Outlaw Spirit – Lessons from The Zoho Analyst Day 2021

Outlaw Spirit – Lessons from The Zoho Analyst Day 2021

The 2021 Zoho analyst day certainly was different.

Different not only because it was not an offline but an online event but in the way it was prepared and conducted. Apparently, the team around Sandra Lo has taken up quite some lessons that other events had to learn, too. This is kind of the advantage one has not being the first one in a season.

But this was only one part of it. The second part is that the whole event was run using Zoho software, in particular Zoho Backstage and Zoho Meeting.

Overall, there have been some 150 attendees with what I assume, very different levels of knowledge about Zoho.

The event

In contrast to most other analyst events, this one required actual preparation, as product and roadmap topics have been sent out beforehand for self-study – and were kind of “required reading”. Going through all videos at least once was an exercise that lasted more than five hours.

The event itself was split into two days of two and a half hours each, covering topics from corporate responsibility via status up to roadmap topics.

Day one started with a corporate presentation, the past 25 years and a view into the next 25 years, based upon CEO Sridhar Vembu’s vision and the partly interrelated themes that he sees (and builds his company around):

  • De-Layering the tech stack, which means that within the tech stack from chip level to business solutions that a company operates, less vendors will be needed
  • Extreme financial bubbles that we have seen and will continue to see
  • The emergence of self-reliant regional economies and the regionalization of politics
  • An increased need for “knitting a distributed company” via tools and a strong culture

It continued with an open Q&A before moving on into breakout sessions. There was no focus on Zoho products but rather one on company philosophy and strategy, partly supported by powerful videos and testimonials.

Similarly, day two started with a short presentation about the current state of business (it is good) before becoming interactive again in a series of breakout sessions. Overall, there have been representatives of 13 customers who freely answered questions in an open format instead of presenting. The analyst event concluded with an open Q&A with Sridhar Vembu, but for a post event “party”.

The event ended with a virtual get together that

My Analysis and PoV

Preparing and sending out product and vision videos in advance of the event was an interesting approach to “stretch out” the actual event that was kept very short. This provided the opportunity to prepare oneself without a fixed schedule, shorten the actual event, and make the actual event more interactive instead of a mere PowerPoint show. The majority of the time was spent in open Q and A’s, indeed.

The format of the event also required the attendees’ discipline to prepare themselves.

Day one with its strong focus on culture and strategy was important to get a deeper understanding of what makes up Zoho. The video about the past 25 years of Zoho was particularly powerful. It was the kind of keynote that was delivered not by executives but by “normal” employees, customers and citizens. It therefore transported the message of Zoho’s culture and values very, very well.

Day two was dedicated to products as part of the breakout sessions. Customer representatives were part of every session and answered questions pretty candidly, acknowledging that the customers are reference customers.

There are two streams of thought:

  • Do product deep dives and blast provide the attendants with lots of detail information. This puts emphasis on the product side and makes the event less interactive, gives it more of a marketing/webinar character. It brings across a lot of valuable product information. It also potentially wastes the time of those attendees with a different priority.
  • Focus on discussions and questions while still providing attendants with a range of information. This puts emphasis on exchange between the company and the attendants as well as between attendants. The price to pay for this approach are depth and width of content, which needs to be established in another way.

Zoho’s team chose the second path.

I think that it was a good choice, and well executed. It has been the most interactive event that I attended so far. And really, how many folks said that the best part of attending a conference was the networking, not the presentations.

The challenges to overcome are obvious: Not everyone is equally willing to speak up on cam. Consequently, Sandy Lo and her team had their hands full with juggling written questions with live ones.

And they did an admirable job, also given that the used tool didn’t really invite to go live. Having said this, it is refreshing to see, with Zoho Backstage, some other tool than the ubiquitous Zoom and MS Teams.  

The other challenge is finding the right balance between depth of content and interactivity. 150 attendees have different levels of knowledge and different expectations, priorities themselves. The Zoho team somewhat mitigated this by making prerecorded sessions available in advance.

While I prefer the interactivity, the size of the group has made it difficult to engage into discussions with customers as well as with the Zoho execs. Again, everybody was keen on answering questions, but then nobody wanted to hog the limited time. And this lack of an ability to discuss also somewhat limited the quality of the event’s output for all involved parties. Maybe some additional time with small group breakout sessions would have helped to mitigate this. Customers could have described the value add they received from Zoho’s solutions even better, analysts would have had more chance to understand, and Zoho would have received more feedback.

And then there is the topic of the 1:1s. I think that they are not necessary as part of an analyst day, as they do not depend on this format, or on any other type of format, in a world of distributed meetings. They can be scheduled at any given time, and both sides, analysts as well as corporate executives, should do just that and engage not only during a yearly “get together”, be it virtual or in real life.

In summary, with all the criticism that I just brought forward (after all I am a German) Sandy Lo and her team set up a great event, which surely showed a bit of the adventure or “outlaw” spirit that the card in the experience kit referred to as being part of the corporate culture. Can it be improved? Yes. We all can. Was it the right approach? Sure as! In my eyes this event gave a good glimpse into how future virtual events need to look like.