platform as a service

What does fishing have to do with Salesforce? #DF15

A Quick Take on News from Dreamforce 2015

Last week I set aside some time to watch some of the big keynotes from Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual extravaganza. Like Dennis Howlett, reporting for Diginomica, I watched from what Den calls “the cheap seats.” While thousands of attendees swarmed San Francisco, I was part of the virtual audience watching the live stream. As a result I was thankful to be insulated from the chaos and gridlock of a city pushed to its limits, but also missed what appeared to be a truly electric and energizing atmosphere.

There was no shortage of announcements surrounding products and partnerships, and I am certain I missed a lot. For more thorough coverage I might recommend Diginomica’s site. They not only had Den watching from the cheap seats, but a whole team covering it onsite. But from my vantage point, what struck me were the two very different faces of Salesforce – the application side and the platform side. Anyone who follows me knows that I research and write for business leaders about enterprise applications. So you would think I would primarily be interested in the applications, right? Not this time.

The category of applications Salesforce delivers is on the periphery of what I cover. As an analyst I describe my coverage area as “enterprise applications with ERP at the core.” Here is not the time or place to debate what ERP is, or is not. Suffice to say it is a convenient label for the applications that run the business, creating a fiscal and operational system of record. While Salesforce’s (or anyone else’s) CRM solution doesn’t fit that definition, it is still important for me to watch because the footprints of ERP solutions have expanded and oftentimes include CRM. Even if they don’t (e.g. the customer uses Salesforce), the intersection of ERP and CRM is important because it is often where the back office meets the front office where competitive advantage can be gained.

So watching from the sidelines has always seemed appropriate. Lately, however, I seem to be getting dragged from the sidelines to more center stage – but not because of its CRM solution. Instead it is its Platform as a Service that is calling me.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) is a category of cloud computing services that provides developers with a platform to create software without the complexity of building and maintaining the infrastructure typically associated with developing an enterprise application. Clearly developers benefit from using the services delivered with a platform, speeding the development process. Since I don’t write for developers, but for the businessperson, how does this translate to benefits to the business? The obvious answer is in delivering more features, functions and innovation in ways that help companies keep up with the accelerating pace of change.

And that is exactly what a growing number of Salesforce partners find appealing, including ERP and accounting solution providers who fall squarely in my line of sight. It has been those partners that have lured me from the periphery to better understand how Salesforce, as a platform company, can help them deliver more value. I also think that it will be the platform, not the applications, that has the highest likelihood to propel Salesforce on the growth trajectory on which Marc Benioff has his sights.

It’s sort of like the old proverb that goes something like this – give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Well, maybe not exactly like that. The platform itself might be appealing to large enterprises with teams of developers on staff looking to modify or even develop their own applications (i.e. learn to fish). But for every large enterprise there are dozens, maybe even hundreds or thousands of small to midsize businesses that are just looking for a fish. Of course, they don’t buy one fish and walk away – they sign up for the “fish a day” program (a subscription). So, sure Salesforce can sell a lot of fish, but that won’t get it to the $10 billion mark – not even close.

But the platform is a “Force” multiplier (pun intended). There are also those partner solution providers who are looking to not only fish, but fish with the latest and greatest fishing tackle and equipment on the market. Using Salesforce’s platform they have proven they can not only fill their nets, but also get to the dock and the fish markets that much faster. Or maybe they don’t go after fish at all because Salesforce CRM satisfies that nutritional requirement. They might be working on the meat and potatoes, the vegetables or the dessert. Together they will have all the other dishes that go with fish in order to make a whole meal and satisfy anyone’s appetite.

The better the development platform, the more likely it will attract more developers. The more developers attracted to the platform, the more applications get developed, which ultimately can be shared. Features, functions and extensions have the potential to start to grow, if not exponentially, at least much faster than the typical linear sequence of development. This is sort of a Catch-22, but in reverse. The strong keep getting stronger, while the weak (those that attract only a few developers) will struggle to compete.

In fact today the Salesforce AppExchange is the largest online marketplace of its kind, offering products built on the platform – all 220,000 of them. All products offered on the AppExchange are 100% native to the platform and share an integrated, secure data and identity management model. All go through a rigorous security review and all are equally easy to customize using developer tools available from Salesforce.

Several vendors I follow closely have based their offerings on the Salesforce Platform.

  • Kenandy used it to develop a modern, new ERP for manufacturing from scratch in a fraction of the time it would have taken with traditional development tools. Sandy Kurtzig, Chairman of Kenandy and also the founder of ASK Computer Systems, is an inspiring entrepreneur. My favorite Sandy quote from back in the ASK days (circa 1984): when asked if she was worried about competitors springing up, she said, “No. We’re in the software business. They have to match me line for line in code. Writing software is like having a baby. You can’t put nine women on it and do it in a month.” Yet that is exactly what Sandy set out to do when she started up Kenandy and saw the Salesforce platform as the means by which she could do it.
  • Rootstock, also ERP for manufacturing, switched from NetSuite’s platform to Salesforce.
  • FinancialForce, owned jointly by Unit4 and Salesforce natively developed its accounting solution on the platform and is now expanding more into the realm of ERP.
  • Conversely, Sage has recently abandoned the ERP moniker (but supposedly not its ERP customers) and simultaneously developedSage Live,a brand new “real time accounting solution” built on the Salesforce platform and brought to market in months, not years.

The new “Thunder and Lightning” hyped on stage at Dreamforce will only serve to make the platform more appealing to developers of all shapes and sizes. But just as in real life, while thunder and lightening add dramatic effects to a storm, it is the rain that makes the garden grow. It will be up to the software developers to capitalize on the drama from Dreamforce and make the rain (software) that makes our businesses grow.

Something tells me next year I might just have to brave the crowds at Dreamforce in San Francisco. My days of watching from the cheap seats may be numbered.

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