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IBM Acquires Platform Computing. Whatever.

By Thomas Butta, NY Business Strategies Examiner

Writers Note: This post is about what’s possible for those of you facing an opportunity to accelerate your organization to a higher level of value. It showcases a company that had the courage to challenge the status quo and heavy-duty competition. The story is longer than normal, but it’s a compelling case study that needs room to unfold.

Did you catch the news of IBM’s latest software acquisition a few weeks ago? Business as usual for Big Blue? Certainly. But, who and what is Platform Computing? Click here to find out.

We had the same questions in late 2009 when 21 Weeks was retained by Platform Computing, Inc. to help position and package Platform as a credible enterprise software player in cloud and big data against behemoths like IBM, HP, EMC and VMware.

For 17 years, Platform Computing was a well-respected leader in the niche field of high-performance computing (also known as technical computing). Its clients were companies who relied on large, mission-critical applications, like models used in financial services, discrete manufacturing, and oil & gas. Platform not only helped such companies maximize application run time, but Platform helped them optimize infrastructure costs as well. Before cloud, such infrastructure configurations were known as clusters or grids.

Platform was successful because its software had at its core a highly intelligent algorithm that optimized the balance between effectiveness and efficiency, run-time and cost, performance and capacity. The smart algorithm enabled Platform to achieve levels of optimization that far exceed other software companies. And because Platform’s open architecture worked equally well on any operating system or infrastructure configuration,  it helped its clients avoid vendor lock-in, the unspoken cost of doing business with the dominant players.

That was all well and good, but Platform’s year-over-year growth slowed considerably by 2009 as its niche market of high performance computing matured. So, Platform plotted its  move to the much larger and faster-growing enterprise software markets for cloud and big data. Platform’s expertise and experience were a good fit, and the markets provided the opportunity for geometric growth.

That was the plan, but the move came with significant risk. Platform would be expanding outside its big fish/small pond comfort zone to arguably the hottest segments of enterprise computing — markets dominated by iconic brands and enormous companies with marketing departments larger than the whole of Platform.

How did Platform transform from a relatively unknown company to become a credible player in the enterprise software markets for cloud and big data?

How did Platform achieve year-over-year double-digit growth?

How did this niche company from Toronto become important enough to be acquired by IBM, one of the most powerful companies in the world?

It did so in two ways:

  1. Platform made the smart decision not to focus on the broad-based cloud market, but rather on the emerging space of private cloud favored by enterprises running large, mission-critical applications. Not only did this space closely resemble Platform’s roots in high-performance computing, but it was an area that was still forming. The same held true for big data. Focus gave Platform the the chance to compete.
  2. Platform embraced a classic challenger brand stance. It established a compelling positioning platform around a provocative point of view. To Platform cloud — and whatever they call that which inevitably comes after cloud (like big data) — is simply an iteration of what came before cloud, like clusters and grids. To Platform the fundamentals of managing applications in cloud and big data computing environments are the same as running applications in clusters or grids environments. It all comes down to optimizing an application’s run time and minimizing infrastructure costs. Nowhere was this more true than in the emerging areas of private cloud and big data where critical applications and big enterprises played.

A simple, but bold refrain became Platform’s provocative point of view, positioning platform, and rallying cry: Clusters, Grids, Clouds, Whatever.

Everything flowed from that compelling, challenger positioning platform:

  • The opportunity for growth

— The move beyond technical IT to corporate IT brought with it the chance for double-digit growth versus single-digit growth in the maturing technical IT market

  • The acquisition of talent with enterprise computing and market formation experience

— New talent was enticed and secured for  product management and marketing, sales, business development, and corporate marketing

  • Clarity of market sector

— Cloud had correlation to Platform’s roots, but private cloud had highly credible      relevance and no clear market leader. The same was true with big data. Focus increased Platform’s odds of success.

  • Internal alignment

— The positioning platform provided a clear framework for internal decisions and    actions: Product development (best performing software for clusters, grids, cloud and whatever came next like big data); sales (cross-sell existing relationships with technical IT to get to corporate IT; attract new, enterprise customers); marketing (win over analyst and media influencers; drive awareness, interest & adoption)

  • Brand Identity

— A change in identity is an effective way to get people to look at you in a fresh, new way. Platform’s new identity not only demonstrated exactly what it did, but it did so in a memorable way thereby achieving two strategic goals with one effort

  • Messaging

— Platform lived the role of the challenger brand by being provocative and embracing bold in speeches, booth displays, advertising, webinars, its website, etc.

  • Analyst  Relations

— Industry analysts are critical influencers to buyers, which is why Platform set out to become the advocate for private cloud, for example

  • Recognition

— Leaders need to be recognized as leaders so Platform worked important industry and trade media to win and promote Platform’s technical credibility and prowess

  • Thought Leadership

— Emerging markets are often led by the company that owns the customer problem so a series of Point-of-View booklets were created and marketed

  • Sales Training

— Selling into the enterprise is where the best software selling machines operate. Platform needed a new kind of sales executive and a different mode of selling — from  feature/function focused to one that was value-oriented

  • Partnerships

— Rarely does a company achieve rapid growth in a new market sector on its own. Hand to hand combat (i.e., selling to one prospect at a time) doesn’t scale. Finding one-to-many distribution opportunities is an effective match to direct sales

In two years, Platform achieved what it set out to do. It grew at double digit rates. It attracted new talent. It won over new important enterprise relationships. It generated credibility with customers, analysts and the media for its newest products.  It got noticed.

Could Platform have made it big if it continued on an independent path? It’s hard to say. But, Platform certainly transformed itself from a niche market, technical computing expert into a credible player in the hottest categories in enterprise computing today — important enough that IBM wanted to buy the company.

Platform’s Founder and CEO, Songnian Zou, summed it up this way in his post-acquisition blog. “Platform Computing as a standalone company may come to an end, but the journey continues to clusters, grids, clouds or whatever comes next.”

Will you be ready when you have that rare opportunity to transform your organization into a more valuable entity?  Will you be ready? Or will your attitude be one of … “whatever”?

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