On-Demand Services Face Escalating Challenges In Today's Economic Crisis

Today’s deepening economic crisis is testing the mettle of IT/business decision-makers, IT solution providers and technology investors alike.

IT and business decision-makers in nearly every industry must make cuts to their capital and operating budgets in order to offset rapid declines in business and tightening credit markets. In many cases, this is forcing them to fundamentally reevaluate the way that they acquire and utilize technology and business applications, and leading them to seriously consider various on-demand service alternatives such as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), cloud computing, and managed services.

I have recently suggested in commentaries in Datamation and the Business Technology Roundtable that any IT/business decision-maker who isn’t seriously considering these on-demand alternatives is doing their organization a disservice and could be jeopardizing their jobs.

THINKstrategies’ latest customer survey in conjunction with Cutter Consortium clearly shows that organizations of all sizes are adopting SaaS solutions to reap the economic and functional benefits of these on-demand services.

However, many of my clients are also reporting that they are putting a hold on all spending until they get a clearer picture of the state of the economy in 2009. In addition, many are also issuing requests for information (RFIs) to their current suppliers, including SaaS companies they are already using, to obtain additional financial data that can help them determine which vendors are most likely to survive a worsening economy. This is the first step of a broader initiative being undertaken by many of these companies to weed out those suppliers who may fail in the coming months.

Proving their long-term financial viability will become a key challenge for many SaaS, cloud computing and managed service providers (MSPs). Compounding this problem is the growing anxieties within the venture capital (VC) community which is facing severe pressures from their limited partners (LPs)–financial institutions, universities and others–who have been seriously impacted by the economic meltdown. With many of these LPs threatening to renege on their original commitments, the VCs are carefully scrutinizing and setting higher standards for their current and prospective portfolio companies alike.

As a consequence, many of the SaaS, cloud computing and managed service companies who were hoping to capitalize on the current crisis by increasing their sales and marketing efforts to promote their business benefits in a down economy are being forced to go slow or even cut back their spending instead. Many of these on-demand service companies are also facing longer sales cycles as customers delay their purchase decisions and demand more information about the providers’ operations and financial status as a part of their due diligence process.

Given that THINKstrategies’ SaaS Showplace already has over 900 companies from around the world offering over 4500 SaaS solutions organized into 80 Application, Industry and Enabling Technology categories and there may be twice that many companies actually offering on-demand services, an industry shakeout is inevitable and likely to happen sooner than expected.

These trends were the focal point of the recent Software Business and SIIA On-Demand conferences I participated in over the past few weeks. While Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce user conference was a celebration of the accelerating capabilities of cloud computing and SaaS, the Software Business and SIIA On-Demand conferences where more somber industry events were concerns about today’s economic environment were the center of attention.

I think the reality is somewhere between the euphoria and despair these two events. The measurable benefits and growing number of customer success stories that on-demand service providers can boast give them a clear long-term advantage over traditional, on-premise software and systems. However, these companies will face stiffer challenges from incumbent players and conservative decision-makers.

An indication of the competitive challenges facing SaaS and cloud computing vendors was provided by Anthony Lye, the Senior Vice President of Oracle’s customer relationship management (CRM) division, at the SIIA On-Demand conference. Lye spent about 30 minutes of what was supposed to be a “Point/Counter-Point” keynote session challenging the fundamental benefits of on-demand solutions and questioning the long-term viability of the on-demand services model, despite the fact that he is responsible for running Oracle’s on-demand CRM solution which has experienced significant growth over the past year.

Lye’s tough-minded presentation was an example of the same kind of subtefuge which his boss, Larry Ellison, the Chairman/CEO of Oracle, has been conducting for the past year with his own statements aimed at discrediting the on-demand services market despite the fact that Oracle is one of the largest suppliers of databases and middleware for SaaS and cloud computing vendors. (Click here to read THINKstrategies’ profile of Oracle’s SaaS enablement platform strategies and solutions.)

On-demand service providers will have to do a better job than Zach Nelson, the CEO of NetSuite, did at the SIIA conference. Nelson was supposed to offer a SaaS industry response to Lye’s incumbent software vendor (iSV) arguments, but he chose to side with Lye instead and distance NetSuite from the rest of the SaaS community. Rather than dispute any of Lye’s contentions and misrepresentations of the SaaS model, Nelson decided to take only 15 minutes of his portion of the keynote session “debate” to promote NetSuite’s integrated software and new focus on the service industry based on its acquisition of OpenAir.

Anyone who wasn’t aware that NetSuite offers SaaS solutions would have thought it was a traditional software vendor based on Nelson’s presentation. It was a disappointing performance which will do little to endear NetSuite to the rest of the SaaS industry. Instead, it only reinforced the impression that NetSuite and Oracle have a mutual understanding about how they will complement rather than compete with one another.

So, the on-demand services movement will continue to be led by Salesforce.com, Google, Amazon, Facebook and other innovators. It will also be led by bold, new leaders. Although Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com is the figurehead of the movement and Treb Ryan of OpSource is another important evangelist. Josh James of Omniture has emerged as an important spokesperson as well. James delivered a captivating presentation at the SIIA On-Demand conference which elaborated on a similar talk which gave at OpSource’s SaaS Summit last February regarding the key management metric for measuring SaaS sales effectiveness–th
e ‘magic number’.

It will take bold ideas and actions to succeed in the on-demand services market going forward. The winning on-demand service companies will be those who can convey a compelling message regarding the fundamental business benefits of their SaaS, cloud computing and managed service solutions, and deliver these tangible results in a cost-effective manner.

Like the well known line from Charles Dickens’ book “Tale of Two Cities” goes, these will be the best of times and the worst of times for the on-demand services movement.

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