Dan's Take

'Leading' Questions for Technology Suppliers

Beware claims of being No. 1: it might not mean what you think.

I receive tons of press releases from suppliers large and small, and nearly all of them use the term "leading" to describe themselves and their products. It doesn't seem to matter how large they are, what geographical areas they serve, or either a) the revenues their products receive or b) the number of customers who have purchased their product. After reading that term of self-praise so many times, I've begun to wonder what it could possibly mean. Having been an important part of that game at an earlier time in my career, I think I know.

The meaning seems to have little to do with the definition of the term "leading" found in dictionaries. Dictionaries talk about being most important, being in advance of all others, being first, directing or guiding.  How, one would think, would a startup that has just announced a new technology and has few customers on the books, be able to claim "leading" in their press release?

First of all, no one is checking up on them. Competitors are too busy calling themselves "leading" to pay too much attention to any of the others. Customers read over that word and think nothing of it.

Second, "leading" implies that someone, somewhere has measured the market in some way and the supplier's products are at the top of some category. The category doesn't matter.  All they have to do is to be at the top of some list, somewhere, published by some research firm. Or not.

In ancient times, when I was Research Manager for Database Software Research in the Advanced Operating Environment Group at IDC, my major annual reports segmented the revenues and shipments of database products using the following categories:

  • Worldwide product revenues
  • Worldwide product shipments
  • Product revenues received from sales in four different geographic regions (North America, Western Europe, Asia/Pacific, Other)
  • Product shipments into four different geographic regions (North America, Western Europe, Asia/Pacific, Other)
  • Product revenues received from sales on six different operating systems (mainframe, single vendor OSes, Windows, UNIX, other PC OS, embedded)
  • Product shipments to execute on six different operating systems (mainframe, single vendor OSes, Windows, UNIX, other PC OS, embedded)
  • Product shipments into different geographical regions for either commercial or technical use
  • Product revenues into different geographical regions for either commercial or technical use
  • Worldwide installed base
  • Worldwide installed base segmented by geographic region
  • Worldwide installed base segmented by operating system

The reports examined each of the tables and figures with an explanatory narrative. (As an aside, it's easy to see why these reports were hundreds of pages long. I knew that very few readers would read the entire report. What was far more likely to happen was supplier representatives would read the executive summary and then scan the tables to find if they were listed as No. 1 in any category.)

Suppliers had to seek IDC's permission before they could use IDC's research in their marketing and advertising. That meant that I would receive a request for a specific usage, I would verify the use was correct and not out of context, and I would ask IDC's marketing folks to approve or not approve the usage.

We're All No. 1!
One year, in the late 1990s, four different database companies asked to use their leading position in one of those many charts in their marketing messages. Since they were using the data correctly, I asked IDC's marketing folks to approve all of the uses.

I remember one journalist, my friend Mitch Wagner, calling me up and asking me to comment on how four different suppliers could be No. 1? If memory serves, I pointed out that:

  • One vendor was No. 1 in worldwide revenues
  • A different vendor was No. 1 in worldwide shipments (their product cost less and thus they shipped more of it)
  • Yet another vendor was No. 1 in technical use in Europe
  • Still another vendor was No. 1 in commercial use in Asia/Pacific

My point is to take all these claims with a rather large grain of salt.  I'm sure that if I produced a chart for revenues of database software on the first Tuesday in May, the leading vendor would have asked to use that little tidbit in a marketing campaign to promote their product.

Dan's Take: Dive Into the Details
It would be wise of all of us to ask suppliers detailed questions about their claims.  Some have very strong support for their statements. Others, well, not so much. The answers to questions such these will tell you much:

  • Was the claim based upon revenues?
  • Upon shipments?
  • On different types of usage?
  • On a specific operating system?

If a supplier is evasive, try asking something like this:

  • Was it in a specific city, under a new moon with a cup of cappuccino and a biscuit?

About the Author

Daniel Kusnetzky, a reformed software engineer and product manager, founded Kusnetzky Group LLC in 2006. He's literally written the book on virtualization and often comments on cloud computing, mobility and systems software. He has been a business unit manager at a hardware company and head of corporate marketing and strategy at a software company. In his spare time, he's also the managing partner of Lux Sonus LLC, an investment firm.

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