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Innovate or Die

I just attended OnMedia in NYC this week. It was my first time attending the event. I really enjoyed the format - panel discussions on topics such as social commerce, VC outlooks, and the socialization of video & TV - interspersed with CEO presentations from startups looking for new investors or partners. This is the closest to what it must be like any given day at Menlo Park - all the ideas, innovations, and discussions around what trends we're seeing and what's going to stick were truly energizing. If you weren't jazzed about what online media & advertising can do for your brand before, you would be after attending OnMedia.

Innovate or DieOne thing struck me during the event however that really brought me back to why I came to work for Acquia. It came during the keynote presentation by Gurbaksh Chahal, CEO at RadianOne, about the death of Ad Networks. He showed a quote from Charles Darwin, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."
Then he showed a slide that simply said: Innovate or Die

Now being from New Hampshire, I might be partial to the reference of the dramatic choice between anything or death. Still, I think its a good statement in this case regardless.

To demonstrate this statement, Chahal showed example companies across different industries that failed to do so. Companies such as AOL, Kodak, Blackberry and MySpace were all industry leaders at their peak, now defunct and/or bankrupt because others evolved with the industry faster.

This led me to think about something we've uncovered here at Acquia. During our market research, we discovered that around 70% of all websites are still hand-coded, not deployed on a CMS framework. Seventy percent! That's crazy to think in this age people are still building and maintaining websites by writing code line by line instead of using a system designed to make that process easier and faster by taking the experience of all the developers and marketers who have logged countless hours building these sites in the past and packaging it for people to deploy these sites with greater speed and flexibility.

In a previous life, I worked for a company that built online "solutions" for a single industry (to protect the innocent, the company will remain nameless and the "solution" will remain vague). Our strength was our experience in that industry and how our solutions enabled this highly regulated industry to be more efficient. But we painstakingly built each client site from scratch - line by line - even though I’d say 80% of the features and functionality were the same. Our clever solution to speed this process up? Cloning existing live sites. Which led to "leakage" of one client's data to another client site - hopefully to be found during manual QA. What we did well as a company was understand the problems in the industry, and knew how to provide solutions to streamline our client's businesses processes. What we did not do well was focus on those solutions - we were too busy with our internal challenges to keep up with demand. And I don't think we were unique.

The whole point for this story is not to remind myself (and my past colleagues) of what could have been, but to outline the fundamental problem of this build/deploy model: we were too busy trying to get the technology to create flexible, scalable sites to be able to focus on the solutions those sites were providing clients. When you're too focused internally about how to get the technology to work, you aren't innovating and thinking about the problems of your clients to create even better solutions for them. And when you're running a business, its the solution you're selling, not the technology. The client doesn't care if there's a configuration issue or another round of QA needed, they want to know why their site is broken and breaking their daily business process - effecting their bottom line. We were part of the 70%.

What a web CMS allows a business or website owner to do is focus on not what the technology needs to do, but what the solution is for the problem you're trying to solve. Just like in my previous life, the sites we built were 80% the same across clients. If we could have focused on that 20% of each site that made it special and unique for each client, clients would be happier, we'd produce more, and we'd be more successful. It’s that 20% of the project that drives your business, provides value, and differentiates you from your competitors.

I know this is basic knowledge for the people I work with, Acquia clients, and the Drupal community. They all get it - and have gotten it for years now. They are the ones leading the innovation that is changing how websites are built, managed and maintained. But this post isn't meant for them - it’s for those of you who, like me, may know all this stuff peripherally, but never really thought about the true business implications of it; the 70%.

So I will be watching that 70% over the next year or two and look forward to seeing that number shrink to nothing. It has to - either people will migrate to a CMS voluntarily or they will be defunct. Meanwhile we'll also watch Drupal dominate the web CMS space. The open source WCMS blows the proprietary competition away driving innovation “at the speed of the web”. It may take a proprietary system up to 6-18 months to add new features into their product. Where with Drupal’s modular framework, new functionality is added by the community every day. With each new web trend, the Drupal community responds crazy fast - coming up with new modules in just hours or days versus months or even years as some proprietary vendors.

There is so much cool stuff going on with the web that if your platform can't keep up - you and your business will miss out and go the way of AOL, Blackberry, Kodak and so many others who did not evolve. Live the mantra; Innovate or Die.

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