Probrand – the Technical Wizardry That Powers Marketplaces

As we said earlier this week, we are featuring a number of interesting procurement software businesses in coming days. Today we bring you Probrand, who must be one of the best kept secrets in terms of UK software firms. They are not exactly unknown; Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister, visited their premises in Birmingham a couple of years ago - but they do keep a fairly low profile. Their office is on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, on a road that you might generously describe as "ripe for development" with some run-down and semi-derelict industrial buildings alongside a new upmarket mews-type housing development.

But behind a very modest frontage, and a single door with an entry buzzer, lies a business that employs almost 300 people, developing software, building e-marketplaces and managing IT supply chains for hundreds of customers. And the slightly quirky (but very successful) approach goes beyond the premises; for instance, this business prides itself on developing processes and tools that enable them to recruit people with no software skills or background, but the right attitude and raw materials, and turn them into highly effective "developers" within months.

Their business has three core elements. The IT Index “is Europe’s largest IT marketplace for business, coupled with managed procurement services that save customers time and money buying IT products”. Icomm Technologies is “a leading provider of managed IT services, pro-active IT support and IT solutions, offering decades of award-winning technical service excellence to large organisations and SMEs alike”.  And Mercato Solutions is a software development organisation, “one of EMEAs fastest growing and most innovative enterprise application providers”.

Our interest in the firm (and that of the procurement community) rests around both the IT Index and the scope for clients to acquire more specific marketplaces and catalogues (through Mercato) to support their own procurement and supply chain needs.

Marketplaces seem reasonably straightforward – and indeed, that is how you want any that might be used in the organisation to look to the end user and order placer. But when we met Peter Robbins, the Probrand MD recently, he pointed out that there is lot more to creating and managing a marketplace than it first appears.

“Achieving real time pricing in a complex market like IT products is a real challenge” he says. Amazingly, the IT Index has handled 28,000 price changes in a single day! That relates to 750,000 products, and requires 4 million price checks a day, with continuous updates – just consider the technical issues that sit behind those type of numbers.

Suppliers might also want different end users or clients to see different prices, or sub-catalogues may be needed to present a more specific offering to certain users. That flexibility can be vital to both suppliers and users of the marketplace, and requires pretty smart technology. “We see many marketplaces as focusing simply on order-placing and payment. That does not deliver the real potential value of the tool”, says Simmons.

Through Mercato Solutions, Probrand is now developing private marketplaces for a number of clients; not just in the IT market but other spend categories as well, wherever a catalogue / marketplace approach can add value, really. Their KnowledgeKube platform enables rapid development of specific capabilities; for instance, providing a tailored “guided buying” option within a marketplace.

KnowledgeBus is yet another interesting product; it automates price benchmarking of IT purchases, providing procurers with market knowledge to negotiate better deals with suppliers fast. (You may have seen our regular guest post from Al Nagar of the firm, commenting on the IT market, the latest earlier this week in fact).

Probrand is an impressive operation, and it is good to see a home-grown UK software firm succeeding in this competitive world. They’re not as well-known in the procurement world as they probably should be, but that is deservedly beginning to change.

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