Aug
19
2020
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A pandemic and recession won’t stop Atlassian’s SaaS push

No company is completely insulated from the macroeconomic fallout of COVID-19, but we are seeing some companies fare better than others, especially those providing ways to collaborate online. Count Atlassian in that camp, as it provides a suite of tools focused on working smarter in a digital context.

At a time when many employees are working from home, Atlassian’s product approach sounds like a recipe for a smash hit. But in its latest earnings report, the company detailed slowing growth, not the acceleration we might expect. Looking ahead, it’s predicting more of the same — at least for the short term.

Part of the reason for that — beyond some small-business customers, hit by hard times, moving to its new free tier introduced last March — is the pain associated with moving customers off of older license revenue to more predictable subscription revenue. The company has shown that it is willing to sacrifice short-term growth to accelerate that transition.

We sat down with Atlassian CRO Cameron Deatsch to talk about some of the challenges his company is facing as it navigates through these crazy times. Deatsch pointed out that in spite of the turbulence, and the push to subscriptions, Atlassian is well-positioned with plenty of cash on hand and the ability to make strategic acquisitions when needed, while continuing to expand the recurring-revenue slice of its revenue pie.

The COVID-19 effect

Deatsch told us that Atlassian could not fully escape the pandemic’s impact on business, especially in April and May when many companies felt it. His company saw the biggest impact from smaller businesses, which cut back, moved to a free tier, or in some cases closed their doors. There was no getting away from the market chop that SMBs took during the early stages of COVID, and he said it had an impact on Atlassian’s new customer numbers.

Atlassian Q4FY2020 customer growth graph

Image Credits: Atlassian

Still, the company believes it will recover from the slow down in new customers, especially as it begins to convert a percentage of its new, free-tier users to paid users down the road. For this quarter it only translated into around 3000 new customers, but Deatsch didn’t seem concerned. “The customer numbers were off, but the overall financials were pretty strong coming out of [fiscal] Q4 if you looked at it. But also the number of people who are trying our products now because of the free tier is way up. We saw a step change when we launched free,” he said.

Aug
12
2020
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Adaptive Shield raises $4M for its SaaS security platform

Adaptive Shield, a Tel Aviv-based security startup, is coming out of stealth today and announcing its $4 million seed round led by Vertex Ventures Israel. The company’s platform helps businesses protect their SaaS applications by regularly scanning their various setting for security issues.

The company’s co-founders met in the Israeli Defense Forces, where they were trained on cybersecurity, and then worked at a number of other security companies before starting their own venture. Adaptive Shield CEO Maor Bin, who previously led cloud research at Proofpoint, told me the team decided to look at SaaS security because they believe this is an urgent problem few other companies are addressing.

Pictured is a representative sample of nine apps being monitored by the Adaptive Shield platform, including the total score of each application, affected categories and affected security frameworks and standards. (Image Credits: Adaptive Shield)

“When you look at the problems that are out there — you want to solve something that is critical, that is urgent,” he said. “And what’s more critical than business applications? All the information is out there and every day, we see people moving their on-prem infrastructure into the cloud.”

Bin argues that as companies adopt a large variety of SaaS applications, all with their own security settings and user privileges, security teams are often either overwhelmed or simply not focused on these SaaS tools because they aren’t the system owners and may not even have access to them.

“Every enterprise today is heavily using SaaS services without addressing the associated and ever-changing security risks,” says Emanuel Timor, general partner at Vertex Ventures Israel . “We are impressed by the vision Adaptive Shield has to elegantly solve this complex problem and by the level of interest and fast adoption of its solution by customers.”

Onboarding is pretty easy, as Bin showed me, and typically involves setting up a user in the SaaS app and then logging into a given service through Adaptive Shield. Currently, the company supports most of the standard SaaS enterprise applications you would expect, including GitHub, Office 365, Salesforce, Slack, SuccessFactors and Zoom.

“I think that one of the most important differentiators for us is the amount of applications that we support,” Bin noted.

The company already has paying customers, including some Fortune 500 companies across a number of verticals, and it has already invested some of the new funding round, which closed before the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, into building out more integrations for these customers. Bin tells me that Adaptive Shield immediately started hiring once the round closed and is now also in the process of hiring its first employee in the U.S. to help with sales.

Jun
22
2020
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4 enterprise developer trends that will shape 2021

Technology has dramatically changed over the last decade, and so has how we build and deliver enterprise software.

Ten years ago, “modern computing” was to rely on teams of network admins managing data centers, running one application per server, deploying monolithic services, through waterfall, manual releases managed by QA and release managers.

Today, we have multi and hybrid clouds, serverless services, in continuous integration, running infrastructure-as-code.

SaaS has grown from a nascent 2% of the $450B enterprise software market in 2009, to 23% in 2020 and crossed $100B in revenue. PaaS and IaaS revenue represent another $50B in revenue, expecting to double to $100B by 2022.

With 77% of the enterprise software market — over $350B in annual revenue — still on legacy and on-premise systems, modern SaaS, PaaS and IaaS eating at the legacy market alone can grow the market 3x-4x over the next decade.

As the shift to cloud accelerates across the platform and infrastructure layers, here are four trends starting to emerge that will change how we develop and deliver enterprise software for the next decade.

1. The move to “everything as code”

Companies are building more dynamic, multiplatform, complex infrastructures than ever. We see the “-aaS” of the application, data, runtime and virtualization layers. Modern architectures are forcing extensibility to work with any number of mixed and matched services.

May
20
2020
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BetterCloud scores $75M Series F as SaaS management needs grow

BetterCloud gives IT visibility into its SaaS tools providing the means to discover, manage and secure those tools. In the middle of a crisis that has forced most companies to move workers home, being able to manage SaaS usage in this way is growing increasingly significant.

Today the company announced a $75 million Series F. Warburg Pincus led the way with participation from existing investors Bain Capital Ventures, Accel, Greycroft Partners, Flybridge Capital Partners, New Amsterdam Growth Capital and e.ventures. Today’s round brings the total raised to $187 million, according to the company.

While CEO David Politis acknowledges the gravity of the current situation, he also recognizes that giving companies a way to manage their SaaS usage is more pertinent than ever. “What has happened in the last two months has been terrible for the world, but in some crazy way it has just made what we do a lot more relevant,” Politis told TechCrunch .

He says the pandemic has really accelerated the market opportunity because of the reliance on cloud services and the services his company provides.

Those services began as an operational layer on top of G Suite. Later it added support for Office 365 and in 2016 it moved to more general SaaS management. It now offers direct integrations into multiple SaaS apps including Box, Dropbox, Salesforce, Zendesk and more. The set of tools in Bettercloud gives IT control over security, configuration, spend optimization and auditability across SaaS applications.

In normal times after a large Series F round, we might be talking about this being the last round before an IPO, but Politis isn’t ready to commit to that just yet, especially in this economy. He does say, however, that he’s in it for the long haul and sees an opportunity to build a long-term, sustainable company.

“The last couple of months I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and when you take a $75 million round at the stage you’re not doing that because you want to sell the business. You’re doing that because you want to build something and build something really special,” he said.

Apr
22
2020
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AWS launches Amazon AppFlow, its new SaaS integration service

AWS today launched Amazon AppFlow, a new integration service that makes it easier for developers to transfer data between AWS and SaaS applications like Google Analytics, Marketo, Salesforce, ServiceNow, Slack, Snowflake and Zendesk. Like similar services, including Microsoft Azure’s Power Automate, for example, developers can trigger these flows based on specific events, at pre-set times or on-demand.

Unlike some of its competitors, though, AWS is positioning this service more as a data transfer service than a way to automate workflows and while the data flow can be bi-directional, AWS’s announcement focuses mostly on moving data from SaaS applications to other AWS services for further analysis. For this, AppFlow also includes a number of tools for transforming the data as it moves through the service.

“Developers spend huge amounts of time writing custom integrations so they can pass data between SaaS applications and AWS services so that it can be analysed; these can be expensive and can often take months to complete,” said AWS principal advocate Martin Beeby in today’s announcement. “If data requirements change, then costly and complicated modifications have to be made to the integrations. Companies that don’t have the luxury of engineering resources might find themselves manually importing and exporting data from applications, which is time-consuming, risks data leakage, and has the potential to introduce human error.”

Every flow (which AWS defines as a call to a source application to transfer data to a destination) costs $0.001 per run, though, in typical AWS fashion, there’s also cost associated with data processing (starting at 0.02 per GB).

“Our customers tell us that they love having the ability to store, process, and analyze their data in AWS. They also use a variety of third-party SaaS applications, and they tell us that it can be difficult to manage the flow of data between AWS and these applications,” said Kurt Kufeld, Vice President, AWS. “Amazon AppFlow provides an intuitive and easy way for customers to combine data from AWS and SaaS applications without moving it across the public Internet. With Amazon AppFlow, our customers bring together and manage petabytes, even exabytes, of data spread across all of their applications – all without having to develop custom connectors or manage underlying API and network connectivity.”

At this point, the number of supported services remains comparatively low, with only 14 possible sources and four destinations (Amazon Redshift and S3, as well as Salesforce and Snowflake). Sometimes, depending on the source you select, the only possible destination is Amazon’s S3 storage service.

Over time, the number of integrations will surely increase, but for now, it feels like there’s still quite a bit more work to do for the AppFlow team to expand the list of supported services.

AWS has long left this market to competitors, even though it has tools like AWS Step Functions for building serverless workflows across AWS services and EventBridge for connections applications. Interestingly, EventBridge currently supports a far wider range of third-party sources, but as the name implies, its focus is more on triggering events in AWS than moving data between applications.

Oct
30
2019
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Samsung ramps up its B2B partner and developer efforts

Chances are you mostly think of Samsung as a consumer-focused electronics company, but it actually has a very sizable B2B business as well, which serves more than 15,000 large enterprises and hundreds of thousands of SMB entrepreneurs via its partners. At its developer conference this week, it’s putting the spotlight squarely on this side of its business — with a related hardware launch as well. The focus of today’s news, however, is on Knox, Samsung’s mobile security platform, and Project AppStack, which will likely get a different name soon, and which provides B2B customers with a new mechanism to deliver SaaS tools and native apps to their employees’ devices, as well as new tools for developers that make these services more discoverable.

At least in the U.S., Samsung hasn’t really marketed its B2B business all that much. With this event, the company is clearly thinking to change that.

At its core, Samsung is, of course, a hardware company, and as Taher Behbehani, the head of its U.S. mobile B2B division, told me, Samsung’s tablet sales actually doubled in the last year, and most of these were for industrial deployments and business-specific solutions. To better serve this market, the company today announced that it is bringing the rugged Tab Active Pro to the U.S. market. Previously, it was only available in Europe.

The Active Pro, with its 10.1″ display, supports Samsung’s S Pen, as well as Dex for using it on the desktop. It’s got all of the dust and water-resistance you would expect from a rugged device, is rated to easily support drops from about four feet high and promises up to 15 hours of battery life. It also features LTE connectivity and has an NFC reader on the back to allow you to badge into a secure application or take contactless payments (which are quite popular in most of the world but are only very slowly becoming a thing in the U.S.), as well as a programmable button to allow business users and frontline workers to open any application they select (like a barcode scanner).

“The traditional rugged devices out there are relatively expensive, relatively heavy to carry around for a full shift,” Samsung’s Chris Briglin told me. “Samsung is growing that market by serving users that traditionally haven’t been able to afford rugged devices or have had to share them between up to four co-workers.”

Today’s event is less about hardware than software and partnerships, though. At the core of the announcements is the new Knox Partner Program, a new way for partners to create and sell applications on Samsung devices. “We work with about 100,000 developers,” said Behbehani. “Some of these developers are inside companies. Some are outside independent developers and ISVs. And what we hear from these developer communities is when they have a solution or an app, how do I get that to a customer? How do I distribute it more effectively?”

This new partner program is Samsung’s solution for that. It’s a three-tier partner program that’s an evolution of the existing Samsung Enterprise Alliance program. At the most basic level, partners get access to support and marketing assets. At all tiers, partners can also get Knox validation for their applications to highlight that they properly implement all of the Knox APIs.

The free Bronze tier includes access to Knox SDKs and APIs, as well as licensing keys. At the Silver level, partners will get support in their region, while Gold-level members get access to the Samsung Solutions Catalog, as well as the ability to be included in the internal catalog used by Samsung sales teams globally. “This is to enable Samsung teams to find the right solutions to meet customer needs, and promote these solutions to its customers,” the company writes in today’s announcement. Gold-level partners also get access to test devices.

The other new service that will enable developers to reach more enterprises and SMBs is Project AppStack.

“When a new customer buys a Samsung device, no matter if it’s an SMB or an enterprise, depending on the information they provide to us, they get to search for and they get to select a number of different applications specifically designed to help them in their own vertical and for the size of the business,” explained Behbehani. “And once the phone is activated, these apps are downloaded through the ISV or the SaaS player through the back-end delivery mechanism which we are developing.”

For large enterprises, Samsung also runs an algorithm that looks at the size of the business and the vertical it is in to recommend specific applications, too.

Samsung will run a series of hackathons over the course of the next few months to figure out exactly how developers and its customers want to use this service. “It’s a module. It’s a technology backend. It has different components to it,” said Behbehani. “We have a number of tools already in place we have to fine- tune others and we also, to be honest, want to make sure that we come up with a POC in the marketplace that accurately reflects the requirements and the creativity of what the demand is in the marketplace.”

Sep
06
2019
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APIs are the next big SaaS wave

While the software revolution started out slowly, over the past few years it’s exploded and the fastest-growing segment to-date has been the shift towards software as a service or SaaS.

SaaS has dramatically lowered the intrinsic total cost of ownership for adopting software, solved scaling challenges and taken away the burden of issues with local hardware. In short, it has allowed a business to focus primarily on just that — its business — while simultaneously reducing the burden of IT operations.

Today, SaaS adoption is increasingly ubiquitous. According to IDG’s 2018 Cloud Computing Survey, 73% of organizations have at least one application or a portion of their computing infrastructure already in the cloud. While this software explosion has created a whole range of downstream impacts, it has also caused software developers to become more and more valuable.

The increasing value of developers has meant that, like traditional SaaS buyers before them, they also better intuit the value of their time and increasingly prefer businesses that can help alleviate the hassles of procurement, integration, management, and operations. Developer needs to address those hassles are specialized.

They are looking to deeply integrate products into their own applications and to do so, they need access to an Application Programming Interface, or API. Best practices for API onboarding include technical documentation, examples, and sandbox environments to test.

APIs tend to also offer metered billing upfront. For these and other reasons, APIs are a distinct subset of SaaS.

For fast-moving developers building on a global-scale, APIs are no longer a stop-gap to the future—they’re a critical part of their strategy. Why would you dedicate precious resources to recreating something in-house that’s done better elsewhere when you can instead focus your efforts on creating a differentiated product?

Thanks to this mindset shift, APIs are on track to create another SaaS-sized impact across all industries and at a much faster pace. By exposing often complex services as simplified code, API-first products are far more extensible, easier for customers to integrate into, and have the ability to foster a greater community around potential use cases.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.40.51 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Billion-dollar businesses building APIs

Whether you realize it or not, chances are that your favorite consumer and enterprise apps—Uber, Airbnb, PayPal, and countless more—have a number of third-party APIs and developer services running in the background. Just like most modern enterprises have invested in SaaS technologies for all the above reasons, many of today’s multi-billion dollar companies have built their businesses on the backs of these scalable developer services that let them abstract everything from SMS and email to payments, location-based data, search and more.

Simultaneously, the entrepreneurs behind these API-first companies like Twilio, Segment, Scale and many others are building sustainable, independent—and big—businesses.

Valued today at over $22 billion, Stripe is the biggest independent API-first company. Stripe took off because of its initial laser-focus on the developer experience setting up and taking payments. It was even initially known as /dev/payments!

Stripe spent extra time building the right, idiomatic SDKs for each language platform and beautiful documentation. But it wasn’t just those things, they rebuilt an entire business process around being API-first.

Companies using Stripe didn’t need to fill out a PDF and set up a separate merchant account before getting started. Once sign-up was complete, users could immediately test the API with a sandbox and integrate it directly into their application. Even pricing was different.

Stripe chose to simplify pricing dramatically by starting with a single, simple price for all cards and not breaking out cards by type even though the costs for AmEx cards versus Visa can differ. Stripe also did away with a monthly minimum fee that competitors had.

Many competitors used the monthly minimum to offset the high cost of support for new customers who weren’t necessarily processing payments yet. Stripe flipped that on its head. Developers integrate Stripe earlier than they integrated payments before, and while it costs Stripe a lot in setup and support costs, it pays off in brand and loyalty.

Checkr is another excellent example of an API-first company vastly simplifying a massive yet slow-moving industry. Very little had changed over the last few decades in how businesses ran background checks on their employees and contractors, involving manual paperwork and the help of 3rd party services that spent days verifying an individual.

Checkr’s API gives companies immediate access to a variety of disparate verification sources and allows these companies to plug Checkr into their existing on-boarding and HR workflows. It’s used today by more than 10,000 businesses including Uber, Instacart, Zenefits and more.

Like Checkr and Stripe, Plaid provides a similar value prop to applications in need of banking data and connections, abstracting away banking relationships and complexities brought upon by a lack of tech in a category dominated by hundred-year-old banks. Plaid has shown an incredible ramp these past three years, from closing a $12 million Series A in 2015 to reaching a valuation over $2.5 billion this year.

Today the company is fueling an entire generation of financial applications, all on the back of their well-built API.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.41.02 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Then and now

Accel’s first API investment was in Braintree, a mobile and web payment systems for e-commerce companies, in 2011. Braintree eventually sold to, and became an integral part of, PayPal as it spun out from eBay and grew to be worth more than $100 billion. Unsurprisingly, it was shortly thereafter that our team decided to it was time to go big on the category. By the end of 2014 we had led the Series As in Segment and Checkr and followed those investments with our first APX conference in 2015.

Plaid, Segment, Auth0, and Checkr had only raised Seed or Series A financings! And we are even more excited and bullish on the space. To convey just how much API-first businesses have grown in such a short period of time, we thought it would be useful perspective to share some metrics over the past five years, which we’ve broken out in the two visuals included above in this article.

While SaaS may have pioneered the idea that the best way to do business isn’t to actually build everything in-house, today we’re seeing APIs amplify this theme. At Accel, we firmly believe that APIs are the next big SaaS wave — having as much if not more impact as its predecessor thanks to developers at today’s fastest-growing startups and their preference for API-first products. We’ve actively continued to invest in the space (in companies like, Scale, mentioned above).

And much like how a robust ecosystem developed around SaaS, we believe that one will continue to develop around APIs. Given the amount of progress that has happened in just a few short years, Accel is hosting our second APX conference to once again bring together this remarkable community and continue to facilitate discussion and innovation.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.41.10 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Aug
13
2019
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Clumio raises $51M to bring enterprise backup into the 21st century

Creating backups for massive enterprise deployments may feel like a solved problem, but for the most part, we’re still talking about complex hardware and software setups. Clumio, which is coming out of stealth today, wants to modernize enterprise data protection by eliminating the on-premise hardware in favor of a flexible, SaaS-style cloud-based backup solution.

For the first time, Clumio also today announced that it has raised a total of $51 million in a Series A and B round since it was founded in 2017. The $11 million Series A round closed in October 2017 and the Series B round in November 2018, Clumio founder and CEO Poojan Kumar told me. Kumar’s previous company, storage startup PernixData, was acquired by Nutanix in 2016. It doesn’t look like the investors made their money back, though.

Clumio is backed by investors like Sutter Hill Ventures, which led the Series A, and Index Ventures, which drove the Series B together with Sutter Hill. Other individual investors include Mark Leslie, founder of Veritas Technologies, and John Thompson, chairman of the board at Microsoft .

2019 08 12 1904

“Enterprise workloads are being ‘SaaS-ified’ because IT can no longer afford the time, complexity and expense of building and managing heavy on-prem hardware and software solutions if they are to successfully deliver against their digital transformation initiatives,” said Kumar. “Unlike legacy backup vendors, Clumio SaaS is born in the cloud. We have leveraged the most secure and innovative cloud services available, now and in the future, within our service to ensure that we can meet customer requirements for backup, regardless of where the data is.”

In its current iteration, Clumio can be used to secure data from on-premise, VMware Cloud for AWS and native AWS service workloads. Given this list, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Clumio’s backend, too, makes extensive use of public cloud services.

The company says that it already has several customers, though it didn’t disclose any in today’s announcement.

Jul
08
2019
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Box CEO Aaron Levie is coming to TC Sessions: Enterprise

Box co-founder, chairman and CEO Aaron Levie took his company from a consumer-oriented online storage service to a publicly traded enterprise powerhouse. Launched in 2005, Box today has more than 41 million users, and the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies use its service. Levie will join us at TC Sessions: Enterprise for a fireside chat about the past, present and future of Box, as well as the overall state of the SaaS and cloud space.

Levie, who also occasionally contributes to TechCrunch, was a bit of a serial entrepreneur before he even got to college. Once he got to the University of Southern California, the idea for Box was born. In hindsight, it was obviously the right idea at the right time, but its early iterations focused more on consumers than business users. Like so many other startups, though, the Box team quickly realized that in order to actually make money, selling to the enterprise was the most logical — and profitable — option.

Before going public, Box raised well over $500 million from some of the most world’s most prestigious venture capital firms. Box’s market cap today is just under $2.5 billion, but more than four years after going public, the company, like many Silicon Valley unicorns both private and public, still regularly loses money. 

Early-Bird Tickets are on sale today for just $249 — book here before prices go up by $100!

Mar
08
2019
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Salesforce at 20 offers lessons for startup success

Salesforce is celebrating its 20th anniversary today. The company that was once a tiny irritant going after giants in the 1990s Customer Relationship Management (CRM) market, such as Oracle and Siebel Systems, has grown into a full-fledged SaaS powerhouse. With an annual run rate exceeding $14 billion, it is by far the most successful pure cloud application ever created.

Twenty years ago, it was just another startup with an idea, hoping to get a product out the door. By now, a legend has built up around the company’s origin story, not unlike Zuckerberg’s dorm room or Jobs’ garage, but it really did all begin in 1999 in an apartment in San Francisco, where a former Oracle executive named Marc Benioff teamed with a developer named Parker Harris to create a piece of business software that ran on the internet. They called it Salesforce .com.

None of the handful of employees who gathered in that apartment on the company’s first day in business in 1999 could possibly have imagined what it would become 20 years later, especially when you consider the start of the dot-com crash was just a year away.

Party like it’s 1999

It all began on March 8, 1999 in the apartment at 1449 Montgomery Street in San Francisco, the site of the first Salesforce office. The original gang of four employees consisted of Benioff and Harris and Harris’s two programming colleagues, Dave Moellenhoff and Frank Dominguez. They picked the location because Benioff lived close by.

It would be inaccurate to say Salesforce was the first to market with Software as a Service, a term, by the way, that would not actually emerge for years. In fact, there were a bunch of other fledgling enterprise software startups trying to do business online at the time, including NetLedger, which later changed its name to NetSuite and was eventually sold to Oracle for $9.3 billion in 2016.

Other online CRM competitors included Salesnet, RightNow Technologies and Upshot. All would be sold over the next several years. Only Salesforce survived as a standalone company. It would go public in 2004 and eventually grow to be one of the top 10 software companies in the world.

Co-founder and CTO Harris said recently that he had no way of knowing that any of that would happen, although having met Benioff, he thought there was potential for something great to happen. “Little did I know at that time, that in 20 years we would be such a successful company and have such an impact on the world,” Harris told TechCrunch.

Nothing’s gonna stop us now

It wasn’t entirely a coincidence that Benioff and Harris had connected. Benioff had taken a sabbatical from his job at Oracle and was taking a shot at building a sales automation tool that ran on the internet. Harris, Moellenhoff and Dominguez had been building salesforce automation software solutions, and the two visions meshed. But building a client-server solution and building one online were very different.

Original meeting request email from Marc Benioff to Parker Harris from 1998 (Email courtesy of Parker Harris)

You have to remember that in 1999, there was no concept of Infrastructure as a Service. It would be years before Amazon launched Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud in 2006, so Harris and his intrepid programming team were on their own when it came to building the software and providing the servers for it to scale and grow.

“I think in a way, that’s part of what made us successful, because we knew that we had to, first of all, imagine scale for the world,” Harris said. It wasn’t a matter of building one CRM tool for a large company and scaling it to meet that individual organization’s demand, then another, it was really about figuring out how to let people just sign up and start using the service, he said.

“I think in a way, that’s part of what made us successful because we knew that we had to, first of all, imagine scale for the world.” Parker Harris, Salesforce

That may seem trivial now, but it wasn’t a common way of doing business in 1999. The internet in those years was dominated by a ton of consumer-facing dot-coms, many of which would go bust in the next year or two. Salesforce wanted to build an enterprise software company online, and although it wasn’t alone in doing that, it did face unique challenges being one of the early adherents.

“We created a software that was what I would call massively multi-tenant where we couldn’t optimize it at the hardware layer because there was no Infrastructure as a Service. So we did all the optimization above that — and we actually had very little infrastructure early on,” he explained.

Running down a dream

From the beginning, Benioff had the vision and Harris was charged with building it. Tien Tzuo, who would go on to be co-founder at Zuora in 2007, was employee number 11 at Salesforce, starting in August of 1999, about five months after the apartment opened for business. At that point, there still wasn’t an official product, but they were getting closer when Benioff hired Tzuo.

As Tzuo tells it, he had fancied a job as a product manager, but when Benioff saw his Oracle background in sales, he wanted him in account development. “My instinct was, don’t argue with this guy. Just roll with it,” Tzuo relates.

Early prototype of Salesforce.com (Photo: Salesforce)

As Tzuo pointed out, in a startup with a handful of people, titles mattered little anyway. “Who cares what your role was. All of us had that attitude. You were a coder or a non-coder,” he said. The coders were stashed upstairs with a view of San Francisco Bay and strict orders from Benioff to be left alone. The remaining employees were downstairs working the phones to get customers.

“Who cares what your role was. All of us had that attitude. You were a coder or a non-coder.” Tien Tzuo, early employe

The first Wayback Machine snapshot of Salesforce.com is from November 15, 1999, It wasn’t fancy, but it showed all of the functionality you would expect to find in a CRM tool: Accounts, Contacts, Opportunities, Forecasts and Reports, with each category represented by a tab.

The site officially launched on February 7, 2000 with 200 customers, and they were off and running.

Prove it all night

Every successful startup needs visionary behind it, pushing it, and for Salesforce that person was Marc Benioff. When he came up with the concept for the company, the dot-com boom was in high gear. In a year or two, much of it would come crashing down, but in 1999, anything was possible, and Benioff was bold and brash and brimming with ideas.

But even good ideas don’t always pan out for so many reasons, as many a failed startup founder knows only too well. For a startup to succeed it needs a long-term vision of what it will become, and Benioff was the visionary, the front man, the champion, the chief marketer. He was all of that — and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Paul Greenberg, managing principal at The 56 Group and author of multiple books about the CRM industry, including CRM at the Speed of Light (the first edition of which was published in 2001), was an early user of Salesforce, and says that he was not impressed with the product at first, complaining about the early export functionality in an article.

A Salesforce competitor at the time, Salesnet, got wind of Greenberg’s post, and put his complaint on the company website. Benioff saw it, and fired off an email to Greenberg: “I see you’re a skeptic. I love convincing skeptics. Can I convince you?” Greenberg said that being a New Yorker, he wrote back with a one-line response. “Take your best shot.” Twenty years later, Greenberg says that Benioff did take his best shot — and he did end up convincing him.

“I see you’re a skeptic. I love convincing skeptics. Can I convince you?” Early Marc Benioff email

Laurie McCabe, who is co-founder and partner at SMB Group, was working for a consulting firm in Boston in 1999 when Benioff came by to pitch Salesforce to her team. She says she was immediately impressed with him, but also with the notion of putting enterprise software online, effectively putting it within reach of many more companies.

“He was the ringmaster I believe for SaaS or cloud or whatever we want to call it today. And that doesn’t mean some of these other guys didn’t also have a great vision, but he was the guy beating the drum louder. And I just really felt that in addition to the fact that he was an exceptional storyteller, marketeer and everything else, he really had the right idea that software on prem was not in reach of most businesses,” she said.

Take it to the limit

One of the ways that Benioff put the company in the public eye in the days before social media was guerrilla marketing techniques. He came up with the idea of “no software” as a way to describe software on the internet. He sent some of his early employees to “protest” at the Siebel Conference, taking place at the Moscone Center in February, 2000. He was disrupting one of his major competitors, and it created enough of a stir to attract a television news crew and garner a mention in The Wall Street Journal. All of this was valuable publicity for a company that was still in its early stages.

Photos: Salesforce

Brent Leary, who had left his job as an industry consultant in 2003 to open his current firm, CRM Essentials, said this ability to push the product was a real differentiator for the company and certainly got his attention. “I had heard about Salesnet and these other ones, but these folks not only had a really good product, they were already promoting it. They seemed to be ahead of the game in terms of evangelizing the whole “no software” thing. And that was part of the draw too,” Leary said of his first experiences working with Salesforce.

Leary added, “My first Dreamforce was in 2004, and I remember it particularly because it was actually held on Election Day 2004 and they had a George W. Bush look-alike come and help open the conference, and some people actually thought it was him.”

Greenberg said that the “no software” campaign was brilliant because it brought this idea of delivering software online to a human level. “When Marc said, ‘no software’ he knew there was software, but the thing with him is, that he’s so good at communicating a vision to people.” Software in the 1990s and early 2000s was delivered mostly in boxes on CDs (or 3.5-inch floppies), so saying no software was creating a picture that you didn’t have to touch the software. You just signed up and used it. Greenberg said that campaign helped people understand online software at a time when it wasn’t a common delivery method.

Culture club

One of the big differentiators for Salesforce as a company was the culture it built from Day One. Benioff had a vision of responsible capitalism and included their charitable 1-1-1 model in its earliest planning documents. The idea was to give one percent of Salesforce’s equity, one percent of its product and one percent of its employees’ time to the community. As Benioff once joked, they didn’t have a product and weren’t making any money when they made the pledge, but they have stuck to it and many other companies have used the model Salesforce built.

Image: Salesforce

Bruce Cleveland, a partner at Wildcat Ventures, who has written a book with Geoffrey Moore (of Crossing the Chasm fame) called Traversing the Traction Gap, says that it is essential for a startup to establish a culture early on, just as Benioff did. “A CEO has to say, these are the standards by which we’re going to run this company. These are the things that we value. This is how we’re going to operate and hold ourselves accountable to each other,” Cleveland said. Benioff did that.

Another element of this was building trust with customers, a theme that Benioff continues to harp on to this day. As Harris pointed out, people still didn’t trust the internet completely in 1999, so the company had to overcome objections to entering a credit card online. Even more than that though, they had to get companies to agree to share their precious customer data with them on the internet.

“We had to not only think about scale, we had to think about how do we get the trust of our customers, to say that we will protect your information as well or better than you can,” Harris explained.

Growing up

The company was able to overcome those objections, of course, and more. Todd McKinnon, who is currently co-founder and CEO at Okta, joined Salesforce as VP of Engineering in 2006 as the company began to ramp up becoming a $100 million company, and he says that there were some growing pains in that time period.

Salesforce revenue growth across the years, from 2006-present (Chart: Macro Trends)

When he arrived, they were running on three mid-tier Sun servers in a hosted co-location facility. McKinnon said that it was not high-end by today’s standards. “There was probably less RAM than what’s in your MacBook Pro today,” he joked.

When he came on board, the company still had only 13 engineers and the actual infrastructure requirements were still very low. While that would change during his six-year tenure, it was working fine when he got there. Within five years, he said, that changed dramatically as they were operating their own data centers and running clusters of Dell X86 servers — but that was down the road.

Before they did that, they went back to Sun one more time and bought four of the biggest boxes they sold at the time and proceeded to transfer all of the data. The problem was that the Oracle database wasn’t working well, so, as McKinnon tells it, they got on the phone with Larry Ellison from Oracle, who upon hearing about the setup, asked them straight out why they were doing that? The way they had it set up simply didn’t work.

They were able to resolve it all and move on, but it’s the kind of crisis that today’s startups probably wouldn’t have to deal with because they would be running their company on a cloud infrastructure service, not their own hardware.

Window shopping

About this same time, Salesforce began a strategy to grow through acquisitions. In 2006, it acquired the first of 55 companies when it bought a small wireless technology company called Sendia for $15 million. As early as 2006, the year before the first iPhone, the company was already thinking about mobile.

Last year it made its 52nd acquisition, and the most costly so far, when it purchased MuleSoft for $6.5 billion, giving it a piece of software that could help Salesforce customers bridge the on-prem and cloud worlds. As Greenberg pointed out, this brought a massive change in messaging for the company.

“With the Salesforce acquisition of MuleSoft, it allows them pretty much to complete the cycle between back and front office and between on-prem and the cloud. And you notice, all of a sudden, they’re not saying ‘no software.’ They’re not attacking on-premise. You know, all of this stuff has gone by the wayside,” Greenberg said.

No company is going to be completely consistent as it grows and priorities shift, but if you are a startup looking for a blueprint on how to grow a successful company, Salesforce would be a pretty good company to model yourself after. Twenty years into this, they are still growing and still going strong and they remain a powerful voice for responsible capitalism, making lots of money, while also giving back to the communities where they operate.

One other lesson you could learn is that you’re never done. Twenty years is a big milestone, but it’s just one more step in the long arc of a successful organization.

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