Austin American-Statesman Plugged In column [Austin American-Statesman]
(Austin American-Statesman (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 19--If you're looking for a new digital camera, you can find dozens of online reviews to guide you.
But if you're an IT manager charged with making a big investment in new software, you're pretty much on your own.
"Most of us rely heavily on reviews, but it's very hard to get reliable information about enterprise technology," says Austin software veteran Vinay Bhagat. "If a pizza place gets 1,000 reviews, why shouldn't you be able to find the same for a software product "
Bhagat's new startup, TrustRadius, wants to provide that forum by building an online network for sharing information about business software and services. The site includes reviews, ratings, Q&A forums and other social networking features.
It's an idea that Bhagat first began thinking about at Convio Inc., the Austin software company he co-founded in 1999.
As Convio grew from a two-person startup to a 450-person company, it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new technology, not always with success.
"We struggled to get good authentic intelligence on products," Bhagat says. "In some cases we made purchasing decisions we regretted. In other cases we made reasonable product decisions, but underestimated the staff time required to maintain them or changed our implementation approach after initial struggles. You don't get the best information from the vendor, or from a traditional industry analyst, you get it from your peers."
Bhagat served as Convio's CEO from 1999 until 2003, when he became chief strategy officer. He held that title through the company's initial public offering in 2010, and its acquisition by competitor Blackbaud of Charleston, S.C., for $325 million in May.
When the sale closed, Bhagat and David Hart, who was then Convio's chief technology officer, left the company and took a month off. In June they co-founded TrustRadius.
Bhagat says TrustRadius wants to shift influence from industry analysts -- who are often paid by companies to review their products -- to the users in the trenches.
"Our belief is that people who use the technology have much more fundamental and pragmatic insights than an analyst who gets most of their content from talking to vendors," he says.
In November, the company launched a beta version and began inviting participants, including IT buyers, chief information officers, and sales and marketing executives and professionals, to write reviews. Currently, the site has a couple hundred test participants and 150 in-depth reviews on 40 products. Posters can remain anonymous or share personal information with their posts. All participants are authenticated before they can join the site.
Bhagat hopes to generate revenue by selling premium content and services, as well as from vendors who receive notifications when their product is discussed and will be able to add moderation comments similar to travel review site TripAdvisor.
The model is still a work in progress, he says, acknowledging that one of the challenges will be building loyalty and community among users, the way Yelp and Angie's List have done.
"We're really testing the waters right now to understand the motivations people have to actually join a network like ours and to author content," he says. "Our users tell us that the primary motivation is a desire to access similar content themselves because there's such a void of this information out there right now."
Among those who hope the site succeeds is Christoph Risch, director of sales operations at Austin software maker Troux Technologies.
Risch has used TrustRadius to learn more about accounting and professional services software he was considering buying. "There was breadth and depth from people who have either implemented it or evaluated it," Risch says. "That's a lot different than talking to references from a vendor, which of course are handpicked."
For now, TrustRadius, which has three employees, is being self-funded by its founders. Unlike with Convio, which was only four months old when it raised $4.6 million in venture capital, Bhagat says he is in no hurry to bring in outside money.
"No matter how disciplined you are, I think it's incredibly hard once you've got a few million dollars in the bank to be very very frugal and selective about who you hire and what you build," he says. "The temptation is always there to add that additional person or build that additional feature or do that additional marketing campaign if you've got the funds."
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