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Feb 01 2010

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Collabor8online: talking low-cost collaboration

I had a long telephone chat on Friday with Colin Barnes, founder of Collabor8online (see post), a little over two months since the construction collaboration solution’s UK launch.

Colin explained that Collabor8online was very much targeted at the SME end of the market.

“Recognising that for many businesses email is too messy and difficult to track and manage, we set out to make things as simple as possible. Collabor8online was designed with the needs of mechanical and electrical contractors in mind – that’s the market I know best – but we have also had interest from architects interested in a more economical way of sharing project information.”

Collabor8online is now being used by several companies ranging in size from ‘white van man’, through family-owned businesses with around a dozen operatives, to companies with multi-million pound turnovers, Colin said. There has also been interest from public sector organisations, including local councils.

“I think email is still the biggest competitor to collaboration applications at this level, but where businesses have more than one office or are working in offices abroad, the benefits – mainly in time and cost – of uploading documents and drawings once to a single repository soon become clear. But a simple online solution can also help a company demonstrate innovation – we have one company that invested £250 in Collabor8online for a year-long project partly to impress its client.”

Functionality

February will see a new release of the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) application. The update will include an enhanced calendar function (integrated with Microsoft Outlook, Google and iCal calendar formats), which will help users track appointments, then actions arising, creating email notifications and ‘to do’ lists for team members. “We are focused on doing things that our users regard as essential,” Colin says.

“But we are being careful about how we build up the depth of functionality without losing ease of use. For example, initial feedback from users, including small firms of architects, has guided development of improvements to how Collabor8online manages document issue processes.”

For many users, simply being able to share files online is often enough. However, for those users that may wish to view and do online comment and mark-up of CAD files, Collabor8online recommends they deploy the Brava viewer (also used by established high-end vendors such as 4Projects and Business Collaborator).

Marketing

Collabor8online is built around relational database technology (MySQL) using Ruby on Rails by a small in-house development team based in Manchester (the company is currently about six-strong). Marketing to date has focused on building awareness in Colin’s ‘comfort zone’ of M&E contracting through articles (like this) in the magazines and websites serving that sector, but Colin’s background in construction computing, and in estimating software in particular, has also brought in a few sales leads. Indeed, his experience in estimating software leads him to think there may yet be an opportunity to integrate design and specification processes to the estimation process. He is also mindful of the opportunities that may come from having solutions that are accessible via mobile devices.

Pricing Collabor8online is a continuous challenge, Colin admits. The basic hosted product is still offered at £25 and allows up to 25 users and 2Gb storage of files, while the premium hosted model currently starts from £49 per month, with five times the storage space and allowing up to 50 registered users. This graduated approach appeals to many companies, he says, as – within the price bands – there is no cost impact of adding an additional user, and at the SME end of the market many projects involve teams of well under 25 collaborators (we talked for some time about the relative merits of per-project pricing, as adopted by market leaders like BIW and 4Projects, versus per-user/seat pricing to which Asite has been switching).

My take

When I wrote my first post about Collabor8online, I lumped it alongside several other firms offering low-cost collaboration to the construction market. Unlike some generic solutions, Collabor8online is being developed with the specific needs of the UK construction market in mind, and rather than focus on the needs of the design team (Woobius, for example, is being developed by architects for architects – post) it aims to meet the requirements of specialist subcontractors on a project. In a highly fragmented industry like architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), with its preponderance of SMEs, this may well appeal, particularly to small firms who regard the leading systems as both expensive and over-complex for their collaboration needs. Increasing acceptance of web-based SaaS is also helping expand the potential market for such low-cost simple solutions; firms don’t need IT expertise to adopt and deploy such applications, and there is less of a learning curve to use them than with platforms like 4Projects or BIW. That said, it could become an intensely competitive market with several solutions all priced at similar levels with similar levels of functionality.

Conceivably, Collabor8online could end up being used by lower tiers of specialist supply chains while their customers higher up the supply chain are using the more sophisticated products to collaborate with designers and the ultimate client. However, I wonder if there is a risk that the top-end product vendors might identify an opportunity to encourage low-tier adoption by offering simplified, low cost or even free versions of their systems so that they achieve top-to-bottom coverage of the whole project supply chain?

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2010/02/collabor8online-talking-low-cost-collaboration/

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