Many lawyers are only just getting round to the idea that their website needs investment and work to ensure results. But what about taking the next step and creating online software – “Software as a Service”. This can not only earn a modest income for the firm but also, more importantly, gain “real” clients.
What is SaaS?
Software as a Service (SaaS) is not simply a matter of downloading a piece of software to your PC and then using it. The key point of SaaS is that the software is held, as well as any information you upload, on a server, remote from you and your office.
Generally speaking you do not pay a one-off fee, but rather, you pay a monthly or annual charge. All updates are included in the rental fee and so your software never gets out of date.
SaaS products tend to have a sales website of some kind, a login feature and a password protected area where the software is used. There will also be a management site where clients can be added and removed. These products are usually highly branded since becoming “known” for the software (or service) is the key to its success.
A great current example of this is Microsoft’s Office 365. No longer can you buy a server and the software on it for a one-off fee and use the server (and its software) “for free” in any subsequent years. Microsoft now want monthly fees pouring in from businesses, and, whilst those fees seem low in comparison to the upfront cost of a one-off purchase, it does not take many years before you are paying more for your product than under the old model. This is good business for Microsoft, and, let’s be fair, it is a convenient service they are offering which may well have cost savings over time which are not easily recognisable at first.
It’s not just the business behemoths that can provide SaaS; it is an excellent model for smaller outfits to adopt as well. The key point is that SaaS is not just about the provision of online software; it is about offering business services that are really useful to the user, cost effective and easy to use.
From the provider’s point of view, the SaaS mindset is really about using simple and efficient systems to keep costs down. When an update is needed, there is no need to physically contact anyone with a disk of any kind – the updates can be rolled out to all your clients at once, saving time and cost. Indeed, SaaS companies are often run on ferociously low cost levels. This is achieved by those managing the business ensuring that every aspect of the product is “simple” and easy to achieve. Online billing is one example. Why pay a bookkeeper when cheap and easily accessible online software can do the job for you automatically?
There is no doubt that lawyers can offer products using the SaaS model.
I have developed an online service Myhrtoolkit alongside the development of my Sheffield based law firm, Ironmonger Curtis LLP. Myhrtoolkit has grown from very humble beginnings and now has well over 200 clients across the UK. More than 10,000 employees log in on a regular basis. We have a number of UK based and International law firms as clients.
Myhrtoolkit is online HR software which organisations can use to book holidays, track sickness absence, manage HR documents, messaging and so on. The system is built on a “self-service” model so employees can manage some of their own affairs. There are of course differing access rights depending on the seniority of the employee. The system also offers a wide range of HR reports. For small and medium sized businesses (up to about 500 employees) the product is a “no brainer”.
It is not only a useful product generating moderate amounts of income for the firm or organisation selling it, but also an invaluable method for that firm to meet potential new clients when more complicated employment issues arise.
There are many opportunities across the legal sector for starting a SaaS venture. It just takes a bit of creative thinking to find an opportunity that combines your skillset with a software “gizmo”. It doesn’t have to be a complex tool like Myhrtoolkit. Some SaaS products are really simple.
How would you get started?
In short you have two key considerations: how you are going to sell your online service, and how you are going to build it (in that order).
First – marketing
Before you spend a penny on the product, consider how you are going to get it to market. If you do not have a clear vision of how you are going to market the product, it would be better not to start it at all! There are various options for marketing:
1. Direct selling, employed sales force or engaged sales agents. This can work, but it is high cost and high management and therefore not really in accord with the SaaS model, but for some products or services it may be necessary.
2. Website sales and e-commerce. Here you need to consider the key search terms. What is the competition like? If the UK or worldwide competition is fierce, can you try to “l ocalise” the product and make a sales advantage out of your geographic location?
3. Channel partners or resellers. This basically means getting other people to sell for you. For instance, I work with some employment lawyers and HR professionals round the country to sell Myhrtoolkit. However, there are also other possibilities here with trade organisations, insurers etc.
4. Telephone sales. This is something I’m pretty dubious of – but can work with the right product, the right telesales people and the requisite industry and product knowledge.
5. Email marketing. With the right contact list and the right approach you may get some sales this way.
6. Branding is important and needs careful consideration. Competitor research will help you find the right direction. Excellent creative branding input does not come cheap, but can pay dividends in the long run. Not that I’ve ever paid for any help on branding (can you tell?)
Then – product development
This all depends on the size of the project you are going to undertake. Here are some of the skills you and your team might need:
1. A technical programmer in php or .net or similar who is expert at the “back end” programming and database work as well as someone who understands online design and HTML (your “classic” web developer). These two roles can be done by the same person, but for more complex applications would probably need to be split;
2. If your application is complex, you may need someone who understands online “useability”. This is an arcane art and needs careful consideration. The site structure is not just a technical challenge it is also a creative and ergonomic one;
3. Someone to project manage the development process. This might be you, or you might want a “professional” to do it for you (someone who knows the jargon);
4. Think about where you are going to host the site. Many SaaS businesses will outsource the hosting to a professional service provider.
5. Generally speaking you want to work with people who code to professional standards and who understand modern web security in detail.
Clearly the above list is a bit daunting and, if you have the resources you may choose to outsource the whole lot to an agency which has all the skills in house. If you don’t and you need to work on the cheap, you will need to assemble a team of employees or third party contractors. Check credentials carefully and get expert (technical) help in making your final decision.