While off-the-peg consumer software is relatively easy to buy - read a review, then pick it up for a few hundred pounds at a store - purchasing decisions for more elaborate software systems are nightmarish. The programs' complexity means information about them is that much harder to come by, so much so that many businesses find themselves hiring consultants to spend months investigating the possibilities and giving them advice.
Someone, you'd think, ought to do for information technology managers in companies what magazines do for consumers at home - provide a comprehensive overview of products on offer, with advice on which are worth buying, and accounts of the experiences of people who use them.
This thought occurred two years ago to Philip Letts, who, at the tender age of 26, was general manager of a company organising technology conferences. Mr Letts had been approached by a computer consultant who had written a technology product report and wanted help in marketing it. With Mr Letts's marketing expertise, the report sold almost 200 copies at £500 apiece. Mr Letts resolved to set up on his own.
He had the right background - a business BSc from Buckingham University, experience in the City as a dealer at Banque Paribas, and useful connections, since his family has been publishing diaries for almost 200 years under the imprint of Charles Letts & Co.
He had also shown entrepreneurial daring - when Sir John Harvey-Jones came to do a television programme on the family business, the famous troubleshooter caught Philip using an electronic organiser, not one of his family's own paper products. With the cameras rolling, the young man admitted he preferred the electronic version - and predicted that this, rather than the traditional pocket diary, was the way of the future.
Mr Letts set up his company by borrowing £30,000, and brought in Richard Green, formerly a publishing director at Longman UK, to look after commissioning and publishing of the company's reports.
The pair made a surprising team. Mr Green, the minority shareholder, was old enough to be his father. But they worked well together. Mr Letts concentrated his energies on looking for new businesses and finding markets for the reports of Cambridge Market Intelligence, as the firm is called.
To reduce financial risk, CMI does not pay authors up front, but gives them royalties on each copy sold. Companies pay around £500 apiece for the reports - and talented experts are willing to spend months writing them for a few thousand pounds as they know their authorship is likely to bring in lucrative consultancy contracts from companies deciding between competing technologies.Firms such as Andersen Consulting are vying for the right to produce reports for CMI.
Having started out in Cambridge, it now operates from a Battersea office building originally used by the Letts family business. CMI has 20 staff, and is every bit as technologically advanced as you would expect. It works largely on Microsoft software, customised by Letts and Green.
Perhaps surprisingly, the global business of writing technology reports is dominated by three small companies - CMI itself, the British consultancy Ovum, and the Seybold Group consultancy in the US. Mr Letts sees CMI's competitive edge in the fact that in contrast to its competitors, it set itself up as a dedicated publishing house from the start.
Writers file by electronic mail, slotting reports into a standard template that sets typefaces and paragraph styles in Microsoft Word. The material is dropped into a Microsoft Access database, which is then used by ICL to produce multimedia versions of the reports on CD-rom. It is also made available to customers who want the most up-to-date information, over the telephone using the Lotus Notes package.
In some ways, CMI has borrowed from Mr Letts's experiences at Paribas. Its sales force is arranged like a dealing room, with staff on separate UK and European desks calling companies who might buy reports. CMI built up its sales database by hiring youth trainees and students in their summer vacations, and asking them to telephone hundreds of companies to ask for the name and direct line of their information technology managers. Mr Letts even brought in some students from France so he would have native speakers able to elicit the same information from French companies.
This year, CMI expects a turnover of £1m, and plans to expand its portfolio of reports from 15 to 35 this year and to 60 by the end of 1996. If it succeeds, CMI will become the world's biggest technology report publisher.
But Mr Letts has even grander ambitions. He hopes the firm will double in size each year for the next five. If his hopes are realised, his fledgling publishing house will become bigger than the family diary business. But Mr Letts says his father, president of Charles Letts & Co, views that prospect with equanimity.
"He is very involved in my business, and loves it," says CMI's 28-year- old managing director. "He sees that CMI is the publishing business of tomorrow. It will carry the family into publishing for another 200 years."Reuse content