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May 25, 2015

5 things we learnt as the Salesforce circus rolled into London

Is the Rebel Alliance of software reaching a turning point?


There is maybe no company in all of Silicon Valley that can put on a show like Salesforce.

Dazzling lights, tinnitus-inducing bass and the self-declared rockstars of the Salesforce executive are all obligatory at the firm’s glorified marketing shindigs, which have been a staple of the CIO’s calendar for years.

So with the Salesforce circus having rolled into London this week, CBR asks what we learnt from the show-offs of Silicon Valley software.

1. No longer the Rebel Alliance

As CBR reported last year, Salesforce has increasingly lost its claims to be the insurgent force in the software market as the likes of Oracle (whose cofounder Larry Ellison even invested in Salesforce) and SAP attempted to join them in the software-as-a-service market.

Whilst the company’s brashness has a certain charm to it, and reflects the bold personality of its founder Marc Benioff, some are now asking whether it is time the company accepted it has joined the IT establishment.

"What we started saying last year was that Salesforce have got to start acting like grown-ups: they’re not some rebel force now (and arguably, never have been)," said Matt Mullen, senior analyst of social business at 451 Research.

"Spending dollars on puffing up the egos of their execs when they only [recently] managed a single quarter of positive EPS [earnings per share] (and then a single, solitary cent) doesn’t show that this message is getting through to the management."

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2. Limited vertical strategy

An old criticism to level against Salesforce is the absence of a clear vertical strategy. The company has long favoured building a broad platform and handling other functions through partners or customer led customisation, in contrast to firms like Infor, which produces industry flavours of its cloud service.

This is another thing that bothers Mullen. "For me though the interesting thing – given [Salesforce president Keith] Block was in town – is the lack of tangible progress Salesforce has really made on his baby, vertical markets – but then I’m a bit like a broken record on that one."

Though last year Salesforce announced it would make a big push on vertical industries, including finance, health, retail, media, public sector and manufacturing, little appears to have transpired in the meantime.

Speaking to CBR, Dan Rogers, VP EMEA at Salesforce, said: "We need to speak in the language of industry and in the language of our customers."

3. Hostility to EU referendum

Though companies tend to prefer to remain neutral in political matters – at least on the surface – executives from Salesforce and its new partner Sage, which deals in financial software, were willing to share their personal views on the upcoming referendum on EU membership that the newly elected Conservatives have promised.

"My view is my personal view," said Steve Garnett, EMEA chairman at Salesforce. "I think it would be poor [if we left]. I think we are part of the European Community and we share a lot with them."

Despite his personal leanings he did not think it would make much difference to the future of Salesforce one way or the other. "Whether we’re in or out…Salesforce will supersede any divide."

In this he was backed up by Stephen Kelly, recently appointed chief executive of Sage. "The reality in business is we like consistency and stability," he said. "We don’t like uncertainty."

4. Sticking to CRM

Salesforce is so attached to customer relationship management (CRM) software that its ticker on the New York Stock Exchange even bears the same initials. Even so, many wonder if the software giant could expand into other areas, with Salesforce partners who already offer other types of software being especially vexed on the question.

In the past Benioff and his executive team have offered various assurances that his company will not upset anyone in this regard. Continuing this theme Garnett told the press that: "We’re not worried about whether we need to go into ERP [enterprise resource planning] to sustain our growth."

Of course not so long ago Salesforce launched its Wave analytics platform, which may have upset some of the other companies investigating the data space on Salesforce’s platform. Though the company has a policy of keeping partners briefed to reduce friction, this is likely to remain a source of contention.

5. Creating the new legacy

No software company displays such contempt for legacy IT as Salesforce. Having pioneered the cloud software revolution the firm is eager to remind its customers about the cumbersome nature of old software licenses and subscription models.

The irony is that after sixteen years in the business Salesforce is itself looking a bit "legacy" in places. Clive Longbottom, founder of IT research firm Quocirca, said: "I do still feel that at some stage, Salesforce has a rather large bullet to bite. Its platform is now quite old, and at some stage there will be the need to overhaul this.

"This will not be easy, and I think that this is why Marc [Benioff] is [allegedly] looking for a potential buyer," he added, referencing recent rumours that SAP, Microsoft or Oracle are thinking about snapping up Salesforce, which have been denied or otherwise dodged by all companies involved.

"[Benioff] needs someone who can create a new Salesforce platform and move customers across in an effective manner," Longbottom said. " I don’t think that Salesforce can do this on its own."

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