Outsourcing Makes Virtual Management Real | Article

ASP is Ideal Solution for Marketing Services

virtual officeRunning a virtual organization can present some very real problems.

Just ask Heather Fitzpatrick, CEO of MarketFitz Inc., a Seattle, Washington-based marketing and advertising outsourcing company.

With more than 100 employees working from home and small offices scattered across different markets, keeping track of employees, clients, projects and progress could have been a daunting task. Instead, about the time the company opened last year, they came across Portera.com, an infrastructure ASP for professional services (PSA) firms.

“Basically, they’re the backbone for our company. They’re the entire backbone for operating a service company in a service environment,” Fitzpatrick says. “The Portera infrastructure allows our people to be connected between themselves and our clients.”

Campbell, California-based Portera Inc. and its ServicePort application is an ASP designed to help management, marketing and information technology consulting firms; service providers; government contractors and other project-driven organizations to manage operations through Web-accessible technology.

The site can grow as a buyer’s needs grow, without sacrificing security. In MarketFitz’s situation, the system’s password-protected access means Fitzpatrick can control access to any employee, client or other vendor – by project or site area. And because it’s Web-based, a buyer like MarketFitz doesn’t have to allocate funds for costly hardware or software purchases or upgrades to keep the system leading edge. In fact, the company performed a significant interface upgrade in February, with more scheduled throughout the first half of 2002, said Gary Steele, Portera’s CEO.

Surviving Through the Downtimes

MarketFitz is not alone in discovering Portera’s services. In 2001, a year that many dotcoms and other technology-related companies suffered hard times, Portera enjoyed 125 percent revenue growth with 121 new deals. While he wouldn’t discuss finances, Steele says Portera provides PSA to companies in 37 countries in the areas of finances, resources, projects and relationship management. The company’s buyers already have 20,000 seats in use, and Portera’s revenue growth should top 30 percent to 40 percent in 2002, he says.

The company’s success is a result of its “two founding, fundamental principles,” Steele says. First, any software organization targeting the services economy must serve it well. That principle was identified early on by Portera executives as the failing of many competitors, IT firms and dotcoms. Second, many clients don’t have the finances, personnel or infrastructure to handle overbearing technology – even if it’s delivered via a Web-based hosted model, he says. So the company was built upon the premise of powerful software that a small business without complex IT systems could handle.

Also, Portera was designed for what – at the time – was an underserved market: companies with distributed workforces, or those companies with large, embedded teams of workers who need their own form of “intranet” to serve their project and collaboration needs.

“The Internet becomes the platform that allows a group of individuals to work in a collaborative way,” Steele says. “These are important issues in the service-based business. You really have to keep track of what people are doing and whether you’re making money in any of their activities. Otherwise, it all becomes anecdotal as to why they’re making money or not making money.”

Staying focused on the needs of its professional services target audience has made Portera successful at a time when other ASPs have suffered or closed, says Laurie McCabe, vice president and practice director with Summit Strategies Inc., a Boston, Massachusetts-based market consultancy. That the professional services market has a high affinity for outsourcing – but with little desire to buy equipment and hire staff – helped Portera enjoy strong acceptance and user adoption, she says.

Providing Custom-Built Solutions

And because Portera custom built its software package, it was a good fit with its user group.

“Instead of taking some existing package software and making some adjustments, they’ve really built a solution for the PSA market,” McCabe says.

ServicePort modules, which operate on PC and Macintosh, include opportunity and deal management and tracking; resource planning to allocate the right people with the right skills for the appropriate project; and a collaborative platform to share across the team, including clients, subcontractors and employees). Modules also include calendaring, time capture for tracking input and expenses, and project accounting and invoicing. The system also operates with enterprise resource planning applications like PeopleSoft, Oracle, SAP and Great Plains.

Costs start at $150 per user per month, and drop from there, depending on terms and the number of users, Steele says. ServicePort is scalable, currently serving a government contractor with 6,500 people accessing the system, he says. In fact, scalability was essential to MarketFitz signing on to Portera, Fitzpatrick says. With more than 100 employees today, they need a guaranteed model to accommodate their growth projections.

“This is an ideal solution,” says Fitzpatrick, who admits she was relieved to have opened her business on Portera. “Without something like ServicePort, had we opened our business a year earlier, we wouldn’t have been able to grow. Service would have been a barrier to our growth.”

Lessons from the Outsourcing Journal:

  • Outsourcing backbone technology can help a company avoid expensive start-up infrastructure, collaboration and information transfer costs.
  • Survey the market for outsourcing providers whose technology is designed and ideally suited to serve the appropriate industry.
  • Seek outsourcing providers whose technology can scale up as your company grows.

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