Salesforce Professional: Not so "full-powered"

The whole idea of Salesforce--a hosted, scalable service that grows with you from a single user to thousands of people--is great, but in practice, it's really not conducive to being used at a startup.  I logged into Salesforce today for the first time in a while... and I'm very close to just cancelling my account and considering it a failed experiment--at least for this startup.

The Professional Edition I'm using is advertised as "Full-powered CRM without complexity", but because it's not full-powered, some of the tools out there that could make it less complex to use aren't available to me.

Salesforce is undoubtedly a great product for larger organizations.  I've seen it implemented with great zeal at Oddcast, where the name of the game was sales to agencies, and everyone had Salesforce plugged into Outlook.  Return Path, the company that we're squatting at, uses it, too.  In fact, they have a couple of people dedicated to managing it--and they have a very organized process for converting lists of leads into sales opportunities. 

I'm in a very different situation now.  I'm the one non-coder at my startup--and hence the only person with a Salesforce account.  Most of my "deals" are more about strategic partnerships than revenue, and so it's hard to quantify the value of using a CRM.  Even so, I put a lot of effort into loading and tagging all my contacts so I could use it, and setting up custom fields.  I was determined to be very organized about our opportunity management.

It didn't work, for a couple of reasons--mostly having to do with the creation of new contacts.

One of the most valuable features of Salesforce is to be able to attach e-mail interactions to contacts.  The only problem is they have to be existing contacts.  When you're a startup, however, most of your interactions are going to be with new people.  Constantly adding new contacts to Salesforce when you're the lone business guy at your company is a tremendous time sink, not to mention difficult to keep up with. 

But there's hope--but only if you can afford it.

For one, Salesforce is easier to use if you can plug it into your e-mail client--only how many startups do you know that are using Outlook?  Tons of startups are using Thunderbird, but Salesforce doesn't support it.  Granted, Thunderbird doesn't have nearly the installed base that Outlook does, but the base that it does have is a key innovation community that Salesforce should want as clients.   There is an effort for a community developed plugin, but it only works with the set of APIs that Salesforce makes available to its Enterprise and above versions...  i.e. at $1500 per year per user.  Sorry, I just can't afford that.

It's odd because the very features that make it easier to use are only available to companies who can actually afford to have someone managing and inputting contacts.

That's not the only useful tool that can only be accessed with that version.  The awesome folks at iHance have created an automatic contact creator.  I saw it demoed and it's nothing short of a Godsend!  You bcc your in and outbound e-mails to it (solving the lack of Thunderbird support issue) and for any e-mail contacts it doesn't recognize, it keeps them all in a holding pen for you to create new contacts with a dropdown and a click.  So, what used to take almost a minute for each new contact, can now take a minute in total for all your new contacts.

Unfortunately, the APEX API's needed to make this functional don't work in the Professional version I'm using, which isn't cheap either. 

If you've ever signed up for Salesforce, you'll realize why there's no freemium version--everything they do is insanely high touch.  You can't even sign up without getting a phone call from them.  I wanted to try to add on Windows Mobile support, and I have to type my name and number into a field so someone can call me.  I'm one person!  Trust me, Salesforce, it's not worth the phone call--especially if you don't have a level of service most startups can reasonably afford and tools they can use.

I'm currently looking into PipelineDeals, which looks pretty cool, but they've got that same contact creation issue.  I don't want to spend all my business development time typing new contacts into a database.  To their credit, though, they have a much more startup-friendly pricing structure and no contract lock-ins, unlike Salesforce.