REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 28, 2002 — Some of the new and enhanced content and features now available online at Microsoft bCentral (www.bCentral.com):
Satya Nadella, corporate vice president, Microsoft Business Solutions
Guidelines that can help a business differentiate situations requiring hired legal counsel from those that can be handled in-house, as well as samples of legal contracts and a directory listing more than 1 million attorneys in all 50 of the United States
A service to help small businesses select, purchase and manage wireless devices and service plans online
New and more easily accessible content. Lots of it.
Satya Nadella, corporate vice president of Microsoft Business Solutions, says that the enhancements are a natural extension of the original vision behind Microsoft bCentral.
“Our new services and content reinforce our commitment to developing and delivering online services of a high value to small businesses,”
“Microsoft bCentral offers customers affordable and easily manageable tools that simplify and expedite everyday business processes.”
While bCentral, first launched in 1999, has traditionally focused on e-commerce and sales and marketing, these new services and content mark the beginning of a more comprehensive offering that addresses a broader spectrum of concerns for small businesses.
“We’re building on our investment in the small business space by going above and beyond what we’ve done in the past,”
“It’s what gets our partners excited — the opportunity to bring in all they’ve done and combine it with what we’ve done in order to offer our customers unprecedented value.”
According to the numbers, customers agree. With 5 million unique visitors each month and 2 million registered users, Microsoft bCentral is the traffic leader in its space.
Amy Levy, an analyst with Boston-based Summit Strategies, says that Microsoft bCentral has arrived at a very sound point.
“They’ve gone through a very natural evolution and growth curve,”
“They’ve focused on really understanding small business requirements and serving up solutions that address the most pressing small business pain points.”
One of the keys to Microsoft bCentral’s sound footing, according to Levy, is the offering of blended services and solutions with some on-premise and others online.
“Where they’re really effective is in the blurring of boundaries to offer customers a melding of solutions,” she says. “bCentral has really come around to that.”
Another key factor she points to is Microsoft bCentral’s understanding of its customer base.
“They’ve grown incrementally, which is a great way to go after this market,”
“They really understand that customers don’t want razzle-dazzle they want things that really help them move their business forward.”
To help small businesses move forward, Microsoft bCentral has developed new services. Nadella says Microsoft bCentral and its partners worked in tandem to develop new offerings that help small businesses address and solve their most pressing challenges.
“I think the overall issue is that this remains an under-serviced market,”
“Lots of small businesses rely on islands of data and applications. Our fundamental challenge is to take any business process and provide a solution that addresses it, that’s easy to use and easy to deploy. We strive to help small businesses evolve with new technology without being overwhelmed by the challenges of that new technology.”
New Services for bCentral Customers
To help its customers avoid the sometimes overwhelming challenges associated with new technology, Microsoft bCentral is offering new resources and tools to help small businesses navigate legal issues and maximize wireless plans.
For legal issues, there’s the Microsoft bCentral Legal Center. The brainchild of Microsoft bCentral, FindLaw and Nolo, the center offers bCentral customers products and regularly updated feature articles addressing issues around intellectual property, human resources and the legal intricacies of starting a small business. Microsoft, FindLaw and Nolo all emphasize that bCentral Legal Center is by no means intended to replace lawyers.
Stacy Stern, an attorney, is vice president and co-founder of FindLaw, which is based in Mountain View, Calif. FindLaw specializes in online legal information and technology for the legal community, businesses and individuals.
“Legal issues come up all the time for small businesses,”
“Examples of legal issues include starting the business, deciding on an appropriate legal structure and hiring employees, which requires compliance with various employment laws. And if they have intellectual property the rights need to be secured.”
Sometimes it’s necessary to hire an attorney. In those cases bCentral customers have access to a database of more than 1 million lawyers in the U.S., searchable by practice area and location. But there are instances when small business owners can do their own background work. And bCentral Legal Center, says Stern, is an ideal resource.
The choice of content was based on FindLaw’s nearly seven years of experience providing online legal information. The popular issues, Stern says, remain popular employment law tops the list.
“New technologies present new rules, but every company with employees has to deal with legal issues,”
“The hot topics are still hot.”
To help small businesses take advantage of the wireless world, Microsoft bCentral has teamed up with Washington, D.C.-based InPhonic to create and launch the Microsoft bCentral Mobile Marketplace. Microsoft bCentral presents small business customers with an Internet-ready wireless phone offer, coupled with one of the most competitive wireless plans offered by all the major wireless carriers for their geographic market.
In addition to the wireless phone, Microsoft bCentral’s Mobile Marketplace offers the Wireless Optimization Wizard, an online subscription-based service that draws on individual and small business wireless usage data to help businesses realize maximum value for minimum cost on the optimization of their wireless plans. The Wireless Optimization Wizard is modeled after a component of an enterprise-based application that has a track record of cutting wireless costs up to 20 to 30 percent.
“This application takes the complexity out of choosing and maximizing the best plan for each individual user in a small business,”
says Tom van Gorder, InPhonic senior vice president, enterprise sales.
“It empowers small businesses to be more efficient in the use of cell phones. It aggregates data from a monthly usage perspective, makes plan change recommendations based on usage patterns and generates a monthly return-on-investment report. Not only does it recommend what changes to make to your existing wireless plan but it also informs the small business how to make the changes with their selected wireless carrier.”
New and Enhanced Content
In addition to new services and technology, bCentral has also unveiled enhanced, updated and new content. Jeff Riley, Microsoft Business Solutions general manager for small business marketing, says the offering and presentation of new content was driven by customer feedback.
“We had begun to expand our offerings across categories, and we needed to think about how to better organize these offerings on the bCentral site so that our customers could more easily find them,”
“We solicited feedback from customers via e-mail and face-to-face interaction and identified areas where new content was needed and others where the content was relevant but needed to be presented differently.”
New content includes columnists Kim Komando, who covers technology and hosts a syndicated radio show that draws 7 million listeners, and Chris Elliot, who writes about travel.
“There is a lot of interest in sales and marketing tools on our site,”
“A lot of our audience is interested in finding new ways to grow their business more profitably.”
Later in October, bCentral will also begin posting content from two popular business magazines, Inc. and Fast Company.
Several areas of the site, Riley says, have undergone a major revamping.
“It’s hard enough to run a small business without the added stress of keeping up with the vast amount of resources and technology that are out there,”
“Our site offers resources to help small businesses succeed.”
Nothing on the site, Riley says, goes untested.
“We constantly seek feedback from users,”
“I make a point of going out to visit users so I can see for myself what their goals and opportunities are. We have resources that they don’t, and what motivates me is to find ways to package those resources that help our customers succeed.”
While the demands of Riley’s schedule keep him from spending as much face-to-face time with customers as he’d like, he has ways of making up for it.
“Last month I was at a spa,”
“Of course we talked about technology.”
Off to the Future
Nadella says he has enjoyed his front-row seat to the melding of technology and the small business marketplace and that he looks forward to the future.
“It’s the challenges along the way that get you up in the morning and get you to work,”
When bCentral was launched in 1999, the challenge was reaching an underserved area that had a tough time getting their jobs done with technology. The mission: build the next generation of software to solve the problem.
“It was an opportunity to build heroic software, and it’s just escalated,”
he says. With last year’s acquisition of Great Plains and the acquisition of Navision in July both of which exist, with bCentral, under the Microsoft Business Solutions umbrella the ambition is the same. The footprint, of course, is much larger.
“To me, this feels like Windows and Office felt 10 years ago. I think we can achieve that same kind of impact.”