Thoughts on SaaS aquisitions

Over on Smoothspan, Bob asks the question “when do the SaaS acquisition games begin?”. This got me thinking, about the why, who’s, how and impact of acquisition on SaaS.

Firstly, I agree with Bob, the market is young & fragmented. The impact of this on acquisition is quite profound. People will acquire for position rather than to consolidate because the market is still growing. In a new growing market there are only two strategy plays that really matter. A race strategy (get the most customers as first as possible). Salesforce.com is doing this with its PaaS play. If you win the race you can turn the strategy into a position strategy (we dominate, have the most customers, are the most attractive to partners, new entrants, or have deep pockets for acquisition etc, have the most differentiation because of this is hence retain the position). Microsoft runs a position strategy for desktop apps.

Back to acquisition.  If you are already in the SaaS game, you are probably in a race strategy. Therefore if you have achieved a lead (to some degree) you may be looking to acquire to get further in the lead. Effectively buying customers or technology that will give you more customers (has a wow factor or fills out your stack & removes an objection). SF.com buying Kieden is an example.

If you are a SaaS player & haven’t got a lead, then you should be looking to be bought or you need to think about specialisation. You are loosing the mass market horizontal race so stop trying.

If you aren’t in the SaaS game, otherwise known as ‘being disrupted’, then you are looking to acquire a horse already in the race. The rumoured Oracle SF.com tie up is a good example of this.

If you subscribe to my two strategic views above, none of the acquisition moves are surprising. 

To me the most interesting part of the acquisition trend is what the acquirers do with the acquiree when they’ve got them. That is how well do they use the new asset to deliver on the strategy.  Both have they’re challenges.

If you are a SaaS provider on your own infrastructure (platform) then you are going to be forced with the challenge of integration. This is different from ’making them work together’ which should be fairly easy given that AJAX & webservices are cornerstones of SaaS & there are many instances of this around. But integrating two applications & databases onto the same platform is a big challenge to me. Identity management, billing, reporting, management ,  the DNA of the code itself make this a challenging task.

If you are a SaaS provider on a platform like Apprenda or SF.com then the integration task is easier, markedly easier. All (ok most) of those technical details go away because you are already integrated in the backend.These two plays also have the benefit of culturally being aligned behind SaaS, having a channel & billing model that is optimised for SaaS perhaps most importantly management. & remuneration models that support SaaS.

Legacy providers have a different set of challenges once they have acquired. Do they integrate it into the they’re legacy product like the S+S by Microsoft play? how do they run the business, how do they sell it , how do they manage the cannibalisation or disruption of the legacy business if they’ve bought an app in they’re existing space (Siebel & SF.com for instance). Perhaps even more importantly, how do they maintain focus on SaaS while running a legacy business.

Those who read my blog will know that I’m very hot on this. In my opinion if you don’t run the startup separate from the legacy, then the mothership will negativity impact the new entity.

Here is the analogy. Farming. Farmers know that the game is cyclical, that the tree’s that provide the most produce now are only good for a limited time and that they need continuously have new crops or replacement tree’s coming on board.  Those tied to cash crops for survival understand that they are in big trouble. Over farming means that eventually the tree will wither. If you continue with this behaviour, you will turn your land into a dessert (the Sahara is an example). Continuing on with this analogy. Those farmers that do have replacement tree’s usually grow them in a separate paddock. They do this so that the new plants have the best chance to thrive. The seedlings get the appropriate attention and aren’t shaded by the large trees.

Not rocket science and yet business continuously fail to adhere to this most basic wisdom. They often throw their innovation centre in with the rest of the business and expect it to survive (read the innovators dilemma for examples). When the harvest comes due (i.e. reporting season), these companies  run to the big revenue levers and neglect the startup, so it fails to hit its numbers and disappoints. Why? The people who know how to look after big tree’s often don’t know how to look after seedlings, or even worse see the seedling as a threat and actively work to stunt its growth.

All of this points to the obvious decision not to integrate the new SaaS acquisition into the legacy business. If the legacy business is serious about winning the race in the SaaS game, leave it alone. Let the SaaS business come to you with they’re requirements & give your legacy business targets & remuneration models that support this race.

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