Startup Watch

Ever notice how much easier it is to do your personal banking online than it is to sort out your benefits package or manage your expense account on the company intranet? (Easier, but more depressing... at least in my case.) Dean Alms noticed, and he started a company to fix the problem.


''At home at night I can pay my bills, work with my brokerage, do some retail, and it's a very convenient and carefree type of experience,'' Alms says. ''I get the information I need, I make the call, and boom, I'm done. I come into the enterprise the next morning and it feels like someone turned back the clock about 20 years. Most knowledge workers operate in a state of fragmentation and confusion. Our goal is to bring a consumer-like experience to the enterprise.''


Alms' new company, Agistics (pronounced uh-jistiks, a cute combo of application and logistics), is just now stepping out of the shadows of stealth mode. The company is developing a new software-as-a-service offering for employee services--things like compensation and benefits, communications and technology, travel, expense management, procurement, etc. The goal isn't to replace existing applications and services, but to provide a common ''account'' structure across the different services, what Alms calls the ''contextual delivery'' of those services. He compares that on-demand account structure to a model you see in banking.


''I have checking account, a savings account, a credit card account, and a mortgage account, but they've normalized that experience across all of those different applications,'' he explains. ''Even though the checking-account application may be 20 years old and the mortgage app may be three years old, for the end user it's a very similar experience across the board. That's what we do. We’re about talking advantage of what SOA is all about, and consuming those Web services from a new perspective.''


Agistics' ultimate goal is to improve the end-user experience, as well as the manageability and visibility of these employee services. But Alms says he isn't just out to make life cozier for employees. He wants to get them to use the self-service apps the company spent so much money on, and to relieve the bottleneck that has practically become a presentation-layer cliché.


''The problem with most self-service apps is that they're functionally centric,'' he says. ''Consequently, the adoption rate is lower than anticipated, and the companies aren't getting much bang for their buck.''


Another side effect: Enterprise IT is spending between 80 and 90 percent of its budget on operating and maintaining what the company already has, with very little left over for introducing new products. ''They want to do a lot more, but they just can’t,'' Alms says. ''One way to reduce that workload and increase IT's capacity is to give the business unit much more power over the information they need to manage day-to-day. If I need to do a budget change or a policy change, if I want to switch out one product for another in terms of the services I'm delivering to the employee—we’re giving the biz guys much more capability to do that.''


One of the things I find interesting here is Alms' almost casual confidence in the software-as-a-service business model. ''We have the proof points now,'' he says. ''They’re in the consumer world, but it's clear that if you do application development right, and you make the experience powerful for the end users, they'll use the application and it'll make you money.''


This isn't Alms' first startup. He earned his ''dotcom MBA'' after he left his job at PeopleSoft back in 1999 to help found Groundswell, an enterprise-portal consulting company. ''We took off in a big way and captured the attention of the Forresters and Gartners of the world because we had a strong approach to enterprise portal implementation,'' he says. But when the dotcom bust forced companies to yank on their purse strings, Groundswell was garroted. Alms returned to PeopleSoft as head of enterprise strategies, and helped to manage the company's acquisition of JD Edwards. He is also credited with launching PeopleSoft's Web-based self-service applications, introducing the Enterprise Portal, pioneering the PeopleSoft Business Network, and creating the company's composite application and platform strategy.


Two and a half years after returning to PeopleSoft, Alms found himself on the other side of that quintessential Silicon Valley equation. Shortly after his company was absorbed by Oracle, he decided to head out on his own again. ''I've always had an entrepreneurial edge,'' he says. ''Even at PeopleSoft I was the 'intrapreneur' in charge of growing out new ideas and the like.''


Alms founded Agistics with Tim Cabral, another PeopleSoft escapee, who serves as VP of Finance and Operations; and John Corpus, a former VP of IT at Williams-Sonoma and a partner-in-crime at Groundswell, who serves as Agistics' VP of Customer Service.


Right now the company is hip-deep in the development of its software-as-a-service platform, which Alms describes as ''a combination of a lot of open source, augmented with some commercial product.'' He says that he and his partners are working with a product advisory board made up of a companies ranging from 500 to 150,000 employees. ''We're making sure that we have the multi-tenancy environment we need to scale this thing to as large as enterprise customers might need,'' he says. ''There are no off-the-shelf products for a multi-tenancy environment, so we can’t leverage existing technology in any significant way. That's the big push right now.''


The company Web site is a bit thin just now, but it's got the founders' bios and the product pitch, and it's worth a visit. Alms says to look for the first beta release at the end of summer 2006.


Stay tuned.




About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].