Last week I met with a young engineer to discuss his early stage company. The company has about $1.5 million in revenue and provides a sophisticated telecom service using proprietary software to manage real time data. The company has one large customer and the entrepreneur wanted to discuss how to find the next customer(s).
In the course of the discussion, I realized that the company, as a by-product of providing its service, was capturing information about company operations that the client did not have. Making the engineer realize this point was a challenge because he thought he was in the telecom services business. Any company that is capturing a large amount of real time data should step back and see if there is a more valuable use of the data.
For example, a company that does processing of insurance claim collections for doctors has a huge data base on the different procedures and costs for a standard medical procedure--a broken leg. Every legitimate doctor bills the same services and procedures. Any doctor that consistently bills insurance companies differently is probably a crook. We could use this database to identify Medicare fraud by doctors. Yes, the company does medicall billing to insurance companies but using the data to prevent Medicare fraud may be a more valuable business for the company.
This story last week in the NYT about GT Nexus also illustrates my point. The company has a cloud-based service that integrates the supply chain logistics data of large international companies and their thousnds of suppliers. Effectively the status of a shipment can be traced from point of origin to the ultimate customer. Taking this data in its entirety and you have a detailed view into the world economy, a data base that few, if any, other organizations have. GT Nexus has the ability to forecast economic performance based on leading trade indicators, calculate the balance of payments for countries and identify new sources of products by country (e.g. formally China and shifting to Indonesia). The by-product data of supplying logistics tracking is perhaps more valuable than the underlying service.
I frequently write about the need to understand the customer and not get trapped in constantly focusing on product development (especially for engineers). In companies that capture large amounts of real time data, perhaps one should consider if there is a more valuable use of the data for a new customer.