You had to believe this day was inevitable. Oracle announced it was buying NetSuite a cloud ERP provider with over 30,000 customers worldwide for about $9.3 billion. Oracle founder, Larry Ellison also had a large part in founding NetSuite including being one of its top investors. I have always looked at it as Larry’s experiment in cloud computing and I think that is key.
Eighteen years ago, when NetSuite got going, Oracle was already a very big company dominating the relational database market as well as the market for enterprise business applications. Oracle’s challenge then was best summed up in Clay Christensen’s book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” though it never mentioned Oracle or NetSuite explicitly. The dilemma being when should a successful company consider cannibalizing its own business to avoid enabling new entrants to the market to do the honors.
The dilemma stems from the fact that successful companies had, until the last 20 years, been loath to change their secret sauce, the thing that made them successful. But a series of disruptions initiated by cloud computing pioneers like Salesforce, showed that standing pat was as dangerous as playing with matches around your balance sheet.
So that was Oracle’s dilemma and you could see it unfolding as then CEO and founder Larry Ellison carefully launched what was then called NetLedger under the leadership of trusted lieutenants Evan Goldberg, CTO and founder, and Zach Nelson, CEO. NetSuite was a lifeboat strategy intended to provide a safe place to pour customers, cash, and expertise if the need ever arose.
As a startup NetLedger morphed into NetSuite and had far less overhead and bureaucracy to contend with than an established company like Oracle and so its innovation cycles were quick and nimble. Taking no chances, Oracle plunged ahead into cloud computing building its own platform and applications, which would eventually displace its traditional products. It also bought a slew of other cloud companies too because buying companies is less risky than trying to fund a similar amount of development in house.
So in this regard, buying NetSuite can be seen as just another cloud company acquisition by Oracle but it’s much more than that. It’s the culmination of long-game thinking—precisely the kind that few public companies can invest in today given the short time horizons of quarterly earnings reporting.
This long game approach is what critics lament is no longer practiced in the Fortune 500. But today, one of the founders of a Fortune 500 company (#77 if you are counting), a brash, fast talking, America’s Cup winning, technology industry showman, pulled a rabbit out of his hat. This shows that planning and execution still count for a lot in business if you know how to adapt.
SuiteWorld reveals cloud computing ERP’s mainstream moment
NetSuite bloomed this week, in part because of a very well produced user meeting, SuiteWorld, held in San Jose but also because there can no longer be any doubt that the market for ERP technology is turning to the Cloud.
What was once unthinkable — that ERP could or would ever be delivered as a cloud solution — has been gaining acceptance over the last couple of years and NetSuite has been the most aggressive of ERP vendors at promoting it. According to CEO, Zach Nelson, the company’s revenues, cash flow and profits are up significantly year over year and the company is projected to operate at a run rate of more than $400 million by the end of its fiscal year.
Negative growth rates at other ERP companies, notably ERP enterprise leader, SAP, whose license revenues declined more than nine percent according to financial analysts from Barclays, speak volumes and contributed to the overall good news for NetSuite. Cloud based ERP is now a value proposition that competes so well that many companies are taking the plunge rather than renewing maintenance contracts with the ERP leaders.
There’s nothing surprising in this. Much the same thing happened in CRM and today all CRM vendors have some form of cloud computing solution that they can promote when seeking new business. They may say they offer hybrid approaches but if you review my last two posts on the subject — “End of the Beginning” and “IT’s Ethical Dilemma” — you might conclude that hybrids are not much more than a fig leaf for those who need to defend their on-premise virtue.
The reasons for the surge in cloud ERP can be traced to market dynamics. The early adopters and early majority buyers have spent the last dozen years buying and installing cloud ERP and now that they can prove success, there appears to be a stampede forming to bring the later adopters into the fold. This is also not controversial. If we’re passing the inflection point of this market, the second half will happen at about twice the rate of the first. My contention is that only very specialized and conservative companies will persist with exclusively premise based ERP roughly three years from now.
Of course this does not mean that premise based ERP will simply go away. Companies like NetSuite and Microsoft have developed surround strategies that might keep premise based ERP going for a while but I would be surprised if there were many net new premise based ERP implementations from here on. The condition will mimic mainframes. There are many still in service but who buys one these days?
All this is not to say that NetSuite is acing the exam, though they are the smartest kids in the class. I’d prefer to see them take an approach that recognizes the importance of best of breed strategies for one thing, and for another, their CRM stance is, to put it mildly, puzzling.
Company founder, Evan Goldberg, and CEO, Zach Nelson, both extol the virtues of SuiteCloud but mostly as a customization vehicle. In fact it is that but it is also a primary integration hub for partners and thus the moral equivalent of a platform in the Force.com mode. I suspect, though, that the company’s approach to SuiteCloud plus its messaging about offering a single integrated system is more out of respect for a customer base that consists of finance and operations people whose job is to make the trains run on time. Leave the swashbuckling social media, best of breed, and customer experience messaging to the likes of Marc Benioff and Salesforce.com for the time being, we have bigger fish to fry, I think, is the unwritten assumption.
Speaking of all things CRM, there was an interesting exchange between my esteemed friends Esteban Kolsky and Zach Nelson over NetSuite’s CRM position. Kolsky inquired at a press conference why Nelson paid so little attention in his keynote presentation to CRM (a true statement). Nelson returned serve and opined that the ERP system is the real customer relationship management system for the obvious reason that it contains real “customers” i.e. mortals who have placed an order whereas conventional CRM as we know it is really a prospect management system.
Messrs. Kolsky, Paul Greenberg, Brent Leary and myself might have begged to differ and in fact, the debate about the C in CRM was settled while Mark Zuckerberg was still in college. But let’s cut this baby in half. Nelson has a point about customers and given his company’s focus on eCommerce as a logical extension of ERP and its function as a customer facing solution, his argument does hold water.
However, this fails to explain how Nelson’s ERP customers handle, let us say, their proto-customers or prospects for that period of time when they are interfacing with a company, on its event horizon so to speak, but have not yet placed their first orders. For them the answer might very well be Salesforce.com, which explains the importance I attach to SuiteCloud and all the rest. I suspect it is also one reason that Accenture, Deloitte, and Cap Gemini have devoted practice areas to the cloud and NetSuite. Nice hat trick, Zach.
But that’s small potatoes in the big schema. For now let’s say that ERP is hard to do and this has contributed to NetSuite’s relatively slow start compared to Salesforce. Both emerged from a discussion in Larry Ellison’s office as legend has it but Salesforce is a multi-billion dollar company today while NetSuite has a run rate of about $400 million. ERP might be hard but its time in the cloud is at last here and I look for more good news from Goldberg, Nelson, & Company simply because it’s now their time and because they’ve done the hard stuff to make their solution viable in a demanding market.
From time to time I accept free travel and accommodations from vendors so that I can attend their conferences. You ought to know this by now but it bears repeating. NetSuite paid the freight FOB Boston and covered my expenses for SuiteWorld. It was an enjoyable experience that, nevertheless, did not influence my ability to write objectively about what I saw. What kind of analyst would I be if it did?