Is the industry leader the best solution for your business?

Opinion piece by RĂ©an van Niekerk, MD, Metacom

Those of us who work in the IT industry have all heard the old ad slogan from the 1970s: "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM". It sounds a bit old-fashioned now, but the truth is that many people still default to buying from the global industry leaders. It seems like the safe option and often it is -- but it's also a choice that can slow growth or even actively harm a business. Here are three cases in which I think going with the biggest name may not be the best choice.

1. Your business problem is so niche the industry leader has no incentive to solve it

If you're the industry leader in any category of IT business, you solve the problems that most people have. This is just good business practice: You spend your greatest effort on the 80% of customers who deliver most of your revenue. And if you're a global technology leader, that means customers most likely located in North America or Europe.

From Metacom's perspective as a communications provider working in Africa, all our clients have one thing in common: They're part of the neglected 20%. They operate in environments where the simple act of sending and receiving email or completing a card transaction - something we in the urban centres of the world take for granted -- is a significant challenge. Whether you're running a mine in Zambia or a retail store in Polokwane, chances are there is no easily available communications solution which is reliable, affordable and powerful enough to meet your needs.

In those circumstances, no off-the-shelf solution is going to work - or not without significant extra trouble and expense. We have clients who spent more than a year trying to solve their problems with "best of breed" equipment that ultimately failed -- not because it wasn't good, but because it was designed to solve different problems. Outside Africa there is very little demand, for example, for communications equipment that can fail over to GSM or satellite connections when the fixed lines go down.

2. Your usual operating conditions are far out of spec

There's a similar problem some of our clients have encountered: They implement a solution that works perfectly in the lab - but then discover that the real world is too different, in too many ways, to support the same results.

In a test environment in a nice office building in Johannesburg that is well supplied with power, air conditioning and bandwidth, everything may work perfectly. But in the wild -- in remote areas with extreme weather, intermittent power, scarce skills and more-down-than-up connectivity -- it may fail spectacularly. And when a network fails, it's almost always at the time when it's needed most.

3. You need long-term support and service from people who deeply understand their product

Sometimes you just need a few boxes of equipment - and sometimes you need a long-term relationship with someone who can not only deliver the equipment, but also install, manage and maintain it to deliver the service you need, every day.

This applies particularly if you're a bank, a retailer or anybody else whose core business is not supplying network connections. Delivering a reliable network point in Luanda or Lilongwe is a complex business, but you don't need to know that - you just need the network point to work, at a cost that doesn't destroy your budget. Make the technical business of delivering that service someone else's problem.