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The SaaS Creativity Crisis : A Slumdog Millionaire Story

I consistently find myself lamenting the dearth of creativity in the SaaS community. Too many SaaS applications that could be as exciting as the Internet itself are offered up as enterprise software pushed through a browser, simply cheaper (and slower) than their otherwise indistinguishable client-server predecessors.

However, creativity is not easy to come by in any profession. Several years back, I found myself working in Delhi for about a month. In addition to work, my wife Christy and I set out to experience as much Indian culture as the trip would allow, visiting all manner of villages, markets, museums, shrines and the like. Christy, who is an artist, spent a great deal of time being driven around by the local Delhi taxi drivers in search of Indian miniature paintings, and never failed to bring back an interesting cabbie story as a bonus–mostly about wrestling with the driver in order to go where she wanted to go as opposed to where he wanted to take her…always a very special shop. While out on one of these adventures, she decided to go see a real Bollywood film at a local Delhi movie heater. The driver (who preferred to take her to a shop) said “Why would you want to do that? Have you seen one before? There are much more interesting things to do while you are here. Those films are all the same. If you have seen one, you’ve seen them all. There is a good brother and a bad brother. And, a pretty girl. In the end, the good brother gets the girl. Then, dancing! The end.”

Several weeks ago, Christy and I enjoyed seeing the film Slumdog Millionaire, which last night won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, etc. To our unbridled amusement, this was exactly the plot of the film. In truth, the film not only appears to lack originality, it is also highly derivative.  Produced out of the UK, it incorporates a wide array of European and Hollywood tricks. So, what makes it a great movie? The real creativity lies in its synthesis, not its originality. The decision to reuse this worn out Bollywood motif right down to the dancing that evidently even the Delhi drivers know as well as any film critic was clearly done with intent, perhaps for irony or humor or formulaic box office success or for all of the above. But, the film also weaves together a wealth of authentic India modernity from slum children and organized crime to reality TV and the indeterminate values of the new Indian middle class, while simultaneously staying true to its traditional genre.

It seems to me that if a little creativity can transform a mundane plot line into an award-winning film (and book), and for that matter if a kid from a Mumbai slum today can dream of being a millionaire, then software-as-a-service can aspire to be more than a cheap client-server application delivered through a browser. If a software entrepreneur is willing to risk savings and security in pursuit of a vision, then that vision should be well worth the risk. What makes software-as-a-service exciting is not the ability to deliver a tired old business application at a lower total cost of ownership, but the power to tap into the potential of the Internet and synthesize something new that alters the business landscape. From e-commerce to social media, the Internet offers a copious supply of ideas from which to borrow and blend into creative opportunity. For example, while most business customers now reside a single mouse click away, no leading SaaS customer relationship management system actually reaches out to them in any meaningful way–unless of course you count Internet advertising platforms. Which I do, because they are probably the best example of the transformation to which every software application should aspire as it moves to the Web. And, the fact that Google did not invent Internet search or search advertising, but instead evolved and synthesized them into what they have become is a lesson that should not be lost on any of us.

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