Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Beyond the ennui of boardroom decor is a hidden world of twisting cables, scrupulously selected speakers and audio hookups linked to far-off offices.
It's a world few CEOs give much thought to – unless, of course, that CEO is Andrew Turner.
Mr. Turner is president and chief executive officer of Audability Inc., a Mississauga-based company that outfits businesses with video and audio conferencing and Web streaming tools. They're like the A/V team of the workplace, collaborative communication curators who weave together equipment from tech giants such as Polycom and Cisco to link business leaders with far-off teams – face to digital face.
"Imagine us as that tour guide who navigates through the different technologies and provides you what you need," Mr. Turner says.
Audability launched in 2004, when 9/11 and the SARS outbreak were peaking corporate interest in communicating over the Internet to avoid lengthy airport waits and costly travel. The company has grown to 40 employees, and its revenue was between $5- and $10-million last year.
But while every smartphone and tablet these days is equipped with some sort of video communications software, businesses still need sophisticated collaboration technology, Mr. Turner says.
"There are a lots of [tools] out there, which is great because it's like a gateway drug – it creates more evolved users that need to move on to something else," Mr. Turner says. "That's where we live and breathe."
In 2012, the global Web conferencing market was worth $1.8-billion (U.S.), according to analysts at Frost & Sullivan. That's expected to reach nearly $2.9-billion by 2017.
But market growth has made life more difficult for Audability by encouraging competition. While some of the manufacturers of video-conferencing equipment partner only with established service providers such as Audability, plenty are happy to offload their products to anyone willing to sell them, Mr. Turner says.
"It creates these low barriers of entry and a very competitive landscape," he says. It also drives down prices.
"It's a real issue we face. Whether it's government or whether it's large bids, there's not a lot of space for us to show the innovative side of what we do," Mr. Turner says. "And customers end up buying on price because they can't differentiate, on paper at least, one company from another."
The low barrier to entry means that even though cheap-solution providers may not have sustainable business models, an endless onslaught of new entrants is looking for a piece of the action.
The Challenge: How does Audability compete in an industry where the barriers to entry are low and new competitors are constantly springing up?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Ning Su, assistant professor of information systems and the J.J. Wettlaufer Faculty Fellow at Ivey Business School, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.
In order to survive and succeed in this digital economy this company has to keep innovating. There are multiple ways to do that.
First is customization. If they can't compete on price, even if they're already offering customized services they could put some branding around that. I know the education, government and health-care sectors have a huge demand for video conferencing services, so if Audability has the capability and the bandwidth from a human standpoint they could set up teams and marketing devoted to each.
Another possibility would be integration with some of the macro trends in the tech sector. The four biggest right now are social media, mobile computing, analytics and the cloud. They could try to integrate these, for example providing some sort of analytics for the customers – not just setting up routers or Internet connections but actually helping the clients improve their communication through analytics. That would be a huge added-value for the client, and it could be a barrier of entry because it'll differentiate Audability from some of the low-cost competitors because analytics-based services require a lot of talent and stronger relationships.
Tirtha Dhar, assistant professor of marketing for the faculty of business and IT at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, Ont.
It's definitely a tough situation. One of the best ways to compete on price is to package or bundle up goods. They can do the same thing with services. Say, "Look, I'm going to throw in an integrated service but along with it I'm going to provide a few other services like enterprise-level security, services that help set up meetings or other things."
They don't have to run the services on their own, even. In that space what they can do is partner with other players in the market like a McAfee or a Norton.
Jackie Chisholm, director of managed services for the teleconferencing and video services company CBCI Telecom, Montreal
Credibility is also key, such as from awards and designations. It's credibility, trust and the extensive service before and after the sales that brings customers back year after year. Deliver what you say you'll deliver.
Our history in the video and collaborative communication business is 26 years, but somebody coming into the market may not recognize the changes that have come with it. Everything is connected now – it's not just video, it's audio, it's Web RTC (real-time communication), it's collaboration tools. A/V is not A/V anymore.
You get the contracts with the big corporations because they want to work with corporate-focused providers with a solid reputation. It's not just about having sales representation – it's about having the engineers and specialists behind every solution offered. You need to deliver what you say you'll deliver – go beyond the initial offering to build out the experience after it.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Integrate macro trends of the industry
Include services related to social media, mobile computing, analytics and cloud storage along with current offerings.
Find tertiary service providers and bundle up the products under branded packages with devoted service sub-teams within the organization.
Build credibility through designations
Apply for industry-recognized designations or awards to help bolster your reputation.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.