Cloud9 rises above the analytics maelstrom

At last, analytics is becoming useful to business people. Instead of landing users with complex BI toolkits, vendors like Cloud9 are delivering automated integration and templated reports that give business managers the instant answers they need.

One of the trends I've noticed when talking to SaaS analytics vendors over the past year or two has been an exciting shift towards making their applications much more immediately useful for business people. Analytics is moving out of a specialist ghetto, where any report needed a highly skilled quasi-developer to set it up — and connections to data sources could take weeks or months of implementation work — into a sunlit upland where it can be a matter of hours from first try to final analysis.

The big change has been a leap forward in the degree of automation now being built into some of the newer SaaS analytics offerings. Take Cloud9, which has just announced a new roadmap for its performance management applications, along with a new $8 million venture funding round led by Mayfield Fund.

Cloud9 has honed its integration to Salesforce.com to the stage where it can collect data from hundreds of seats and deliver results within hours of the customer signing up. "It's totally an overnight experience for these customers," CEO Swayne Hill told me in a briefing last week. The reports provided can then be tuned using an iterative, collaborative development process over the next few weeks until the implementation is fully in production.

This has transformed the sales process compared to earlier generations of BI (Hill spent 14 years at Cognos so remembers those days well) — because there's no need to sell the customer on the concept before proving its worth. "I can afford to do the onboarding process in the sales cycle," Hill explained. So customers can see the solution in action before committing themselves, and Cloud9 doesn't have the cost of maintaining an expensive outbound sales force — instead, its sales team works its deals over the phone. "Our customers are experiencing a light-touch buying cycle from us," said Hill.

A move to templated solutions is another big change in SaaS analytics. The old 'business intelligence' (BI) approach was to give customers a complex toolkit with which to build custom reports — often it meant they never really got to a point where they could get real value from the application. Today, the approach is to give customers ready-made results which they can subsequently tune and customize should they wish to. The philosophy is that, "Business people don't want to build reports," said Hill. "I really want to solve that last mile problem. What sales people want is answers."

The final change is a new emphasis on real-time, up-to-the-minute information and analysis. "Where BI is using quarterly trends, our software is analyzing what's happening now," said Hill. Frequent fetches from the Salesforce.com database mean that users can see how the data is changing over time, giving managers valuable, actionable information. "We're able to satisfy that thirst they have for what's happening in the pipeline."

In addition to integrating to the core Salesforce.com sales pipeline data, Cloud9 rounds out its data analysis with integrations to NetSuite, SAP and Oracle financials, compensation and performance management applications and even spreadsheets. It has a product roadmap for the next two years to build out its library of templates into other functional areas such as marketing, terrority planning, service management and others.

Being a cloud provider, Cloud9 has the advantage when creating templates that it can tap into the best practice it sees its customers adopting. It also plans to open up its APIs to third party developers to bring outside innovation onto the platform.

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