It's tough being a sales titan, constantly having to face off against other titans while also keeping one eye on the rear view mirror for the upstarts gunning to overtake you. Young CRM titans like LinkedIn and Salesforce know how rapidly they grew, so they are suitably paranoid about challengers who maybe relatively unknown today.

There are three up-and-coming startups the current salestech titans need to worry about: InsideView, RelateIQ and Nimble.

InsideView

The oldest in this batch (but middle aged in venture terms), InsideView was born in 2005 with $56.5 million in total funding. The company raised another $19 million last August, which indicates strong momentum—older ventures need to show a lot of traction to get new funding.

It makes sense InsideView should be performing well: Business intelligence for sales is a huge need. InsideView aggregates external sources and delivers the data, in context, right into your CRM system.

InsideView makes a case for useful, contextual Big Data, but I don't see a mobile app in the App Store, which seems like a rather big oversight for a bunch of hustling salespeople who purportedly live off their mobile devices.

Here's my personal assessment of InsideView's point of view: If you live in your CRM system, InsideView will do "home delivery" of CRM Intelligence to wherever you live, rather than be the destination—in other words, if you have a mobile CRM, they will deliver it there. That may make a sensible business strategy and a good exit plan, but it won't make them a major threat to the current CRM titans.

RelateIQ

Born in 2011 but launching just last year, RelateIQ is a real youngster. The company raised $29 million in funding from Top Tier Funds, including Accel Partners and Battery Ventures. One lesser-known but strategically interesting fund—Asia-centric Formation 8—joined the company's $20 million funding round last June.

RelateIQ sounds like InsideView tagging itself as “Relationship Intelligence” (versus “CRM Intelligence” for InsideView), but I am not sure I buy their their strategy of, “Goodbye Relationship Management, Hello Relationship Intelligence.”

I understand Business Intelligence is a sexier space than CRM, but we need Intelligence before we can manage Relationships. Unlike InsideView, RelateIQ does have a mobile app in the App Store. Theoretically, you can test RelateIQ without a backend system—you can use something consumer-ized and light like Gmail or any Google apps), but in practice, it is not yet in the “click and work” instant payback mode essential for real play. RelateIQ feels like a direct competitor to InsideView, and there is clearly room in this market for multiple players.

Nimble

Nimble, initially, was much more of a contrarian passion play by a brilliant entrepreneur following the "____ that doesn't suck" theme. In this case, Nimble wanted to be the “CRM that doesn't suck.”

When Nimble was founded in 2009, entrepreneurs pitching new CRM businesses on the VC circuit had a lot of unanswered calls and emails. That is why the successful "____ that doesn't suck" ventures were usually funded by crazy passionate bootstrappers who went against all the odds, or big companies with deep pockets (like Google moving into email), or by entrepreneurs rich enough to use their own money. Nimble is the latter case.

Nimble was founded by Jon Ferrara, who built and sold GoldMine, a platform so beloved by sales people you could not pry it from them. With Nimble, Ferrara is using the same reseller model that won him the mass market with GoldMine, but here's the twist: In the world of software-as-a-service (SaaS), reseller leads to that much prized annuity income for the reseller.

Nimble is available across several App Stores (iOS, Android, Windows Phone) and all you need to get started is permission to access your contacts in Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Gmail, Google+ and Foursquare. It ticks the mobile box and the “click and work” box.

The Social Dance

The current orthodoxy is that push marketing is dead, and it's all inbound pull marketing, which is basically just cold, automated marketing. A few diehard contrarians defend good ol' fashioned push marketing by humans, but both strategies are right and wrong at the same time. It's all about striking a balance: Sometimes you push, sometimes you pull.

Buyers and sellers want the same thing. In a SaaS world where an alternative is just a click away, an ill-fitting solution is an expensive mistake for the seller even more than it is for the buyer.

“It takes two to tango,” which is why buyers and sellers are advised to follow these steps to get dancing.

1. Research, First And Foremost

Buyers and sellers check each other out across the dance floor. Some you qualify as "out" based on this research. Buyers are getting ideas, figuring out their requirements and building a long list. Sellers are creating their target account lists based on “pain analysis.” Is it possible the pain you aim to alleviate is also keeping your prospects awake at night?

2. Research Some More

Some buyers and sellers "like the look" of each other. Buyers are focused on creating a short list of vendors to talk to, who appear to work in their domain and for their company size. Sellers, meanwhile, are creating their own shortlists by eliminating those obviously wasting their time through “Competitor Lock-In Analysis”—you don't want to obsess about competition, but you must rule out targets where the competition has a lock on the account.

For example, big old vendors will usually have something in their feature set that competes with your product, at least on paper. If you see a company that always buys from Vendor X, even their most shabby products, delete them from your list. It does not matter that you have convincing evidence your product is in a different league if it's clear the target company won't pay any serious attention to you. Your aim is to win business with the right CAC, not to be a dead hero.

These two phases of Research are valuable, but can lead to analysis paralysis. No plan survives contact with the customer; make your list dynamic, add new information and delete or update old information on an ongoing basis.

3. "Catch Their Eye"

You might get lucky if you jump straight to Step 4, or you might get a slap in the face, or simply be ignored.

"Catching the eye" will be called various names in different social media dance halls. You might Retweet (or Favorite or @somebody) on Twitter. On LinkedIn, you might just look at a Profile without bothering to be anonymous. These are quick pings—you put your message out there and wait for a response.

During that time after the initial ping, the other party is figuring out if they should invest time in you, so you check each other out online before replying. Based on the first two Research phases, both parties should have a mental model to filter and decide who to engage with. This phase may include some some socially appropriate persistence by the Seller, which can include old-fashioned, more intrusive methods like email and telephone—many influential businesspeople welcome phone calls as a relief from email.

4. Invite Them To Dance

Buyers show up in the Marketing Automation systems. Sellers send their introductory emails. Jumping to this step without considering the first three is just useless busy work; you might get a dance if you're lucky, but it's unlikely to be satisfactory.

5. The First Dance

At this point, the Buyers are now figuring out if a vendor can really deliver a relevant solution. Sellers, meanwhile, are performing “leverage analysis,” looking for unfair advantages to leverage the customer. connecting the dots between the generic pain point that all customers have, the specific pain point in the target account, and your technical secret sauce. 

6. The Second Dance

This is where Buyers are looking for vendors who are both innovative and reliable—or, as Gartner puts it, the "magic quadrant" of both Visionary and Ability to Execute).

The Seller is looking for an "Innovator with Clout"—your ideal prospect, kind of like the magic quadrant in reverse. You need innovators who will pay attention to a startup pitch, since most people are too deeply stuck in the legacy box. However, you have to be careful with innovators as some will waste all of your time moaning about "how stuck in the mud" their employer is, which is worse than useless—it's a startup-killing time sink.

You need innovators with clout. Usually, this means they've delivered business value through innovation before, so the powers that be will in fact pay attention to them when they come up with their next idea—the one based on your company.

Battling CRM Titans With A Multi-Tiered Strategy

One way to view these social networking dance halls is related to the level of intimacy. Twitter is the least intimate of the bunch, and that has value: You can Follow, Retweet, Favorite and @mention complete strangers. You rarely connect with your favorite Hollywood celebrity on Twitter; you care about them but they don't care about you. However, Twitter is great for connecting with thought-leaders and influencers in the markets you're interested in, as long as you have something interesting to say.

LinkedIn is a bit more intimate than Twitter: There is a synchronous protocol where both parties agree to connect. For those business contacts we know really well, we leave LinkedIn and use SMS, calling and Skype—even other social platforms. Email is still the indispensable tool that spans all levels of intimacy.

In the context of the six-step social dance, it's clear that Business Intelligence ventures like InsideView and RelateIQ are key: They facilitate and organize all that research, make it contextual, and most importantly, usable.

InsideView and RelateIQ may not replace the existing CRM titans, but sit atop them, extend them. Nimble, on the other hand, is a more disruptive play that directly challenges the titans, which is the closest approximation to my own vision for the perfect sales tool, which I dreamt up when I was hustling advertisers as ReadWrite's COO back in 2009 (as I described on my Hustler's Power Drill post).

Nimble, from my early review, seems to fit the bill of a true challenger. It is potentially disruptive because Nimble wants to the be tool you “live in," the one you turn to at the start of the work day and always have open. That's what both LinkedIn and Salesforce want to be, but attention is a limited resource so not everyone can win.

Nimble doesn't require any corporate sign-off; in that sense, it is much closer to Box, Dropbox and Evernote than it is to Salesforce, Oracle and Microsoft CRM. Jon Ferrara also isn't facing any exit timetable compulsion as he is the company's main investor, as well as its founder, which would make it difficult for a titan like LinkedIn or Salesforce to simply buy it out.

However, we are still in the early days ongoing battles of the sales technology titans, and even at this point, I can even see early-stage energy and money coming up to challenge the would-be challengers.