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Salesforce.com Dreams Big - and Forcefully Part I

Marc Benioff is a consummate showman. He is able to get audiences roaring and is fearless on stage about saying what he wants to say and even unafraid of showing his own weaknesses - the safe ones to show at least.

Marc Benioff is a consummate showman. He is able to get audiences roaring and is fearless on stage about saying what he wants to say and even unafraid of showing his own weaknesses - the safe ones to show at least.  He is funny and when you get beneath the rainbow colored socks, a truly knowledgeable geek when it comes to his company's products and services. He is not only a great storyteller himself, but understands the value of stories, which is why he brings customers on stage and carefully orchestrates a conversation between him and them.

But he is also one of the smartest business people I've ever seen and he's taken what is now a $1.5 billion company and has it not only competing with the $35 billion bad boys like Microsoft, Oracle and SAP but is forcing them to respond to salesforce.com, rather than the other way around.

He does this because he has embedded two things in the company's DNA in the last 18 months or so.  First, the consumerization of the workplace and second, the requirement for continuous technological innovation from that very standpoint.

The most enjoyable way this reflects itself is by his incessant efforts at surrounding himself and his conference buds with celebrities. Meaning mixing pleasure (consumer) with business (the workplace). For example, not only did the Black Eyed Peas guiding light and  uber artist, will.i.am perform at Dreamforce 2010 and its 30,000 attendees, but he spoke in a seemingly impromptu but most clearly staged way on the value of the cloud to him. BTW, don't underestimate will.i.am. His articulation of the value of the cloud was pretty extraordinary because of how well he understood it even though as he said "I'm probably the only music business person here."  The dude is a genuinely smart guy - and worth listening to. Good music too.

But back to Marc B.....

His way of approaching that is not just to assume that the line of business users have been "consumerized" but to assume that IT has too - a correct assumption. That means that the tools that IT needs to have and the applications that they need to administer are built according to the same concepts being applied to the users and future users of these tools.  Departments and the individuals in those departments have jobs to do - and they need to feel good about doing those jobs - while still meeting their KPIs and departmental imperatives.

He also realizes that in order to innovate meaningfully - which would be innovation that provides value to customers but also to your business i.e. salesforce.com here - you have to think in terms of the contemporary trends that both impact the formulation of the concept and actually can be applied to the thinking. This is why he is so hot on Facebook - and mobile devices - and the cloud. Along with the consumerization theme.

But, he is also driven by not only being the leading "not-software" company in the world, but the most celebrated, so when Dreamforce comes around each year, it is the salesforce.com showcase for what is "amazing" and "outstanding", which, if you believed what was coming from the varying stages of the show, is everything that salesforce.com is doing. Except that all of it isn't amazing or outstanding. Interesting and even excellent at times, part of a coherent very smart strategy that's working -  yes. But fireworks? Nooooo.

So what I'm going to do here, after spending the couple of days thinking through the enormous volume ofs messages, products and services that were released into the environment - with very little carbon footprint I might add - is to separate the substance from what was the environmentally pure (0.009), but nonetheless hot air we were all subjected to at times.

General Observations - The Conference Itself

One thing that is undeniable about Dreamforce year to year is that it has an energy like no other conference and is more fun than a conference of its kind has the right to be.  While I can't say that salesforce.com ever goes to the length of mocking itself, (it has no compunctions on that score when it comes to its rivals), it does as a company, like to play.  The honest energy that permeates the event, is also reflected in the individual management at the company - people like Kendall Collins, John Taschek, Brent Queener, and many others - all in senior positions and all just plain really good people who are fun to hang with - if the chance is there (that is one beef I do have with salesforce.com - more a little later).  They are honestly nice and even though they, as senior management, have drunk the SFDC Koolaid, it isn't a b.s. thing for them. They truly believe in what the company is and what it does and what they do - and still remain nice guys. Nice guys plus great atmosphere - and atmospherics - makes an energetic electric and feel good conference environment.

But that isn't the purpose of the conference, now is it? Well, not all the purpose in any case.  They have a strong message they need to get across and a series of announcements to make and a significant number of tasks they need to accomplish as a unified, ahem, force, with multiple constituencies - e.g. customers, influencers, partners and now developers - so that they get the value that they planned for and paid to get.

Before I get into the cage on this, I would say that they accomplished much of what they set out to do, but that all that they threw out there wasn't all that they claimed either. I think some of it was amazing, some of it welcome, some of it not all that big a deal despite their attempts to make it a big deal and some of it a mistake.

General Observations - The Strategy Going Forward

I want to begin this part by telling you a story.

Story: Straight Ahead - No Zig No Zag

Stop me if you've heard this one.  No, wait, I'm still gonna tell it. Back in 2003, I happened to be speaking in Shanghai. Tien Tzuo, the then Chief Strategy Officer, now CEO of the wildly successful "middle office in the cloud"(check out what I mean when I release the Final Watchlist at the end of the year) company Zuora, happened to be in Shanghai at the same time. We were (and are) good friends so we hooked up for breakfast at some hotel that I forget.  I was writing the 3rd edition of  CRM at the Speed of Light at the time and I asked him "What's salesforce.com's long term strategy?"  Here's what he told, paraphrased of course:

"We don't want to be just CRM. CRM is something we'll always do, but we see it as a stepping stone to something much bigger. We want to be the Business Web - the platform that when you wake up in the morning and fire up your computer at work, all your applications will be running on this. That's where we want to go. CRM is the first step but not the final one."

Now the Strategy

To the HUGE credit of salesforce.com, they have NEVER waivered one bit from being the Business Web,  though the name has changed to PaaS.  They've made missteps (keeping their programming language proprietary so long that by the time they opened it up by adding Ruby on Rails it actually wasn't a problem anymore)  they over marketed the originality of Chatter and even, early on, its readiness. (Chatter 1 wasn't pretty much eh - and never revolutionary - more on Chatter 2 later), but despite this hiccups - and that's all they are - they drove relentlessly toward being the "Business Web for all your buiness applications." While I don't think they'll ever be "the one" that everyone uses, they are going to be successful in their effort to be a leading platform of choice - the Business Web, which is now an ever-so-quaint term, isn't it? So 2003.

What that entails in 2011 and going forward is the escalation of their 2007 announced Platform as a Service (PaaS) strategy with the release of the then proprietary force.com.  The success of force.com will result in the success of the "Business Web for all your business applications" that they've been committed to for almost a decade now.

Of course, in order to succeed at this, they need to have two groups in their back pocket - customers, natch, and developers, not as obviously natch.  The customers for obvious reasons - "your" apps means customers apps.  The developers because the 21st century social customer, to do that, has a list of demands that have to be met, among them:

  1. An easy to navigate user interface and an easy to like user experience
  2. A series of choices as to where they will access this business web - on their desktop via the web, on their mobile devices - regardless of which they want to use - any of their five.
  3. A means of carrying out successful transactions, interactions, and actions in the channel in which they want to operate - which means, purchases or returns, etc; social activity; and just application execution, meaning running the functions they need to do the jobs they have to accomplish
  4. A highly personalized and consumable experience - one that pretty much responds to the individual - even more so than the demographic segment. This in any environment - B2B, B2C, P2P, whatever.
  5. And little fuss in being able to do all of this at the customer's level

What salesforce.com realized that this has two components - embracing the consumerization of the workplace and the control that the customer has of the conversation (meaning give them what they want to the extent it can be done) and opening up and expanding the development environment and building out a massive development community so that they can do all of this.

The Consumerization of the Workplace/World - and Chatter

It's no coincidence that salesforce.com makes a big deal about their alliances with Google and Facebook - the latter particularly. They even trotted out the CIO of Facebook at Dreamforce as much to reinforce the visibility of the alliance as to have him talk about the use of salesforce.com at Facebook itself.  What salesforce has been the best in the (no) software world at figuring out is that there is a fundamental shift in the market and that business is part of life - not separate - and the visual paradigms of the personal preferences of customers as human beings need to carry to the services and applications that they provide.

Its no coincidence that Chatter, for example, looks like a streamlined (for the better incidentally) Facebook. In fact, coolness is built into the salesforce.com cloud services DNA so that people can actually enjoy using the applications. A case in point is that not only did they release an instance of Chatter to the conference attendees for their use, but developed a Facebook-resembling mobile iPhone app for Dreamforce 10 that triggered massive feedback (for the better) because of the engagement of the conference participants in the use of the app. I used it and was sold on it, though had a few things that I think can be better. I'm going to save those suggestions for a private discussion with salesforce.com when I get around to it.

Honestly, a year ago, with the release of Chatter 1, I was underwhelmed. There were no filters meaning the activity streams were just lots of undifferentiated noise. It made no sense to me as a standalone application and others had done the individual components of Chatter as well or even better than salesforce.com. I saw its primary value in it as layer in force.com.

With the prerelease of Chatter 2 and my use of it for Dreamforce 2010, most of my objections have been taken care of.  I still think that its best served as a layer of force.com (cold or hot, whatever your preference) but I can see the immense value of it as a collaboration clouds service inside a company, even standalone where it would function as a distinct community rather than a fully integrated enterprise collaboration platform.

Most importantly, filters (the most important change) are now in place, so you can actually fine tune what you want to see in any individual activity stream rather than have to subscribe to the entire activity stream, including all the unwanted info.

Its value is so clear that it's had the fastest adoption rate of any product in the company's history - 67% of the 87,000 customers.  If you're familiar with Facebook, you're more or less familiar with Chatter, though Chatter is actually less cluttered than Facebook and has a more narrow function than Facebook.  It also has the very robust administrative controls that of course, Facebook doesn't - because it's a business service and Facebook isn't.

Even with all this, Chatter shouldn't only be looked at as a standalone. What is equally as important and perhaps more formidable is its integration into Sales Cloud 2 and Service Cloud 2 AND its ability to function as a layer in force.com - allowing the workforce a.k.a. the users to have an enterprise collaboration community in whatever they are using. The release of Chatter Free, which is also Chatter Lite, is an homage to that - and a smart move that is designed to get the users to move upstream to the $15/mo/user full Chatter product.  Chatter Free is free if you have an instance with a single user or more of Sales Cloud 2 or Service Cloud 2.

A word of caution. Despite the Chatter 2 euphoria, if I was salesforce.com, I would take heed of Oracle's Fusion apps. I've seen them and their enterprise collaboration capabilities are seamlessly integrated into all the Fusion apps to a greater degree than Chatter.  This is a serious and maybe superior - I'm not saying that with any certainty at this point - enterprise collaboration integration that salesforce.com needs to be concerned with. Oracle Fusion was worth the wait and will go to full release - theoretically in the 1st quarter of 2011.

No other software provider is even close to salesforce in getting the idea of how the customer experience is now based on engagement.  That is their power. And its a formidable one.

Now Enter...the Developers

At its heart, salesforce is a geeky company and always has been up to and including its CEO. Its not just the kind of gadget geeky that I am for example, but heart and soul a seriously technical outfit that really can dig deep into the bytes of an application - but with an acute understanding of the audiences that are buying their stuff - knowing that its not the developers who are - but line of business folks.

However, they've also realized that to seriously achieve their vision and strategy, that for the first time, developers - their employees - and a development community need to be far more actively engaged - and they took ENORMOUS steps to make this the case.  Here they are:

  1. The acquisition of Heroku - Salesforce acquired Heroku for $212 million, pocket change for them, a windfall for this 30 person company. What they truly acquired was a Ruby on Rails development environment that's very popular in the open source community.  This is a great acquisition because it allows them to both keep Apex - their proprietary development language and at the same time use an open development environment that they hope will attract a community that wants to work with them. COMMENTS: Two things. First, what makes this a smart acquisition is that while line of business people couldn't care less whether service or application that they're using is open or proprietary - as long as it works for them - it truly does matter to developers and will most likely attract a wide and independent development community who will take the AppExchange a lot closer to Apple AppStore levels of available apps and services. That said, salesforce better not assume that creating this open development community, already formidably in place with their competitors - especially Microsoft, SAP and SugarCRM, is going to be a slam dunk because of Ruby on Rails. The Heroku development community is split almost down the middle about this with about half being not very happy about this acquisition. Several of them have vocalized their unhappiness. These notoriously independent folks think of salesforce.com as a big company who are going to commercialize their wonderful development world - and they are right about that.  But they see it as a negative.  Its not but perception matters.
  2. Their release of Force 2 and the five forces - They've released a more robust iteration of force.com that focuses around highly specific skill areas.  Siteforce (web development), VMforce (a java development environment); Remedyforce (an IT management environment), Appforce (applications development) and ISVforce (an partner based development sub-platform) are part of their attempt to provide a complete platform capability and to entice developers with tools that support development on force.com.  COMMENTS: Force.com has been enormously successful already with 310,000 developers who have signed up for their programs and 185,000 custom apps built on the platform. Not bad.  But there is a lot further way to go.  SAP has 3.5 million developers in their Software Developers Network (SDN) community and Microsoft more than that.  So 310,000, while substantial unto itself comes nowhere near the numbers.  By adding the new "forces", (and Ruby on Rails), they potentially appealing to a much wider developers audience that can skyrocket their numbers and the quality of the output from their developers.  A good thing. Though a formidable task.
  3. Their data strategy -database.com - This one is interesting because it has two parts - database.com and the further and much deeper investment into Jigsaw. Database.com is "data in the cloud." For a great look at what database.com is check out Denis Pombriant's analysis of a few days ago.  I agree with him on this about 100% about how to characterize this. What makes database.com interesting is that it is what it sounds like. A database that developers can use whether or not they are using force.com.  So it is decoupled from the platform and yet is also more than Storage as a Service. This is a full blown database - a blank one - being made available for developers to use.  COMMENTS: What can you say? This is another way to attract developers to the "Business Web" and works w/o force.com in the mix.
  4. Their data strategy - Jigsaw - When salesforce acquires a company, it doesn't just acquire the assets and shelve them. It acquires with the idea of a future serious investment in making it better. So when it got Jigsaw for $127M it also planned on making major investments in taking Jigsaw's successful crowdsourcing model and expanding it greatly so that they can get the business data (and the social data) on even more millions of users.  As Jigsaw stands today, its data covers 9 countries and 24 million records.  The plan, according to Kevin Akeroyd, Jigsaw General Manager, is to take that much further globally. Of course, its part of the "data cloud" - another of the salesforce.com misnamed clouds.  That said, the idea is to become the world's leading source of customer data and company data - now with pipes to and from other partnered sources - but ultimately as a sole source of customer data that is maintained by the customers - in other words - follow the original plan but on steroids. COMMENTS: While this isn't a developers strategy, it is tied to their data strategy which is geared to developers with database.com.  I'm probably more excited than others about this but I think that this is more important to the LOB people that salesforce.com has to reach than database.com - which is I guess is obvious - and is a huge upside if done well. I always wonder though about the data quality despite the self-policing claims. Wikipedia is far from pure and has had to institute information integrity controls that are pretty much traditional alongside the crowdsourcing self-policing.  I think Jigsaw will have to follow the same practices.

In Sum...

All those people who gripe about salesforce veering away from CRM, please shut up.  They have been clear on their vision and their desire to not only be a CRM company - despite their stock symbol.  Arguing about the "purity" of being a CRM vendor if you've been one in the past  is ridiculous. If a company has a vision that they pursue doggedly and successfully, good for them.  Their strategy has shifted a bit toward what I outlined earlier - the consumerization of the workplace and need to draw in developers - but that's in service of their vision - to be the Business Web - and they are doing what they have to do for that to happen.

Good for them.

Tomorrow: The Messaging, Conclusions and Other Sources