Q&A: SugarCRM CTO Clint Oram talks cloud, big data and 10 years in tech

The CRM software company marked the 10th anniversary of its incorporation on July 4, a milestone not afforded to every startup that sets up shop in the tumultuous turnover zone of Silicon Valley.
Written by Natalie Gagliordi, Contributor

While most of the US was busy celebrating Independence Day this past weekend, there was another birthday commemoration quietly taking place in Cupertino, California, at the headquarters of SugarCRM. 

The CRM software company marked the 10th anniversary of its incoporation on July 4, a milestone not afforded to every startup that sets up shop in the tumultuous turnover zone of Silicon Valley.

Clint Oram

Since its birth in 2004, SugarCRM has garnered more than 7,000 customers, 400 employees and roughly 1.5 million users of its namesake CRM application. And with a decade now under its belt, Sugar sees itself as a staple player in the CRM space – even with mounting pressure from competitors and technology shifts that require constant, high-level agility.

I recently caught up with Clint Oram, co-founder and CTO of SugarCRM, to talk about the evolution of the company and how it plans to keep its momentum for the next ten years ahead.

What is it like now that Sugar is 10? Surviving ten years in Silicon Valley is no small fete, especially when there's always an up-and-comer ready to pounce on any signs of weakness in the marketplace. Sugar was once one of them. But now, having gone through the awkward teenage years, Oram said they've gained a level of stability.

"The decade mark is important in terms of perception for end customers. We work with a class of companies looking to make long-term investments and they want to make sure we are a company that is here to stay."

Changes and challenges. Oram said the financial crisis of the last decade, which managed to stifle budgets and take down industry stalwarts, posed plenty of obstacles for SugarCRM as a company. But the growing pains were put into perspective by technology's rapid pace of change and the complexity of figuring out the right business model.

"There have been a lot of technical shifts, like going from legacy client servers to the cloud, and a demand from our customers to help them grow. So that has taught us a lot, and we realized what we do best – which is serve the needs of companies who have multiple teams working together to collaborate around customers. As a result our business has shifted from focusing on small businesses to the enterprise. That has been one of the most significant changes with us."

Market direction, then and now. Oram said ten years ago the market was completely focused on moving from legacy applications served on-premise to apps served in the cloud. But that transformation of infrastructure is starting to wind down, he said.

"At the micro level, that shift in where infrastructure resides is basically completed. As a result, the companies who decided to move infrastructure to the cloud have done so, and for those companies who chose a private cloud, those decisions have been made as well. It's coming back to the fundamentals of why the technology is important."

The impact of cloud. Oram acknowledged the role Salesforce has played in moving CRM technology from legacy servers to cloud-based infrastructure, but he credits Sugar with joining the movement on the front lines. In addition to changing how the software business is done, Oram said cloud computing also impacted where it's done, as it's opened the doors to the needs of niche industries with strict control over data.

"We started working with companies that are looking for more control over their data, whether it's data security or compliance with government privacy regulations, or the simple mechanics of data. It's been a strong niche in the marketplace for us, to work with customers with stricter data control instead of requiring an off-the-shelf public cloud."

Big data, social and mobile fuel new era of CRM. Oram said the mobile and social boom was everything in CRM for the last four years. But now that shift is winding down as use of those channels weaves tighter into today's compute environment. The real challenge of the day lies with data, he said.

"Ten years ago it was about data entry, but the road ahead of us is not solving the problem of collecting data, but making that data usable. How can we turn big data into little data?"

Will SugarCRM ever make an IPO? SugarCRM is one of the bevy of tech IPOs rumored to arrive at some point this year. Of course, Oram would neither confirm nor deny that Sugar is considering becoming a public company, instead reiterating the "when the time is right" message.

"Overall our business is in a healthy position and I personally don't spend my time worrying about when and how an IPO happens. When it makes sense in the context of our business and the market as a whole, I totally envision Sugar as a public company."


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