These are reflections from having spent a few days at the annual Salesforce.com event, Dreamforce. We hope they are valuable to people who need an executive summary-level understanding of the company and its position in the cloud and SaaS marketplace. Full disclosure, the company paid for my flight and hotel to attend Dreamforce.
1. They Are Ambitious
Salesforce wants to be the dominant cloud platform for business. Their view is that computing has seen two waves: the first was the mainframe, and then the PC client server, and now the third is cloud computing. They have been consistent about this since their inception in March 1999, so this is no recent bandwagon hopping.
2. They Have a Good Shot at Meeting This Ambition
They have a powerful mix of capability and relentless focus. They have the resources — cash, cash flow, clients, track record, management team, and so on — needed to execute on this vision. Their competitors are bigger, but Salesforce has the advantage of focus. They are pure play, and they have no legacy to protect.
3. They Are a Marketing Machine with Flair
Having attended a few big rah-rah events, such as Java One, I see that Dreamforce compares well on scale, details, and flair. Its messaging and visuals were consistent and powerful, and everything just worked well. This all costs a lot of money (which relates to the next point), but that money has to be well spent, and they seem to be doing that. The presentations had real flair and humor. Benioff knows how to be controversial to get press. They are a billion-dollar business that still acts like a start-up. Even the music was good.
4. Their Biggest Issue Is Maybe Price
There are many lower-cost competitors to their base CRM application. Now that SaaS is increasingly accepted, due in part to Salesforce’s evangelical marketing, smaller competitors spending a tiny fraction of what they spend on marketing can undercut them. Their most visible competitor is Zoho, and it does not look like Zoho is going to shy away from this battle, and they have staying power. So Salesforce is fighting on two fronts. On the one hand they are competing with Oracle and SAP for big enterprise accounts. On the other hand they are fighting low-cost competitors, such as Zoho. This will require all their marketing and management skills.
5. They See Today’s Troubled Economy as Their Moment to Win Big
They got their early big traction in the last downturn around 2001 and 2002 and have never looked back. They are greedy while others are fearful. They spend more, grow, and hire, while other firms lay off people. The basic economic advantages of cloud computing, such as lower capital expenditures and a faster time to market, resonate in a downturn to the point that they overcome the resistance of conservative buyers to cloud computing.
6. Their Vendor Eco-System Is Making Money and Acting Bullish
Salesforce knows that this matters. This is the lesson they learned from Microsoft. Will they move into the spaces currently occupied by vendors? Of course they will. Vendors will have to be agile; that is just how the game works. But today, in these tough markets, we see vendors that are profitable, growing, hiring, and raising money. The winners in many segments are being defined now. It is a great time to be an entrepreneur in this space. Salesforce knows how to leverage all its capability to make a few winners do very well and then promote that success big time, thus inspiring others to come on board.
7. They Believe That Good Software Design Matters to the Core Economics of Cloud Computing
They refer constantly to their “multi-tenant kernel,” which sounds very techie for a such a marketing-driven company. It does appear that they are not suffering from the scaling and reliability problems that we have seen affecting consumer Web 2.0 ventures such as Twitter and Facebook.
8. They Also Know How to Partner with Big Companies to Make Themselves Look Bigger
They wheeled out large companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, as partners. The message was, “We are at the center of an eco-system with big partners.” This makes large conservative enterprise buyers feel comfortable.
9. Focused Research and Development
They have a predictable and focused R&D plan, with a major theme each year. This again makes large conservative buyers feel comfortable: they know what to expect.
10. They Will Need to be Careful About Usability Issues
They are adding so much functionality and so many partners that they face the danger of users getting confused and going to simpler point solutions. That “hairball-of-complexity” problem bedeviled Microsoft as it grew fast, but Microsoft enjoyed a lock-in that Salesforce cannot count on. The SaaS world is naturally lock-in resistant, with low switching costs. There is no sign of this being an immediate problem for the company, but it is something they will have to look out for.
See also our most recent story about Salesforce: Salesforce.com Says Hello World.