around the world. As cloud vendors look to expand market share, they are looking to consultancies to create industry-specific solutions that add stickiness to their platforms. To differentiate in an increasingly crowded space, more and more early-stage services firms are now leaning in on a vertical orientation.

If you are a service provider focused on a particular vendor’s platform, it’s important to understand that vendor’s vertical strategy. In most cases, they probably have one. If not, perhaps that’s an opportunity to add value or fill a gap in their go-to-market strategy. What industry roadmap has the cloud platform provider laid out for growth? How does that align with your strengths, customer base or future bets?

When ServiceNow first announced their industry bets, they started with financial services and telecom. As ServiceNow grew from IT service management to customer/employee workflows to AIOps, it has continued to build on its domain capabilities. The company now specializes in more than 10 industries, from healthcare to public sector to manufacturing to retail and logistics. In a statement last year, ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott said, “by creating industry-specific solutions, delivered through a partner-led model, we can better address the unique challenges that companies in key vertical markets face.”

Co-create with customers

Picking one or two anchor customers can make a big difference in how quickly you can gain traction with a vertical strategy, and the positive reference that will help you get the next set of case studies and references. You might start with an existing customer or identify a customer to pursue in parallel with your vendor partner.

 

By working hand in hand with customers you will avoid the classic trap of a solution looking for a problem. The bottom line, make the customer part of the solution.

 

Whether you’re working alongside your cloud vendor partner or directly with the client, attach yourself to a strategic and well funded program. Many companies have roles solely focused on future innovations, titles such as Chief Digital Officer or Chief Growth Officer. Find a customer willing to wade into uncharted territories with you and co-create some intellectual property for an industry problem that hasn’t been solved or is just emerging.

Innovate at intersections

There will always be historic and economic events, such as the financial recession or recent pandemic, that drive new levels of innovation, but smaller disruptions shift markets all the time. It’s important to be on the lookout for signals and trends while betting on the future. For example, renowned futurist Amy Webb recently released the 2021 Emerging Tech Trends report and talks about health care as the next battleground for big-tech and how drone delivery will disrupt transportation & logistics industries.

Also, industry lines are blurring. This can be seen in retail solutions that create a connected consumer experience across various points in the shopper journey, or a media solution that engage audiences across channels, or a solution that provides banking customers with a consistent streamlined experience across different interactions. There is a lot to leverage across industries and in some cases it might make sense to build your differentiation/IP around a business process that cuts across 2-3 different industries. A classic success story is Adobe’s experience platform that can be tailored to provide personalized marketing solutions across various industries.

In the Salesforce economy, several services partners have focused on a cross-section of business processes like Configure-Price-Quote (CPQ) or eCommerce. In this example, partners could take it one step further and create a differentiated solution for B2B industries (e.g. manufacturing or hi-tech) where CPQ and commerce are integrated to drive business outcomes across the “Quote to Cash” value chain.

 

Whether it’s between industries, between business processes, or between technologies, innovation is amplified at the intersections.

 

We’re also seeing firms create use cases that incorporate and integrate big data, automation, or the disruptive application of 5G and AI across industries to differentiate. Whether it’s between industries, between business processes, or between technologies, innovation is amplified at the intersections.

Tie strategy to execution

Tying strategy to execution seems rather intuitive, but too many companies don’t go deep enough when laying out how they are going to be successful in this new space. An effective vertical strategy requires more than some IP or people with relevant skills. It requires an understanding of the unique sales and procurement processes within the industry, and an effective customer engagement model with top notch resources. How should your Go-to-Market plans (GTM) change, and what people and processes do you need to have in place, to pivot to a vertical focus?

Once you know that, find the right talent to build into that customer engagement model. In many cases, you might need to hire outside experts. People who have lived and worked in that industry, who understand the unique nuances, terminology, challenges, and opportunities in the space. In some cases, you might already have the right people and just need to cross train them through shadow or train the trainer programs.

As you progress and gain more customers in a given industry, or expand into new ones, you can grow your IP and build your team accordingly. Be prepared that results will not come overnight, but once you tie your holistic strategy to the execution plan, the potential upside can be exponential with the right bets and partnerships.

Conclusion

Taking a verticalized approach to a services portfolio isn’t a new concept. Large software companies have been pushing their services partners in this direction for more than a decade, and as cloud vendors mature they are following suit.

To compete in this market, third wave cloud consultancies will need to specialize in some way. While some may specialize in specific platform capabilities or at business process intersections, many can do it through an industry approach. In some cases, a hybrid strategy might be best. Whatever your strategy is today, you should be experimenting. You must be willing to work a year or likely more with the right investments before you see real ROI. You’re learning through the process, creating assets, repeatable practices, refining capabilities, etc.

 

To compete in this market, third wave cloud consultancies will need to specialize in some way. While some may specialize in specific platform capabilities or at business process intersections, many can do it through an industry approach.

 

A final thought: it’s good to start your journey with the end in mind, but remember, in the end, it is the journey that will matter. To be successful in the third wave of cloud, you will have to adapt quickly along the way, integrate new cloud technologies and business models to drive digital innovations for your clients. A salute to the non-profit organizations who worked tirelessly through the pandemic to protect and save lives.

Tercera’s best practices, playbooks and growth capital may be able to guide your success in this competitive environment, where differentiation now is more critical than ever. If you think Tercera can help, send the team a message here.

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