In The Tech Trenches: Analyst Interviews – Alan Pelz-Sharpe, 451 Research

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Alan Pelz-Sharpe, 451 Research
Alan Pelz-Sharpe, 451 Research

As we’d previously written in our last AR blog: Analyze This: Getting to Know Industry Analysts, the Blanc & Otus Analyst Relations team is launching In The Tech Trenches: Analyst Interviews. In The Tech Trenches is a recurring Q&A with analysts from around the world in which they share insights about their firm, talk about their research plans and give tips on how the comms community can best engage with them. For our inaugural interview, we were delighted to speak with Alan Pelz-Sharpe from 451 Research.

Alan Pelz-Sharpe
Research Director for Social Business Applications
451 Research
Based in Boston

What drew you to a career as an analyst and what do you enjoy most about your role?

It was sheer accident or divine intervention, depending on your particular point of view. I was coming to the end of a long business process consulting project in 1998 and was looking for a job, I saw an odd advertisement from a firm called Ovum looking for a ‘Document Management’ expert, and as I was the only person I knew that even knew what Document Management was, I figured I should apply. Somehow I got the job and then faced the biggest and most daunting learning curve and air mile accumulation process of my life!

The combined challenge of spotting emerging trends and disruptions, deeply researching them, and then articulating all of it into a digestible way – this continues to energize me. It’s an incredibly hard job to do well, and it comes with a lot of responsibility – my ‘advice’ impacts investment and also hiring and firing decisions each year. I take that responsibility very seriously, and try to drill into my staff the importance of accuracy, fair opinion and never ever resorting to being snarky or taking easy shots. In the process you talk with the tech world’s movers and shakers, get involved in fascinating strategic planning and deal situations, travel the world and meet with some of the smartest folk on the planet. It’s the best job I have ever had.

How does your firm differentiate itself from other analyst firms?

At 451 and my Social Business Applications in particular, we are focused squarely on innovation and future disruption. We are differentiated by the fact that we are a major analyst firm (much bigger than many seem to realize over 100 analysts and influencing over $160B in tech investments over the past five years) that spends a lot of time looking at early stage startups, we are often the first and only analyst firm many have speak to. We don’t have a Quadrant or a Wave (nothing wrong with that, we just have a different approach), nor a checklist of requirements for inclusion. To speak with us you just have to be doing something interesting and different that we – and by extension our client base (forward-looking large enterprises and investors) are going to be interested in knowing about. Due to the sheer volume of small vendors, we act as a filter of sorts to identify the future successes.

Describe your firm’s client base – which type of executives typically subscribe to your services?

As 451 Research has grown over the years the client base has changed – today we seem to attract larger enterprises (over 10,000 employees) in particular. These tend to be firms that have dedicated strategy teams, and IT Directors that want first mover advantage over their competitors, yet they are also firms that have hugely complex IT infrastructures, Global Data Centers, decommissioning and migration challenges, etc. – they like the sheer volume of research and data we generate (we generate a lot!). They also like the ease of access they have to chat to the analysts, and that fact that we are happy to provide actionable feedback. We have also traditionally had a strong client base in both the startup and its related investor community.

What kinds of questions are you getting most frequently from your clients these days? And what kinds of questions do you think they should be asking more often?

Questions trend over time of course but right now, I am taking questions sets from two different but complimentary areas. On the practical nitty-gritty side of things, questions about how to migrate from and even decommission legacy business applications and file shares effectively. Nothing new in terms of topic but the volume of requests here has jumped. On the other side of the equation are questions regarding future of business applications, micro apps, micro tasks, leveraging crowds, intelligent information management and dynamic supply chains. So our inquiry calls increasingly involve analysts from other 451 teams such as Security, Wearables, Dev Ops and Mobility.

Which developments in the world of technology interest you the most today? And which key trends have not received the attention they deserve? 

Personally I am interested in the outer edge/fringe opportunities and challenges for Enterprise Social. I’m thinking here of Micro Tasking and Crowd Computing. Also analyzing customer and employee behaviors and trends. I think that technologies such as Machine Learning, Predictive Analytics, and Artificial Intelligence get good analyst coverage. However, the implications, legal complexity, ethical challenges and the future use and impact of these technologies in the workplace does not.  

Are you launching any new services at the moment, or changing existing offerings?

We are launching a major new service that has been in the works for over a year – detailed market sizing, monitoring and analysis of a number of Social Business sectors – Enterprise Collaboration & Social, Marketing Automation and Web Experience Management. We will be expanding this out to more areas incrementally over the coming year. We also just finished up our Software 2015 M&A Report, which is one of our most important reports of the year. Over the next few quarters – and through the rest 2015 – we will be looking at expanding coverage in disruptive areas of human resource management and crowd computing. Our focus shifts as the market shifts.

What has your experience been historically when interacting with AR, PR and marketing teams?

Very mixed, though there are some stars out there – I enjoy working with the folks at Box, Adobe, Salesforce, EMC, OpenText, etc., all of which have a well-oiled AR machine. But as much more of my time is with startups, the challenge is that they don’t have AR and rely instead on PR agencies. PR agencies are often incentivized to get stuff published, so we come at the briefing with different agendas. We give our thoughts and opinions pretty openly in briefings and can often give a startup a perspective or competitive insight they would normally not have access to. Whilst in turn we get insight into somebody doing something interesting that may impact the market at a future point. Whether that results in anything publishable to our subscribers is a different story; PR firms often don’t value that kind of interaction.

What is the most common mistake that vendors make when they interact with you?

Either they give me the standard sales pitch, or they are expecting one from me. In both cases we are off to a bad start. Particularly annoying is when a vendor ‘explains’ to me the market sector that I cover for a living. I’m happy to have a discussion on our different perspectives but not keen on being lectured. Similarly when I request a briefing on a new product or service and then get one hour’s worth of a startup insulting all their competitors, then things aren’t going well.

My requirements are simple. Tell me about your company, why you exist, the specific problem you solve, and how you solve that problem differently than previous attempts have or do?

What do you like to do to relax when you’re not doing the day job?

I have a small but active side career as an actor (voice and screen) and that takes me completely out of my day job persona and challenges me on so many levels (I studied Method Acting); this in turn relaxes me. Odd, I know…

Blanc & Otus AR Commentary and Key Takeaways

Thank you very much, Alan, for taking the time to share these insights with us. 2015 is looking like a very productive year for the team at 451 Research! Alan raises many great points that vendors should take to heart. Having heard Alan’s perspectives, some related takeaways we’d particularly like to emphasize for vendor communications teams to consider:

  • Briefings – The Need for Focus and Clarity on Capabilities: During briefings with analysts, vendors must (succinctly) outline the problems they can solve. As Alan mentions, this time is best spent focusing on their own differentiation and crucially – the resolution of a customer challenge vs. just critiquing a competitor’s offering. Sharing useful data and relevant insight with the analyst is crucial in delivering a valuable briefing and is a key step in building a lasting relationship with the analyst (something many PR firms do badly). Don’t forget to also ask the analyst for their opinion!
  • Technology’s Societal Impact – Tech vendors often dive into the widgets, speeds and feeds – forgetting to address the human, legal and cultural impact that technology has on workplaces and home. The societal impact of technology is one of the most compelling stories a vendor can tell, if they do it right. Our advice to vendors is to be clear on your narrative and message – ensure you relate these back to problem resolution for the customer.
  • Gauging Vendor Viability – Industry analysts can play a valuable part in contextualizing and clarifying a vendor’s prospects and viability. This insight can be invaluable information for financial analysts and investors who are looking to source market data for their financial models, or validate an investment strategy. For this reason it’s also important that vendors’ Analyst Relations teams work closely with their Investor Relations colleagues. Remember, analysts talk to each other!

We’ll see you next month for the second edition of In The Tech Trenches.