It’s mud season here in New England that time of year when everything merges into an amorphous mess. The grey sky merges with a grey landscape made into slop by continual rains and dirty grey melting snow. It’s hard to tell where one thing ends and another begins but eventually the sun comes out and dries everything, the sky becomes distinct from the horizon, plants bloom from the firming ground and order is restored. What better time for Amazon and Salesforce to announce another partnership?
I have to say I read the press release and articles from Tech Crunch and ZDnet several times in order to separate things because I was confused. The announcement from Salesforce and Amazon today said that Amazon Connect and Salesforce Einstein would work together to provide an intelligent service offering to Amazon’s service customers. Ok, I get it, but why?
Amazon has been climbing the value chain in cloud computing for some time. Initially its AWS service provided infrastructure as a service that enabled legions of businesses to ditch the computer room and run their operations in the cloud. Additionally, the company ate its own dog food by building a customer service cloud offering that not only supports its internal needs but increasingly supports third party customers, the most recognizable among them include, GE Appliances, communications company Bandwidth, and AnswerConnect.
Amazon has other CRM components as well and relationships with Zoho, Zendesk, Freshdesk, and others. Today’s announcement pairs Salesforce’s Einstein AI tool with AWS Connect to produce a savvier version of Connect. There are and will be more integrations of multiple solutions across product lines, for example both Salesforce and Amazon have IoT offerings and we can expect more news on them in the near future, I think. But there’s a part that I still don’t get, a part that makes me think of mud season.
Historically, Amazon has pushed into new industries and markets with economies of scale, its ability to deliver something at lower cost than others in the space and consolidate market power. AWS was and is a great case in point. Unfortunately, the strategy is also one of accelerating commoditization in which only a few survive and the trend is to make a living on razor thin margins and, once the market is consolidated, reduce innovation. I understand commoditization, it’s a facet of capitalism but innovation has to have a place too.
That’s why I see mud everywhere. Can a company that started as a retailer spin off so many tangential businesses and continue to dominate all of them? Can CRM dissolve into a Salesforce-Oracle-Microsoft-SAP-Zoho and now Amazon soup of similar offerings and still offer differentiation?
My cautious answer is yes and not because of anything that Amazon is doing but because Salesforce is in the mix. Salesforce has a smart and notoriously short attention span with which it innovates a new idea and just as the rest of the market picks up on it, moves on to another object that it shines up and spotlights. Salesforce did this with social, mobile, IoT, analytics, and now its artificial intelligence offering, Einstein. With this strategy Einstein could end up powering a lot of customer facing solutions in service, sales and marketing.
This approach seems to be what Salesforce needs right now. As it is approaching $10 billion in revenues, it is, I think, also reaching a ceiling on what it can sell by itself and truth be told, it has been in this spot for some time. Selling through partners does two important things. It greatly enlarges the number and quality of its revenue streams but it also leaves Salesforce more or less free to do what it does best.
Salesforce has rapidly become the innovation engine of the industry. Its ideas drive markets and its technology is in many cases first among equals (check out the Magic Quadrants, I am not making this up). As long as it can maintain this position as the high value innovator through core technologies like its Salesforce1 Platform, Salesforce can be the exact opposite of Amazon. Where Amazon goes for the low cost commodity position, Salesforce captures the high-margin ground of innovation.
Is that a sustainable business model? Ask Thomas Edison.
After a short and not terribly informative piece on Bloomberg saying that Salesforce had engaged with bankers to potentially evaluate takeover offers, the usual activities ensued. The company’s stock went for a small ride and pundits and prognosticators all began speculating about whom a logical suitor could be and even what the company would be worth on the block. This was not the first time.
I was one of the speculators placing a metaphorical bet on IBM as the suitor followed by Oracle, HP, and Microsoft in no order. They could all use the shine that acquiring this gem would provide. But let me be clear—I don’t believe Salesforce would be acquired in its current state.
The reason is simple—even if a buyer paid a premium on the company’s $50 billion market capitalization it would not be enough because Salesforce’s greatest asset is its future and you can’t put an accurate price on that. So far in its 15 plus year history the company has innovated and helped create markets in cloud computing, social media, CRM, modern platforms, wearable devices, web and mobile computing, and more. Salesforce might go by the ticker symbol CRM but its business is front office business innovation.
All of this is exactly why Salesforce is such an attractive target and precisely why no one will buy them. Large companies, which are the only ones that can afford to be in the bidding, are not hotbeds of innovation. They hang back waiting for markets to prove themselves before swooping in to offer products and services for new niches. Cloud computing is a great example. There’s a famous YouTube video of Larry Ellison at the Churchill Club ridiculing cloud computing as a fad and so much hot air. This was before Larry got religion (and products). Less flamboyant stories can be told of IBM, HP, Microsoft, and SAP—they all waited to enter the market watching Salesforce to ensure it was safe.
Now, of course, they all talk about cloud computing as if they invented it or at least as if they perfected it. Owning Salesforce would give one of their stories great credibility and then you could see a multiplier effect going out to the other innovative areas the company is involved in. But it could also signal the end of a good thing.
I don’t see how you can bring Salesforce into one of those shops and expect it to thrive; the cultures are too different. Salesforce is laid back and takes prudent risks entering new markets as they are forming so as to acquire a first mover advantage. The others? Not so much.
Aside from Apple, I don’t see other companies innovating the way Salesforce does to invent the future. That’s why Salesforce (and Apple) have such bright futures and why buying either company would be detrimental to the tech sector and the economy in general. It would slow or even curtail innovation.
Some might say that if Salesforce ceased to be the innovation engine that it is, that some other emerging companies would have the chance to take its place, that the free market would do its thing and all would be well. I agree with that but hasten to add that it has taken Salesforce 15 years to get to this point and other companies might be able to evolve quicker to fit into one or more of Salesforce’s niches, but it would take time and there’s no guarantee that those other companies would follow the same trajectory.
To make an analogy, if Thomas Edison got kicked in the head by a mule before he invented the incandescent lamp and the modern power grid, we’d likely still have them today along with sound recording and movies and many other things. But it’s hard to see that these inventions would have been as early and if that’s true, what would the last century have been like?
This is all speculation but so is trying to figure out who might be able to afford to buy the company. I’d be surprised if enough shareholders would be prepared to sell and keep in mind that insiders still own a big block. They’re also rich already so it’s hard to see the benefit of selling now rather than letting things evolve as Salesforce’s other endeavors begin to show profits.