Zendesk acquired Base CRM in 2018 to give customers a CRM component to go with its core customer service software. After purchasing the company, it changed the name to Sell, and today the company announced the launch of the new Sell Marketplace.
Officially called The Zendesk Marketplace for Sell, it’s a place where companies can share components that extend the capabilities of the core Sell product. Companies like MailChimp, HubSpot and QuickBooks are available at launch.
App directory in Sell Marketplace. Screenshot: Zendesk
Matt Price, SVP and general manager at Zendesk, sees the marketplace as a way to extend Sell into a platform play, something he thinks could be a “game changer.” He likened it to the impact of app stores on mobile phones.
“It’s that platform that accelerated and really suddenly [transformed smart phones] from being just a product to [launching an] industry. And that’s what the marketplace is doing now, taking Sell from being a really great sales tool to being able to handle anything that you want to throw at it because it’s extensible through apps,” Price explained.
Price says that this ability to extend the product could manifest in several ways. For starters, customers can build private apps with a new application development framework. This enables them to customize Sell for their particular environment, such as connecting to an internal system or building functionality that’s unique to them.
In addition, ISVs can build custom apps, something Price points out they have been doing for some time on the Zendesk customer support side. “Interestingly Zendesk obviously has a very large community of independent developers, hundreds of them, who are [developing apps for] our support product, and now we have another product that they can support,” he said.
Finally, industry partners can add connections to their software. For instance, by installing Dropbox for Sell, it gives sales people a way to save documents to Dropbox and associate them with a deal in Sell.
Of course, what Zendesk is doing here with Sell Marketplace isn’t new. Salesforce introduced this kind of app store concept to the CRM world in 2006 when it launched AppExchange, but the Sell Marketplace still gives Sell users a way to extend the product to meet their unique needs, and that could prove to be a powerful addition.
Co-founder, chairman and CEO Marc Benioff published a book called Trailblazer about running a socially responsible company, and made the rounds promoting it. In fact, he even stopped by TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco in September, telling the audience that capitalism as we know it is dead. Still, the company announced it was building two more towers in Sydney and Dublin.
It also promoted Bret Taylor just last week, who could be in line as heir apparent to Benioff and co-CEO Keith Block whenever they decide to retire. The company closed the year with a bang with a $4.5 billion quarter. Salesforce, for the most part, has somehow been able to balance Benioff’s vision of responsible capitalism while building a company makes money in bunches, one that continues to grow and flourish, and that’s showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Freshworks, a company that makes a variety of business software tools, from CRM to help-desk software, announced a $150 million Series H investment today from Sequoia Capital, CapitalG (formerly Google Capital) and Accel on a hefty $3.5 billion valuation. The late-stage startup has raised almost $400 million, according to Crunchbase data.
The company has been building an enterprise SaaS platform to give customers a set of integrated business tools, but CEO and co-founder Girish Mathrubootham says they will be investing part of this money in R&D to keep building out the platform.
To that end, the company also announced today a new unified data platform called the “Customer-for-Life Cloud” that runs across all of its tools. “We are actually investing in really bringing all of this together to create the “Customer-for-Life Cloud,” which is how you take marketing, sales, support and customer success — all of the aspects of a customer across the entire life cycle journey and bring them to a common data model where a business that is using Freshworks can see the entire life cycle of the customer,” Mathrubootham explained.
While Mathrubootham was not ready to commit to an IPO, he said they are in the process of hiring a CFO and are looking ahead to one day becoming a public company. “We don’t have a definite timeline. We want to go public at the right time. We are making sure that as a company that we are ready with the right processes and teams and predictability in the business,” he said.
In addition, he says he will continue to look for good acquisition targets, and having this money in the bank will help the company fill in gaps in the product set should the right opportunity arise. “We don’t generally acquire revenue, but we are looking for good technology teams both in terms of talent, as well as technology that would help give us a jumpstart in terms of go-to-market.” It hasn’t been afraid to target small companies in the past, having acquired 12 already.
Freshworks, which launched in 2010, has almost 2,500 employees, a number that’s sure to go up with this new investment. It has 250,00 customers worldwide, including almost 40,000 paying customers. These including Bridgestone Tires, Honda, Hugo Boss, Toshiba and Cisco.
Pricing is the most important, least-discussed element of the software industry. In the past, founders could get away with giving pricing short shrift under the mantra, “the best product will ultimately win.” No more.
In the age of AI-enabled software, pricing and product are linked; pricing fundamentally impacts usage, which directly informs product quality.
Therefore, pricing models that limit usage, like the predominant per-seat per month structure, limit quality. And thus limit companies.
For the first time in 20 years, there is a compelling argument to make for changing the way that SaaS is priced. For those selling AI-enabled software, it’s time to examine new pricing models. And since AI is currently the best-funded technology in the software industry — by far — pricing could soon be changing at a number of vendors.
Why per-seat pricing needs to die in the age of AI
Per-seat pricing makes AI-based products worse. Traditionally, the functionality of software hasn’t changed with usage. Features are there whether users take advantage of them or not — your CRM doesn’t sprout new bells and whistles when more employees log in; it’s static software. And since it’s priced per-user, a customer incurs more costs with every user for whom it’s licensed.
AI, on the other hand, is dynamic. It learns from every data point it’s fed, and users are its main source of information; usage of the product makes the product itself better. Why, then, should AI software vendors charge per user, when doing so inherently disincentivizes usage? Instead, they should design pricing models that maximize product usage, and therefore, product value.
Per-seat pricing hinders AI-based products from capturing value they create
AI-enabled software promises to make people and businesses far more efficient, transforming every aspect of the enterprise through personalization. Software tailored to the specific needs of the user has been able to command a significant premium relative to generic competitors; for example, Salesforce offers a horizontal CRM that must serve users from Fortune 100s to SMBs across every industry. Veeva, which provides a CRM optimized for the life sciences vertical, commands a subscription price many multiples higher, in large part because it has been tailored to the pharma user’s end needs.
AI-enabled software will be even more tailored to the individual context of each end-user, and thus, should command an even higher price. Relying on per-seat pricing gives buyers an easy point of comparison ($/seat is universalizable) and immediately puts the AI vendor on the defensive. Moving away from per-seat pricing allows the AI vendor to avoid apples-to-apples comparisons and sell their product on its own unique merits. There will be some buyer education required to move to a new model, but the winners in the AI era will use these discussions to better understand and serve their customers.
Per-seat pricing will ultimately cause AI vendors to cannibalize themselves
Probably the most important upsell lever software vendors have traditionally used is tying themselves to the growth of their customers. As their customers grow, the logic goes, so should the vendors’ contract (presumably because the vendor had some part in driving this growth).
Tethering yourself to per-seat pricing will make contract expansion much harder.
However, effective AI-based software makes workers significantly more efficient. As such, seat counts should not need to grow linearly with company growth, as they have in the era of static software. Tethering yourself to per-seat pricing will make contract expansion much harder. Indeed, it could result in a world where the very success of the AI software will entail contract contraction.
How to price software in the age of AI
Here are some key ideas to keep top of mind when thinking about pricing AI software:
Start by using ROI analysis to figure out how much to charge
This is the same place to start as in static software land. (Check out my primer on this approach here.) Work with customers to quantify the value your software delivers across all dimensions. A good rule of thumb is that you should capture 10-30% of the value you create. In dynamic software land, that value may actually increase over time as the product is used more and the dataset improves. It’s best to calculate ROI after the product gets to initial scale deployment within a company (not at the beginning). It’s also worth recalculating after a year or two of use and potentially adjusting pricing. Tracking traditionally consumer usage metrics like DAU/MAU becomes absolutely critical in enterprise AI, as usage is arguably the core driver of ROI.
While ROI is a good way to determine how much to charge, do not use ROI as the mechanism for how to charge. Tying your pricing model directly to ROI created can cause lots of confusion and anxiety when it comes time to settle up at year-end. This can create issues with establishing causality and sets up an unnecessarily antagonistic dynamic with the customer. Instead, use ROI as a level-setting tool and other mechanisms to determine how to arrive at specific pricing.
Bob Stutz has had a storied career with enterprise software companies including stints at Siebel Systems, SAP, Microsoft and Salesforce. He announced on Facebook last week that he’s leaving his job as head of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud and heading back to SAP as president of customer experience.
Bob Stutz Facebook announcement
Constellation Research founder and principal analyst Ray Wang says that Stutz has a reputation for taking companies to the next level. He helped put Microsoft CRM on the map (although it still had just 2.7% marketshare in 2018, according to Gartner) and he helped move the needle at Salesforce Marketing Cloud.
Bob Stutz, SAP’s new president of customer experience. Photo: Salesforce
“Stutz was the reason Salesforce could grow in the Marketing Cloud and analytics areas. He fixed a lot of the fundamental architectural and development issues at Salesforce, and he did most of the big work in the first 12 months. He got the acquisitions going, as well,” Wang told TechCrunch. He added, “SAP has a big portfolio from CallidusCloud to Hybris to Qualtrics to put together. Bob is the guy you bring in to take a team to the next level.”
Brent Leary, who is a long-time CRM industry watcher, says the move makes a lot of sense for SAP. “Having Bob return to head up their Customer Experience business is a huge win for SAP. He’s been everywhere, and everywhere he’s been was better for it. And going back to SAP at this particular time may be his biggest challenge, but he’s the right person for this particular challenge,” Leary said.
The move comes against the backdrop of lots of changes going on at the German software giant. Just last week, long-time CEO Bill McDermott announced he was stepping down, and that Jennifer Morgan and Christian Klein would be replacing him as co-CEOs. Earlier this year, the company saw a line of other long-time executives and board members head out the door including including SAP SuccessFactors COO Brigette McInnis-Day, Robert Enslin, president of its cloud business and a board member, CTO Björn Goerke and Bernd Leukert, a member of the executive board.
Having Stutz on board could help stabilize the situation somewhat, as he brings more than 25 years of solid software company experience to bear on the company.
Salesforce chairman, co-founder and CEO, Marc Benioff, took a lot of big chances when he launched the company 20 years ago. For starters, his was one of the earliest enterprise SaaS companies, but he wasn’t just developing a company on top of new platform, he was building one from scratch with social responsibility built-in.
Fast forward 20 years and that company is wildly successful. In its most recent earnings report, it announced a $4 billion quarter, putting it on a $16 billion run rate, and making it by far the most successful SaaS company ever.
But at the heart of the company’s DNA is a charitable streak, and it’s not something they bolted on after getting successful. Even before the company had a working product, in the earliest planning documents, Salesforce wanted to be a different kind of company. Early on, it designed the 1-1-1 philanthropic model that set aside one percent of Salesforce’s equity, and one percent of its product and one percent of its employees’ time to the community. As the company has grown, that model has serious financial teeth now, and other startups over the years have also adopted the same approach using Salesforce as a model.
In our coverage of Dreamforce, the company’s enormous annual customer conference, in 2016, Benioff outlined his personal philosophy around giving back:
“You are at work, and you have great leadership skills. You can isolate yourselves and say I’m going to put those skills to use in a box at work, or you can say I’m going to have an integrated life. The way I look at the world, I’m going to put those skills to work to make the world a better place,” Benioff said at the time.
Benioff has received numerous awards over the years for his entrepreneurial and charitable spirit including Innovator of the Decade from Forbes, one of the World’s 25 Greatest Leaders from Fortune, one of the 10 Best-Performing CEOs from Harvard Business Review, GLAAD, the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative for his work on equality and the Variety Magazine EmPOWerment Award.
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Before Tableau was the $15.7 billion key to Salesforce’s problems, it was a couple of founders arguing with a couple of venture capitalists over lunch about why its Series A valuation should be higher than $12 million pre-money.
Salesforce has generally been one to signify corporate strategy shifts through their acquisitions, so you can understand why the entire tech industry took notice when the cloud CRM giant announced its priciest acquisition ever last month.
The deal to acquire the Seattle-based data visualization powerhouse Tableau was substantial enough that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff publicly announced it was turning Seattle into its second HQ. Tableau’s acquisition doesn’t just mean big things for Salesforce. With the deal taking place just days after Google announced it was paying $2.6 billion for Looker, the acquisition showcases just how intense the cloud wars are getting for the enterprise tech companies out to win it all.
The Exit is a new series at TechCrunch. It’s an exit interview of sorts with a VC who was in the right place at the right time but made the right call on an investment that paid off. [Have feedback? Shoot me an email at [email protected]]
Scott Sandell, a general partner at NEA (New Enterprise Associates) who has now been at the firm for 25 years, was one of those investors arguing with two of Tableau’s co-founders, Chris Stolte and Christian Chabot. Desperate to close the 2004 deal over their lunch meeting, he went on to agree to the Tableau founders’ demands of a higher $20 million valuation, though Sandell tells me it still feels like he got a pretty good deal.
NEA went on to invest further in subsequent rounds and went on to hold over 38% of the company at the time of its IPO in 2013 according to public financial docs.
I had a long chat with Sandell, who also invested in Salesforce, about the importance of the Tableau deal, his rise from associate to general partner at NEA, who he sees as the biggest challenger to Salesforce, and why he thinks scooter companies are “the worst business in the known universe.”
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lucas Matney:You’ve been at this investing thing for quite a while, but taking a trip down memory lane, how did you get into VC in the first place?
Scott Sandell: The way I got into venture capital is a little bit of a circuitous route. I had an opportunity to get into venture capital coming out of Stanford Business School in 1992, but it wasn’t quite the right fit. And so I had an interest, but I didn’t have the right opportunity.
Salesforce, the 20-year-old leader in customer relationship management (CRM) tools, is making a foray into Asia by working with one of the country’s largest tech firms, Alibaba.
Alibaba will be the exclusive provider of Salesforce to enterprise customers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and Salesforce will become the exclusive enterprise CRM software suite sold by Alibaba, the companies announced on Thursday.
The Chinese internet has for years been dominated by consumer-facing services such as Tencent’s WeChat messenger and Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace, but enterprise software is starting to garner strong interest from businesses and investors. Workflow automation startup Laiye, for example, recently closed a $35 million funding round led by Cathay Innovation, a growth-stage fund that believes “enterprise software is about to grow rapidly” in China.
The partners have something to gain from each other. Alibaba does not have a Salesforce equivalent serving the raft of small-and-medium businesses selling through its e-commerce marketplaces or using its cloud computing services, so the alliance with the American cloud behemoth will fill that gap.
On the other hand, Salesforce will gain sales avenues in China through Alibaba, whose cloud infrastructure and data platform will help the American firm “offer localized solutions and better serve its multinational customers,” said Ken Shen, vice president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, in a statement.
“More and more of our multinational customers are asking us to support them wherever they do business around the world. That’s why today Salesforce announced a strategic partnership with Alibaba,” said Salesforce in a statement.
Besides gaining client acquisition channels, the tie-up also enables Salesforce to store its China-based data at Alibaba Cloud. China requires all overseas companies to work with a domestic firm in processing and storing data sourced from Chinese users.
“The partnership ensures that customers of Salesforce that have operations in the Greater China area will have exclusive access to a locally-hosted version of Salesforce from Alibaba Cloud, who understands local business, culture and regulations,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.
Cloud has been an important growth vertical at Alibaba and nabbing a heavyweight ally will only strengthen its foothold as China’s biggest cloud service provider. Salesforce made some headway in Asia last December when it set up a $100 million fund to invest in Japanese enterprise startups and the latest partnership with Alibaba will see the San Francisco-based firm actually go after customers in Asia.
Contract management isn’t exactly an exciting subject, but it’s a real pain point for many companies. It also lends itself to automation, thanks to recent advances in machine learning and natural language processing. It’s no surprise then, that we see renewed interest in this space and that investors are putting more money into it. Earlier this week, Icertis raised a $115 million Series E round, for example, at a valuation of more than $1 billion. Icertis has been in this business for 10 years, though. On the other end of the spectrum, contract management startup Lexion today announced that it has raised a $4.2 million seed round led by Madrona Venture Group and law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which was also one of the first users of the product.
Lexion was incubated at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), one of the late Microsoft co-founders’ four scientific research institutes. The company’s co-founder and CEO, Gaurav Oberoi, is a bit of a serial entrepreneur, whose first startup, BillMonk, was first featured on TechCrunch back in 2006. His second go-around was Precision Polling, which SurveyMonkey then acquired shortly after it launched. Oberoi founded the company together with former Microsoft research software development engineering lead Emad Elwany and engineering veteran James Baird.
“Gaurav, Emad, and James are just the kind of entrepreneurs we love to back: smart, customer obsessed and attacking a big market with cutting-edge technology,” said Madrona Venture Group managing director Tim Porter. “AI2 is turning out some of the best applied machine learning solutions, and contract management is a perfect example — it’s a huge issue for companies at every size and the demand for visibility into contracts is only increasing as companies face growing regulatory and compliance pressures.”
Contract management is becoming a bit of a crowded space, though, something Oberoi acknowledged. But he argues that Lexion is tackling a different market from many of its competitors.
“We think there’s growing demand and a big opportunity in the mid-market,” he said. “I think similar to how back in the 2000s, Siebel or other companies offered very expensive CRM software and now you have Salesforce — and now Salesforce is the expensive version — and you have this long tail of products in the mid-market. I think the same is happening to contracts. […] We’re working with companies that are as small as post-seed or post-Series A to a publicly traded company.”
Given that it handles plenty of highly confidential information, it’s no surprise that Lexion says that it takes security very seriously. “I think, something that all young startups that are selling into business or enterprise in 2019 need to address upfront,” Oberoi said. “We realized, even before we raised funding and got very serious about growing this business, that security has to be part of our DNA and culture from the get-go.” He also noted that every new feature and product iteration at Lexion goes through a security review.
Like most startups at this stage, Lexion plans to invest the new funding into building out its product — and especially its AI engine — and go-to-market and sales strategy.
Taylor Host has been operating his artificial intelligence startup out of Hong Kong for more than two years. The American entrepreneur has clients from Europe, North America and Asia, but he settled in the city for its adjacency to Southeast Asia and mainland China’s massive market.
Miro, which Host co-founded in 2017 with a British software engineer, had bootstrapped to six employees before raising a small note investment. Backed by Silicon Valley-based SOSV, it’s now seeking $2 million in a new funding round. As trade tensions between China and the U.S. drag on, the company is considering relocating for the first time because being a Hong Kong entity starts to turn off western investors.
Miro uses computer vision to tag images and videos of runners for the brands they wear. It then attributes that data — sporting goods purchases — to consumers profiles that are part of its clients’ customer relations management (CRM) system. Miro’s AI processes data in markets around the world, but China data, in particular, is desirable for western sports brands.
The Chinese rising middle-class has been fueling a marathon fever in recent years as they search for a healthier lifestyle. When they participate in a race, Miro’s sensors could be tracking their shoes and outfits for event organizers and sponsors. The technology has so far been used in nearly 500 events around the world and analyzed more than 10 million athletes — while most of the technical development has been conducted in Hong Kong.
“My co-founder and I both spent a considerable amount of time in Hong Kong. The majority of our team would call themselves Hong Kong Chinese, so we have a very strong foothold in Hong Kong and we love it here,” Host told TechCrunch over a phone interview.
“Lately though, it’s become very difficult to rationalize keeping the business in Hong Kong. There’s a number of reasons for that, but I think the ones that stand out are geopolitical.”
For one, Host has sensed a “dramatic” sentiment change among western investors towards Hong Kong, where a contentious extradition bill triggered a wave of mass protests recently. At the heart of the issue are fears that the special administrative region is ceding autonomy to Beijing. Critics cite examples of the disappearance of a Hong Kong bookseller and a Financial Times journalist’s visa denied by the local government.
Miro, a Hong Kong-based startup, uses computer vision to tag images and videos of runners for the brands they wear. / Photo: Miro
In an alarming move, the U.S. government stated the extradition bill “imperils the strong U.S.-Hong Kong relationship” that includes a special trade arrangement independent from that of mainland China.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam announced in early July that the bill was “dead“, but the die has been cast as concerns linger for Hong Kong’s autonomous status. Businesses in the territory now risk being dragged into the U.S.-China trade war.
In March, Miro won a pitch competition at SXSW and has since attracted institutional investors of all sizes. But two of its potential backers based in the U.S. have decided to leave the negotiation table seeing Hong Kong as a risk.
“Not a single firm has overlooked the issue of us being a Hong Kong-based company,” said Host. “There is zero appetite from the U.S. investors who we have talked to to invest in our Hong Kong entity right now.”
The risk of backing Miro, which processes seas of data with image recognition capabilities, is more pronounced than funding companies with little or no core technology as intellectual property is one of the main targets of the U.S.-China negotiations.
“Foreign venture capitalists have become more vigilant about investing in Chinese AI and chips companies, even when they don’t own core technology,” Joe Chan, founding partner of Hong Kong-based MindWorks Ventures, told TechCrunch in an interview.
Meanwhile, the trade war has had a tangential impact on U.S. fundings for Chinese startups that focus on education, lifestyle and other non-deep tech sectors, according to a handful of investors who we have spoken to in recent months.
Southeast Asia gains
With the help of legal and tax consultants, Miro has recently shifted to a U.S. entity by registering in Delaware but will keep its operations in Hong Kong. It’s a move which, in Host’s words, has “pleased and allowed the company to move forward” with some of its interested U.S. investors.
“It was a requirement of our conversations with those U.S. investors that they are investing in a U.S. — not Hong Kong — entity,” the founder noted. “If you are dead set on your company being the biggest company in your industry, why would you even consider being in a place that has so much uncertainty and risk?”
For China-based companies whose cross-border business is anchored in Asia, Southeast Asia could be a safe haven from the trade war. As Chan observed, some Chinese startups have intended to move to Singapore “to become less politically sensitive.”
Miro won a pitch competition at SXSW and has since attracted institutional investors of all sizes. But potential backers have decided to leave the negotiation table seeing Hong Kong as a risk. / Photo: Miro
Miro is also hedging risks by looking to Southeast Asia, which many would argue is emerging as a winner from the U.S.-China fight. Like China, the region has a burgeoning middle class that is getting into running and a range of other hobbies and habits that will spawn startup ideas.
Indeed, there’s been a lot of chatter about the rise of the region with a population of 640 million. A few big-name global investors, including Warburg Pincus and TPG Capital, have set aside new funds over the past few months to back Southeast Asian startups. Corporate investors including Tencent, Alibaba, Didi Chuxing and JD.com, are also clamoring to gain a foothold in this rising part of the continent, as we wrote two years ago.
“On a macro level, the trade war certainly has a substantial impact on China’s economy, so we are seeing a lot more money flowing to Southeast Asia,” said Chan.
“For example, some manufacturers have moved to Indonesia where labor is cheaper. China’s tech industry — and this is not entirely linked to the trade war — is reaching saturation and dominated by the BAT [Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent], so the window of opportunity is small. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia is still in development.”
In a way, the trade war has accelerated the shift of attention from China to neighboring countries. The momentum was what brought Miro to visit one of the region’s largest tech conferences Techsauce recently.
“Nobody is talking about the trade war out here in Bangkok. We are talking about how Southeast Asia is exploding. And that is not just Chinese investors. It’s western investors too,” said Host.