It’s not easy being small

Twice in the past few weeks I’ve taken part in conference panels dedicated to helping startup companies improve their chances of surviving in hard times. In short, these folks paid to try to wine, dine and putt their way to the Buy It Now button buried deep inside every CIO’s head. By and large, the feedback wasn’t encouraging.

Each conference featured a panel of CIOs willing to field questions about how they decide to purchase products. What approaches work? What don’t? What kinds of products are you looking for now? Will you even buy from startups anymore?

Common themes resonated throughout the answers.

1.Consolidation is king. It’s pretty obvious that nearly all the CIOs in the world, if they could, would reduce their infrastructure to one server running one application–and if both of them could come from one vendor, they’d do it in a heartbeat. So startups looking to get in the door need to think seriously about sneaking in on the coattails of an OEM or licensing agreement with a larger vendor, consultant or reseller.

2. Cold calls are annoying. Cold calls of the “Mind-if-I-take-up-an-hour-of-your-time-to-see-if-our-product-might-fit-your-business” sort are a sure route to a dial tone.

3. Free is a pretty good place to start with your pricing. That may mean a free trial period to make sure it works. Or it could be free help with installation or support after the fact–especially if you want the CIO in question to act as a reference for future sales or media calls.

4. Don’t try to sell CIOs on a product that could get them fired. Edge products. Reporting tools. Things that are nice to try but that won’t cause cataclysm if they go away still may have a shot.

It all made me very glad that I’m not making sales calls for a startup tech vendor these days.

But there may be hope. The government could come to help. And I’m not talking about those tax cuts. I’m talking Sarbanes-Oxley.

Any product with a remote chance of getting away with it is already waving the dread S-O flag in the hope of attracting the attention of CIOs looking to calm the fears of executives who suddenly feel like they have targets painted on their foreheads. I’ve had vendors ranging from document management to business intelligence to storage tell me that they hold at least one of the keys to S-O compliance. And S-O compliance is a sufficiently vague goal to keep just about every technology in the game, at least for a while.

Is S-O the Y2K of 2003? We’ll see. A lot of vendors certainly hope so.