Zoho targets ‘marketing by engineering’ UK growthby
Multifaceted cloud solution Zoho used its London conference to reiterate a commitment to the UK market and emphasise the difference between its approach and that of its ‘sales and marketing-driven’ competitors.
This year’s Zoholics event saw the Chennai-headquartered developer return to London with a bigger venue, expanded ecosystem offering and some large numbers to report. Zoho recently passed 100 million global users, serving 700,000 customers with 55 applications across 150 countries.
Impressive figures, but how is Zoho fairing with its bid to win the hearts and minds of UK accountants? While representatives remained coy about overall UK user numbers, Zoho executives were keen to talk up the expansion of its Bletchley office, which has tripled its headcount over the past 12 months.
During his keynote at the show, company UK general manager Sachin Agrawal flagged Zoho’s resilience amidst the turbulence of economic uncertainty and tech disruption, casting the vendor as a “beacon of stability in stormy waters”. Without shareholders or private equity paymasters to answer to, the private company cast itself as an alternative to ‘sales and marketing-driven’ competitors with high ad spend and plush headquarters.
Zoho hopes to build its UK presence with steady, word-of-mouth growth and a strong focus on product, price and integrations across the vendor’s suite of applications, all of which have been developed in-house by the company itself.
“We have a ‘marketing through engineering’ concept,” Prashant Ganti, head of product management for Zoho’s finance and operations suite, told AccountingWEB. “One product feeds another. A customer might be using one app like expense management or digital signature, find value it in, explore the Zoho ecosystem and find other applications.”
Price and integrations
While Zoho has a broad sweep of business functionality across its ‘SME ERP’ platform, the core offering for finance professionals centres around the Zoho Books accounting tool. The developer also offers expense and invoice capabilities, and at the conference announced a beefed-up billing solution which allows users the flexibility to experiment with pricing, offering one-time, project and subscription billing.
The majority of users AccountingWEB spoke with at the conference use Zoho One, a suite that bundles 40 of the software’s apps together, including finance, HR, productivity, sales and marketing. This is available for an “all employee” price of £37 a month per employee, or a “flexible user” price (where you do not have to buy a licence for all employees) of £80 (for full details visit the Zoho One pricing page).
In a business environment increasingly leaning towards a more bundled, streamlined approach to its software, and away from an ecosystem of disparate applications, the vendor's approach may find fertile ground.
“Apps have to work together – you can’t run a business on piecemeal software,” Sridhar Iyengar, Zoho’s Europe MD told AccountingWEB. “Our platform cuts across. We don’t really subscribe to the ‘best-of-breed versus suite’ argument. Our layer of integrated solutions is built on the same stack.”
Zoho also believes this strategy is applicable to slightly larger businesses, as well as those starting out.
“As your organisation grows, you have more complex needs, which leads to more business applications, and unless you have a specific vision of your digital strategy from day one you’re left knitting those apps together, trying to make them communicate,” added UK GM Sachin Agrawal. “There’s a whole industry out there of companies offering to manage business tech stacks, to bring it all together, optimise it. It’s not only a hairball issue but also creates a compliance nightmare – it’s difficult to get to grips with where your data is sitting.
Flexibility through integrations
The accountants and bookkeepers at Zoholics this year reflect the overall mood of optimism for the product’s UK prospect.
“Pricing is a big part of the attraction,” Zoho Books user Helena Brookes, founder of Woodley Business Solutions, told AccountingWEB. “The equivalent enterprise-level products are just too expensive for small businesses and startups. But the integrations offer a degree of flexibility for a growing business that I can’t get with other products – I wouldn’t be paperless without the integrations.”
While Zoho’s finance community were supportive, two outstanding items remain in the vendor’s in-tray for the coming year: an accountant portal and a payroll tool. Both products are on Zoho’s roadmap for the UK and would go some way to cementing the vendor’s place in the minds of UK finance professionals.
Can AI and data privacy co-exist?
One of the most intriguing sessions of the day was around how Zoho would approach the much-hyped field of artificial intelligence. The vendor has always made data privacy one of its major selling points, going as far as building its own privacy-focussed web browser Ulaa and hosting all data on its own servers rather than using third-party providers.
Given that much of the new wave of generative AI relies on scraping data from across the internet, regardless of how copyrighted or personal it is, how would Zoho approach this conflicting topic? Enthusiastically but cautiously, was mainly the answer.
Ramprakash Ramamoorthy, director of AI Research at Zoho, told conference-goers that the company is taking a phased approach to its use of AI.
“AI is infused into everything we do at Zoho, so whatever we deploy it is included by default within Zoho to all our users, protecting their privacy.”
Ramamoorthy used examples such as being able to search Zoho Sheets, the vendor’s cloud spreadsheet tool, by asking questions in natural language. In its Zoho Analytics application, users can also ask natural language questions on a variety of topics, for example, you could ask ‘show me abandoned shopping carts on my e-commerce website by region as a bar chart for the last 30 days.’
He went on to explain that while in the long-term, Zoho intends to build large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, with the ability to protect data privacy baked in, there’s plenty to be said for using narrower AI models that can perform one or several tasks really well and help users do their job more efficiently.
Ramamoorthy explained that while the company has developed an integration with the likes of ChatGPT, this is very much on an opt-in, rather than opt-out, basis, commenting that users have to be careful integrating with LLMs as they could expose customer data.
“If a customer wants it, they can install those extensions,” he said. “As soon as they install the extension, they are shown a clear message saying, ‘You're choosing to send your information to ChatGPT. Are you sure you really want to do it?'”
“When looking at functions I often ask ‘who will miss it if it disappears today? Can your business function without the internet? No. Can it function without LLMs? Yes. By all means, embrace technology, but remember and understand there are costs to it as well."