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Showing posts with label SaaS. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SaaS. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Did SAP Overpay For Concur?

Since SAP announced to acquire Concur and eventually closed the acquisition for $8.3B many people have reached out to me asking whether SAP overpaid for Concur. I avoid writing about SAP on this blog even though I work for SAP because this is my personal blog. In this case, I decided to write this post because this is the largest enterprise SaaS acquisition ever and this question unpacks the entire business model of SaaS enterprise software companies.

If you’re looking for a simple “yes” or “no” to this question you should stop reading this post now. If not, read on.

People reaching out to me asking whether SAP overpaid for Concur in itself is a misleading question because different people tend to compare Concur with different companies and have a specific point of view on whether the 20% premium that SAP paid to acquire Concur is justified or not.

Just to illustrate financial diversity amongst SaaS companies, here are some numbers:

This is based on a combination of actual and projected numbers and I have further rounded them off. The objective is not to compare the numbers with precision but to highlight the financial diversity of these companies based on their performance and perceived potential.

Market cap is what the market thinks the company is worth. The market doesn’t necessarily have access to a ton of private information that the potential acquirer would have access to when they decide what premium to pay. While the market cap does reflect the growth potential it is reflected in a standalone pre-acquisition situation and not post-acquisition.

The purchase price, including the premium, is a function of three things: revenue, margins, and growth (current, planned, and potential). However, not all three things carry the same weight.


For SaaS companies, annual recurring revenue (ARR) is perhaps the most important metric. It is not necessarily same as recognized revenue what you see on a P&L statement and ARR alone doesn’t tell you the whole story either. You need to dig deeper into deferred revenue (on the balance sheet and not on P&L), customer acquisition cost (CAC), churn, and lifetime value of a customer (LTV) that companies are not obligated to publicly report but there are workarounds to estimate these numbers based on other numbers.


If you’re a fast growing SaaS company the street will tolerate negative margins since you’re aggressively investing in for more future growth. Margin is less interesting to evaluate a fast growing SaaS company, for acquisition purposes or otherwise, because almost all the revenue is typically invested into future growth and for such SaaS companies the market rewards revenue and growth more than the margins.

Margin by itself may not be an important number, but the cost of sales certainly is an important metric to ensure there is no overall margin dilution post acquisition. Mix of margins could be a concern if you are mixing product lines that have different margins e.g. value versus volume.


Current and planned growth: This is what the stock market has already rewarded pre-acquisition and the acquirer assumes responsibility to meet and exceed the planned or projected growth numbers. In some cases there is a risk of planned growth being negatively impacted due to talent leaving the company, product cannibalization, customers moving to competitors (churn) etc.

Growth potential: This is where it gets most interesting. How much a company could grow post-acquisition is a much more difficult and speculative question as opposed to how much it is currently growing and planned to grow pre-acquisition (about 29% in case of Concur) as this number completely changes when the company gets acquired and assumes different sales force, customer base, and geographic markets. This is by far the biggest subjective and speculative number that an acquirer puts in to evaluate a company. 
To unpack the “speculation” this is what would/should happen:


This number should go up since there are opportunities to cross-sell into the overall joint customer base. LTV does reduce if customers churn, but typically preventing churn is the first priority of an acquiring company and having broader portfolio helps strengthen existing customer relationship. Also, churn is based on the core function that the software serves and also on the stickiness of the software. The most likely scenario for such acquisitions is a negative churn when you count up-selling and expansion revenue (not necessarily all ARR).


This should ideally go down as larger salesforce gets access to existing customer base to sell more products and solutions into. The marketing expenses are also shared across the joint portfolio driving CAC down. This is one of the biggest advantages of a mature company acquiring a fast growing company with a great product-market fit. 

Revenue growth

As LTV goes up and churn goes down overall ARR should significantly increase. Additional revenue generated in the short term through accelerated growth (more than the planned growth of the company pre-acquisition) typically breaks even in a few quarters justifying the premium. This is an investment that an acquiring company makes and is funded by debt. Financing an acquisition is a whole different topic and perhaps a blog post on that some other day.

Margin improvement

This is a key metric that many people overlook. Concur has -5.3% operating margin and SAP has promised 35% margin (on-prem + cloud) to the street by 2017. To achieve this number, the overall margins have to improve and an acquiring company will typically look at reducing the cost of sales by leveraging the broader salesforce and customer base.

This is a pure financial view. Of course there are strategic reasons to buy a company at premium such as to get an entry into a specific market segment, keep competitors out, and get access to talent pool, technology, and ecosystem.

Based on this, I’ll let you decide whether SAP overpaid for Concur or not.

Disclaimer: I work for SAP, but I was neither involved in any pre-acquisition activities of Concur nor have access to any insider Concur financial data and growth plans. In fact, I don’t even know anyone at Concur. This post is solely based on conventional wisdom and publicly available information that I have referenced it here. This post is essentially about “did x overpay for y?,” but adding SAP and Concur context makes it easy to understand the dynamics of SaaS enterprise software. 

Photo courtesy: Iman Mosaad

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Challenges For On-premise Vendors Transitioning To SaaS

As more and more on-premise software vendors begin their journey to become SaaS vendors they are going to face some obvious challenges. Here's my view on what they might be.

The street is mean but you can educate investors

Sharp contrast between Amazon and Apple is quite clear. Even though Amazon has been in business for a long time with soaring revenue in mature categories the street sees it as a high growth company and tolerates near zero margin and surprises that Jeff Bezos brings in every quarter. Bezos has managed to convince the street that Amazon is still in heavy growth mode and hasn't yet arrived. On the other hand despite of Apple's significant revenue growth—in mature as well as in new disruptive categories—investors treat Apple very differently and have crazy revenue and margin expectations.

Similarly, traditional pure SaaS companies such as Salesforce is considered a high growth company where investors are focused on growth and not margins. But, if you're an on-premise vendor transitioning to SaaS the street won't tolerate a hit on your margins. The street would expect mature on-premise companies to deliver on continuous low double digit growth as well as margins without any blips and dips during their transition to SaaS. As on-premise vendors change their product, delivery, and revenue models investors will be hard on them and stock might take a nosedive if investors don't quite understand where the vendors are going with their transition. As much as investors love the annuity model of SaaS they don't like uncertainty and they will punish vendors for lack of their own understanding in the vendor's model. It's a vendor's job to educate investors and continuously communicate with them on their transition.

Isolating on-premise and SaaS businesses is not practical

Hybrid on-premise vendors should (and they do) report on-premise and subscription (SaaS) revenue separately to provide insights to investors into their revenue growth and revenue transition. They also report their data center related cost (to deliver software) as cost of revenue. But, there's no easy way, if at all there's one, to split and report separate SG&A costs for their on-premise and SaaS businesses. In fact combined sales and marketing units are the weapons incumbents on-premise vendors have to successfully transition to SaaS. More on that later in this post.

The basic idea behind achieving economies of scale and to keep the overall cost down (remember margins?) is to share and tightly integrate business functions wherever possible. Even though vendors sometime refer to their SaaS and on-premise businesses as separate lines of businesses (LoBs), in reality they are not. These LoBs are intertwined that report numbers as single P&L.

Not being able to charge more for SaaS is a myth

Many people I have spoken to assume that SaaS is a volume-only business and you can't charge customers what you would typically charge your customers in your traditional license and maintenance revenue business model. This is absolutely not true. If you look at some of the deal sizes and length of SaaS contracts of pure SaaS companies they do charge a premium when they have unique differentiation regardless of volume. Customers are not necessarily against paying premium - for them it is all about bringing down their overall TCO and increasing their ROI with reduced time to value. If a vendor's product and its delivery model allow customers to accomplish these goals they can charge them premium. In fact in most cases this could be the only way out. As a vendor transitioning from on-premise to SaaS their cost is going to go up; they will continue to invest into building new products and transitioning existing products and they will significantly assume the cost of running operations on behalf of their customers to deliver software as a service. They not only will have to grow their top-line to meet the growth expectations but to offset some of the cost to maintain the margins.

Prime advantage on-premise incumbents have over SaaS entrants

So, what does work in favor of on-premise vendors who are going through this transition?

It's the sales and marketing machine, my friends.

The dark truth about selling enterprise software is you need salespeople wearing suits driving around in their BMWs to sell software. There's no way out. If you look at high growth SaaS companies they spend most of what they earn on sales and marketing. Excluding Workday there is not much difference in R&D cost across vendors, on-premise or SaaS. Workday is building out its portfolio and I expect to see this cost go down in a few years.

Over a period of time, many on-premise vendors have built a great brand and achieved amazing market penetration. As these vendors go through SaaS transition they won't have to spend as much time and money educating the market and customers. In fact I would argue they should thank other SaaS vendors for doing the job for them. On-premise vendors have also built an amazing sales machine with deep relationship with customers and reliable sales processes. If they can maintain their SG&A numbers they will have enough room to deal with a possible initial hit on revenue and additional cost they would incur as they go through this transition.

Be in charge of your own destiny and be aggressive

It's going to be a tough transition regardless of your loyal customer base and differentiating products. It will test the execution excellence of on-premise vendors. They are walking on a tight rope and there's not much room to make mistakes. The street is very unforgiving.

Bezos and Benioff have consistently managed to convince the street they are high growth companies and should be treated as such. There's an important lesson here for on-premise vendors. There is no reason to label yourself an on-premise vendor simply making a transition. You could do a lot more than that; invest into new disruptive categories and rethink existing portfolio. Don't just chase SaaS for its subscription pricing but make an honest and explicit attempt to become a true SaaS vendor. The street will take a notice and you might catch a break.

Monday, June 25, 2012

With Yammer, Microsoft Begins Its Journey From Collaborative To Social

Confirming what we already knew, today Microsoft announced they are acquiring Yammer for $1.2 billion in cold cash. Here's a blog post by David Sacks, the CEO of Yammer.

Microsoft doesn't report a revenue breakdown for their individual products but SharePoint is believed to be one of the fastest growing products with annual revenue of more than $1 billion. Regardless of how Microsoft markets and positions SharePoint, it has always been collaboration software and not really social software. Microsoft does seem to understand the challenges it faces in moving their portfolio of products to the cloud, including SharePoint. Microsoft also understands value of having end users on their side even though SharePoint is sold as enterprise software. Microsoft's challenges in transitioning to the cloud are similar to the ones faced by other on-premise enterprise software vendors.

But, I really admire Microsoft's commitment by not giving up on any of these things. Skype's acquisition was about reaching those millions of end users and they continue to do that with their acquisition of Yammer. Going from collaborative to social requires being able to play at the grassroots level in an organization as opposed to a top down push and more importantly being able to create and leverage network effects. It's incredibly difficult to lead in with an on-premise solution retrofitted for cloud to create network effects. Native cloud solutions do have this advantage. Yammer will do this really well while helping Microsoft to strengthen SharePoint as a product and maintain its revenue without compromising margins. If Microsoft executes this well, they might unlock a solution for their Innovator's Dilemma.

With Yammer, Microsoft does have an opportunity to fill in the missing half of social enterprise by transforming productivity silos into collaborative content curation. As a social enterprise software enthusiast, I would love to see it happen, sooner rather than later.

At personal level, I am excited to see the push for social in enterprise software and a strong will and desire to cater to the end users and not just the decision makers.  I hope that more entrepreneurs recognize that enterprise software could be social, cool, and lucrative. This also strengthens market position for the vendors such as Box and Asana.

It's impressive what an incumbent can do when they decide to execute on their strategy. Microsoft is fighting multiple battles. They do have the right cards. It's to be seen how they play the game.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Subscribe To Own As New Lease To Own

The Beatles are timeless and so is music and enterprise software.

There's been an ongoing innovation in the music services. iTunes with iPods disrupted the traditional CD business model and in the ever connected cloud world Pandora, Spotify and countless others are challenging the very concept of "owning" music. Spotify gives you access to a wide range of music on all their clients as long as you're a paid subscriber. This is like Netlfix model for music except that there's no ad-supported free Netflix (Spotify is rumored to cap the free version after six months of usage). Pandora also has a similar model but it's a "radio" service. You can't tell Pandora what exactly to play but give preferences and it will find, play, and tune music based on your preference.

Pandora is serendipitous and Spotify is spontaneous.

One of the challenges with these services is that you only have access to music as long as you pay for it. When you stop using it you don't own anything (from them). iTunes and Amazon, on the other hand, are a music "marketplace". You buy songs and keep them. But these services are not designed for you to explore and experiment endlessly.

I wonder whether there's a middle ground.

What if there's a subscribe to own business model? The services would stream all the music that you want for a fixed price (like Spotify) and users will get a choice of receiving certain number of DRM-free songs — like options being vested, at the end of the subscription plan — say annually. The studios may never agree to this, but it's a great value proposition. What if a service is designed to actually sell MP3s and the streaming is just a draw to get people discover new music? Also, imagine if Netflix were to give out credit to their streaming customers to own a set of movies on DVDs. "Lease to own" is a very popular way of buying a car (at least in the United States). Why not apply that to music?

It is very difficult to change human behavior. The studios are powerful, want full control, and see technology innovation as a threat as opposed to an opportunity. On the other side, consumers are willing to pay and experiment but they do want to own music so that they can play on any device any which way they want without getting locked into a specific service and its supported clients.

What about SaaS subscription models for enterprise software? Are there any issues when customers don't "own" the software that they are using?

I have blogged about SaaS escrow and inverted OEM channels before. We haven't yet seen any spectacular failures of large SaaS companies. Today, even if you're a large unprofitable SaaS vendor with a decent customer base, you will be acquired before you shut your doors for good. But once SaaS becomes the de facto mode of delivering software, the "hotness" will fade away and you are as likely to go out of business as any other ISV. What happens then? The customers have their business continuity plans and a SaaS vendor going out of business could become a serious concern.

As far as music goes, there's a clear separation between content and process. We listen to music which is content and everything else — streaming, matching, discovering, and recommending — is a process to get to the content. This clear separation is not that clear in enterprise software. SaaS escrow could guarantee the content (of course if vendor supports it) but not the process and without process there's not much of business continuity. You could take your music and go some place else but I doubt you can do much with your enterprise data without any process around it. Is there an analogous flavor of lease to own in enterprise SaaS business? I guess, it's too early to say.

Going back to music, I think, we're ready for a radical shift and disruption in existing business models. Lease to own your music may not be a bad idea after all.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Disrupt Yourself Before Others Disrupt You: DVD To Streaming Transition Is Same As On-Premise To Cloud

Recently, Netflix separated their streaming and DVD subscription plans. As per Netflix's forecast, they will lose about 1 million subscribers by the end of this quarter. The customers did not like what Netflix did. A few days back, Netflix's CEO, Reed Hastings, wrote a blog post explaining why Netflix separated their plans. He also announced their new brand, Qwikster, which will be a separate DVD service from Netflix's streaming website. These two services won't share the queues and movie recommendations even if you subscribe to both of them. A lot has been said and discussed about how poorly Netlflix communicated the overall situation and made wrong decisions.

I have no insider information about these decisions. They might seem wrong in short term but I am on Netflix's side and agree with the co-founder Marc Randolph that Netflix didn't screw up. I believe it was the right thing to do, but they could have executed it a little better. Not only I am on their side, but I see parallels between Netflix's transition from DVD to steaming and on-premise enterprise ISVs' transition from on-premise to cloud. The on-premise ISVs don't want to cannibalize their existing on-premise business to move to the cloud even if they know that's the future, but they don't want to wait long enough to be in a situation where they run out of money and become irrelevant before the transition.

So, what can these on-premise ISV's learn from Netflix's decisions and mistakes?

Run it as a separate business unit, compete in the right category, and manage street's expectations:

Most companies run their business as single P&L and that's how the street sees it and expects certain revenue and margins. Single P&L muddies the water.The companies have no way of knowing how much money they are spending on a specific business and how much revenue it brings in. In many cases, there is not even an internal separation between different business units. Setting up a separate business unit is a first step to get the accounting practices right including tracking cost and giving the right guidance to the street. DVD business is like maintenance revenue and the streaming is like license revenue. The investors want to know two things: you're still a growth company (streaming) and you still have enough cash coming in (DVD business) to tap into the potential to grow.

Netflix faces competition in streaming as well as in their DVD business, but the nature of competition is quite different. For the enterprise ISVs competing with on-premise vendors is quite different than competing with SaaS vendors. The nature of business — cost structure, revenue streams, ecosystem, platform, anti-trust issues, marketing campaigns, sales strategy — is so different that you almost need a separate organization.

Prepare yourself to acquire and be acquired:

Netflix could potentially acquire a vendor in the streaming business or in the DVD business and that makes it easy for them to integrate. This is even more true in the case of ISVs since most of the on-premise ISVs will grow into the cloud through acquisitions. If you're running your SaaS business as a separate entity, it is much easier to integrate the new business from technology as well as business perspective.

Just as you could acquire companies, you should prepare yourself for an exit as well. Netflix could potentially sell the DVD unit to someone else. This will be a difficult transaction if their streaming business is intertwined with their DVD business. The same is true for the enterprise ISVs. One day, they might decide to sell their existing on-premise business. Running it as a separate business entity makes it much easier to attract a buyer and sell it as a clean transaction.

Take your customers through the journey: 

This is where Netflix failed. They did not communicate to the customers early on and ended up designing a service that doesn't leverage existing participation of the customers such as recommendations and queues. There is no logical reason why they cannot have a contract in place between two business units to exchange data, even if these two units are essentially separate business entities. The ISVs should not make this mistake. When you move to the cloud, make sure that your customers can connect to their on-premise systems. Not only that, you need to take care of their current contracts and extend them to the cloud if possible and make it easy for them to transition. Don't make it painful for your customers. The whole should be great than the sum of its parts.

Run your business as a global brand:

Learn from P&G and GE. They are companies made up of companies. They do run these sub-companies independently with a function to manage them across. It does work. Netflix has a great brand and they will retain that. As an on-premise ISV you should consider running your on-premise and cloud businesses as sub-brands under single brand umbrella. Branding is the opposite of financials; brand is a perception and financials is a reality. Customers care for the brand and service and the street cares for the financials. They seem to be very closely related to each other for a company looking inside-in but from an outside-in perspective they are quite different. There is indeed a way to please them both. This is where the most companies make wrong decisions.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Freemium Is The New Piracy In The SaaS World

It is estimated that approximately 41% of revenue, close to $53 billion, is "lost" in software piracy. This number is totally misleading since it assumes that all the people who knowingly or unknowingly pirated software would have bought the software at the published price had they not pirated it. RIAA also applies the same nonsense logic to blow the music piracy number way out of proportion. The most people who pirate software are similar to the people who pirate music. They may not necessarily buy software at all. If they can't pirate your software, they will pirate something else. If they can't do that, they will find some other alternative to get the job done.

Fortunately, some software companies understand this very well and they have a two-pronged approach to deal with this situation: prevent large scale piracy and leverage piracy when you can't prevent it. If an individual has access to free (pirated) software, as a vendor, you're essentially encouraging an organic ecosystem. The person who pirated your software is more likely to make a recommendation to continue using it when he/she is employed by a company that cannot and will not pirate. This model has worked extremely well. What has not been working so well and what the most on-premise vendors struggle with is the unintentional license usage or revenue leakage. Customers buy on-premise software through channels and deploy to large number of users. Most on-premise software are not instrumented to prevent unintentional license usage. The license activation, monitoring, and compliance systems are antiquated in most cases and cannot deal with this problem. This is very different than piracy because the most corporations, at least in the western world, that deploy the on-premise software want to be honest but they have no easy way to figure out how many licenses have beed used.

In the SaaS world, this problem goes away. The cloud becomes the platform to ensure that the subscriptions are paid for and monitored for continuous compliance. You could argue that there is no license leakage since there are no licenses to deal with. But, what about piracy? Well, there's no piracy either. This is a bad thing. Even though a try before buy exists, there's no organic grass-roots adoption of your software (as a service) since people can't pirate. In many countries where software piracy is rampant, the internet access is not ubiquitous and bandwidth is still limited. This creates one more hurdle for the people to use your software.

So, what does this mean to you?

SaaS ISV: It is very important for you to have a freemium model that is country-specific and not just a vanilla try-before-buy. You need to get users start using your service for free early on and make it difficult for them to move away when they work for someone who can pay you. Even though you're a SaaS company, consider a free on-premise version that provides significant value. Evernote is a great example of this strategy. It shouldn't surprise you that people still download software, pirated or otherwise. Don't try to change their behavior, instead make your business model fit to their needs. As these users become more connected and the economics work in their favor, they will buy your service. It's also important to understand that the countries where piracy is rampant, people are extremely value conscious.

On-premise ISV: Don't lose your sleep over piracy. It's not an easy problem to solve but do make sure that you're doing all you can to prevent it. Consider a freemium business model where you're providing a clean and free version to your users. If the users can get enough basic value from a free version, they are less likely to pirate a paid version. What you absolutely must do is to fix your license management systems to prevent unintentional license usage. Help yourself by helping your customers who want to be honest. The cloud is a great platform to collect, clean, and match all the license usage data. You have a little or no control over customers' landscapes but you do have control over your own system in the cloud as long as there's a little instrumentation embedded in your on-premise software and a hybrid architecture that connects your on-premise software to the cloud. In nutshell you should be able to manage your licenses the way SaaS companies manage their subscriptions. There are plenty of other benefits of this approach including the most important benefit being a SaaS repository of your customers and their landscapes. This would help you better integrate your future SaaS offerings and acquisitions as well as third-part tools that you might use to run your business.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Designing Terms Of Service Is As Important As Designing A Product

Dropbox revised their Terms of Service (TOS) over the long weekend. That triggered a flurry of activities on Twitter. Dave Winer even deleted his Dropbox account saying that he would revisit it once the dust settles. A lot of people concluded that there's nothing wrong in the new TOS and that people are simply overreacting. And then Dropbox updated their blog post, twice, explaining that there is nothing wrong with new TOS and cleared some confusion. I would let you be the judge of the situation and the new TOS. This post is not about analyzing the new TOS of Dropbox, but it's about looking at more basic issue in product design. What we witnessed was just a symptom.

Let me be very clear - your product design includes getting the TOS and End User License Agreement (EULA) right before you open up the service. The way the most TOS and EULA are worded, an average user can't even fathom what the service actually does, what information it collects, what it shares, and most importantly what's that it absolutely won't do. It's ironic that the simplicity element of Dropbox's design — there will be a folder and that will sync — made it extremely popular and when they designed the TOS, they had to publish a blog post with two updates and 3000+ comments to explain and clarify the new TOS to the very same users. There's something wrong here.

For a product or a service to have a great experiential design, it's absolutely important to get the TOS and EULA right upfront and even validated by end users. People release their product in beta and go to a great length to conduct usability study to improve the product design. Why exclude TOS?

I have worked with some great lawyers, but they don't make a good product designer. I'm a big fan of constraints-based design. Lawyers are great at giving you constraints - the things that you can and cannot do. Start there. Get a clear understanding of legal ramifications, ask someone other than a lawyer to write a TOS, get it signed off by a lawyer, and most importantly validate by end users. Then, start the product design using those constraints. If you feel too constrained, go back and iterate on TOS. Drafting a TOS is not different than prototyping a product.

I would rather have bloggers, thought leaders, and end users critique the product design on my blog instead of TOS. I would love to work on that feedback as against getting into a reactive mode to stop the bad PR and legal consequences. Thomas Otter involve them early on. The lawyers are paid to be risk-averse. As an entrepreneur, you need to do the right thing and challenge the status quo to innovate without jeopardizing the end users. It's a tough job, but it can be accomplished.

I don't want to single out Dropbox. There are other companies who have gone through the same cycle and yet I don't see entrepreneurs doing things differently. In this process, the cloud gets a bad rep. What happened to Dropbox has got nothing to do with what people should and should not do in the cloud. That would be a knee-jerk response. The fundamental issue is a different one. Treating symptoms won't fix the underlying chronic issue.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Disruptive Cloud Start-Ups - Part 2: AppDirect

Check out the first post of this series on NimbusDB, if you haven't already seen it. This post is about AppDirect. I met with Nicolas Desmarais, a co-founder and the CEO of AppDirect and had a long discussion regarding their current solutions and future strategy. AppDirect is an app store for small businesses. The developers can integrate their applications with AppDirect and AppDirect manages the experience of selling, provisioning, and billing with a 70-30 revenue split with the developers. They also have a white label app store solution that they sell to large customers such as ISPs who can sell these same applications to their customers.

Let's get the things out of the way that I didn't like about them.

The downside:

The target market that comprises of small businesses is extremely difficult to reach to and to market to. This gets even more difficult when the company trying to market is a young start-up and the customers are "S" in SMB. These customers have very different kind of requirements. They look for simple solutions that are not very expensive and have predictable SLA with a clear local support model and not the ones that come with enterprise grade features such as end-to-end integration, single sign on etc. Intuit has owned this channel for a while via Quickbooks and their SMB marketplace (the partner platform) is a great example of selling go-to-market services to other ISVs. AppDirect will have to work much harder if they want to work this channel.

So, why do I think they are disruptive?

The upside:

AppDirect is platform-agnostic. The developers can write applications in any language and run it on any platform as long as they integrate with AppDirect's end points (the APIs). The ISVs or PaaS providers have traditionally locked developers into their platform. That lock-in now goes away.

Even though the telcos are not the most innovative companies, they are laggards with a pile of cash, a ton of customers, and good margins. I believe that telcos can be great enterprise software vendors for SMB. Instead of spending money on the marketing efforts, if AppDirect can convince the Telcos and ISPs to bundle their white label solution, it's a win-win situation. This business alone can make them profitable. What you need is a small number of large customers. Long tail can always be an added bonus.

The team is talented and they have got a good product with some early customers. If they can execute on their vision and pivot as necessary, they're on to something,

Check out their slides and presentation:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Gamification Of Enterprise Applications

Gamification is a hot topic for consumer applications. It is changing the way the companies, especially the start-ups, design their applications. The primary drivers behind revenue and valuation of consumer software companies are number of users, traffic (unique views), and engagement (average time spent + conversion). This is why gamification is critical to consumer applications since it is an effort to increase the adoption of an application amongst the users and maintain the stickiness so that the users keep coming back and enjoy using the application.

This isn't true for enterprise applications at all.

For consumer applications, the end user and the buyer (if they pay to use) are the same. e.g. Amazon, eBay, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. For enterprise applications, the end user is not the buyer. The buyers of enterprise applications write a check but don't use the applications, and even worse, the end users have a little or no influence on what gets bought. The on-premise ISVs don't directly benefit from user adoption, once the software is sold. This is also true for cloud or SaaS solutions except that there is no shelfware in SaaS. I would argue that the enterprise ISVs, on-premise as well as SaaS, would in fact benefit, in short term, from reduced user adoption since they would save money by supporting fewer users and reduced activity. Obviously, this is a very short-sighted and myopic view. I hope that the enterprise ISVs don't actually think that way since broader user adoption and deeper engagement are certainly important for longer term growth that allows the ISVs to build brand loyalty, develop stronger customer base, and gain an opportunity to up-sell and cross-sell.

The fundamental reason behind poor adoption of the enterprise applications is that they are simply not easy-to-use and they almost always come in the way to get the actual work done. In many cases, they are designed to be orthogonal to the actual business process that it is supposed to help an end user with. Also, in most cases, these applications are designed top-down to serve the needs of senior management and not the real needs of end users e.g. a CRM system that helps management to run pipeline reports but doesn't help a rep to be more efficient and agile. In cases where broader adoption for enterprise applications is required, it is typically achieved via a top-down mandate e.g. annoying reminder emails to fill out time sheets. The end users don't see themselves as a clear beneficiary of these applications.

Simply put, the approach to gain user adoption for consumer applications is a "carrot" and for the enterprise applications it is a "stick". But, it doesn't have to be that way. There's a significant potential to apply gamification elements to increase the end user engagement for the enterprise applications, make them sticky and fun to use, and make it a win-win situation for the buyers as well as the end users.

Cater to perpetual intermediaries:

Have you ever played Angry Birds? If not, I would highly encourage you to do so. It serves the category of people known as "casual gamers". These games have pretty much zero adoption barrier for a novice, but when you get serious, there are enough challenges in the game as you progress to keep you entertained and bring you back. The equivalent of casual gamers in the enterprise applications are known as "perpetual intermediaries". They don't want to become power users, but they don't want to stay beginners as well. The tool should have zero barrier for a first time user and should have affordances that encourages users to explore and learn more. Microsoft has done a pheneomenal job with Word and Excel. They are extremely easy to use for a person who has never used these tools before and they provide further discovery via contextual menus and reassurance via drop-down menus (and ribbon in later versions) in the journey of becoming a perpetual intermediary. That's exactly how I expect all the enterprise applications should behave.

Let users leverage serendipity:

One of the early features of Google Apps that I really liked: when user logs into Google Apps for a specific domain, she can see other people in the same domain (same company) who are also using Google Apps. This was not a task that someone explicitly wanted to accomplish, but sheer serendipity allowed them to discover other people and eventually helped collaborate with them. If there's an element of surprise in any app, that experience typically leaves positive impact on a user. How many times did you run into someone at a cafetaria or in a hallway and found that short and tacit conversation extremely valuable? The ISVs should thrive to create this experience in their applications. Foursquare's feature to let users know who else is at a venue, Facebook Places' push notification to notify when friends check-in at a place close by, and certain activity feeds that passively push information to users are all examples that leverages serendipity.

Design for teams over individuals:

The gamification elements for consumer applications target individuals, but that's not how corporations are run. In these corporations, the work gets done by a team and not by individuals — it's a team sport. It's the team and not the individuals that wins and loses. Also, for the most consumer applications, the individuals don't compete with other individuals on aspects beyond the application. The employees in a corporation aren't necessarily known for healthy competition and the gamification rewards might aggravate the existing rivalry. The badges are a digital reward, an accomplishment of some kind. Consumer companies are still struggling to take the badges beyond the reputation. I clearly see an opportunity to link the reputation, gained through some kind of contribution, to an economic reward. I know of a case where a manager had set aside 20% team bonus based on contribution to a group WIki as means to open up information and help others. It did work. However, I would be careful in setting up these kind of systems. The reward model, if not applied correctly, could backfire. But, on the other hand, it's a gamification element that holds significant potential. It'a dagger, use it carefully.

Balance simplicity and productivity:

Simplicity is one of the simplest (no pun intended) yet the most ignored and least understood gamification element. As I mentioned above, the systems that are designed for the perpetual intermediaries should be simple to get started. These systems could potentially get far more complex as you explore more and more features. But, there's another class of systems that people only occasionally use e.g. leave request, annual goal setting etc. It's far more important to keep these systems simple at all levels. Imagine the experience of going from one carnival stall to another and play all the games. You need very little or no instructions. These games at carnival are derived from a few basic games with a few twists, but these twists do not require people to go through a steep learning curve. That's how the applications that people rarely use should be designed; it should use the affordances and principles that the users have witnessed and experienced some place else and it should be broken down like carnival stalls to make the journey easy and fun.

The serious gamers prefer power over simplicity. They like to use shortcuts and a zillion combinations of all the keys on their consoles to get moving quickly inside the game. This is exactly the behavior of the power users of enterprise applications. An Accounts Receivables (AR) interface should not force an AR clerk to learn how to create an invoice every time she opens the application. She has learned the ropes and she expects to be productive and she wants to be faster and better than others. The tools should provide enough "power" features to such users to make them successful.

Photo credit: ccarlstead

Monday, March 28, 2011

Selling To Enterprise - Power Struggle Between IT And Line Of Business

During my several interactions with - CIOs, senior IT leaders, and Line of Business (LoB) heads - I have firsthand observed the power struggle between LoB and IT and a slow but continuous tarnish in their relationship due to cloud and SaaS offerings. IT and LoB work for the same company but they build their little and in some cases huge empires within a company. Even if the end goal of a company is to leverage technology to gain competitive advantage, they all have orthogonal goals that appear to be conflicting from the outside. In a negotiation, it's imperative to recognize that both parties never want the same thing. It's about getting to a deal that's a win-win situation. Regardless of the kind of ISV you represent and who the buyer is, I suggest you make the both - IT as well as LoB - work in your favor.

The ISVs that typically face these challenges fall into one of these three categories: 1) On-premise vendors that sell into IT find it difficult to compete against SaaS vendors selling similar solutions to LoBs 2) SaaS vendors that primarily sell into LoBs find it difficult to get pass IT 3) On-premise vendors aspiring to sell on-premise as well as their new SaaS solutions to LoBs find lack of relationship with LoBs challenging. Not only the ISVs need to understand which category they belong to, but they also need to understand the conflicting goals between LoB and IT and have a strategy and a solution to overcome that. It's not black and white and there's no prescriptive approach. It does vary across customers, their IT maturity, industries, and regions.

The LoB is always about time to value. They want a solution today and they want it now. This is the reason SaaS has a compelling value proposition - nothing to install, no software to purchase, and relatively shorter implementation cycle - to serve the LoBs. On the other hand, IT wants governance, risk management, and integration. They see SaaS solutions as silo one-off solutions popping up everywhere in the company, keeping the CIO up in the night. IT sees technology and LoB sees solutions. This is also a function of how IT operates. I have seen many different variations of the same thing. If you have a clear value proposition for LoB, do cater to them, but don't bypass IT. It's tempting, but don't do it, instead make them your friends. Bypassing IT might help in the short-term but eventually you will run into issues.

I would recommend a few things:

Help IT scale: If you believe that IT wants control and hence wants to do everything on their own, you're most likely wrong. It turns out that IT doesn't mind at all if business can perform certain functions in a self-service way, as long as the IT is ensured that they have underlying control over data and (on-premise) infrastructure. The private clouds are flourishing for very same reasons. This is great news for on-premise vendors that are struggling to sell into IT with dwindling budgets. Focus your innovation on simplifying IT landscapes and making on-premise deployments more self-service for LoBs. For SaaS vendors, this is where you win over the on-premise vendors by providing instant value to an LoB and giving IT control over data security, governance, and integration.

Don't compete based on price alone: I have heard many times that compete based on price and you will win, regardless of whether IT or LoB is a buyer. Competing based on price could be a good thing, but it's not everything. Personally, I have observed quite a few bake-off situations and learned that price alone does not determine the final outcome. The IT as well as LoB do look for things beyond a vendor offering a cheap solution. If you're expensive, you need to have an end-to-end value proposition that is far better than your competitor and if you're cheap, you have to be cheaper by a magnitude to the second cheapest competitor for a customer not to ignore you. Also, the on-premise and SaaS offerings have not-to-easy price comparison since they have different CapEX/OpEx models resulting into potentially different TCO for a customer.

Follow the money trail: IT and LoB have their own budgets. Traditionally, on average, IT spends 80% of their budget on "keeping the lights on". The rest is spent on "innovation" or "strategic projects". While this is a broad generalization, this could vary from customer to customer. The most progressive CIO that I have so far worked with has the exact opposite number - 80% on innovation. As a vendor, not only you need to understand who has the power to write a check, but which bucket has the most money left with the least hoops to jump through. In some cases, IT has chargeback (to business) models and LoB-sponsored projects. Follow the money trail and understand the aspirations on both sides and position your solution accordingly. If there's no pain, there's no gain. Spend time on finding the biggest pain-point and a budget to fix it instead of educating a customer that they may have a problem.

Happy selling!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Making The Cut To Favorite Cloud, SaaS, And Tech Bloggers

The Dealmaker Media has published a list of their favorite Cloud, SaaS, and Tech bloggers. Once again I am happy to report that I made the cut. I am also glad to see my fellow bloggers Krishnan and Zoli on this list who are the driving force behind Cloudave. I was on a similar list of top cloud, virtualization, and SaaS bloggers that they had published in the past.

Under The Radar is one of the best conferences that I go to. This is the best place for disruptive start-ups to pitch an get noticed. They make a great attempt to connect entrepreneurs with investors and blogger like me. I have blogged about the disruptive early stage cloud computing start-ups as well as the disruptive start-ups in the categories of NoSQL and virtualization. Most of these start-ups have either had a good exit or have been doing well. The best example so far is Heroku's $212M exit. I met the Heroku founders at Under The Radar a couple of years back.

I am looking forward to soaking up even more innovation this year!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

SaaS And Inverted OEM Channels

One of the things that I love to do: keep meeting the entrepreneurs to better understand the market and the challenges that they face. Recently, I met an entrepreneur that I highly admire. His company has SaaS components that other ISVs would OEM. Let's say, you are an ISV that would OEM his components and his company goes out of business. What are your options? We had a great conversation on SaaS escrow. Turns out that there is no real good solution. There are a few SaaS escrow solutions that ensure that the customers get their data back, if the company were to go out of business, and they also offer partial business continuity solutions. However, they won't be useful in this case.

One thing that he mentioned got stuck in my mind. He said, during his on-premise days (sigh!), the companies that OEMed his software wished that he goes out of business. The ISVs had his software working anyways and they won't have to pay him anymore. The same story is very different in the cloud. It's an inverted OEM model. If you're a SaaS ISV, you will do everything to make sure that your OEM partner stays in business for your and your customers' business continuity.

I have covered SaaS escrow before, but the solutions that are currently out there aren't perfect, and the OEM channel model makes it worse. The entrepreneur I met is attempting to solve this problem in a very creative way. I cannot discuss the specifics, but I will give you an update once he is done. SaaS changes not only the way the companies make, sell, and consume software, but it fundamentally changes how ISVs and customers need to think about their business and ecosystem. The legacy on-premise thinking won't translate well into SaaS.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Salesforce.com's $212 Million Acquisition of Heorku - A Sparkling Gem In Radiant Future Of Cloud And PaaS

I met James Lindenbaum, a founder of Heroku, in early 2009, at the Under The Radar conference in Mountain View. We had a long conversation on cloud as a great platform for Ruby, why Ruby on Rails is a better framework than PHP, and viability of PaaS as a business model. He also explained to me why he chose to work on Heroku at Y Combinator. I was sold on their future, on that day, and kept in touch with them since then. The last week, Salesforce.com acquired Heroku for $212 million. That's one successful exit, which is good news in many different dimensions.

PaaS is a viable business model

PaaS is not easy. It takes time, laser sharp focus, and hard work to build something that the developers would use and pay for. A few companies have tried and many have failed. But, it is refreshing to see the platform and the ecosystem that Heroku has built since its inception. Heroku did not raise a lot of money, kept the cost low, and attracted customers early on. I was told (by Byron, I think) that an average cost for Heroku to run a free Ruby app for a month was $1. They considered it as marketing cost to get new customers and convert the free customers to paying ones, as they outgrew their needs. I cannot overpraise this brilliant execution model. I hope to see more and more entrepreneurs being inspired from - simplicity, elegance, and execution of Heroku's model - to help the developers deploy, run, and scale their applications on the cloud. In the last few years, we have seen a great deal of innovation in dynamic programming languages, access algorithms, and NoSQL persistence stores. They all require a PaaS that the developers can rely on - without worrying about the underlying nuts and bolts - and focus on what they are good at - building great applications. If anyone had the slightest doubt on viability of PaaS as a business model, this acquisition is a proof point that PaaS is indeed the future. Heroku is just the beginning and I am hoping for more and more horizontal as well as vertical PaaS that the entrepreneurs will aspire to build.

Superangels and incubators do work

There have been many debates on viability of the investing approach of the superangels and the incubators, where people are questioning, whether the approach of thin slicing the investment, by investing into tens and hundreds of companies, would yield similar returns, as compared to return on traditional venture capital investment. I also blogged about the imminent change in the VC climate, and decided to watch their returns. The numbers are in with Heroku. It's a first proof point that a superangel or an incubator approach, structurally, does not limit the return on the investment. I believe in investors investing in right people solving the right problems. If you ever meet James and hear him passionately talk about Ruby, the Heroku platform, and the developer community, you will quickly find out why they were successful. Hats off to YC on finding this "jewel". No such thing as too little investment, or too many companies.

Ruby goes enterprise

I know many large ISVs that have been experimenting with Ruby for a while, but typically these efforts are confined to a few small projects. It's good to see that Ruby, now, has a shot of getting much broader adoption. This would mean more developers learning Ruby, cranking out great enterprise gems, embracing Git, and hopefully open source some of their work. I have had many religious discussions, with a few cloud thought leaders and bloggers in the past few months, regarding the boundaries of PaaS. The boundaries have always been blurry - somewhere between SaaS and IaaS - but, I don't care. My heart is at delivering the applications off the cloud that scales, delivers compelling experiences, and leverages economies of scale and network effects. To me, PaaS is means to an end and not the end. I am hoping that an acquisition of a PaaS vendor by a successful SaaS vendor will make Ruby more attractive to enterprise ISVs and non-Ruby developers.

I have no specific insights into what Salesforce.com will do with Heroku, but I hope, they make a good home for Heroku, where they flourish and continue to do great work on Ruby and PaaS. This is what a cloud and Ruby enthusiast would wish for.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Telcos Could Be The Future Enterprise Software Vendors For Small Businesses

Having worked on enterprise software product and go-to-market strategy for SMB (small and medium businesses), I can tell you that these are the most difficult customers to reach to, especially the S in SMB. It’s an asymmetric non-homogeneous market for which the cost of sales could go out of control if you don’t leverage the right channels. The competitive landscape varies from region to region and industry to industry. In many cases instead of competing against a company you would be competing against a human being with paper-based processes.

Tomorrow I am speaking at the Razorsight annual conference on the topic of cloud computing. I am excited to meet their customers, the telcos. While I prepare for my keynote, I can’t stop thinking about the challenges that the telcos face and the opportunities that they are not pursuing. My keynote presentation is about how telcos can leverage the cloud, but this blog post is about how telcos can become successful enterprise software vendors and market their solutions to small businesses.
There are very few things that are common across small businesses. They own a landline (at least for now) and they have Internet access, in many cases from the same vendor. I believe that the landlines will be more and more difficult to sell to these customers, but losing a channel – a relationship – would be even worse. If leveraged well, these relationships could be worth a lot more compared to the landline business as it stands today. Just think about it. Selling to small businesses is all about leveraging existing relationships with them. This channel is priceless.

What will it take for the telcos to market products to small businesses?

ISV acquisitions or VAR agreements: If telcos are bundling software, on-premise or SaaS, the telcos, as organizations, don’t necessarily have the skills or resources to make software for small businesses. This would mean a series of small and niche ISV acquisitions across geographical areas and industries and VAR agreements with current ISVs.

What kind of software can telcos bundle?

There are two kinds: horizontal and vertical. The examples of horizontal software are accounting, payroll, point of sale etc. Ask Intuit and they will tell you all about the horizontal cash cow. The vertical software is industry specific for the business that you are in. One of my favorite companies in this area is OpenTable. If you have made an online reservation at a restaurant you have most likely used their software. They had a successful IPO last year and they are on track to become a $100 million company.

Telcos should be doing all these things. They have cash and they can borrow cheap money to buy companies. Telcos also have an option to leverage the cloud, their own cloud in many cases, to provide SaaS solutions to small businesses. They can leap frog the on-premise ISVs who don’t have access to these customers and are sensitive to margin cannibalization.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Emergent Cloud Computing Business Models

The last year I wrote quite a few posts on the business models around SaaS and cloud computing including SaaS 2.0, disruptive early stage cloud computing start-ups, and branding on the cloud. This year people have started asking me – well, we have seen PaaS, IaaS, and SaaS but what do you think are some of the emergent cloud computing business models that are likely to go mainstream in coming years. I spent some time thinking about it and here they are:

Computing arbitrage: I have seen quite a few impressive business models around broadband bandwidth arbitrage where companies such as broadband.com buys bandwidth at Costco-style wholesale rate and resells it to the companies to meet their specific needs. PeekFon solved the problem of expensive roaming for the consumers in Eurpoe by buying data bandwidth in bulk and slice-it-and-dice-it to sell it to the customers. They could negotiate with the operators to buy data bandwidth in bulk because they made a conscious decision not to step on the operators' toes by staying away from the voice plans. They further used heavy compression on their devices to optimize the bandwidth.

As much as elastic computing is integral to cloud computing not all the companies who want to leverage the cloud necessarily care for it. These companies, however, do have unique varying computing needs. These needs typically include fixed long-term computing that grows at relatively fixed low rate and seasonal peaks. This is a great opportunity for the intermediaries to jump in and solve this problem. There will be fewer and fewer cloud providers since it requires significantly hi cap-ex. However being a "cloud VAR" could be a great value proposition for the vendors that currently have a portfolio of cloud management tools or are "cloud SI". This is kind a like CDO (‘Cloud Debt Obligations’ :-)) – just that we will do a better job this time around!

Gaming-as-a-service: It was a while back when I first saw the OTOY demo. Otoy is scheduled to launch in Q2 2010. I believe that there is significant potential in cloud-based rendering for the games. Having access to an online collection of games that can be rented and played on devices with a varying degree of form factors is a huge business opportunity. The cloud also makes it a great platform and a perfect fit for the massive multi-player collaboration. Gaming-as-a-service could leverage everything that SaaS today does - frequent updates, developer ecosystem, pay-as-you-go etc. This business model also improves the current monetization options such as in-game ad placements that could be far more relevant and targeted.

App-driven and content-driven clouds: Now that we are hopefully getting over the fight between private and public cloud let’s talk about a vertical cloud. Computing is not computing is not computing. The needs to compute depend on what is being computed - it depends on the applications' specific needs to compute, the nature and volume of data that is being computed, and the kind of the content that is being delivered. Today in the SaaS world the vendors are optimizing the cloud to match their application and content needs. I would expect a few companies to step up and help ISVs by delivering app-centric and content-centric clouds. Being an avid advocate of net neutrality I believe that the current cloud-neutrality that is application-agnostic is a good thing. However we can certainly use some innovation on top of raw clouds. The developers do need fine knobs for CPU computes, I/O computes, main-memory computing, and many other varying needs of their applications. By far the extensions are specific to a programming stack such as Heroku for Ruby. I see opportunities to provide custom vertical extensions for an existing cloud or build a cloud that is purpose-built for a specific class of applications and has a range of stack options underneath that makes it easy for the developers to natively leverage the cloud.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mass Customization: From "There is a plug-in for that" To "There is an app for that"

In a much anticipated mystic event Apple announced a tablet today called an iPad. Steve Job's hypnotizing presentation convinced people that iPad is a magic. I was not there in person to see Jobs unveiling an iPad and somehow escaped the magic. That gave me time to think about the implications of a trend that an iPad endorses - mass customization. Firefox's success in part can be attributed to its approach to allow the developers to write and publish extensions. There is a Firefox plug-in for pretty much anything. Then came the iPhone and we had an app for pretty much anything. Now we have an iPad and the trend continues.

Mass customization trend is about micro-chunking the software that we run on our devices ranging from cell phones to laptops. The emergent architecture and delivery model have empowered the consumers to buy only the chunks of software that they actually need. The cloud computing and SaaS have further enabled the consumers not to run any software other than a web browser for many daily tasks that they need to accomplish. Micro-chunking and webOS have grave implications on the large shrink-wrapped software packages that occupies the most space on consumers' hard-drive, hogs memory, and provides a little value. I won't go to the extent of calling this gold rush for the app developers but I do agree that the independent developers now have a level playing field to compete with the ISVs.

I certainly welcome this trend. I not only want to be in charge of the devices that I own but I also want to experiment and micro manage the applications that I run on my devices. If I can get a tall non-fat extra hot double shot latte at Starbucks why shouldn't I expect a device that runs the exact software that I need - no less, no more.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Branding On The Cloud Is Part Business Part Mindset

As it goes "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog". Actually people do. Recently AT&T asked their employees to fake the net neutrality. Employees were asked to use their personal email addresses to petition against net neutrality. The internal memo ended up on the blogs and Twitter in minutes. Forcing your brand down your employees' throats is not particularly a smart idea.

Is your brand ready for the cloud? This is not a question that many companies ask until their brand gets caught in a cloud storm. The storm is about the customers, partners, and suppliers discussing your products and brand in the public using social media, report problems using the SaaS tools, and engage into the conversations in ways that you never anticipated. Recently Seth Godin announced an initiative to help companies launch brand in public. It stirred quite a controversy and created confusion. He had to pull back. The organizations are simply not ready. The organizations are unclear on how to monitor, synthesize, and leverage the conversations that are happening on the cloud. The cloud enables the people to come together to share and amplify their conversations. .

Whether you are a SaaS ISV, non-SaaS ISV, or not even a software company, what can you do as an organization to build your brand on the cloud? It is part business past mindset:

Don't dread failures instead use them to amplify brand impact:

Recently an enterprise SaaS ISV, Workday, experienced an unplanned 15-hour outage. Not so surprisingly customers responded well with the outage. SaaS essentially made the outage a vendor's problem. Unclear? Take an example of the analog world. Occasionally I have experienced power outage in my neighborhood (yes, even in supposedly modern silicon valley). The wider the outage faster it got resolved. The utility folks feverishly worked to resolve the problem that impacted hundreds of subscribers. Coming back to Workday's outage, while Workday had all hands on the deck to resolve the outage the management team personally picked up the phone and started calling the customers to reassure them that the outage will be resolved soon. They extensively used the social media during and after the outage to be transparent about the overall situation. Now it gets even more interesting. They reached out to a key blogger, Michael Krigsman, who analyzes IT failures to brief him on what happened and extended an invitation to have a chat with the CEO. Michael Krigsman has a great post 'A matter of Trust' covering this outage and his subsequent conversations.

Workday used its outage not only to underscore the fact that why people think they are better of with a SaaS vendor but also used the opportunity to strengthen their brand proposition amongst the customers, analysts, and bloggers.

Building brand leveraging SaaS delivery model to act in realtime:

If you are a SaaS vendor ask yourself whether you are leveraging the SaaS delivery model to strengthen your brand in realtime. Jason Fried from 37 Signals was quite upset upset with Get Satisfaction when 37 Signals got labeled as “not yet committed to an open conversation”. A couple of people from Get Satisfiction immediately responded, apologized, and changed the parts of the tool in minutes that caused the problems. Similarly Twitter postponed its scheduled downtime to accommodate the protest against the outcome of the election in Iran. A former deputy national security advisor to George W. Bush, Mark Pfeifle, went to the extent to comment that Twitter founders should have won the nobel peace prize for postponing the downtime.

Being able to demonstrate the support for what you believe in has significant positive impact on your brand. Don't underestimate the power of social media on the cloud. Twitter has changed culture of Comcast.

Empower your employees to be your mavens:

As Malcolm Gladwell puts it customers don't retain their soap wrappers to call the toll free number to let the manufacturer know if they are unsatisfied. But if someone does call, you know that, you discovered a maven whom you should serve at any cost. That person will start the word-of-mouth epidemics. Chances are that some of your employees are already having conversations on the cloud. Make them mavens of your brand. Get Satisfiction is an example of a great tool that a company can use to encourage their employees to get closer to the customers using the alternate customer support channels. Glassdoor is another example of such a tool that not only works as a great salary benchmarking tool but also provides insights into culture of an organization. Primarily designed as a tool for the external candidates the tool has potential to be used by the internal executives to objectively assess the employee sentiment and help improve the external brand perception as projected by the employees. Focus on your employees and how they can better connect with the customers and partners using the tools and open communication channels on the cloud.

I am not ignoring the negative aspects of the cloud being an open medium that isn't perfect. It never will be. As Bruce Schneier describes the commercial speech arms race - "Commercial speech is on the internet to stay; we can only hope that they don't pollute the social systems we use so badly that they're no longer useful."

I am optimistic. The cloud is a great platform for social participation that, if used wisely, could strengthen your brand.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

SaaS 2.0 Will Be All About Reducing The Cost Of Sales

A clever choice of the right architecture on right infrastructure has helped the SaaS vendors better manage their operational infrastructure cost but the SaaS vendors are still struggling to curtail the cost of sales. As majority of the SaaS vendors achieve feature and infrastructure cost parity, reducing the cost of sales is going to be the next biggest differentiation for the SaaS vendors to stay competitive in the marketplace.

Direct sales model is highly ineffective and cost-prohibitive for the SaaS vendors as it does not scale with the volume business model that has relatively smaller average deal size. The role of the direct sales organization will essentially get redefined to focus on the relationship with the customers to ensure service excellence and high contract renewal rates in addition to working on long sales cycles for large accounts.

How can a SaaS vendor reduce the overall cost of sales to maintain healthy margins and growth?

This is a difficult nut to crack. There are no quick fixes. There is no easy way to optimize the tale end of the process without holistically redesigning the entire SaaS life cycle.

Self-service demos to "self-selling" trials:

Fundamentally the direct sales model for an on-premise software sales has been all about initial investment into the right demos to model customer scenarios and align the sales pitch to match the solution needs. The SaaS vendors moved away from this model as much as they could and replaced it with the self-service demos or trials. However these demos are not "self-selling" and still requires intervention from the direct sales people at various levels.

The SaaS vendors need to move from self-service demos to the self-selling ones that are not only fully functional out-of-the-box but also articulate the solution capabilities implicitly or explicitly. The demo is not just about showing what problems you are solving but it is also about how well it maps to the customers' pain points. It is like buying a hole and not a drill. The demo and the product should scream out loud the value proposition without making customers go through a webinar or a series of PowerPoint slides.

Customer acquisition to customer retention:

SaaS companies have traditionally focused their sales and marketing budget on customer acquisition against retention. While customer acquisition is a necessity the increasing SaaS competition could result into the current customers ditching the vendors. Customer support is the new sales model. Design your customer support organization and operations to retain customers. Don't let the contract renewals slip through the cracks.

Your customers are the biggest asset that you have. Market new solutions to them as an up-sell. One of the powerful features of a SaaS platform is to be able to integrate and push the new products effortlessly to the existing customers and have them try it out before they start paying you. Modernize your internal tools to track the usage analytics to better understand your customers, sales activities and effectiveness of the marketing campaigns. You have a problem if you cannot tell which customer is using what, who are the right partners, who needs training and support etc. If you haven't lately looked at the tools that your sales people use this is the right time. I would not expect a SaaS vendor to reduce the cost of sales without empowering the sales force with the true customer, competitior, and partner intelligence.

Low-touch persuasions to hi-touch interactions:

Low-touch one-to-one selling does not scale. Replicate the Avon model. Design a great ecosystem of your channel partners to whom you can pass on the cost of sales. Align the incentives and encourage the partners to sell but ensure the customer support and overall brand integrity. This strategy would require an extensive partner program with sizable investment in training and tracking what and how the partners are selling but this investment will go long way.

Reserve the direct sales force engagement for large hi-touch CIO type deals where you are required to go whole nine yards before you get a contract. The key is to have a highly variable sales force and extremely efficient compensation model to deal with a variety of prospects and customers. One size does not fit all.

Low-barrier adoption to zero-barrier productivity:

The SaaS model pioneered the low-barrier adoption empowering the LOB to sign up and start using the software without an approval or help from the IT. Eliminate any and all barriers to further penetrate the adoption. Do not enforce upfront credit-card requirements and even skip the registration if you can. Let the customers use the software with the minimum or no information up front. Demonstrate value when asking for more information e.g. Picnik lets you manipulate image in any way you want but would ask you to register if you want to save images. There should be no paper work whatsoever, not even a physical contract. Allow customers to bring in the content from other sources such as Flickr, Facebook etc. Allow the customers to have access to a live sandbox as a step before the dedicated trial. Starting from a blank canvas could be a hindrance to evaluate a product.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Disruptive Early Stage Cloud Computing Start-ups

I was invited as a guest blogger to the Under The Radar conference organized by the Dealmaker media. This year's focus was to track early stage start-ups in cloud computing. The format was simple - each start-up gets six minutes to pitch their company and a panel listens to the pitch and provides feedback. It was a blast! The place was filled with the venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and curious bloggers. I would highly recommend to check out the conference blog, Twitter updates, and watch some of the pitches. I wish I could blog about all the companies that participated in the conference. I have picked few companies - Twilio, Boomi, Zuora, and Cloudkick - based on their potential to cause some serious disruption in the cloud computing space. At the conference, while interacting with several people, the cloud computing felt to be nascent space bursting with energy and enthusiasm. The venture capitalists were drooling for the leads. It felt 1999 all over again.

Twilio commoditizes the telephony skills and uses the cloud to allow the companies to easily build and scale the voice applications without upfront capacity planning and expensive contracts with telco. Twilio has potential to revolutionize how developers build voice applications and allow companies to add a voice channel, by leveraging cloud-as-a-utility, to enhance the customer experience.

Watch Twilio's pitch:

Twilio's presentation:

Boomi's tag line "Connect Once Integrate Everywhere" is a riff on Java's tag line "Write Once Run Anywhere". Boomi is positioning their product Atomsphere as an integration middleware for the cloud that works across SaaS and on-premise systems. Boomi chose a hub-and-spoke architecture against an ad-hoc point-to-point integration. This not only allows Boomi and the partners to continue adding integration connectors without disrupting the core product and customers' deployments but it also allows the SaaS vendors to tap into Atomsphere to connect to other SaaS and on-premise vendors. The revenue model is based on integration-as-a-service - how many systems an organization wants to connect to. This allows Boomi to extract the maximum value out of the integration efforts that can be reused and resold.

Watch Boomi's pitch:

Boomi's presentation:

Zuora wants to be the Amdocs for SaaS and they are getting there much faster than I originally thought. In addition to commoditizing the billing for SaaS they also demonstrated that the cloud is a great platform not only for the edge applications but also for core applications such as billing that the organizations never thought of putting it on the cloud. Organizations are increasingly looking for a payment system and not just a billing system. Zuora does a great job by combining their billing domain expertise with an integration with PayPal. Zuora seems to be an acquisition target for eBay. I can't help notice that the typeface for "Pay" in Zuora's marketing collateral is identical to the typeface that PayPal uses. Coincident? I don't think so.

Watch Zuora's pitch:

Zuora's presentation:

I have used many management consoles but haven't seen a holistic design approach and simplicity in a management console that Cloudkick demonstrated. Three founders built the entire company in four months with $20k investment from Y Combinator and launched it to support other 40 Y Combinator companies to help manage their EC2 instances. Instead of waiting for the cloud vendors Cloudkick solved the interoperability problem by allowing the customers to get an AMI out of Amazon and put it on other cloud provider such as Slicehost. This is certainly encouraging for the organizations who see lack of interoperability as an adoption issue. The cloud management start-ups do run into risk of getting steamrolled by Amazon, but the fast and agile approach of Cloudkick could bring in some great innovation in the cloud management and interoperability domain that we may not see from the big cloud providers in the near future.

Watch Cloudkick's pitch:

Cloudkick's presentation:

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