Ankle biters, moats and alligators in the enterprise software game. January 2, 2013Posted by Bernard Lunn in Corporate Strategy, SAAS.
Tags: competitive advantage, enterprise software, moat, SaaS, subscriptions, transaction revenue
Yes, “software is eating the world” as Marc Andreessen puts it. But the software game is changing at a fundamental level. The opportunities are massive, but it is harder than it used to be to create sustainable value.
The big change is the revenue model for software; that is as fundamental as you can get. The revenue model used to be perpetual licensing. Then it moved to subscriptions aka SaaS. The next iteration is to transactions. The software enables a transaction to happen and the software owner takes a cut of the transaction as revenue. This fully aligns the interest of the software owner and the software user (as opposed to the licensing model where all the risk/reward passes to the user/licensee). This transaction revenue is variable but predictable; the metrics are similar to consumer web ventures.
Software licensing was a wonderfully simple game. Once you had built the software and sold it, all you needed to do was send a disk to the customer. The first time I saw this for real – I had sold the deal, signed the contract and asked “what do we have to do now?” and was told “just send them the disk”. This was a contract worth high six figures and the cost of the disk was a couple of bucks. During contract negotiations my boss told me that “the only thing we can warrant is that the software will have bugs”. My eyes were opened to the wonders of 100% gross margins. Customers eventually woke up and revolted against having all the risk passed to them; into this gap charged the SaaS pioneers.
During the SaaS wave of innovation, which started with Salesforce.com over a decade ago, the game got a bit more complicated. But only a bit. You now had to manage a data center or an outsourced infrastructure provider. Lots of vendors rushed in to make that pretty simple. Gross Margins went from 100% to around 85% to pay for the hosting infrastructure – still incredibly high compared to most businesses.
But SaaS is still a licensing game and that still passes most of the risk and all the upside to the customer. The SaaS vendor takes away the hardware capex cost and the technical implementation risk. But these are not costs and risks that keep the CXO folks awake at night.
To really build value in the enterprise software you need to build a moat to keep out the “ankle biters”. Then you need to put alligators in the moat. That may sound a tad cryptic, so let me explain.
“Ankle biters” is a term coined by Fred Wilson in this engaging talk to describe the startups that will invade any good niche with dramatically lower prices. The upstarts use open source and cloud infrastructure to copy the functionality of market leaders for a fraction of the cost and then use that lower cost to offer an alternative to the market leader at a dramatically lower price. A classic upstart game is to offer free license and charge only for maintenance. Say the market leader is charging $500k for a Perpetual License with 20% Annual Maintenance (ie $100k per year). The upstart simply charges $100k per year; whether they call this an Annual Subscription or Maintenance with a Free License is mostly optics.
It is very hard for the market leader to defend against this. Their cost structure and sales team incentives make it impossible to compete on price. The usual response is to greet the upstart with FUD and scorn, pointing out the functional gaps. This does not stop the upstarts; their customers happily trade a 10% loss of functionality for a 90% drop in price.
The only sustainable defense is to build a moat. Historically this has been through Patents but this is increasingly a weak defense (the reasons are too complex to cover in this post). The best moat is network effects, where each new user brings in more users or brings in data (or both). For example, you can easily recreate the functionality of Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn but that does not give you a shot at beating those network effects champions.
Network effects is the best moat. In Consumer markets that is all you need. There is now plenty of advice, most of it free in blogs, telling you how to generate network effects. Despite all that advice, this is a totally Darwinian game, thousands of ventures attempt this and only a handful succeed.
Nobody has yet mastered the game of network effects in B2B. This game is just starting. Fortunes await those who succeed, as B2B has a direct revenue model; combining that direct revenue model with network effects is the magic quadrant of ventures.
What about the “alligators in the moat”? This is using service as a game changer. This matters in B2B where there is lots of functional complexity. To get people to commit to transactions you need to offer really high quality 24/7/365 support. That is of course not easy or cheap but once you build it you have a real competitive barrier.