I have not written about the Global Revenue Assurance Professionals Association (GRAPA), Rob Mattison’s sales vehicle, for a while. The reason for that is straightforward: they have not done anything interesting or annoying in quite a while. It seems to me they are moving into cash generation mode, selling training to disparate individuals who do not know of anywhere else to turn. There is nothing surprising about that. Making money was obviously the whole point, although Rob Mattison must be disappointed that so far GRAPA has delivered no return to him other than to promote his pre-existing training courses to a wider audience. Mattison no doubt still intends to introduce fees for membership, run paid conferences and make money from vendor advertising and sponsorship, but is pushing back the timelines because he does not think the market will support it yet. However, he does seem to be ramping up activity at GRAPA. Yet another Mattison family member, plus several others, have been added to the GRAPA payroll. This suggests that 2008 will be a make-or-break year in terms of GRAPA’s financial viability. Either GRAPA generates sufficient revenues to keep that large staff fully employed, or it (discretely) scales back. This raises a question: how many members does GRAPA need to be a viable professional organization?
As of today, GRAPA’s website boasts of 1078 members, and there are 1107 registered users of its forum. Not bad, but not great either. The original policy was that GRAPA was free to telco employees for a limited period, but did not permit people from vendors and consultancies to join. Then they changed the policy to allow people from vendors and consultancies to join, for a price. Then they changed it to allow people from vendors and consultancies to join for free. Meantime, it seems the “limited” free membership period has no end in site. One thousand people may sound like a lot, but to put the interest in telecoms revenue assurance into perspective, the readership of this website since GRAPA was first formed is several times that number.
Now that Mattison Jr. has joined GRAPA as membership czar, the route to expansion is pretty obvious. GRAPA’s current membership is spread across 445 companies. That means GRAPA has less than 3 members per company. I can see that some of the companies are one-man bands, but obviously there are very many which employ anything between 10 to 100 people who should be interested in GRAPA. For whatever reason, word of mouth recommendation has not persuaded other members to join. In fact, it looks like new registrations are driven by random web hits rather than recommendation. That is the only way to explain why the ratio of members to companies has remained so consistent. If word of mouth was driving membership growth, you would expect the number of members to grow far more quickly than the number of companies, as people would recommend GRAPA to their work colleagues first. It is quite damning that existing GRAPA members do not feel like recommending the organization to the people sat working alongside them. Perhaps existing members do recommend GRAPA, but they are not persuasive enough about the benefits to encourage their colleagues to join, even though it is free. This is a serious problem for an organization that claims to represents professionals. If only one person in a twenty-strong revenue assurance team believes that membership is worthwhile, it hardly suggests they have improved their career prospects as a result of joining. Any good marketeer knows that recommendations from friends are the best way to drive growth and sales. It has become a mantra in many telcos. I can see from the web statistics for my own site how small pockets of interest grow by word of mouth. If I post a story that grabs the attention of some people in one company, I often see a very rapid explosion in the number of hits from that part of the world. Not all forms of communication are electronic, and my expectation is that Mattison Jr. will reorient the marketing away from playing with a website and towards fostoring face-to-face recommendations between work colleagues.
Even if Mattison Jr. is successful, GRAPA still has a long way to go before it can be financially viable, never mind deserve the rather pompous “professional” tag it has given itself. if 1000 members generated US$100 in income each, then that might just cover the income of Mattisons senior and junior, never mind the others. If we assume, as is only reasonable, that for every 10 free members there will be only 1 person willing to pay for things, then that person would have to pay GRAPA $1000 per annum just to keep Mattisons senior and junior in food and lodging. That is before making allowances for all those flights around the world to spread the Gospel according to Mattison ;) I suppose there is a good chance that many of the flight costs for Papa Mattison are being covered by conference companies, which suggests he is playing down his previous ambition that GRAPA would run its own conferences in competition with them! I must admit that I cannot tell exactly who is on the GRAPA payroll: the finances of this not-for-profit company incorporated in Illinois, USA, are far from transparent. At various stages there have been at least six people described as working on the GRAPA staff, not counting students hoping to get some work experience. Anyhow, if you assume maybe four or five paid staff, factor in the costs of running an office, maintaining a website, advertising (press releases do not come free) and all the rest you end up needing a turnover of US$500,000 at least. That would suggest GRAPA’s membership needs to grow by a factor of 5 this year, and for every member to contribute on average no less than US$100 in fees or additional sales. Mattison Jr. has a lot of work to do.
All of this begs the question as to how much real interest there is in revenue assurance as a profession. Many people will take up offers if they sound like they will get richer at a small cost. My email inbox is full of them. They are called spam. However, that does not stop seemingly intelligent people paying over their money for “degrees” that do not require any study or the sitting of any examination, or wiring cash to Nigerian bank accounts because they have been selected in a mysterious “lottery”. To put professions into perspective, I did some searching around. It only took me a few minutes to come up with some numbers for a variety of professions:
- 91,000 practicing attorneys in New York City 2006, New York State Board
- 42,538 physicians in Romania 2004, Britannica Online
- 33,000 studying for a master’s degree in engineering in India 2002-3, All India Council for Technical Education
- 2,277 architects in South Africa 2008, South African Institute of Architects
- 2,147 Accountants in Papua New Guinea 2007, Certified Practising Accountants of Papua New Guinea
Hmmm. GRAPA needs to add another 1,000 members before it becomes as popular globally as the accounting profession is in Papua New Guinea. Obtaining critical mass for a genuine revenue assurance profession is going to be a problem. In a genuine profession, you pay your fees and you make more money as a result because other people think having the qualification and being in the association has a value. The alternative is that you get one of those huckster qualifications where you pay your money and get a worthless piece of paper with your name on it. Consider also that accountants in Papua New Guinea pay annual fees of K550 (US$182). I do not know anything about the Certified Practising Accountants of Papua New Guinea, but my guess is that those annual fees are spent on maintaining professional standards, ensuring the quality of practitioners, upholding professional discipline, and educating members. GRAPA needs to do the same job if it wants to claim to be a genuine professional association, but so far neither its fees nor its membership is adequate to do that. Making the organization global, and including all practitioners inside and outside telcos does at least ensure it has maximum reach, but I still think there is an open question as to whether there are several thousand revenue assurance practitioners in the world who would be willing to accept the discipline and cost commensurate with professional status. If they can arguably get paid well and enjoy career progression without it, then the prospects are poor.
One way to solve the problem of up-front costs when setting up an organization is to rely upon volunteer enthusiasm. That seems to have been GRAPA’s mantra thus far. In the next post I will dig into the detail of GRAPA’s membership numbers, and answer the question: just how active is GRAPA’s membership?