Quick reminder of the challenges (and opportunities) in enterprise IT

Last week I did several reference calls on a new project we were looking at in the enterprise IT market.  In each case I was speaking with a senior IT executive at a large financial institution.  The calls were not to the company's existing customers, but rather to people I just felt would be thoughtful on the company's market opportunity.

As it turned out, each had actually evaluated the company's product and they started out the conversation by saying how impressed they were with the company's technical approach, how it was really innovative and superior to other solutions, and how much they liked the company's management team. So far, so good.

Then I asked the obvious next question: so did you buy the solution?  In each case, the answer was no. The why behind the no, however, is what is illuminating on some of the recurring  challenges for traditional start up enterprise IT companies.  Although they used different words, the consistent themes were:

  1. We went with our incumbent vendor.  We know their solution is not as good, but it is good enough and it is already integrated into our infrastructure and we know how to work with them.
  2. This project, while important, was not high enough on our priority list to get everyone's attention.  Given tight budgets, the only new initiatives we are doing relate to driving revenue or addressing pressing regulatory changes in our business.
  3. The company wanted to do a paid pilot with us to prove how much superior their solution was, but given a pilot required standing up new iT infrastructure and integrating into some of our core systems, this was a significant undertaking and not something we were willing to do given point two above.  Further, the pilot was required to demonstrate the business case which left us in a Catch-22 situation.

Many of the takeaways from this conversation are the same as I wrote about two years ago in my long enterprise IT post, but I felt they are worth repeating in the light of this conversation.  First, if your product/market focus requires a traditional enterprise IT approach, which for me means high touch direct sales with a product that requires some level of IT support and integration, you better make sure that:

  1. Your "superior solution" is significantly superior.  As in 10 times better, not 50% better.
  2. You are focused on a company's top three strategic initiatives, because nothing else is going to get funded in amounts or in a timeframe that will make you happy.

As you have likely figured out, these two things are hard.  In the fast paced technology world, sustainable 10x product differentiation is uncommon and fitting that with the ever-shifting strategic priorities of large organizations is even harder.

The alternative, of course, is to think creatively about ways to reduce the friction in the adoption process which is why we continue to be attracted to open-source, freemium and SaaS business models.  Instead of the conversation I had above, imagine if the customer was able to download/ sign up for the company's product -  without consuming any IT resources or getting into a lengthy procurement cycle – and then use the product and see its value.  If the product was easy to use and understand, did not require deep integration or if it did, the integration came "pre-built" via some partnerships, the potential customer would have been able to develop its business case and pre-qualify themselves as a relevant customer.  Thus they would consume minimal resources from the vendor until they raised their hand and said, I am ready to buy.  While this is by no means easy, if you have the right focus across your company in terms of product management, development and sales and marketing, it is likely an easier approach than trying to find that magical 10x better product that meets your customers top strategic priorities in an era of constrained budgets and shifting priorities.

Welcoming 10gen to the Flybridge portfolio

While I try to avoid promoting Flybridge portfolio companies on this blog, from time to time I will write about our new investments in the hope it sheds some light into how we are thinking about opportunities. 

Today it was announced that we recently invested, along with Union Square Ventures, in a New York City based company called 10gen. 10gen was founded by Dwight Merriman, Kevin Ryan and Eliot Horowitz and they are an open source software company that developed the non-relational database, MongoDB. 

We invested in 10gen for a few reasons:

  1. Strong founding team: Dwight was the co-founder and CTO at DoubleClick, Kevin was the President and CEO of DoubleClick and Eliot was a lead software architect at DoubleClick.  As a result, the team knows a few things about both building large scale web infrastructure and growing and scaling businesses.  We were also fortunate, in a prior life, to have been investors in DoubleClick so we also had the benefit of knowing the team well.  
  2. A belief in the "NoSQL" database market: while the name is a bit of a misnomer, we believe that databases are getting more specialized over time as users realize that the one size fits all relational database model does not often fit what they are trying to achieve with their applications.  Specifically, a schema-free, non relational document oriented database such as MongoDB is particularly well suited to web applications where scalability, performance and flexibility will be highly valued. Virtually all the web developers we spoke to in our diligence were using, either in production or in their labs, NoSQL databases with very positive results.  We expect this trend to only increase as more applications are deployed in Cloud environments as these databases are particularly well suited to that architecture.  
  3. MongoDB is a leading solution in this emerging market: while MongoDB was only recently introduced into the market after a few years of development, the product has been downloaded by tens of thousand developers and is in production at companies such as SourceForge, Business Insider and Disqus.

While there are other reasons we, in short, liked the team, the market opportunity and the company's specific solution.  We look forward to working with this great team to take advantage of this exciting opportunity.  If you have an interest in downloading the product, please click here, or joining the team, please click here.

The Rebirth of Enterprise IT

(This post pre-dates my own blog and first appeared on my partner Jeff's Seeing Both Sides.  While it is now dated – the first post was from September of 2007 – many of the thoughts still ring true so I thought I would include it here).

When Nicholas Carr wrote his now-famous Harvard Business Review article over four years ago, “IT Doesn’t Matter”, the most damning claim to our industry was that IT had become a commodity input – irrelevant as a source for strategic advantage. Many pundits, from Larry Ellison on down, began pontificating on the maturation, consolidation and eventual death of the enterprise software business – at least for companies whose names are not IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP or Symantec.

The general thesis goes something like the following: 1) corporate IT departments are looking to reduce, not increase their number of vendors and are therefore not inclined to work with start-ups; 2) customers no longer are pursuing best of breed strategies, but instead want integrated suites to simplify deployment and operations; 3) the sales and marketing costs of large enterprise software solutions are extremely high and drive a need for significant investments that are beyond the capabilities of many early stage companies; 4) the overall rate of growth of the software industry as a whole has slowed and there are few areas for innovation. Common analogies used by these pundits include the maturation and consolidation of the automobile and railroad industries in the early to mid 1900s. Pretty depressing stuff.

In the last six years, many venture capitalists are submitting their own vote on this debate with their feet, as the percent of funding dollars to software companies has declined from 25% of all venture disbursements in 2001 to 19% in the first half of 2007. Anecdotally, when you walk the halls of VCs around Sand Hill Road and Route 128, you hear a similar refrain: “We’re diversifying away from software… we are experimenting with consumer-driven business models… we like Web 2.0/new media plays”.

So where does that leave a talented entrepreneur (or VC, for that matter) with deep experience in this now passé field? While challenges remain, we submit that there remain numerous glimmers of hope in the enterprise software market – and certainly the recent reopening of the IPO market and the more robust M&A environment has brought some of these to light. If you look at some of these recent successes, themes and strategies emerge that entrepreneurs can adopt to drive the creation of successful companies:

  • Innovate to drive efficiency. For many times over the last decade, enterprise software companies positioned themselves as automating certain functional departments of corporations. First it was manufacturing, then financials, supply chain, sales, marketing etc. If this is your view of the enterprise software environment, then by and large Larry Ellison is right – there is little room for new categories and innovation. That said, if you spend time with the average CIO, you will hear a different story. In today’s “post-bubble” environment, CIOs have seen their staff and capital budgets cut back, but the demands on their organizations from business executives have continued to increase as companies seek to have a more flexible and cost-effective IT organization to support their business plans. CIOs have gotten their much sought-after “seat at the table”, but with that seat comes the pressure of accountability to deliver bottom-line results. Compounding this challenge of doing more with less is the sheer magnitude of the accumulated applications and technologies that have been deployed by enterprises over the last 20 years. The number of lines of code, disparate pieces of software, and points of integration has exploded exponentially. As a result, there remains a robust opportunity for focused vendors to drive innovative technology into enterprises to drive efficiency in IT operations. The bar, however, is quite high. If you can’t drive a 5 to 10 times reduction in key metrics, the status quo will prevail. A recent success story is Bladelogic, which went public in July of 2007 and trades at 13 times trailing twelve moths revenue, primarily due to the company’s success in automating data center operations, a key means to drive efficiency in IT operations. Opsware, which HP just agreed to acquire for $1.65 billion, is another example and also demonstrates there is a relatively healthy M&A market, as these innovative companies fill key product gaps for large acquirers, such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, HP and EMC, as well as mid-sized public companies such as BMC, CA and Symantec.
  • Wrap your software in commodity hardware. One of the complaints you will often hear from IT departments about working with a new vendor is the challenge of integrating their solution into their already complex environments. The mundane, manual tasks of requisitioning and provisioning the necessary hardware to run, or even pilot, the shiny new piece of software slows the path to adoption. As a result, a number of innovative software companies don’t appear at first blush to be software companies at all. Instead they sell pre-provisioned, plug and run, hardware appliances. Companies that adopt this model are not only able to leverage Moore’s law to drive performance, but also can ship their customers a unit that can be slotted into a rack and up and running in hours, not days. This allows customers to trial the solution and see the benefits immediately, mitigating the long sales cycles that plague many traditional enterprise solutions. Further, the appliance approach tends to lead to easier adoption by channels that are better suited to selling hardware than complex software. This appliance strategy was seen initially in the security software industry, but has since spread to other areas such as storage back up solutions from companies such as Data Domain, which recently went public and currently commands a $1.4 billion market capitalization on trailing twelve months revenue of $76 million.
  • Dominate a niche. Start-ups are often caught in a quandary. To raise money and hire the best people, they need to convince VCs, employees and other supporters of the company of a big vision and the opportunity to capture a billion dollar market. To do so, however, they run the risk of going too broad, too quickly and losing the laser focused approach that allows young start-ups to win against large, incumbent vendors. A better strategy is to instead think about climbing a staircase. You know you want to reach the next floor, but you don’t do that by trying to jump up 13 stairs all at once. Ask yourself, “What can I uniquely do today for a customer that solves a real problem and also provides a link to doing more things for those customers in the future?” In today’s age of rapid development, componentized software and offshore resources, software code is relatively easy and cheap to write, and is no longer the “barrier to entry” and source of competitive advantage it was ten or twenty years ago. Instead, what matters to customers (and potential acquirers) is the deep, domain-specific knowledge instantiated in that software. For an early stage company to build this knowledge, they need to be incredibly focused in a given domain and make sure they have people on their team who understand a customer’s business better than the customer does themselves. Unica, a recently public $80 million in revenue marketing automation company in Boston is a good example of this. When they first got going, they had the best data mining tools for marketing analysts on the planet. Not a huge market, but one that valued innovation and provided a logical steppingstone to campaign management, lead generation, planning and the other marketing tools that the company sells today.
  • Explore SaaS (software-as-a-service). If the key barrier to success for early stage enterprise software companies is excessive sales and marketing costs, adopting a software-as-a-service model may be the right approach. This is more than just selling your software on a subscription versus perpetual license basis. Instead, SaaS is all about making it easy for customers to understand, try and, ultimately, gain value from your software. In 5 minutes and for no up front cost, I can become a user of Salesforce.com. Within the 30 day trial period, I can self-qualify and decide if it is the right solution for me and worth the on-going subscription cost. Most importantly, I can potentially do this without consuming a single dollar of their sales and marketing spend. None of the airplane trips, four-legged sales calls, custom demos, proofs of concept or lengthy contract negotiations that lead to the 6 to 12 month sales cycle that costs a traditional software firm 75% of their new license revenue in a given quarter.
  • Consider Open Source. Open-Source is not about free software, but rather products that have seen, or have the potential to see, widespread grassroots customer adoption. A passionate end-user community has the benefit of driving a development cycle that quickly surfaces key product requirements and needed bug fixes. Further, the grassroots adoption of the product provides a ready installed base of early adopters who will promote the product across their enterprise, purchase professional services and acquire more feature rich versions of the product. Like SaaS, this is a way to mitigate high sales and marketing costs. When My SQL looks for customers for the enterprise version of their open-source database, they have to look no further than the estimated 11 million active installations of their software or the 750,000 plus people that subscribe to their email newsletter. RedHat’s version of Linux, Jboss’s version of the application server and Sugar CRM are three other well-known open source success stories, but other opportunities abound.

Enterprise software entrepreneurship and investing is certainly not for the faint of heart, but when pursued with some combination of the strategies above, we believe interesting opportunities remain for innovative companies to make their mark in the world and have a positive impact. Contrary to the claims of many, it is still possible to build these companies in a relatively capital efficient manner. Sticking to some of the examples cited above, it is illuminating to note that Bladelogic raised $29 million of venture capital before its IPO, Data Domain $41 million, Unica $11 million, Red Hat $16 million and Jboss (pre-acquisition) $10 million. Only Salesforce.com raised a lot of capital – $64 million – although almost 75% of that came in their last round when one would assume there was evidence the model was beginning to work.

In the end, we believe the analogy to the automotive industry is flawed. The manufacture and distribution of cars is fundamentally different from the software industry. In auto industry, there are tremendous benefits of scale, the underlying platform (tires, chassis, internal combustion engine, frame and skin) has remained the same for decades, and there is little room for small players to access end-users. Software, on the other hand, is a digital good and an information business. Innovation is limited only by the creativity of the author. Small teams can be extraordinarily productive – often times more so than larger teams and organizations. The underlying platform and architecture has changed several times in the last 30 years, and there is no physical product to distribute, thus end-users can be accessed much more directly. Is there a benefit to the incumbency and distribution might of IBM, Oracle or EMC? Absolutely. Does that mean there is no place for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship in this industry? Absolutely not.