February 26, 2019
Salesforce will be celebrating its 20th birthday on March 8. Where did those decades go? “Time flies like an arrow,” said Groucho, “fruit flies like a banana.”
There it is.
Last week a respectable chunk of the analyst community that follows the company converged in San Francisco inside its cavernous new headquarters to hear about its plans for the year ahead. I’ll get to some of the non-NDA ideas floating around the sessions momentarily but first, some impressions of the first (or last?) 20 years.
In many ways, Salesforce has executed a typical and nearly flawless grass roots maneuver of the kind explained by gurus like Geoffrey Moore and Clay Christenson. They entered the market late, after Siebel was already a billion-dollar company but their entry was not of an also ran. From the beginning Salesforce positioned itself as fundamentally different because it was what would become known as a Software as a Service, or SaaS, company.
Competing with an established player can be hard. Initially, the Salesforce app comprised just four tabs while Siebel had so many that Marc Benioff said they were so numerous they were useless. That’s nothing you’d hear from Salesforce today with its numerous clouds. Salesforce was selling something that every company wanted at that point and it had little to do with the merits of its CRM–quick delivery and low costs.
You see, Salesforce arrived at the start of the century just as the smoke was clearing from the traumatic change of financial systems to accommodate four-digit date formats. Conventional CRM in those days was largely a custom programming market and implementation cost metrics often stipulated that the total cost of ownership in CRM would be 3-4 times the software costs. They weren’t wrong and there was a kind of fatalism, at least among large companies, that that was the way things would be.
But you can’t grow a market or a category like that. If prices had not come down, CRM would have become a not very good major corporation play thing. Prices had to come down and functionality had to expand in order to get CRM into the hands of medium size companies and even those smaller. SaaS, with its very low cost of ownership fit the need precisely.
Salesforce changed that equation and in so doing gave itself and multiple other dot-com companies running room. Still it was amazing to me even then that the CEO’s of most of the other CRM competitors offering SaaS services failed to understand the importance of what they had. Most simply regarded SaaS as another delivery mechanism rather than the revolutionary commoditization of IT that the industry badly needed.
IT in the earliest decade of the century was ripe for commoditization. It was traditional and highly manual. There were no smartphones or social media then and analytics was a failed idea from the 1990s in need of greater CPU horsepower and data storage before it could take on its natural role. Much of this comes together in one observation. If you wanted to brief me, or any analyst, about your company, products, and strategies in the hope that I’d write about you, it was necessary to fly to Boston to do that in person. There were no products like WebEx yet. It was a long time ago if you’re basing your analysis on such things.
So, into that milieu Salesforce launched in 2000 after a year of software development led by co-founder Parker Harris but what’s interesting is that the company hasn’t changed that much in the intervening decades. Instead the industry has continued to play catch-up over numerous product cycles that have included basic SaaS, social media, mobility, platforms, customer journeys, analytics, and machine learning.
Corporate social responsibility
Always lurking in the background has been the company’s famous 1:1:1 approach to corporate social responsibility. It still donates one percent of its people’s time, its equity and product to charity and most interestingly more than 2000 companies have taken the hint and developed similar programs. They aren’t all small companies either. Google instituted such a program before its IPO and on the day it went public automatically spun up a large charity.
Lately Salesforce has described the four pillars of its business as trust, customer success, innovation, and equality which neatly ties together its attitudes about customers, employees, the community, and its responsibility to deliver innovative products, which brings us full circle to last week.
Commoditization of IT hasn’t ended. Salesforce might have taken advantage of a nascent trend at its inception, but the need was already pronounced. Understanding that trend in relation to the IT industry is important in part because it seems like cloud computing is now the thing that’s commoditizing.
Closing the frontier
My observation today is that not only Salesforce but most of the industry is built out. That’s far from saying there’s nothing left to do though. It’s more like closing the American frontier in 1890–there’s no more frontier but there’s still plenty to be done internally. In Salesforce’s case, as well as much of IT, we’ve entered an era of efficiency and effectiveness meaning that we’ve now produced various automations and our focus now is optimizing them.
Fair enough. But this also means that the importance of product announcements and making release dates begins to recede into the background. What takes prominence are the services needed to help customers to be successful and we’ve seen Marc Benioff harping on this aspect repeatedly. So rather than big news items, we’ll be on the lookout for more individual customer accomplishments.
For example, for several years already, Salesforce has been edging toward the position of change agent and corporate culture transformation maven and you see it in the discussion of digital disruption. No one buys digital disruption, there are no products labeled as such just as there are no cans of whoop-ass (a technical term) on store shelves that you can pour on an IT problem.
If you go back to the company’s four pillars–trust, customer success, innovation, and equality–you realize that only one is about technology. The others are about how you encourage people to take the leaps necessary to achieve digital prowess, to have the courage to become data driven and to make better business decisions. It’s culture change.
That’s what I think last week was about and I think one data point neatly encapsulates this. They told us that this fiscal year 55 percent of the sales team will be focused on industries like insurance, financial services, health care and more, and that number is trending. Working that angle, you can expect more things like My Trailhead, a learning system that can deliver knowledge about anything to a user that’s relevant to a business process.
My two bits
Despite its great success, Salesforce is not the CRM industry; it has revenues of $10 billion in an market that generates $80-ish billion in revenues. But, in Salesforce’s history, you can discern all of the industry’s major inflection points. Looking at CRM today you can conclude that it’s mature and that major systems are already in place. But there’s still ample room for growth and in a mature market you typically see vendors working to make their products easier to use through more service offerings such as in industry versions.
In line with this, CRM will continue enabling users to be more effective. This enablement will become increasingly fine grained as the vendors reach into industries with detailed solutions for specific business problems.
I think the next big milestone for CRM will be inter-vendor–inter-process communication, something beyond integration. It will take the whole industry to solve that challenge just as it took the whole industry to come up with SQL and the relational database. Based on what I saw last week, Salesforce is already working on it.
Salesforce’s just announced Q1 FY 2019 results beating analyst estimates and causing the stock to rise 3.9 percent. The company had been advising investors that it expected to grow to $12 billion and in the fiscal year and the Q1 results of $3.01 billion keep it on track. That’s a 25 percent increase year-over-year with first quarter operating cashflow of $1.47 billion up 19 percent.
The company adopted an alphabet soup of new regulations in the quarter including ASC 606 which deals with how subscription companies recognize revenue. From the press release:
Unearned revenue, representing ASC 606 deferred revenue less the cumulative timing differences of recognized revenue from ASC 606 adoption, on the balance sheet as of April 30, 2018 was $6.20 billion, an increase of 25% year-over-year, and 23% in constant currency.
That’s an important measure, before ASC 606 subscription companies had various approaches to recognizing booked revenues that had been held in reserve to pay future subscription fees. This points out the power of the subscription model. In contrast to conventional revenues that start at zero each fiscal year, subscription customers commit to purchases well into the future making it easier for a company to hit its growth targets.
The rise of subscriptions had caused some inconsistencies in revenue booking across the industry and ASC 606 and other regulations will help regularize that process. Look for other companies like Oracle to go through a similar adjustment as their cloud strategy takes hold.
They did it again. Salesforce exceeded its year over year quarterly earnings by a tidy amount. The numbers are 24 percent YOY growth on revenues of $2.85 billion. Full year revenue was $10.48 billion. Next year their guidance to financial analysts is revenues of $12.60 to $12.65 billion.
Stop for a minute. Do you know how hard this is to pull off? It’s not just that Salesforce exceeded $10 billion for the year, which was an important goal. It’s that they’ve been a growth company for almost two decades. Every year more corporations buy into Salesforce’s version of cloud computing for CRM, for ancillary applications from the AppExchange, and for building their own apps from scratch for a variety of platforms (all at once) ranging from the handheld device to the (dare we say legacy?) desktop.
Forgive me for going on, there will be no free steak knives at the end of this, but Salesforce has for many years been on of the very best companies on the planet to work for. And, again no parting gifts here either, they have built a business model that has philanthropy, a.k.a. doing good while doing well, built in.
To paraphrase Paul and Robert in “Butch Cassidy” “Who are these guys?!”
Okay, okay, they aren’t perfect. They change their marketing strategy as fast as most people change their socks. They’ve been a hosted CRM company, a SaaS company, a social company, a cloud company, they’ve embraced analytics and IoT as if they were the second coming. They’re also into teaching, training, making it possible for ever more people to use their stuff. They’re hard to keep up with.
But Salesforce, more than any company I know about seems to luxuriate in the idea of destruction as a means of creation. If something doesn’t work out exactly right, they have no problem scrapping it and finding something better. They grow because they embrace the new and the difficult.
But back to the degree of difficulty. It is hard, hard to put up better numbers year after year and do the other things but lately that’s become part of their appeal. Other, larger companies now go to Salesforce to discover their secrets and because their secret sauce is embedded in their software and how they use it, selling Salesforce is no longer about product. Actually, it’s still that but now it’s also about knowledge and culture transfer. That, combined with a subscription model that gets customers to commit to multi-year deals, suggests that this growth curve can extend well into the future. We’re seeing something special happening.
Show season changes the CRM market, it always does. One day you’re in the vanilla application software space and a week later you understand the need to incorporate social media, or analytics or machine learning or you see a need for enhanced integration and development through platform services. It goes on.
Today, in the wake of Oracle, Salesforce, Microsoft, and many other companies’ trade shows, we’re again taking a look at the available suites. But this time, we need to think less about what’s been added and how well integrated the components are.
With Oracle now a year into rolling out its cloud strategy, we can’t say we’re in cloud computing’s early days any more. We’re in a race to computing as a ubiquitous utility like electricity, water and natural gas.
Oracle was the last cloud holdout, the last company that led with its legacy on-premise products. Today they’ve reinvented themselves to offer infrastructure, platform and applications or any combination as services. They might talk a good game about supporting legacy customers forever, and that will be necessary, but they’d like nothing better than to convert the legacy base to cloud infrastructure. And make no mistake about it new cloud based apps is the eventual goal. Much the same is true of Microsoft whose end user products like Office are now being delivered by subscription even if some of the software still resides on the desktop.
Salesforce was, of course, born in the cloud and it hasn’t suffered through a transition though for almost 20 years it has been undeniably causing one. The disruption impacted everyone else but the next disruption, or whatever we’ll call it, is affecting even Salesforce. With typical poise Salesforce is taking it all in stride and is even taking a leadership position.
The disruption turns form purely delivering technology to focusing on how it is used. The focus is very important to Salesforce and all the others because it will have a direct impact on how much of its services (we used to call it software but this is now) get bought and deployed.
So we see increasing emphasis on learning how to develop apps and administer them even to the point of opening up the training platform, Trailhead, to enable partners to develop training programs for their custom apps.
In the background there’s also an effort to standardize on processes that deserves attention. Back in the day, a process was carved in stone. Your organization used a 7 step sales process or maybe a 5 step one. Introducing a 7-step process into a 5-step organization was enough to set off a riot. It was something you did only very carefully if at all. In that era there were sales methodology companies (still are) and there were software companies and each would tell you their products were agnostic. They were too, with a little coding.
But today it’s different. The introduction of AI and machine learning has made both methods and applications secondary. Yes they’re still important but, no, they don’t rule the roost. Everywhere sales people seem to be sidestepping the argument about which method is better in favor of adopting an attitude of doing what the AI system suggests is the next thing needed to advance a deal. As it should be.
Platform based CRM with robust partner communities and their apps have brought us to the point of fully integrated and automated business processes. Customization has never been easier thanks to the platform too. The next step in our journey will be inventing new business processes that derive from our need for, and attempt to be, more agile, to flexibly approach new opportunities.
That’s what has been most interesting to me about show season. Each vendor has, in it’s own way, made a tacit nod to the primacy of data and analytics for automating processes. In that event, they’ve also begun closing the door on business processes that momentarily pop out of the automation sluice and into a spreadsheet or other manual thinking.
The change isn’t only recognizable in sales though selling is a big beneficiary with solutions that include SFA, CPQ, admin functions, AI, ML, compensation management and gobs of graphically rich reporting. Marketing is a rich area with its newfound abilities to identify, target, hand off, score, and journey map. And service has its own rich tool set most significantly analytics married to multi-channel abilities to take customers from beginning to end of a support journey without necessarily bringing in a human.
In all of this businesses are freeing up employee time for higher-level tasks that add value to customer experiences well beyond getting a deal or a right answer. This is where the customer facing jobs of the future will come from. They will demand more and different people skills as well as technical mastery.
That’s why this show season has been a turning point. I think it will be looked back on as the time we began a more disciplined approach to customers and employees as people who interact with technology, not just as various flavors of technologists.
Salesforce recently announced the partial attainment of one of its long-range goals. In its second quarter earnings announcement the company said it had eclipsed its goal of a $10 billion run rate. This will be followed by similar announcements over the next year (first $10 billion year, etc.) and why not? They should celebrate.
Second quarter revenue hit $2.56 billion a 26 percent increase year over year, but for all the fanfare, anyone watching the evolution of the company and the market should not be surprised. Take nothing away from the skillful engineering and deft management over a prolonged period, but this day should surprise no one in that it was inevitable that some company would reach this milestone.
It’s also not surprising that a long list of established software companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, or others didn’t get there first. To understand the moment, we need to understand some of the economics behind it all.
First and foremost, Salesforce embraced a disruptive innovation like no other company. Established businesses like Oracle and Microsoft initially gave SaaS no attention and if they did, they denigrated it. The denigration was a great sign that the big guys were concerned but as always it seems concern didn’t turn into action until very late in the game. Siebel was upended by it. Oracle and Microsoft are right now still trying to establish their credentials. Established markets and business models prevented others from taking advantage of what SaaS could offer.
At the same time direct competitors of Salesforce did something just as foolhardy, they underestimated what they had. As an analyst covering the emergence of SaaS I could see that most other vendors saw SaaS, or hosted computing as it was briefly called then, as merely another delivery mode for software. As far as they were concerned they’d sell you the same product with various delivery options, such as a VPN, and call it a day.
What nobody saw, perhaps not even Salesforce, is that SaaS was and is a dramatic commoditization of IT. The SaaS era is the second half of what I refer to as The Age of Information and Telecommunications in a forthcoming book. In every age the first half is expansionary and inflationary and the period from 1971 to 1999 did that for IT. Those were years of costly systems, over runs, and big commission checks. But sooner or later markets revolt against runaway costs especially because a new technology has become so integral to life as we know it.
That’s when an industry turns its attention to efficiencies and economies and that’s precisely what Salesforce offered out of the shoot. Where other CRM products were complex and hard to customize, Salesforce positioned itself as easy (it had to be—the original product only had 4 tabs). Where others had expensive licenses, Salesforce charged by the seat-month. And where others needed expensive hardware and training, Salesforce bundled the hardware and promised an intuitive interface (again thanks to having just 4 tabs).
It all worked. Many people, including me, have explained Salesforce’s success along the lines of “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” and there was certainly a grass roots, bottom up factor operating as there is with most disruptive innovations. But the fact that Salesforce has been able to grow to dominate the industry that it was a late entry to suggests more was at work.
Perhaps the biggest question now is where we go from here. Most of the time, a company in this situation consolidates its position and rides off into the sunset. For Salesforce that would mean becoming the biggest name in CRM which they’ve done, at least by measures like Magic Quadrants. But so far they’ve resisted the temptation to go on autopilot. Every two years or so, they introduce new wrinkles that roil the markets and make everyone scramble to be the fastest follower.
Concentrating on their platform, machine learning and analytics, mobility, social networking, its partner ecosystem, and other topics has given the solution set a breadth and reach that is more appropriate for a general purpose software development house. That’s clearly where the company is taking this. There might still be 50 percent white space in the CRM market but it’s very niche oriented. So it makes sense to take a broader look at the market to ask where a 10 billion dollar company can have an effect that will move its revenue needle enough for Wall Street to notice.
Small companies especially have a distance to travel in adopting CRM-like solutions and much of their future adoption will depend on ease of use driven by the analytics and machine learning that Salesforce and others are building. Another growth possibility is IoT but I see yellow flags in the distance. IoT is in many ways another approach to commoditizing IT, but for non-human customers, and it is a market that will consolidate quickly around a few standards. More worrying, I think IoT will reach commodity status very quickly with few vendors able to make a living there.
For now it’s all in the future. Salesforce has done an amazing job of navigating this far for so long with such good results. It’s one of the biggest software companies in the world right now, the fastest to grow to $10 billion. Good job! Now back to work.