SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

Archive for September 27th, 2007

Is Conventional Software Built on Bubble Economics? (Hint: It’s All About Recurring Revenue!)

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 27, 2007

I stirred up considerable discussion by dropping a chance remark in the middle of my Steve Singh interview:

I wonder sometimes whether the conventional software model has ever really flourished except during bubbles of one kind or another.  Look at Big ERP.  They had the benefit of several major bubble waves:  the rush to switch to client server architectures, the Y2K debacle, and then right on the heels of Y2K was the Internet Bubble.  Would these businesses have grown nearly so large without any of those bubbles?  Maybe SaaS would’ve gotten here sooner.  The choice between the two is a Tortoise (SaaS) versus the Hare (Old School ISV) race.

Phil Wainewright was taken aback by it, and in retrospect, it was unfair to drop that out there without giving it a blog post of its own to explain.  Before I do that, let me summarize some remarks others have made that are pertinent. 

Phil runs with the premise for a bit, likening the purchase of conventional software to subprime mortgages, suggesting companies must then rue the purchase when normal times return, and further suggesting that in a recession, conventional revenues will collapse while SaaS revenues will “power ahead”.  While Phil juxtaposes Larry Ellison’s denouncement of SaaS (where’s the money in SaaS?) briefly against my comments, he finishes with a great Talkback post where the poster says the only reason Larry doesn’t pursue SaaS at Oracle is because its too hard to reinvent the company, which is exactly what Steve Singh says (one of the few guys who has successfully reinvented a good sized company).  To all of this, I do say that conventional revenues are much harder hit than SaaS revenues, but not all conventional software companies are hit the same in recession.  I will explain in a moment, but it all boils down to recurring revenues.  Before leaving Mr. Wainewright, I suspect after reading his piece that on balance he sees there is some truth to the idea that conventional ISV’s are built on bubbles.

SaaSWeek picks up on the theme.  Their penultimate question and conclusion:

“Is SaaS an inherently stronger model that is destined for eternal greatness by inherent design? Nope.”

Their thining behind this conclusion is that they feel that dealing with the scale issues of very large businesses as well as their flexibility requirements are too hard for SaaS companies. 

They put scale as, “Anyone want to run GE’s global payroll using SaaS?”.  I think they’re dead wrong on that one.  ADP handles companies that large all the time for payroll and they’re one of the biggest SaaS companies out there.  I’m familiar with the scale requirements of these kinds of organizations–Callidus Software pays sales compensation for some of the largest sales forces in the world for companies like Allstate, Sprint-Nextel, and many others.  SaaS has no problem there. 

Flexibility is a much harder issue, and one that I will have to wait for future postings to address more fully (flexibility is also related to the SaaS+Open Source discussion I need to address separately too).  For now, let me just say that it is an area where many SaaS vendors have dodged the bullet by simply refusing to offer much flexibility.  That works for applications where flexibility doesn’t add much business value, but even Salesforce is investing heavily in making their solution customizable.  However, there is no reason why SaaS vendors can’t strive to deliver flexibility, it’s just harder to do because you need sophisticated meta-programming capabilities on top of your multitenant architecture.  Trust me, we’ll drill down on that later.

SaaSWeek goes on to say:

A manufacturer of canned corn can be fairly certain their business won’t fluctuate much in terms of workforce, product innovation, economic cycles and so forth. Why would they spring for a SaaS solution when they can call a local ERP vendor, eat the initial cost but then run on the same system for 15-20 years with bare-minimum, in-house maintenance?

Here I think we have an apples to oranges comparison that SaaS vendors deal with frequently.  You can’t compare the cost of maintenance of On-Premises software against the (apparently) higher cost of SaaS.  The SaaS cost much more closely reflects Total Cost of Ownership.  Maintenance only entitles you to upgrades, which our canned corn friends have no interest in, and the ability to call Tech Support with questions.  TCO for the canned corn gang is going to include keeping the data center running, doing backups, replacing hardware that fails during that 15-20 years (any of you run a 15-20 year old computer), installing patches when problems come up, paying the salaries of the IT people that do that stuff, and so on.  When you look at the IT salaries in particular, SaaS comes out way ahead in nearly any sober calculation.  Look at Steve Singh’s numbers he gave in the interview for how much he saves folks with his software.  Touching back on scale for a moment, Steve Singh’s Concur sells to very very large organizations just as well as small ones and its all SaaS.  I would argue the closer your organization is to needing something that has the best possible economics and doesn’t need uber flexibility, the closer you are to wanting to insist on SaaS. 

BTW, in a recession, aren’t those the qualities you look for: best economics and skip the bells and whistles?  Don’t you want to live with what you can get by on until there are better times?  Are you really going to invest in a boil-the-ocean IT rework of major infrastructure when everyone is hunkered down in the nuclear winter?  And doesn’t SaaS let you get by paying for just what you need as you need it, and leave you with the option to easily change your mind later when times are good and you do decide to boil the ocean?  Do you change paradigms like ripping out your mainframe stuff to install shiny new client/server ERP during a recession?  Those are some gut arguments in favor of SaaS during lean times.

Now let’s get back to recurring revenue.  The lower TCO argument tells why customers want to buy SaaS in bad times instead of conventional software.  Recurring revenue is what you need as an ISV in bad times.  Every software company faces a potential downturn in new customer bookings during bad times.  That includes SaaS companies.  But here is the difference.  With perptetual software, every quarter is a new ball game.  What you sold last quarter is recognized revenue and no longer matters in the current quarter.  If the bottom falls out and you sell very few new customers, the perpetual software company is busted.  The SaaS company looks a little different.  The reduced new customer sales are riding on top of recurring revenue.  So the percentage change looks less.  Let’s see it graphically:

Value of Recurring Revenue

This compares a conventional new sales model versus a SaaS recurring revenue model through good times and bad.  We assume that SaaS recognizes 1/4 of each new sale each period, but that it gets to keep recognizing 1/4 a period forever (e.g. no churn).  We assume conventional recognizes the entire new sale in the same period.  We start out selling $2M a period (perhaps a quarter), and we three quarters of 30% growth followed by a period of decline, and then a period where growth comes back.  The SaaS company has the same problem–it can’t sell as many new customers during bad times either, but it falls back on the cushion of recurring revenue.

Now I ask you, which company would you rather have invested in?  Which one would you rather be working for?  Do you see why I wonder about whether the success of big conventional software isn’t built during bubbles when abnormal growth rates fuel a meteoric rise?  Clever readers will surmise the next shoe I want to drop.  It’s an old shoe too:  big conventional ISV’s have a huge advantage over small conventional ISV’s.  Yes, it’s all the old stuff about brand and yada, yada.  But, to make it worse, they have a lot more recurring revenue!  In fairness, all conventional ISVs have some recurring revenue so the graph doesn’t look as bleak as I’ve drawn it.

Conventional ISV’s can gain recurring revenue from at least 2 sources:  maintenance revenues and professional services.  Even if you have a downturn in new license sales, you still have some recurring revenue cushion.  But the biggest conventional ISV’s like Oracle and SAP have been building up their maintenance base for many years until it is substantial.  And yes, Virginia, the bubbles I mentioned around client/server adoption, Y2K, and the Internet Bubble, all tremendously fueled that build up.  For those not familiar, it is customary on Big Enterprise Software to charge an annual 10-20% maintenance fee.  All big responsible companies pay their maintenance if they’re using the software (and some pay even if they aren’t using it, but that’s another story)

Professional Services is another source, albeit a less efficient one (because it is of shorter duration and lower profitability), of recurring revenue.  If you’re engaged in a long term installation or if you’re called back into the installed base to install an upgrade or do further customization, you get to charge for services over a period of time.  It’s likely not as long as a SaaS or maintenance contract, but it is significant.  That’s why it should be no surprise that when times are tough selling new licenses, companies hunker down around their services organizations. 

Which brings us back to SaaS, where Software is the Service.  It’s all Services.  It’s all recurring all the time.  This is a beautiful thing!

So there you have it.  The economics of recurring revenue streams and why they mean SaaS companies have yet another long-term structural advantage over conventional software.  They can continue to show growth even when things are quite difficult, so long as they can sell more than their churn (i.e. customers who leave and don’t come back) in new recurring revenue contracts.  In a future post we will consider churn at SaaS companies and some of the factors that lead to churn as well as strategies for minimizing churn.

Posted in business, saas, strategy | 4 Comments »

User Experience is the Most Important Thing: it’s the Only Thing.

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 27, 2007

I was recently chatting with my old mentor and boss Philippe Kahn about startups.  Philippe has been ahead of the curve throughout his career, and has prospered commensurately.  He’s most well known as the creator of the camera phone in 1997, which his company Lightsurf introduced.  He’s infectiously passionate about software and business, and I always take note when he wants to take a particularly strong stand on some issue.  In this case, his issue was user experience.  We were chatting about what aspects of product lead to what Marc Andreesen calls Product/Market Fit.  Market Fit is that state of bliss where your product fits a market so well that it is literally pulling product out of  you.  Unbridled demand rears its lovely head and your job at that point is to hang on for dear life and keep delivering.  Andreesen, in the post I’ve linked to above, says that achieving this fit is the only thing that matters for a startup.  I think we (Philippe, Marc, and I) are all in violent agreement on that, but Philippe took the concept to a more focused level when he said to me,

“User Experieence is the Most Important Thing, it’s the Only Thing.”

He was brandishing his iPhone at me to make the point all the more clear.  What makes the iPhone so special?  It’s user experience.  As Philippe says, it isn’t what the iPhone does, it’s how it does it.  You can’t capture user experience on a bulleted checklist any more than you can understand the beautiful sound of a pure audiophile stereo system by reading such specifications as total harmonic distortion.  On paper, the better user experience may even appear to be inferior but try it out for yourself and there is no doubt.

So, the task at hand for a startup is to provide the best possible user experience for a group of users that is large enough to make an interesting market.  If you can provide a quantum leap in user experience for that market, you may have a breakthrough hit on your hands.  This is why some of the greatest trends and hits of our day are happening.  SaaS provides a dramatically better user experience to the Enteprise compared to most difficult to use and install Enterprise software.  If you build a SaaS product that has a dramatically worse user experience than the incumbent software, you’ll be wondering why it doesn’t sell.  Web 2.0 offers a compelling user experience versus the last generation of Web technologies.  The iPod, iPhone, and Macintosh are all about radical user experience improvement.  Flex is all about delivering a whole new level of user experience on the web. 

It’s not easy to get a fabulous user experience, but ironically, it’s also not incredibly expensive.  It’s hard because you have to build it into your company’s DNA.  People have to care.  It won’t happen by accident.  It can be thwarted if you get too focused on feature lists.  It requires lots of customer contact and testing.  Good user experience is tragically knowable.  User Experience requires a particular skill set.  Make sure you have people who’ve been associated with great user experiences in the past, and not just “UI design experts”.  If there is nobody on your team who has the title, temperament, and skill set of “designer” instead of “engineer”, you need to change that fast.  If you’re trying to enter a new market, the first thing you need to do is nail down a good user experience through prototypes and testing.  All the rest follows. 

How do you improve user experience?  The answers are all around us if we’re sensitive to them.  It’s a question of listening.  Here’s a random sampling of things I read just recently that seem innocuous but that inform us about user experience:

  • Sleepers:  37Signals asks what to do about Sleepers.  These are folks who signed up for an account but aren’t using it.  They propose bribing or goading the sleeper back to consciousness.  I’d look at it much differently.  The Sleepers are a huge asset because they represent a User Experience failure.  They thought they wanted what you had badly enough to sign up, but they couldn’t get over the hump.  It’s urgent for you to find out why and fix it.  Chances are there will be many dispersed reasons, so don’t give up easily interviewing until you’re sure you’ve heard it all.
  • Ask Them What They Hate:  A great counterpoint to Sleepers from Jeff Monaghan.  We’ve all taken the little user surveys after visiting a site.  Most of them are begging for praise: please rate our service!  Jeff wants to beg you to tell him what you hated.  He wants to identify problems he can solve.  Jeff rightly assumes we must always be vigilant for chances to improve the user experience.
  • The Power of Chunking:  Seth Godin reminds us one more time that you get to communicate in chunks of 7, no matter what you are communicating.  That’s how the wetware (our brains) you interface to works.  It’s fascinating how often this enters the picture.  It’s why telephone numbers have 7 digits.  For menu structures, don’t put more than 7 entries on a menu lest the user forget the first entry by the time they’ve read the 7th.  Never put more than 7 bullets on a slide.  In fact, I try for less, but view 7 as a hard stop.

User Experience is the Most Important Thing: it’s the Only Thing.  What are you doing with your business and products to ensure the utmost user experience?  How are you innovating on user experience?

Related Articles:

How could I not put Nick Carr’s Fat Guy in Salesforce Hell here?  As I say in my comment to his post, “User Experience is the big picture, the little picture, the alpha, and the omega.  If you screw it up, even SaaS and Marc Benioff can’t save you!”

Make sure you’re not pursuing a proxy to use experience instead of the real thing:  Apple is there with their iPhone bricking shenanigans.

Posted in business, strategy, user interface, Web 2.0 | 2 Comments »

Interview: Concur’s CEO Steve Singh Speaks Out On SaaS/On-Demand, Part 2

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 27, 2007

This continues my interview with Steve Singh, CEO of Concur.  In this installment, Steve gives his view on Salesforce, their Force platform, SAP’s ByDesign and acquisition strategy for SaaS companies,

As before, my parenthetical remarks (meaning my reaction but not something Steve and I talked about) are in parenthesis.  Any mistakes are mine, and any great insights are Steve’s!

What’s your view of

Steve:  I have tremendous respect for Marc, he’s the best.

If I compare Salesforce to Concur, we took a vertical business process and owned it across all horizontal customers.  We took a stagnant industry and turned it on its head.
Salesforce is more on the outside “we’re a big tech company.”  They want a broad technology platform.

What are your thoughts about Salesforce’s Force?  Could you see using the platform at Concur? 

Steve:  Concur wouldn’t use it.  The cost structure requires a higher price to customer, so it only works for small companies who can’t take on the cost.  If you already have a big SaaS presence, why do it?  No economic  reason.

Bob:  (Steve focuses a lot on economics.  He’s made the comment before that scale drives the economics of profitability for SaaS.)

Would your customers use it?

There is tremendous value to IT customers.  Mostly those related to CRM.  Marc has nailed it.  On-demand platforms should focus on a vertical niche.  We’ve launched  a supplier platform.

Bob:  (I would echo Steve’s sentiments on Force.  I’ve yet to meet someone building a major app on it.  There are many who want to leverage it for connectivity to the Salesforce CRM world.  I’d like very much to talk to anyone that wants to educate me in the error of my ways on this platform.)

I’ve said that SAP’s ByDesign brings competition to the SaaS world for the first time, but that it’s a good thing for all concerned.  What are your thought’s on SAP’s By Design?

Steve:  They announced something that was already public for quite some time.  You can’t fault them for trying.  They’re trying to start in the middle market where they have no presence.  Their challenge is whether they can deliver a whole different experience.  Meanwhile the rest of us aren’t standing still.  The leaders of SaaS are in an incredible position.

Bob:  (Steve’s remark that SAP has targeted the middle ground where they have no presence sounds like a classic example of my “protected game preserve” strategy for companies attempting a SaaS transition)

Concur has been pursuing an acquisition strategy.  How does SaaS change the rules of that game?  What do you look for and what do you try to avoid?

Steve:  You could view acquisitions more successfully in a SaaS company because you can integrate the technologies in the back room while maintaining a different UI for a period.  Captura, Outcast, Joco.  They were SaaS apps to start.  Data layers, business layers, UI layers.  You can integrate in steps.  You can leave out integration when it doesn’t help.

There will be more SaaS M&A.  Look at payroll.  Adding employment verification.  What does it have to do with payroll?  Leverage business and service delivery models to address related spaces that are part of the business process.  Adds a lot of depth.

Can you acquire a non-SaaS company and SaaSify it, or do you only want SaaS?

Steve:  It’s not worth it.  Too hard.  I would rather build the functionality or buy a younger already SaaS company.  It’s too hard to make the change.  Once is enough  for a lifetime.

Bob:  (I had another conversation today about the software M&A game.  The person I was talking to was concerned that there are fewer and fewer buyers as things roll up.  SaaS may change that dynamic in a lot of ways.  If you are starting a company, SaaS even makes better sense as an exit strategy.  First, because Steve is right, companies should prefer to acquire SaaS.  Second, it positions you for the opportunity that the up and comer SaaS companies offer.  The game at the top of being bought by Oracle and SAP may be less lucrative (or even unavailable if they don’t want what you offer) than hooking up with the middle tier of healthy acquirers, which may just be the biggest pure-play SaaS companies.  This also makes me wonder what the private equity world is thinking about SaaS.  Are they frantically converting their properties to SaaS without the pain of public scrutiny, or are they pursuing business as usual?  One person I talked to said the great thing about SaaS is you’re acquiring a recurring revenue stream.  In a traditional acquisition, license sales all too often crater right after the acquisition.  Salespeople will totally drain the pipeline to get every last bit before the change.)


Our third installment will air next week and will have Steve Singh’s thoughts on Sales and Marketing for SaaS companies.  Stay tuned!

Posted in business, saas, strategy | 2 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: