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Netbooks Resurfaces from Hibernation as WorkingPoint: SaaS for SMB with Nicer UI but Much Less Functionality

I’ve previously covered Netbooks, provider of an Integrated SaaS Business Suite for Very Small Businesses.

The company had an affordable On-Demand integrated business management solution for the   VSB – very small businesses, the “S” in SMB / SME: typically companies with less then 25 employees, sometimes only 3-5, and, most importantly, without professional IT support, in which case Software as a Service is a life-saver.

NetBooks tried to cover a complete business cycle, from opportunity through sales, manufacturing, inventory / warehouse management, shipping, billing, accounting – some with more success then others.   The process logic, the flow between various functional areas was excellent, but it was rendered almost unusable by a horrible UI. And it didn’t scale… so the company disappeared for a long year, completely re-building their code base.

Read on

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How Software Can Be Resilient to Recession

Are we heading into Recession?  The “Big R” talk of early this year quickly subsided, economic growth returned, the markets appeared to vindicate the optimists.  US Presidential Candidate John McCain repeatedly said the economy was fundamentally strong… until just days ago, when he quickly switched to declaring a crisis.  The Wall Street Journal says we’re in the Worst Crisis Since ’30s, With No End Yet in Sight.

I don’t claim to be an expert economist, so whether the Big R is looming is not my call – but if you believe we’re in a strong economy, I have a bridge to sell you.  Let’s just focus this discussion on how Software businesses can survive in a financial crisis, which is undeniably here.

Not all will survive, and it’s probably healthy they won’t.  Tim O’Reilly, Father-of-all-things-Web-2.0, asked the question at the Web 2.0 Expo last week:

Global warming. The U.S. losing its edge in science and technology. A growing income gap. “And what are the best and the brightest working on?” O’Reilly asked, displaying a slide of the popular Facebook application SuperPoke, which invites you to, among other things, “throw sheep” at your friends.

“Do you see a problem here?” he posed, showing another slide of the popular iPhone app “iBeer,” which simulates chugging a pint. “You have to ask yourself, are we working on the right things?”

The poster-child of the Web 2.0 boom may very well become the symbol of what went wrong:

  • useless
  • consumer-only
  • ad-driven

Actually, the problem is not what they do, but how seriously they were taken.  Will Price, a very smart VC said long ago:

It may well be that Slide raising $55m from mutual fund companies at $500m+ pre-money will be the “what were we thinking” moment of the current cycle.

I’m glad they did not go public, at least not a lot of people will get hurt holding the bag.   But enough of what’s wrong, here’s what works:

  • go where the money is, and that’s businesses (“Enterprise” vs. consumer, even if it means small business)
  • deliver value – useful functionality that improves business
  • charge for it – companies actually prefer to pay for reliable, good service.

The last point brings up the price issue.  Credit will dry up. Whether we’ll officially declare Recession or not, the fear of the Big R is enough for corporate budget cuts, the disappearance of any CAPEX spending. Even worse, an entire sector almost disappeared as IT buyers.  Did you know that Lehman Brothers spent over $300M on IT in just the last quarter, right before declaring bankruptcy?   How do you sell in this environment?

The after-bubble nuclear period of “no IT spending at all” found me at a startup in 2001-2003. We did not exactly hit it big, but did not go under, either, and that’s because our model allowed us to get in the door way below the threshold that would have required higher authorization. Not classic SaaS, rather SES (Software Enabled Service), we were essentially data providers and often got into an “enterprise” account at $3k for the first month … eventually ramping up to annual $60-$100K.   Anyone familiar with Enterprise Sales knows the term Economic Buyer:  typically getting involved later at the sales cycle, approving or nuking the deal.  Well, we saw no Economic Buyer: being under the threshold, we sold to the User directly.

Of course my little business is not the only proof: Salesforce.com & WebEx thrived during the last recession. The secret is the business model: pay-as-you-go.  SaaS offers lower risk to enter, no initial cash layout, the subscription fees come out of OPEX vs. CAPEX, and is often approved by the User, not the mysterious Economic Buyer.  The barrier of entry is much lower: once you’re in, it’s up to you to grow.

In fact I suspect the looming downturn will accelerate the structural changes in the software industry: SaaS players will thrive,  traditional on-premise vendors will shrink, many will disappear.

That leaves a final point to discuss: financial solvency.  For startups, it will be increasingly hard to find investors.  For larger businesses the lack of late-stage investment, the credit crunch may be a serious impediment to expansion.   Discover the beauty of bootstrapping – you actually get to do what you believe is right for your business, not what your Board tells you.  Do less, take small steps.  Frugality is key to survival.  Small is beautiful will get a new meaning.

In summary, Software businesses that combine good old business sense: frugality, spending wisely, delivering value to businesses and getting paid for it, with a new business model, SaaS are likely winners in the downturn.  The rest are playing musical chairs. (Oh, and the bridge is still available)

(This post originally appeared on CloudAve.  Keep informed by grabbing our feed here.)

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SaaS and the Commoditization of the Software Market

Office 2007 Reaches a New Low – reports Joe Wilcox @eWeek.  He means low prices:  while Office Standard is still above $300, the Home and Student Edition can be purchased for as little as $89.99.

He then speculates on the reasons for this “Crazy Eddie”  pricing, with percentage of likelihood:

  • It’s end of the back-to-school buying season, when Microsoft and retailers often discount consumer Office (50 percent).
  • Microsoft is seeding the consumer market with the Home and Student Trojan horse for supporting Web services such as Office Live Workspace (25 percent).
  • The low pricing is way of psychologically preparing the consumer market for $69.95 Office Equipt, which packs 12-month subscription versions of Office 2007 Home and Student Edition, Windows Live OneCare, Mail, Messenger and Photo Gallery. (20 percent).
  • Microsoft is shoring up marketshare as proactive response to freebees like Google Docs. (5 percent).”

I strongly believe in the last one, which is way underrated at 5%.  With freely available OpenOffice, Google Docs and the Zoho Suite, people have little reason left to purchasing Microsoft Office.  I’ve said this before, while discussing the perfectly rightful clampdown on piracy:

The danger for Microsoft is not the direct financial impact of these users turning away from their product, since the never paid in the first place. It’s losing their grip; the behavioral, cultural change, the very fact that millions of people – students, freelancers, moonlighters, small business workers,  unemployed – realize that they no longer need a Microsoft product to work with MS file formats.  Microsoft shows these non-customer users the door, and they won’t come back – not even tomorrow when they are IT consultants, corporate managers, executives.  That’s Microsoft’s real loss.

But this post is about commoditization, and there’s more to it than putting price-pressure on Microsoft. Yes, SaaS disrupts the traditional software market, but there’s another equally important trend happening: some of the early pioneers who evangelized SaaS but retained a 1.0 business model are being squeezed by more nimble competitors. 

Days after my post on SaaS and the Shifting Software Business Model I received an email from Salesforce.com, announcing new, promotional pricing for Salesforce Group Edition.  The promo was supposed to end July 31st, but I suspected this would become a permanent price cut.  Why?  Group Edition is where Salesforce.com feels intense price pressure – see the comparative matrix here.  Today I checked again, and what a surprise (not really) -  the promo deadline is now gone, Salesforce.com silently turned the promotion into a permanent price-cut

No wonder there wasn’t much fanfare: price cuts are a red flag for the Street.  Commoditization can be a death-spiral to businesses – except for the few that drive it. But it is beneficial to customers, and in the end, that’s what matters.

(Disclaimer: I am an advisor to Zoho, the company with a mission of Deflating IT).

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SaaS and the Shifting Software Business Model

Barely two years ago we debated whether little-known Zoho was worth paying attention to. The majority view was that their Office applications were weak contenders that would never challenge the Microsoft suite’s position. I think I was in the minority stating that I really did not need more than 10-20% of Word or Excel’s functionality, but online-anywhere access and collaboration made the switch worthwhile.

Today Robert Scoble reports he is seeing online applications wherever he turns:

Today I’d say the skill set is shifting once again. This time to something like Zoho Writer or Google’s Docs. Because if you visit Fast Company’s offices in New York, for instance, they want to work with you on your copy in live time. Fast Fast Fast is the word of the day. It’s in our title, after all. Now some people still use Word, but last time I was there one of the editors told me he was moving everything over to Google’s Docs because it let him work with his authors much more effectively.

These are no longer yesterday’s wannabe applications. Zoho Sheet recently added Macro and Pivot Table support , going way beyond the average user’s needs (and certainly exceeding my spreadsheet skills, which are stuck somewhere at the Lotus 1-2-3 level). Zoho Writer today added an equation editor and LaTex support. Heck, I don’t even know latex from silicone, what is it doing in my editor? smile_wink
As I found out it’s important for Zoho’s academic and student users, once again, going way beyond an average user’s needs. (the other update today is mass import from Google Docs: nice, special delivery for Dennis, but I still would like to see a list of all my online docs, be it Zoho or Google, open them, edit them, and save to whichever format (and storage) I want to.)

Online applications have arrived, they’ve become feature-rich, powerful, and are the way software will be consumed in the future. They also change the business landscape.

Software margins choked by the cloud? – asks Matt Assay at CNet, pointing out a shift in Microsoft’s tone about cloud computing, recognizing that in the future they will host apps for a majority of their customers, and that their margins will seriously decline:

There’s not a chance in Hades that Microsoft will be able to charge more for its cloud-based offerings–not when its competitors are using the cloud to pummel its desktop and server-based offerings. This is something that Microsoft (and everyone else) is simply going to have to get used to. The go-go days of outrageous software margins are over. Done.

Matt cites Nick Carr who in turn recently discussed

…the different economics of providing software as a Web service and the aggressive pricing strategies of cloud pioneers like Google, Zoho, and Amazon.

This is fellow Enterprise Irregular Larry Dignan’s key take-away from the Bill & Steve show, too:

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged the fact that a lot of computing is happening in the browser and not in applications. He also said that the future of software will have “a much more balanced computational model” and that Microsoft will have to compromise.

Of course it isn’t just Office. The obvious business application is CRM, where Salesforce.com pioneered the concept and delivered the first On-demand product. But now a funny thing is happening: the pioneer is increasingly being replaced by more inexpensive competitors, including my Client, Zoho. Yes, SaaS disrupts the traditional software market, but there’s another equally important trend happening: the commoditization of software.

Commoditization is beneficial to customers, but a death-spiral to (most) vendors. Except for the few that drive commoditization. Zoho makes no secret of doing exactly that.

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Zoho CRM Enterprise Edition @ SMB Price

This morning Zoho announced the Enterprise Edition of their CRM product.  The key updates are:

  • Introduction of Role-based Security Administration
    • Profiles for managing CRM module-level permissions
    • Roles for modeling organizational hierarchy and setting up data sharing rules
    • Groups for sharing the data among various departments
    • Field-level security for controlling the access rights (View or Edit) of fields in CRM modules

  • Enhancements in product Customization & Data Administration
  • Multi-language Support (11 Languages)
  • SSL Support for Professional & Enterprise Version
  • Integration with Zoho Sheet
  • Improved Business Functionality
    • Automatically update Stock information once the Purchase Order is approved
    • Find and Merge the duplicate records in Vendors module
    • Convert Quote to Sales Order or Invoice in a single click
    • Convert Sales Order to Invoice in a single click
    • Add account information automatically while creating quotes/orders/invoices from the potentials
  • Wiki-based Context-sensitive Help

     

    The key in “going enterprise” is no doubt the new security/permissioning scheme. That said, Zoho CRM has already been functionally rich even before today’s upgrade.  I’ve repeatedly stated that supporting business processes like Sales Order Management, Procurement, Inventory Management, Invoicing  Zoho really has a mini-ERP system, under the disguise of the CRM label.smile_wink.  In fact let’s just stop here for a minute. 

    Today’s announcement aside, I still consider Zoho’s primary focus to be the small business (SMB) market.  As for CRM, it really comes down to the classic breadth vs. depth of functionality question.   Zoho CRM’s breadth, along with the other productivity applications allows many SMB’s to use it as their single, only business application.  The market leader in SaaS CRM, Salesforce.com clearly supports fewer business processes, offering more depth in each – probably a better fit for larger enterprises which likely run several applications anyway.   This matrix provides an overview of Zoho CRM vs. Salesforce CRM Group and Professional Editions. (click on pic for detail)

     

    Having done a functional comparison, a quick look at pricing demonstrates why Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu called Salesforce.com still very expensive:

     

    CRM Pricing Comparison - http://sheet.zoho.com 

     

    No wonder Larry Dignan at ZDNet declares “Zoho aims to poach Salesforce.com customers.”  But Larry (and Marc), you ain’t seen nothing yet… just wait till Zoho comes out with a Salesforce.com importer smile_tongue.   

    Clearly, Salesforce.com does keep a close eye on Zoho, otherwise why would they spend money on the Google Adword “Zoho CRM“?

     

    But again, reality check: Salesforce.com does own the Enterprise space.  For now.

    Finally, a word about integration.  After all, Zoho is known for their almost endless range of products, they should work together…  Currently Zoho Sheet, the spreadsheet application is fully integrated with CRM – most data can be edited either inside CRM or in the spreadsheet format that many business users are more familiar with.

    Zoho plans to integrate Writer, their word processor, Mail (still in private beta) as well as some of the business applications, namely recently released Invoice and People. When all that’s done, Zoho will have a more complete offering than two industry giants, Salesforce.com and Google together.   I can’t wait…

     

    (Disclaimer: I am an Advisor to Zoho. Take anything I say with a grain of salt.  In fact with a pound of salt.  Don’t believe a single word of mine about Zoho products: go ahead and check them out yourself).

     

    Related posts:  Zoho Blogs, CenterNetworks, VentureBeat, CNET News.com, Mashable!, Between the Lines, Web Worker Daily, Irregular Enterprise, InformationWeek,

     

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    NetBooks: Integrated SaaS Suite for Very Small Businesses. Almost.

    When I started this post 2 months ago, it had a more tongue-in-cheek working title: NetBooks – the Little Gem in Hiding – clearly a play on Dennis Howlett’s  post, NetBooks – a little gem.  That’s because despite Dennis’s positive review of this new SaaS solution for small businesses I found their website a major turn-off .   I did not find a feature-list, screen prints, demos: the closest they had was a contact form to request a scheduled demo.  Failure!  You can’t reach the “long tail” of the market via outbound sales; your site needs to be absolutely transparent, so potential customers can find all feature / price information at their fingertips, then just try-and-buy. 

    But what a difference a few weeks make!  Having checked back, now NetBooks offers decent product information, online videos, in fact you can now set up a free trial account with sample data in minutes.  (While it looks like just another contact form, the process is automated, I received my email confirmation within a minute.) Self-navigation definitely beats just watching vid’s. Kudos to NetBooks for fixing a major shortcoming so fast!  (Note to self: don’t leave half-written posts, they may have a short shelf-life…)

    Let’s look at the actual system now.  NetBooks aims to be an On-Demand integrated business management solution for small manufacturing businesses – in fact for other types of businesses, too, as long as they hold inventory and ship tangible products.  They cater for  what they call True Small Businesses (TSB), which I referred to as  VSB – very small businesses, the “S” in SMB / SME.  Typically companies with less then 25 employees, sometimes only 3-5, and, most importantly, without professional IT support, hence Software as a Service is a life-saver.

    NetBooks tries to cover a complete business cycle, from opportunity through sales, manufacturing, inventory / warehouse management, shipping, billing, accounting – some with more success then others.  Manufacturing, Inventory, Shipping and their integration to Accounting appear to be a stronghold.  If you’re in sales, you’d like to see a Sales Catalog, if you’re in the warehouse, you want an Inventory List, and if you are in manufacturing, you need a Production Elements list: they are all one and the same, allowing you to define a product structure (Bill of Materials, BOM) with different physical characteristics, reorder points, pricing levels, warehousing requirements, marketing notes…etc.   In other words, different functions can update their own slice of the same information and it’s shared with others (of course in a small business several of these functions may very well be carried out by the same person.)

    Not having any procurement / purchasing functions appears to be a glaring omission: after all, if you’re in manufacturing, you will likely need to buy some components / materials. 

    Another function, nominally present, but rather weak is CRM.  I can set up a Revenue Opportunity list, track contacts, events, even financial terms per record, but what’s the point if I can’t turn these into a Quote, later a Sales Order?  In fact I have to start a sales order from scratch, and it does not update the opportunities: unless you close them out, they will show as prospects long after you shipped the order, invoiced the customer and received payment.

    Sales Order creation appears to be  a watershed event in NetBooks: that’s when the system comes alive, integration gets better from here, with information flowing through nicely.  Completing the order creates a shipping document, confirmation of the shipment creates a a billing request, invoice.  Even external services are integrated well, like UPS for Online Shipping and PayCycle for payroll .  There’s a complete “document trail”, you can start from the accounting side, too: from Accounts Payable (invoice) you can trace all actions back to the shipping doc, sales order…etc.

    I understand why Dennis with his accounting background considered this system a gem:

    As an accountant by training I often make the mistake of taking the number cruncher’s view. On this occasion I don’t have to. The way NetBooks is organized, you enter it according to the role you fulfill. That means you only ever need use the screens that are pertinent to you.

    Real-world people record their real-world transactions: manufacturing, physical movement of goods, and the system records the facts in Accounting.  NetBooks  is an accounting system at it’s heart, but one without the need to deal with accounting screens.  This should not come as a surprise, given Founder Ridgley Evers’s own background: he was co-founder at QuickBooks, the de facto standard for small businesses.

    Most of the sample data in the NetBooks trial system appear to have come from Evers’s real-life business: Davero Ingredienti, a purveyor of olive oil products, and I think this very well represents the type of small business NetBooks may be ideal for: relatively stable, has a good repeat customer base, receives a  lot of inbound orders and needs to execute on manufacturing and shipping to these customers.  It badly lacks stronger Sales features, and a more flow-oriented thinking to support aggressively growing businesses.

    The User Interface is nothing to call home about. You certainly won’t find the lively charts and dashboards seen at Salesforce.com, NetSuite, SugarCRM, Zoho CRM …etc.  But having a simplistic UI is one thing, making it outright boring is another, and hard to use is a capital crime.  In NetBooks you basically navigate through small text lists, then double -click on an item to drill down to more details, wait long (the system, at least the trial one feels very slow) for several overlapping screens to pop up. You have to close or move around some of these pop-ups to see what’s underneath.  And whoever came up with the idea of clicking on those tiny arrows should be banned from web design for life.  

     

    Seriously, this isn’t just the lack of rounded-corners-gradient-colors web 2.0 goodness: the poor UI, the microscopic arrows to click on render NetBooks a pain to use. 

    Although I’ve been quite critical in this review, I still like the NetBooks concept: give very small businesses an integrated system they previously could not afford. NetBooks starts at $200/month for 5 users, additional users seats are $20.  That’s a fraction of the current “gold standard” in the space, NetSuite – although the step up to NetSuite also brings a wealth of new functionality.  Finally, SAP’s Business ByDesign is worth mentioning: when it becomes widely available, it will be the most function-rich SMB SaaS solution – but their entry point is about where NetBooks’s upper limit is.

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    Can the Software Sector be Resilient to Recession?

    I was very lucky in the early 90′s being in an industry that was not only shielded from recession, in fact it was thriving.  Corporate America was taught to fight their way out of the slump by Business Process Reengineering, and what better way to execute it than by implementing new integrated business information systems.  The slump for the rest of the country was a major boom for SAP, and the entire ERP industry born in their footsteps.

    Today we’re amidst another technology change, one that may just ensure relatively smooth sailing through a recession for the Software sector – at least those who are on the right side of the change.smile_wink  The belts will be tightened, says the New York Times, but technology will still grow, just at a slower rate:

    Overall growth in technology spending may fall from 7 percent last year to 4 percent or less this year, according to estimates by IDC, a research firm.

    But that won’t be nice 4% growth for the entire industry; I strongly believe pioneers of Software as a Service (SaaS) will be amongst coming out of a slow-down as winners, leaving others in the dust. 

    TechCrunch is optimistic for the entire Web 2.0 business:

    All of those Enterprise 2.0 startups out there, or even Amazon trying to sell Web-based computing infrastructure, are actually at an advantage. Customers are more likely to try cheap cloud computing when they can no longer afford the alternatives.

    ZDNet’s Dan Farber disagrees:

    Most of the Web/Enterprise 2.0 startups can’t get a hearing with CIOs and tech buyers at corporations. While consumer applications are influencing corporate applications and coming in through the back door, Enterprise 2.0 apps (blogs, wikis, predictions markets, social networking, mashups, collaborative cloud-based apps and technologies such as RSS and tags) are just beginning to reach the radar of larger corporations, and they are not considered mission critical, which is where the money is funneled first

    I think they are both right – and wrong.  I don’t agree that the entire Web 2.0 sector is immune to a down-turn: the advertising market will shrink,  the “lets-grow-insanely-who-needs-a-business-model” types will suffer. As Software VC Will Price says:

    It may well be that Slide raising $55m from mutual fund companies at $500m+ pre-money will be the “what were we thinking” moment of the current cycle.

    I also agree with Will, that a movie we’ve all seen will be playing again:

    The last downturn saw the valley swing violently away from consumers to the enterprise – bastions of value, hard ROI, tangible value propositions, enterprise pain points and budgets, etc became the mainstay of investment decisions and the consumer, I kid you not, was literally a bad word…
    The valley became all enterprise, all the time.

    It will not be all, and not only Enterprise, but Business Software, whether for the Enterprise or small businesses will come back with a classic, “old-fashioned” business model of actually charging for value (product or service) delivered.  Of course there is still the dilemma of selling business software – much better if you don’t have to, it is getting bought instead. smile_shades  Yes, Dan is right, “Web/Enterprise 2.0 startups can’t get a hearing with CIOs and tech buyers at corporations” and their  apps are not considered mission critical, but the whole point is that a lot of these Enterprise 2.0 tools are not sold at the CIO level.

    The after-bubble nuclear period of “no IT spending at all” found me at a startup. We did not exactly hit it big, but did not go under, either, and that’s because our model allowed us to get in the door way below the threshold that would have required higher authorization. Not classic SaaS, rather SES (Software Enabled Service), we were essentially data providers and often got into an “enterprise” account at $3k for the first month … ramping up to $60-$100K annually.   Anyone familiar with Enterprise Sales knows the term Economic Buyer:  typically getting involved later at the sales cycle, approving or nuking the deal.  Well, we saw no Economic Buyer: being under the threshold, we sold to the User directly.

    As Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu adds to the discussion:

    It is useful to remember that both Salesforce & WebEx thrived during the last recession – in fact they were relatively unknown during the last boom. Cost was a major part of the reason they thrived in the bust.

    Indeed. Software as a Service and the typically associated pay-as-you-go model allows businesses – enterprise and SMB – to use software without the typical upfront investment the traditional model would require, therefore SaaS providers have a good chance of withering a Recession.  Another noteworthy idea in Sridhar’s response is that they really don’t have to have a “massive win”, a total move from the desktop to the cloud: a “marginal” business  is good enough.

    Of course this “marginal business” is not as attractive to many startup entrepreneurs as fast forwarding to the IPO, preferably over $1.5B. In fact it’s really boring… building a business gradually; no IPO thrill; serving millions of customers, helping them actually conduct business.  Oh, and making millions of dollars of real revenue in the process – not bad, if you ask me.  And it’s quite bubble-proof. smile_wink

    Related posts: Vinnie Mirchandani -  Why it will be very different this time, Fred Wilson- This Time Will Be Different.

    Update (1/28): Forrester Research predicts gains for Enterprise Web 2.0 apps in 2008.   Also read: Between the Lines, ReadWriteWeb.

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    SmartTurn: Inventory & Warehouse Management SaaS-style

    Here’s further proof that the Software as a Service (SaaS) model will not be limited to CRM and Accounting: SmartTurn, providers of the first On-Demand Inventory and Warehouse Management System (WMS) announced today its $5M Series A financing led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA) and Emergence Capital Partners.

    I admit the announcement took me by surprise; I have not heard of the company before. A quick look at the Oakland address made me suspicious though, and yes, I was correct: this company is a spin-off of Navis, who are veterans of Warehouse Management systems, from the “old”, i.e. on-premise world. Old-world or not, the Navis team carries the SaaS DNA: a little-known fact is that their CEO, currently Chairman of SmartTurn John Dillon was CEO of Salesforce.com before Founder Marc Benioff took the reins back in 2001. The investors are not exactly new to SaaS either: Emergence Capital were early investors in Salesforce.com, and they specialize on SaaS and nothing else (I believe they are the first Valley VC firm to do so).

    Warehouse Management is an awfully complex area (I know first hand, having lead SAP logistic projects in the 90s), so if SmartTurn is successful, it will truly be a validation of all aspects of “Enterprise Software” being eligible for the On-Demand model.

    There are very few Enterprise SaaS players around, but SAP’s (SAP)new SaaS product, Business ByDesign for the SMB market and NetSuite (N) for small businesses are worth mentioning: they both offer complete, integrated systems, including Inventory and WMS. The opposite of the integrated systems is the best-of-breed approach, in which case one of the most difficult decisions in enterprise systems is where you draw your functional boundaries, and for companies implementing a multi-system scenario what functions are left in which systems, where to cut overlaps. Inventory Management is planning and accounting for your inventory levels; Warehouse Management is the extension of the concept down to physical locations (warehouses, buildings, down to bin levels). SmartTurn appears to support the Procurement and Order Fulfillment processes as well, which, from a logistics point of view are the inflows and outflows to/from your warehouse.

    This is an area worth keeping an eye on and I expect to revisit it once I know more about the company and their customers.

    On a lighter note… $5M to manage the inventory of major businesses vs. $50M to superpoke FaceBook users… am I the only one sensing imbalance here? smile_wink

    Update: No, apparently I am not the only one… Will Price, Managing Partner at Hummer Winblad Venture Partners:

    It way well be that Slide raising $55m from mutual fund companies at $500m+ pre-money will be the “what were we thinking” moment of the current cycle. I think, however, the investor who leads a $4 on $4m Series A in a company with a differentiated technology and a direct tie to hard ROI will feel calm in the storm.

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    Will Google Enter the Business Applications Market?

    Google’s next killer app will be an accounting system, speculates Read/WriteWeb. While I am doubtful, I enthusiastically agree, it could be the next killer app; in fact don’t stop there, why not add CRM, Procurement, Inventory, HR?

    The though of Google moving into business process / transactional system is not entirely new: early this year Nick Carr speculated that Google should buy Intuit, soon to be followed by Phil Wainewright and others: Perhaps Google will buy Salesforce.com after all. My take was that it made sense for Google to enter this space, but it did not need to buy an overpriced heavyweight, rather acquire a small company with a good all-in-one product:

    Yet unlikely as it sounds the deal would make perfect sense. Google clearly aspires to be a significant player in the enterprise space, and the SMB market is a good stepping stone, in fact more than that, a lucrative market in itself. Bits and pieces in Google’s growing arsenal: Apps for Your Domain, JotSpot, Docs and Sheets …recently there was some speculation that Google might jump into another acquisition (ThinkFree? Zoho?) to be able to offer a more tightly integrated Office. Well, why stop at “Office”, why not go for a complete business solution, offering both the business/transactional system as well as an online office, complemented by a wiki? Such an offering combined with Google’s robust infrastructure could very well be the killer package for the SMB space catapulting Google to the position of dominant small business system provider.

    This is probably a good time to disclose that I am an Advisor to a Google competitor, Zoho, yet I am cheering for Google to enter this market. More than a year ago I wrote a highly speculative piece: From Office Suite to Business Suite:

    How about transactional business systems? Zoho has a CRM solution – big deal, one might say, the market is saturated with CRM solutions. However, what Zoho has here goes way beyond the scope of traditional CRM: they support Sales Order Management, Procurement, Inventory Management, Invoicing – to this ex-ERP guy it appears Zoho has the makings of a CRM+ERP solution, under the disguise of the CRM label.

    Think about it. All they need is the addition Accounting, and Zoho can come up with an unparalleled Small Business Suite, which includes the productivity suite (what we now consider the Office Suite) and all process-driven, transactional systems: something like NetSuite + Microsoft, targeted at SMB’s.

    The difficulty for Zoho and other smaller players will be on the Marketing / Sales side. Many of us, SaaS-pundits believe the major shift SaaS brings about isn’t just in delivery/support, but in the way we can reach the “long tail of the market” cost-efficiently, via the Internet. The web-customer is informed, comes to you site, tries the products then buys – or leaves. There’s no room (or budget) for extended sales cycle, site visits, customer lunches, the typical dog-and-pony show. This pull-model seems to be working for smaller services, like Charlie Wood’s Spanning Sync:

    So far the model looks to be working. We have yet to spend our first advertising dollar and yet we’re on track to have 10,000 paying subscribers by Thanksgiving.

    It may also work for lightweight Enterprise Software:

    It’s about customers wanting easy to use, practical, easy to install (or hosted) software that is far less expensive and that does not entail an arduous, painful purchasing process. It’s should be simple, straightforward and easy to buy.

    The company, whose President I’ve just quoted, Atlassian, is the market leader in their space, listing the top Fortune 500 as their customers, yet they still have no sales force whatsoever.

    However, when it comes to business process software, we’re just too damn conditioned to expect cajoling, hand-holding… the pull-model does not quite seem to work. Salesforce.com, the “granddaddy” of SaaS has a very traditional enterprise sales army, and even NetSuite, targeting the SMB market came to similar conclusions. Says CEO Zach Nelson:

    NetSuite, which also offers free trials, takes, on average, 60 days to close a deal and might run three to five demonstrations of the program before customers are convinced.

    European All-in-One SaaS provider 24SevenOffice, which caters for the VSB (Very Small Business) market also sees a hybrid model: automated web-sales for 1-5 employee businesses, but above that they often get involved in some pre-sales consulting, hand-holding. Of course I can quote the opposite: WinWeb’s service is bought, not sold, and so is Zoho CRM. But this model is far from universal.

    What happens if Google enters this market? If anyone, they have the clout to create/expand market, change customer behavior. Critics of Google’s Enterprise plans cite their poor support level, and call on them to essentially change their DNA, or fail in the Enterprise market. Well, I say, Google, don’t try to change, take advantage of who you are, and cater for the right market. As consumers we all (?) use Google services – they are great, when they work, **** when they don’t. Service is non-existent – but we’re used to it. Google is a faceless algorithm, not people, and we know that – adjusted our expectations.

    Whether it’s Search, Gmail, Docs, Spreadsheets, Wiki, Accounting, CRM, when it comes from Google, we’re conditioned to try-and-buy, without any babysitting. Small businesses don’t subscribe to Gartner, don’t hire Accenture for a feasibility study: their buying decision is very much a consumer-style process. Read a few reviews (ZDNet, not Gartner), test, decide and buy.

    The way we’ll all consume software as a service some day.

    Update: As an aside, the Read/WriteWeb article that inspired this post demonstrates the “enterprise software sexiness” issue, which was started by Robert Scoble and became a Firestorm, per Nick Carr. I really think it’s a very thoughtful post, which, quite unusually for Read/WriteWeb sat alone at the bottom of TechMeme, then dropped off quickly. Now, has this not been about Accounting (yeah, I know, boring) software by Google, but, say adding colors to Gmail labels, in the next half an hour all the usual suspects would have piled on, and this would have taken up the top half of TechMeme. smile_sarcastic

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    SaaS Will Never Be the Same – Again

    The first time I said SaaS would never be the same was referring to Freshbook’s launch of their benchmarking service:

    It’s *the* hidden business model enabled by SaaS. An opportunity not talked about, but so obvious it has to be on the back of all SaaS CEO’s mind. Benchmarking is a huge business, practiced by research firms like Forrester, Hoovers, Dunn and Bradstreet, as well as by specialized shops like the Hackett group – none of which are affordable to small businesses. More importantly, all previous benchmarking efforts were hampered by the quality of source data, which, with systems behind firewalls was at least questionable. SaaS providers will have access to the most authentic data ever, aggregation if which leads to the most reliable industry metrics and benchmarking.

    Hosting customer data offers a lot more opportunities, beyond benchmarking. Tomorrow CRM provider Salesforce.com will launch a new service called Salesforce to Salesforce (S2S) that facilitates the sharing of data between customers -reports TechCrunch. I believe, just like Freshbook’s move, the ramifications of this new Salesforce service will go way beyond the immediate opportunities it brings to customers ( not that those are negligible: see first reaction by Echosign CEO Jason Lemkin, another business innovator in my book.)

    This is a first step in a paradigm-shift: while current concerns about SaaS mostly focus on the security, privacy, and consequently isolation of business data, eventually a culture of controlled sharing for business benefits will develop. Forget CRM; think of more complete business suites, like NetSuite, or when it really kicks in, SAP’s Business ByDesign, the most comprehensive SaaS business suite ever. Procurement, manufacturing, inventory, resources…etc data – can you envision the improvements in Supply Chain visibility? SaaS will never be the same – again.

    Update (12/5): Larry Dignan at Between the Lines sees the same opportunity:

    Today, the service is predictably focused on sharing sales lead and CRM-type information. But as Salesforce.com grabs more large customers its possible that the latest service could be used to exchange supply chain information and link other business processes.