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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Acquisition #13: SAP's $3-billion cloud(y) adventure

PARIS (UPDATED Feb. 27, 2012)
Unless you are superstitious (which I am not since my grandmother always told me it brought bad luck to be superstitious) you will  be thrilled with the news that the biggest HR software company in the world  decided last weekend to buy SuccessFactors (SFSF), one of the up-and-coming web-based vendors, in this year's 13th M&A deal. Well, you might be thrilled at this acquisition until you start looking at the details. 

Context and rationale of the acquisition
Although SAP is hardly a novice at acquiring other software companies (Business Objects is one such prominent example), their product and customer strategy has always been mainly of the organic variety until it showed its limits. And limits it has shown in two respects, the enterprise area and the newish cloud-computing business. 

First, the enterprise area: SAP created the enterprise software and it therefore is quite embarassing that in one of the fastest growing enterprise areas, talent management, it has failed. Global companies running SAP as their HR system of record have repeatedly gone for the likes of SFSF and Taleo, deemed more in line with their talent needs than their incumbent HR vendor (Oracle and PeopleSoft do not fare any better in that respect, by the way. ) And many companies, such as US-based Kimberly-Clark, have simply moved the whole HR suite, if not their financials applications as well, to cloud-based Workday. This is bad for SAP (and the two members of the "SOP" triptych) since every customer that jumps ships means less high-margin maintenance revenue. And when you know that maintenance now makes up the lion's share of traditional ERP vendors' bottom line, it is not hard to understand the future is not very bright. 

Second, the reason why corporate customers have been adopting best-of-breed systems is that they provide the needed functionality in a radically new way: on the web, rather than the good old implementation within their company's walls, with a new way of licensing, maintaining and upgrading the system (see my blog comparing the two approaches, "Old Versus New".)  Like the other software dinosaurs as I call them, SAP could see the market changing tacks and had to do something to prevent the coming customer hemorrhage and its market irrelevance. So, taking a leaf from the book of its nemesis, serial acquirer Oracle, it decided that  "if we can't beat'em, let's buy 'em."

Third, SAP's own efforts at building a web-based offering, Business ByDesign, has been, to put it charitably, far from successful. It has taken inordinately long to develop and customers have not been exactly running in a  stampede to buy it.

Why SuccessFactors?
A good question to start with is "why SFSF?" There are other vendors in the HR space, even with a product footprint similar to SFSF's. Taleo is the most obvious name, but as a European company why didn't SAP look at vendors closer home? As I showed in my blog on M&A activities in HR technology, American vendors tend to buy other American companies and European software makers their counterparts from the same region, if not the same country. SAP could have acquired UK-based Lumesse or France-based TalentSoft (with their own issues of being privately owned,) or (also privately owned) Swiss vendor Umantis which brings the double advantage of being in the German-speaking area SAP dominates as well as the talent management partner of SAP's Business ByDesign offering.  

But clearly SAP wanted a vendor that would not compete too much with its own HCM solution while being global and large enough to help it increase its market share meaningfully. That left only two vendors of more or less equal size, Taleo and SFSF. Since Taleo had grown more organically than SFSF (even if it has acquired a couple of companies of its own) it was a closer fit to SAP's culture. However, when I looked at my HR customer database (what I call the WOW database -Who Owns What) I saw that there are more SAP HR customers running Taleo than SFSF. It therefore makes more sense to go after the company with fewer joint customers since it offers more cross-selling opportunities.  The fact that SFSF was founded by Lars Dalgaard, a Dane, was an added bonus as SAP felt  that a European senior executive would fit more easily in Walldorf. Only time will tell whether they were right on this point.

A more intriguing question is why SuccessFactors management was keen to sell (out?) Apart from the nice premium for shareholders, why would Lars Dalgaard want to become a mere senior executive at unexciting SAP when he was top dog with the company he founded? The answer is that with the number of acquisitions, and in a short period of time, SFSF bit off more than it could chew and found itself overwhelmed with the task of integrating disparate systems. With SAP it can find the people and financial resources to fix the integration issues which were threatening to bring down the company. Not to mention that now that it is part of a large and profitable company, SFSF's losses can be diluted in SAP's balance sheet with no need to answer the recurring, embarrassing question: "When will you become profitable?"

Overpaying for...
The acquisition is already starting with the wrong foot. In a volatile market, SAP could have bought SuccessFactors at a much better (i.e., lower) price than a whopping 16 times revenue. When Oracle bought PeopleSoft (PSFT) in the mid-2000's, an operation I was involved with, it initially offered $6bn, that's just twice what SAP has offered for SFSF. And yet, PeopleSoft had ten times more customers  than SFSF (and I'm talking here only about PSFT HCM, to avoid being accused of comparing apples with oranges.) PSFT was profitable when SFSF is still losing money. PSFT was the undisputed #1 in HCM, and #2 in ERP, a global vendor when SFSF's global reach is limited, a leader in just a segment of HCM, and even in Talent Management it faces strong competition from Taleo. Oh, and we are talking about 2003 dollars, which means the deal's value in inflation-adjusted currency is even higher. If you want a more recent acquisition as a comparison point, Taleo's purchase of Jobpartners last June was at a reasonable 2x revenues (more information on the wave of consolidations in the above mentioned blog.) No matter how you slice and dice it, the amount paid by SAP is hard to justify and is evidence of how desperate SAP is to "do something."

...too many issues... 
Once you start at looking at what SAP bought there is no way you can escape the fact that it will create more problems than it is likely to solve.

The pros: Let's start on a positive note. Now, SAP can claim with a straight face that it has a SaaS talent management offering, something they knew Career OnDemand was NOT (see my comments following the demo I attended at the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas last October.) But looked at from a customer's perspective, what has changed? Customers will still have to interface SFSF with the HR admin features in SAP, regardless of who the owner is: the work will still have to be done until there is an off-the-shelf integration.

The cons: Integration nightmare. Even when there is full compatibility (meaning no feature/module overlap between the two offerings) creating a "seamless" integration (data, process, user experience) takes years. In this case, the complexity is compounded by the fact that:

(1) SFSF is itself busy integrating the various pieces it has bought since last year (For details see my above-mentioned post, "2010-2011: Two momentous years of consolidation in the HR space")  

(2) What will happen to the still-unproven HR admin piece (Employee Central) SFSF had developed to compete with...SAP, among others? There are only three possible options:
- Will SAP kill it? Then how can it say it is moving to a cloud model?

-Will it keep it (maybe integrating it within its Business ByDesign cloud solution) and then compete with itself? That would be shooting itself in the foot as the cloud offering cannibalizes the old one.

- Will it then kill the old, on-premise SAP offering and move to the SFSF/Plateau offering? Unthinkable when you know there are thousands of customers on the on-premise offering, who have spent years and (for some of them) hundreds of millions of dollars to  implement it. Moving them will not be easy, if at all feasible.

(3) the issue of overlapping offerings such as the Career OnDemand module I mentioned earlier or SAP's reporting functionality (HANA) which will compete with the one SFSF has bought from Inform, not to mention the two Learning applications both have (see below graph on the product overlap of the three vendors: SAP, SFSF and Plateau acquired last April by SFSF.)  I am willing to bet the best sauerkraut in all Germany that come April 2012 when Career OnDemand is supposed to be released, nothing will come our way, and it will be quietly buried, acknowledging SAP's failure to evolve towards a true, organically grown SaaS model. 

Contrary to SAP's claims, there is quite a lot of duplication in its new offering.
Sorting it out will be a big challenge for which SAP has little experience.
(For simplicity's sake I am  identifying the major offerings based on
where they currently sit, SFSF or Plateau)

Sales/marketing issues: Integration between the two companies goes way beyond products. As experience shows, people buy from people. If SAP hasn't been able to make a killing in the TM space, it wasn't only because its offering wasn't on a par with the best-of-breed solutions, but also because SAP sales reps sell what they know best: traditional SAP software by stressing its engineering prowess. SFSF's culture is more start-up-like and its sales people know how to make the SaaS pitch which is different from the on-premise one. It reminds me of when Oracle moved from the database business into applications and couldn't understand why it wasn't as successful. Only when it realized that business applications are sold to CFOs and heads of HR and not CIOs, and that  you have to talk business value and processes  and not about the beauty of data clustering, did they start making some inroads. SFSF's marketing organization is also more attuned to the market's needs than SAP's gigantic machine. Expect some significant attrition from the SFSF ranks, especially when the jobs market improve.

...and little return
You might say in SAP's favor that since many of their customers were moving to SFSF, well, they might as well have the company in SAP's fold so that the revenue comes to SAP. First, considering the price SAP has paid, it will take at least 6-8 years for the transaction to be financially profitable. Second, this overlooks two facts: customer behavior and Talent Management (TM) as part of ERP.

Customer sentiment: many customers selected SFSF or Taleo, among others, because they wanted to move away from all the issues involved with what I call the software dinosaurs (see my blog from earlier this year, "Can software dinosaurs reinvent themselves as web-based vendors".) Now that SuccessFactors is being SAP-ized, customers may think twice before selecting that particular vendor (of course, SAP's hope is that the market will believe that the opposite is going to happen, that it is SAP which will be SuccessFactor-ized - but just look at the asymetry in size and you will have the answer to your doubts.) Actually, I already know of two companies (one of them a client) running SAP HCM and who were looking for a TM system; they had shortlisted SFSF and are now dropping it from the shortlist. Of course, two anecdotes do not a trend make, but it is worrying.  It is far from assured that this move will protected SAP's installed base but one thing is already clear: non-SAP customers will be less inclined to adopt a TM system highly interlocked with a competing HR system.
This is talent management, not ERP: Considering SAP's $16-billion overall revenues, SFSF's $200 million  are so puny that one can wonder how it will make any difference to the company's bottom line. In all fairness, compared to just SAP's HCM revenues, SFSF will add a not insignificant 20%, thus pushing Oracle further down the league table, but again at what price, assuming customers are not put off; and if SAP wants to become a SaaS vendor it will have to look beyond HCM. Even by adding SFSF's revenue to SAP's subscription revenue, it barely grows to a paltry 5% and of course you are mixing true SaaS with non-SaaS in a catch-all "cloud" category.

Even if SAP were to discard its traditional Jurassic-era HCM offering in favor of SFSF, which is as likely to happen as is Christmas to become a national holiday in Iran, SAP will need to keep on making many more and bigger acquisitions of SaaS vendors. I wonder whether there are enough companies out there and how SAP will be able to execute on so many acquisitions and integrations to become credible. At best it will become a dual-offering company, with all the cultural, strategic, and product schizophrenia associated with such a hybrid model. This muddying of the software waters is bound to create much confusion in the market (in addition, remember that SFSF comes with its own hybrid issues with the on-premise customer base from the legacy Plateau offering.) At least Oracle did the right thing after it bought all those different companies: it rationalized them all on the successor product, Fusion. What Oracle lacked in execution, it made up for (partially) in clarity. No such clarity is coming from SAP. 

The only strategy that is likely to pay off in the long-term is to develop/acquire a true SaaS product (and not that half-baked on-premise + hosted offering) and then start moving customers to it. For example, build all new talent management + additional countries on this new SaaS product (SFSF -based or other) and tell customers that if they want to use the new features they have to move towards the cloud. Not only will that give customers an incentive to do so, but by reducing the numbers of customers SAP has to support on the on-premise solution, makes the business more profitable. This of course entails doing it not only for HR but for the whole ERP offering, a difficult, even risky, move fraught with many dangers, but some software companies (such as Ultimate in the HR space) have done it, so it is not a completely outlandish idea. So far, however, the noise from Walldorf does not seem to countenance such a move.

And the winner is...Workday, so far the only true SaaS company in the ERP+HR space, which sees a serious competitor taken out of the equation (even with SFSF, SAP's core HR offering remains an on-premise one, not in the cloud) as well as its SaaS-based approach vindicated by the day. Worse, the biggest strategic failure of SAP (and also Oracle) is that they don't seem to get that SaaS is not just a functional hole to be plugged with an acquisition: it is a radical departure from the old ERP business model. In the olden days, you were missing a decent CRM system? No problem, just buy Vantive or Siebel. If what you were looking for was a winning HR system, well, just buy PSFT. But you can't buy your way into the SaaS world: the culture, product architecture, selling, maintenance, upgrade, absence of need for hardware, it all is so different. You need to reinvent yourself completely. Somebody explain to me how giant SAP will do that by buying tiny SFSF.

SFSF, customers and the wider industry, would have been better off had SFSF been left to continue to develop as an independent company. It was on its way to a bright future. With its new HR admin module, and provided it integrated well the different pieces it had bought,  it could have competed with Workday for the trophy of successor to PeopleSoft as HR vendor leader. Sadly, this was not to be. As the Jesuits' motto goes, Sic transit gloria mundi ("How the glory of the world passes.") For those more cinematically inclined, I am reminded of Marlon Brando's memorable line in the 1950s movie The Waterfront, where he expresses his frustration and disillusion at the prizefighter career that could have been his: "I coulda been a contender."

Most studies find that at least half of acquisitions fail to deliver tangible results and a decent ROI. Based on the above there is little doubt in my mind which half this acquisition belongs to. The only people that would gain from this acquisition (and are on cloud 9, if you'll allow me an easy pun) are SFSF stockholders who get an incredible 52% premium and advisors JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley who, as is their wont, encouraged the premium price, knowing that the higher the price paid, the higher their fees. 

I would go further and say that, barring the swift adoption and execution on the from-on-premise-to-cloud strategy I outlined above, the only M&A operation involving SAP which would make sense is one where it is not the predator, but either the prey or an equal partner with one of the three following companies: IBM, HP or Microsoft. That may well be the only way SAP can credibly stand up to the Oracle threat. Everything else smacks of desperation, is evidence of limited strategic view and is more likely to fail than succeed. 

UPDATE: Feb. 27, 2012

I know that several of SAP's top executives have read my blog, whether that has had any impact on their thinking and decision-making process, I do not know. But for the first time in years SAP has blown my mind away, with the Feb. 22 announcement that SFSF will become the basis of SAP's HR cloud offering and that, while continuing to invest in the traditional on-premise product (the R/3 product line now known as SAP ERP HCM), customers will be encouraged to move to the true SaaS product. I had to pinch myself and rub my eyes several times to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Could it be true? Yes, SAP finally is getting it. Unlike Oracle, which is still touting a mongrel on-premise + hosted product and slapping the SaaS label on it, SAP is finally showing it understands what being a true cloud vendor means and following (or at least mirroring) the advice I gave in this very blog post. Some of the product direction seems almost taken literally from my analysis. 

On EmployeeCentral, I wrote "Will SAP kill it? Then how can it say it is moving to a cloud model?" SAP decided to keep it and expand it

"...the market will believe that ...it is SAP which will be SuccessFactor-ized": that is happening to a larger extent than I thought with the SFSF team, product being retained and its SaaS culture emphasized

"The only strategy that is likely to pay off in the long-term is to develop/acquire a true SaaS product (and not that half-baked on-premise + hosted offering) and then start moving customers to it." This is exactly what SAP has announced.

I further gave an example of how SAP could do that: "Build all new talent management + additional countries on this new SaaS product (SFSF -based or other) and tell customers that if they want to use the new features they have to move towards the cloud. Not only will that give customers an incentive to do so, but by reducing the numbers of customers SAP has to support on the on-premise solution, makes the business more profitable." Again, largely what SAP has decided to do. 

I then added that this strategy was unlikely to happen since "So far, however, the noise from Walldorf does not seem to countenance such a move." I wrote that on Dec. 4: two months and a half later Walldorf changed its tune and embraced the strategy I devised for them.

Should I ask SAP for royalties based on this unacknowledged picking of my brain?  Of course, this strategy could be derailed at the execution stage but considering how clear, detailed and compelling  the product direction is, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Seems that there is still fire in the old dinosaur, after all.

Compare this with Oracle's own hastily put-together webcast announcement on their plans with Taleo two days later (they are clearly feeling the pressure from SAP)  where the presence of President Mark Hurd, Taleo CEO  Michael Gregoire and Product Development Thomas Kurian could not hide the fuzziness of the "plan" (if there is such a thing). Also, whereas SAP put the SFSF talent firmly in charge of the new business, Oracle who suffers acutely from NIHS (Not Invented Here Syndrome) gave no indication what Michael Gregoire's role will be (once the acquisition is completed, you can expect him to quietly depart.) The only clarity was that Oracle continues, against all market momentum, to stick to its hybrid model, refusing to bow to the inevitable: that true SaaS is here to stay, and instead of rejecting it they should embrace it. Oracle will probably come round to it at one point in time, but by then SAP will have stolen a march on them. 


  1. i can't believe that no one has commented on this deep and brilliant analysis...things are a'changing all over this market

  2. really good one..i'm tweeting this post.


  3. I'm impressed by the depth and breadth of your insights Ahmed, and as someone who has worked for Oracle, Siebel and now manages Workday HCM for my present employer I found myself nodding and smiling a lot as I read through it! Well done