Tag Archives: Technology

The Market Leader Play: How to Run It, How to Respond

Business-to-business (B2B) high technology markets are all about the market and only less so about the technology.  This is primarily driven by corporate buyer conservatism — corporate buyers hate to make mistakes in purchasing technology and, if you’re going to make one, it’s far better to be in the herd with everyone else, collectively fooled, than to be out on your own having picked a runner-up or obscure vendor because you thought they were “better.”  Hence, high-technology markets have strong increasing returns on market leadership.  I learned this live, in the trenches, way back in the day at Ingres.

Uh, Dave, please stop for a second.  Thank you.  Thanks so much for coming out to visit us here at BigCo today.  Before you begin your presentation, we wanted you to know that if you simply convince us that Ingres is as good as Oracle that we’re going to chose Oracle.  In fact, I think you’re going to need to convince us that Ingres is 30% to 40% better than Oracle before we’d realistically consider buying from your company.  You may now go ahead with your presentation.

Much as I hated it on that day, what a great position for Oracle to be in!  Somehow, before the product evaluation cage-fight had even begun, Oracle walked into the cage with a 40% advantage — brought to them by their corporate marketing department, and which was all about market leadership.

Why do corporate buyers care so much about buying from market leaders?

  • Less project risk.  If everyone else is buying X, it must be good enough, certainly, to get the job done.
  • Less embarrassment risk.  If the project does fail and you’re using the leading vendor, it’s much less embarrassing than if you’re on an obscure runner-up.  (“Well, I guess they fooled us all.”) [1]
  • Bigger technology ecosystem.  In theory, market leaders have the most connectors to other systems and the most pre-integrated complementary technologies.
  • Bigger skillset ecosystem.  Trying to find someone with 2+ years of experience with, e.g., Host Analytics or Adaptive Insights is way easier than trying to find someone with 2+ years of experience with Budgeta or Jedox.  More market share means more users means you can find more skilled employees and more skilled partners.
  • Potential to go faster.  Particularly for systems with low purchase and low switching costs, there’s a temptation to bypass an evaluation altogether and just get going.  Think:  “it’s the leader, it’s $35K/year, and it’s not that hard to change — heck, let’s just try it.”

Thus, relatively small differences in perceived or actual market leadership early on can generate a series of increasing returns through which the leading vendor wins more deals because it’s the leader, becomes relatively larger and thus an even more clear leader, then wins yet a higher percentage of deals, and so on.  Life for the leader is good, as the rich get richer.  For the others, life is a series of deals fighting from behind and, as they said in Glenngarry Glenn Ross, second prize really is a set of steak knives.

This is why smart vendors in greenfield markets fight for the market leadership position as if their corporate lives depended on it.  Sometimes, in this game of high-stakes, winner-takes-all poker companies cross boundaries to create a perception of success and leadership that isn’t there. [2]

When run correctly — and legally — the goal of the market leader play (MLP) is to create a halo effect around the company.  So how do you run the market leader play?  It comes down to four areas:

  • Fundraising.  Get the biggest name investors [3], raise the most capital, make the most noise about the capital you’ve raised, and use the money to make a few big-name hires, all in an effort to make it clear that Sand Hill Road has thoroughly evaluated the company and its technology and chosen you to be the leader.
  • Public relations and corporate awareness. Spend a nice chunk of that capital on public relations [4].  Have the CEO speak at the conferences and be quoted or by-line articles in the right tech blogs.  Better yet, hire a ghost-writer to author a book for the CEO as part of positioning him/her as a thought leader in the space.  If applicable, market your company’s culture (which is hopefully already documented in a one-hundred slide deck).  Spend big bucks to hold the biggest user conference in the space (which of course cannot be labeled as a user conferenced but instead an industry event with its own branding).  Use billboards to make sure the Digerati and other, lesser denizens of Silicon Valley know your company’s name.  Think:  shock and awe for any lesser competitor.
  • Growth.  Spend a ton of that capital to hire the biggest sales force, wisely first building out a world-class onboarding and enablement program, and then scaling as aggressively as you can.  In enterprise software new sales = number of reps * some-constant, so let’s make sure the number of reps is growing as fast, and perhaps a little faster, than it wisely should be.  Build out channels to increase the reach of your fast-growing sales force and don’t be cheap, during a market-share grab, about how you pay them.  In the end, Rule of 40 aside, hotness in Silicon Valley is really about one thing:  growth.  So get hot by buying the most customers most quickly. [5]
  • Strategic relationships.  Develop strategic relationships with other leading and/or cool companies on the theory that leaders work with leaders.  These relationships can vary from a simple co-marketing arrangement (e.g., Host Analytics and Floqast) to strategic investments (e.g., Salesforce Ventures invests in Alation) to white label re-sale deals (e.g., NetSuite’s resales of Adaptive Insights as NetSuite Planning), and many others.  But the key is to have the most and best strategic relationships in the category.
  • Denial of differentiation.  While you should always look forward [6] when it comes to external communications, when it comes to competitive analysis keep a keen eye looking backward at your smaller competitors.  When they see you running the market leader play, they will try various moves to differentiate themselves and you must immediately deny all such attempts at differentiation by immediately blocking them.  Back in the day, Oracle did this spectacularly well — Ingres would exhaust itself pumping out new/differentiated product (e.g., Ingres/Star) only to have Oracle immediately announce a blocking product either as a pure futures announcement (e.g., Oracle 8 object handling) or a current product launch with only the thinnest technical support (e.g., Oracle/Star).  Either way, the goal is for the mind of the buyer to think “well the leading vendor now does that (or shortly will), too.”  Denying differentiation gives the customer no compelling reason to buy from a non-leader and exhausts the runners-up in increasing futile and esoteric attempts at differentiation.

So that, in a nutshell, is how creating a leader is done.  But what if, in a five-vendor race, you’re not teed up to be the leader.  You haven’t raised the most capital.  You’re not the biggest or growing the fastest.  Then what are you supposed to do to combat this seemingly air-tight play?

Responding to the Market Leadership Play
I think there are three primary strategic responses to the market leadership play.

  • Out-do.  If you are in the position to simply out-do the flashy competitor, then do it.  Enter the VC arms raise — but like any arms race you must play to win. [7]  Raise more capital than they do, build your sales force faster, get even better strategic relationships and simply out-do them.  Think:  “yes, they were on a roll for a while but we are clearly the leader now.”  Cloudera did this to Hortonworks.
  • Two-horse race.  If you can’t win via out-do, but have a strong ability to keep up [8], then reframe the situation into a two-horse race.  Think:  “no, vendor X is not the leader, this market is clearly a two-horse race.”  While most B2B technology markets converge to one leader, sometimes they converge to two (e.g., Business Objects and Cognos).  Much as in a two-rider breakaway from the peloton, number 1 and 2 can actually work together to distance themselves from the rest.  It requires a certain cooperation (or acceptance) from both vendors to do this strategy, but if you’re chasing someone playing the leadership play you can exhaust their attempts to exhaust you by keeping up at every breakaway attempt.
  • Segment leadership.  If you can’t out-do and you can’t keep up (making the market a two-horse race) then have two options:  be a runner-up in the mainstream market or a be a leader in a segment of it.  If you stay a runner-up in the mainstream market you have the chance of being acquired if the leader rebuffs acquisition attempts.  However, more often than not, when it comes to strategic M&A leaders like to acquire leaders — so a runner-up-but-get-acquired strategy is likely to backfire as you watch the leader, after rebuffing a few takeover attempts, get acquired at a 10x+ multiple.  You might argue that the acquisition of the leader creates a hole in the market which you can then fill (as acquired companies certainly do often disappear within larger acquirers), but (unless you get lucky) that process is likely to take years to unfold.  The other choice is to do an audit of your customers, your product usage, and your skills and focus back on a product or vertical segment to build sustainable leadership there.  While this doesn’t preserve horizontal M&A optionality as well as being a runner-up, it does allow you to build sustained differentiation against the leader in your wheelhouse.

# # #

Notes

[1] Or, more tritely, “no one ever got fired for buying IBM” back in the day (communicated indirectly via ads like this), which might easily translate to “no one ever got fired for buying Oracle” today.

[2] Personally, I feel that companies that I’ve competed against such as MicroStrategy, FAST Search & Transfer, and Autonomy at various points in their history all pushed too hard in order to create an aura of success and leadership.  In all three cases, litigation followed and, in a few cases, C-level executives even went to jail.

[3] Who sometimes have in-house marketing departments to help you run the play.

[4] In accordance with my rule that behind every “marketing genius” is a big marketing budget.  You might argue, in fact, that allocating such a budget the first step of the genius.

[5] And build a strong customer success and professional services team to get those customers happy so they renew.  Ending ARR growth is not just about adding new sales to the bucket, it’s about keeping what’s in the bucket renewing.

[6] That is, never “look back” by mentioning the name of a smaller competitor — as with Lot’s Wife, you might well end up a pillar of salt.

[7] If you’re not committed to raising a $100M round after they raise a $75M round in response to your $50M round, then you shouldn’t be in an arms race.  Quoting The Verdict, “we’re not paid to do our best, we’re paid to win.”  So don’t a pick fight where you can’t.

[8] This could be signalled by responding to the archrival’s $50M round with a $50M round, as opposed to a $75M.

Kellblog Predictions for 2019

Because I’ve been quite busy of late with the sale of my company, I’m doing a somewhat quicker and lighter (if not later) version of my annual predictions post.  Here goes, starting with a review of last year’s predictions.

2018 Kellblog Predictions Review

1. We will again continue to see a level of divisiveness and social discord not seen since the 1960s. HIT.  Hard to argue I need to justify this one.  Want to argue about it?

2. The war on facts and expertise will continue to escalate. HIT. Unfortunately, the President is leading the charge on this front, with the Washington Post fact checker tallying 7,645 false claims since taking office.

factchecker

3. Leading technology and social media companies finally step up to face ethical challenges. MAJOR MISS.  Well, I nailed that the issue would be critical, but boy did I overestimate the maturity of the management of these companies.

4. AI will move from hype to action, meaning bigger budgets, more projects, and some high visibility failures. HIT, I think.  See this McKinsey report for some interesting survey data on AI adoption and barriers to it.

5. AI will continue to generate lots of controversy about job displacement. HIT. While the optimists say AI will create more jobs than it will displace, many still worry conversely.  Since the prediction was about the controversy continuing, we’ll call it a hit.

6. The bitcoin bubble bursts. MAJOR HIT.  This one partially redeems me for over-estimating Facebook’s management.

btc

7. The Internet of Things (IoT) will continue to build momentum.  HIT. See this Forbes article about data from Dresner Advisory’s 2018 IoT Intelligence Market Study.

8. The freelance / gig economy continues to gain momentum with freelance workers poised to pass traditional employees by 2027. HIT.  Per this Forbes article, 57M people now participate in the gig economy in some way.

9. M&A heats up due to repatriation of overseas cash.  HIT. Per Berkery Noyes, software M&A deal value was up nearly $100B over 2017.  To the extent this was due to overseas cash repatriation I don’t know, but it certainly was a factor.

m-and-a

10. 2018 will be a good year for cloud EPM vendors. MAJOR HIT.  Anaplan went public, Adaptive Insights was acquired by Workday, and Host Analytics was acquired by Vector Capital. 

With 9 hits, two of them major – and with only one offsetting major miss — I should probably just drop the mike and get out of the predictions business.  But no guts, no glory.

Kellblog’s 2019 Predictions

Reminder to see the disclaimers in my FAQ and remember that these predictions are not financial or business advice – they are made in the spirit of fun.  To the extent they’re concrete, that’s to make the game more interesting so we can better assess them next year.  Here we go.

1. Fred Wilson is right, Trump will not be president at the end of 2019. I think Fred’s also right on virtually all of the other predictions made in his epic post, which I won’t attempt to summarize here. Read Fred’s post – and just make sure you read to the end, because it’s not all doom and gloom.  So, as a Kellblog first, prediction #1 is a pointer.

2. The Democratic Party will continue to bungle the playing of its relatively simple hand. Party leaders will continue to fail to realize that the way to beat Trump is not through a hard-left platform with 70% tax rates that caters to the most liberal Democrats – but a centrist, pragmatic, people- and business-friendly platform that certainly won’t be enough for the far left, but will be far better than the Republican alternative for all Democrats, and most importantly, give centrist Republicans a realistic alternative to what their party is offering them.  The Democratic Party will continue to be more concerned with making statements than winning elections.  This may cost it, and the Nation, dearly.

Remember the famous Will Rodgers quote: “I am not a member of any organized political party.  I am a Democrat.”

 3. 2019 will be a rough year for the financial markets. Political problems in the USA, Europe, and increasingly Latin American.  Trade wars.  Record deficits as we re-discover that trickle-down, tax-cut economics don’t work.  Threat of rising interest rates.   Brexit.   Many folks see a bear market coming.

Years ago, I accepted the fact that – like many – I am a hypocrite when it comes to the stock market.  Yes, I absolutely believe that it’s theoretically impossible to time the market.   But yes, I’m entering 2019 with a high allocation to cash and intend to keep it that way.  Hum.  Try to reconcile that.

For fun, let’s makes this concrete and predict that the BVP Emerging Cloud Index will end 2019 at 750.  I do this mostly to provide some PR for Bessemer’s Index, officially launched via the NASDAQ in October, 2018, but which was built on the back of five years of Bessemer maintaining it themselves.

4. VC tightens. Venture capital funding has been booming the past several years and – for the above reasons and others (e.g., the fact that most VCs don’t product enough returns to justify the risk and illiquidity) – I believe there will be tightening of VC in 2019.  If you agree, that means you should raise money now, while the sun’s still shining, and try to raise two years of capital required in your business plan (with some cushion).

dwk-2mru8aaof8b

If things follow the recent trends, this will be hardest on average and/or struggling companies as VCs increasingly try to pick winners and make bets conservative in the sense that they are on known winners, even if they have to overpay to do so.  In this scenario, capital on reasonable terms could all but dry up for companies who have gone off-rails on their business plans.   So, if you’re still on rails, you might raise some extra capital now.  Getting greedy by trying to put up two more good quarters to take less dilution on your next round could backfire – you might miss one of those quarters in this increasingly volatile environment, but even if you don’t, VC market tightening could offset any potential valuation increase.

5. Social media companies get regulated. Having failed for years to self-regulate in areas of data privacy and usage, these companies will likely to face regulations in 2019 in the face of strong consumer backlash.  The first real clue I personally had in this area was during the 2016 election when Facebook didn’t just feed me, but actually promoted, a fake Denver Guardian story about a supposedly dead FBI agent linked to “her emails.”  I then read the now-famous “bullshit is highly engaging” quote from this story which helped reveal the depth of the problem:

Or, as former Facebook designer Bobby Goodlatte wrote on his own Facebook wall on November 8, “Sadly, News Feed optimizes for engagement. As we’ve learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging. A bias towards truth isn’t an impossible goal. Wikipedia, for instance, still bends towards the truth despite a massive audience. But it’s now clear that democracy suffers if our news environment incentivizes bullshit.”

I won’t dive into detail here.  I do think Sheryl Sandberg may end up leaving Facebook; she was supposed to be the adult supervision, after all.  While I think he’s often a bit too much, I nevertheless recommend reading Chaos Monkeys for an interesting and, at times, hilarious insider look at Facebook and/or following its author Antonio Garcia Martinez.

6. Ethics make a comeback, for two reasons.  The first will be as a backlash to the blatant corruption of the current administration.  To wit:  the House recently passed a measure requiring annual ethics training for its members.  The second will have to do with AI and automation.  The Trolley Problem, once a theoretical exercise in ethics, is now all too real with self-driving cars.  Consider this data, based on MIT research in this article which shows preferences for sparing various characters in the event of a crash.

crash

Someone will probably end up programming such preferences into a self-driving car.  Or, worse yet, as per the Trolley Problem, maybe they won’t.  While we may want to avoid these issues because they are uncomfortable, in 2019 I think they will be thrust onto center stage.

7. Blockchain, as an enterprise technology, fades away. Blockchain is a technology in search of a killer application.  Well, it actually has one killer application, cryptocurrency, which is why it was built.  And while I am a fan of cybercurrencies, blockchain is arguably inefficient at what it was built to do.  While Bitcoin will not take down the world electric grid as some have feared, it is still tremendously energy consumptive –in coming years, Bitcoin is tracking to consume 7.7 GW per year, comparable to the entire country of Austria at 8.2 GW.

While I’m not an expert in this field, I see three things that given me huge pause when it comes to blockchain in the enterprise:  (1) it’s hard to understand, (2) it consumes a huge amount of energy, and (3) people have been saying for too long that the second blockchain killer app (and first enterprise blockchain killer app) is just around the corner.  Think:  technology in search of a business problem.  What’s more, even for its core use-case, cryptocurrency, blockchain is vulnerable to being cracked by quantum computing by 2027.

8. Oracle enters decline phase and is increasingly seen as a legacy vendor. For decades I have personally seen Oracle as a leader.  First, in building the RDBMS market.  Second, in consolidating a big piece of the enterprise applications market.  Third, more generally, in consolidating enterprise software.  But, in my mind, Oracle is no longer a leader.  Perhaps you felt this way long ago.  I’d given them a lot of credit for their efforts (if not their progress) in the cloud – certainly better than SAP’s or IBM’s.  But SAP and IBM are not the competitors to beat in the future:  Amazon, Google, and a rejuvenated Microsoft are.  The reality is that Oracle misses quarters, cloud-washes sales, and is basically stagnant in revenue growth.  They have no vision.  They have become a legacy vendor.

The final piece of this snapped into place when Thomas Kurian departed to Google in a dispute with Larry Ellison about the cloud.  DEC’s Ken Olsen once said that Unix was “snake oil” and that was the beginning of the end for DEC.  Ellison once said roughly the same thing (“complete gibberish”) about the cloud.  And now the cloud is laughing back.

9. ServiceNow and/or Splunk get acquired. A friend of mine planted this seed in my mind and it’s more about corporate evolution than anything else.  They’re both great businesses that mega-vendors would love to own – especially if they end up “on sale” if we hit a bear market.

10. Workday succeeds with its Adaptive Insights agenda, meaning that Adaptive’s mid-market and SMB presence will be greatly lessened.   Most people I know think Workday’s acquisition of Adaptive was a head-scratcher.  Yes, Workday struggles in financial apps.  Yes, EPM is an easier entry point than core financials (which, as Zach Nelson used to say, were like a heart transplant).  But why in the world would a high-end vendor (with average revenue/customer of $1M+) acquire a low-end EPM vendor (with average revenue/customer of $27K)?  That’s hard to figure out.

But just because the acquisition was, to be kind, non-obvious, it doesn’t mean Workday won’t be successful with it.  Workday’s goals are clear: (1) to unite Adaptive with Workday in The Power of One – including re-platforming the backend and re-writing the user-interface, (2) to provide EPM to Workday’s high-end customer base, and (3) to provide an alternate financial entry point for sales when prospects say they’re not up for a heart transplant for at least 5 years.  I’m not saying Workday can’t be successful with their objectives.  I am saying Adaptive won’t be Adaptive when they’re done — you can’t be the high-end, low-end, cheap, expensive, simple, complex, agnostic, integrated EPM system.   Or, as SNL put it, you can’t be Shimmer — a dessert topping and a floor wax.  The net result:   like Platfora before them or Outlooksoft within SAP, Adaptive disappears within Workday and its presence in the mid-market and SMB is greatly reduced.

# # #

Disclaimer:  these predictions are offered in the spirit of fun.  See my FAQ for more and other terms of use.