Intuit and SMEs

Business 2.0 calls Intuit’s CEO Steve Bennett as “the hottest CEO in tech”.

“When Steve came in, he said the QuickBooks group was a slow-growing unit and a giant opportunity, and we should be growing much faster,” Cook recalls. The evidence, as it happened, had been staring Intuit in its customer-focused face: The standard version of QuickBooks is designed for companies with fewer than 20 employees, yet 5 to 10 percent of its most loyal users were larger — some had as many as 200 employees. In fact, more of them used QuickBooks than brands of software intended for companies their size.

As Bennett looked closer, he realized there was room for more than just an expanded version of QuickBooks. Many small businesses still run with pencil and paper, and of those that embrace PCs, few have moved beyond spreadsheets or simple accounting programs. Intuit estimates that North American small businesses, which it defines as companies with fewer than 250 employees, will buy $7 billion in business software and $11 billion in related services this year. Analysts expect double-digit growth for years to come. In an era when corporate IT budgets have been squeezed dry, this was a rare thing: an expanding market for business software.

Bennett went looking for a replacement to run the group. He soon found one in a former colleague, 20-year GE veteran Lorrie Norrington, whom he lured away with the help of a $750,000 signing bonus and a $5 million interest-free relocation loan.

In her new job, Norrington took all of a month to announce, essentially, that Intuit intended to become the SAP or Oracle of small business. The company would offer software and services for a wide variety of enterprises, from the smallest shops to those with a couple hundred employees. Intuit would help not just with accounting but also with payroll and benefits, keeping track of customers, and managing computer systems. It would also customize its software for specific kinds of businesses, like accountancies or construction firms. The initiative, she explained, would be called “Right for My Business.”

Norrington first turned her attention to QuickBooks. With nearly 3 million users, the accounting program was the obvious beachhead for a push deeper into the small-business market. Bennett had already ordered up a new version — QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions — for businesses with more than 20 employees. Within 18 months, Norrington added 13 more “flavors,” and by the end of this year, QuickBooks will have sliced the accounting market 25 ways, with special editions for the smallest small companies and larger small companies, and specific versions for retailers, distributors, contractors, and nonprofits.

In another example of bullet-train thought, Intuit agreed to open QuickBooks’s source code to independent software developers. The developers write highly specialized applications for specific businesses; with an open interface, they can easily tie their programs into QuickBooks and other Intuit software, creating a kind of small-business enterprise-resource-planning package. To recruit developers, Bennett, Norrington, and Cook have been stumping conferences, including Intuit’s first-ever QuickBooks developers conference, held in November near San Francisco. One of the roughly 6,500 companies actively developing applications is Clip Software in Ijamsville, Md. Some 8,000 landscape maintenance outfits use Clip to streamline tasks such as scheduling fertilizing and making estimates on new jobs. CEO Dave Tucker explains his partnership with Intuit this way: “We don’t want to write general ledger or payroll applications. Intuit can do that.”

To serve the largest and richest companies in their target audience, Bennett and Norrington have begun acquiring small companies that make fully integrated suites of business applications for specific industries. The packages, which Intuit sells for as much as $100,000 per customer, now cover property management, the public sector, construction, and distribution, and there are plans to buy as many as six more in different industries.

Intuit is worth a close study because we too want to be the “SAP or Oracle of small businesses” – only, that out focus is on the emerging markets.


Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.