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Techaisle Blog

Insightful research, flexible data, and deep analysis by a global SMB IT Market Research and Industry Analyst organization dedicated to tracking the Future of SMBs and Channels.

We do not sell, customers purchase - Raju Vegesna reflects on 25 years of Zoho

Zoho was founded in 1996, twenty-five years ago, with a mission to deliver easy-to-use and deploy CRM solutions to the SOHO market segment (Small Office, Home Office). Even the Zoho name was a spin from SOHO. In the last 25 years, Zoho has transformed from a fledgling startup to an enterprise serving small, midsized, large, and public sector organizations. In contrast, Salesforce was founded 22 years ago. It is a similar timeframe as Zoho, but each is at different levels – revenue, awareness, customers, and employees. How does Zoho keep itself grounded with such a lopsided competition? Today's business world admires Unicorns, applauds valuations, overlooks SaaS suppliers' profitability. Not that there is anything detrimental about chasing unicorn status with little to show profitability, Zoho founders have been tracking employee empowerment and customer success. In the last 25 years, Zoho has become well-known for its easily deployable, easy to use, full-featured applications. Recently Zoho is being recognized for its top-down driven, empathetic culture.

What is more critical to Zoho, delivering customer success or empowering organizational culture? Each organization goes through several essential points of decision in its journey. What were some of those decision points? Would a different decision have changed the trajectory of Zoho and on a collision course with Salesforce? Did Zoho ever reach a crossroad, break-it, or make-it stage? Many questions had been swirling in my mind, which I decided to address to Raju Vegesna, Chief Strategy Officer, Zoho.

True to the initial mission of empowering employees, Raju has no regrets. Instead, he describes Zoho's achievements as fulfilling. He has great admiration for Salesforce but quips that Zoho does not sell, customers purchase, and he is thrilled to be on the path Zoho has chosen.

Read on, excerpts from my very detailed interview with Raju Vegesna.

Fulfillment is the name for Zoho's 25-year journey

Can you describe Zoho's 25-year journey in one word? What is that word?
It's tough to describe our journey in one word. There is an internal perspective which is fulfillment. If we do not have that, we cannot have confidence in what we are doing and satisfaction with what we are doing. The feeling of fulfillment started early on and has continued. Even on Zoho's website's homepage, we showcase it as a life's work which is only possible if we inner fulfillment.

Customer success vs. organizational culture

What is more critical to Zoho, delivering customer success or empowering organizational culture?
We cannot separate customer success and organizational culture. They are two sides of the same coin. If we do not have organizational empathy and that culture right, then it will show up on the customer side. And if we do not have one side right then, the other side is not going to work. We often say, when you have a customer problem, it means you also have an employee problem. These are interlinked - one is external facing, and the other is internal facing. And if you have that inner empathy to humility, it will show up as a positive impact when servicing a customer. And this is ingrained and built into the organization. It is a simple mandate. If it is an employee's responsibility to keep the customer happy, the employee should have the freedom to think and act, and so it has to be built into the organization's DNA.

Chasing Unicorns

How do you keep yourself grounded?
We do not pay too much attention to valuations. We do not think about it. We have been through multiple bubbles, up and down cycles, so they do not bother as much. Then we also realize that the market, to some extent, is biased towards public companies. How often do you hear about private companies? For example, Tableau versus SAS, which is a private company. Or Walmart versus Aldi. There is an inherent bias in the market. Bias puts private companies at a disadvantage because they don't have the mindshare. Why didn't someone hear about Zoho earlier, partly because private companies do not get enough exposure? They are not talked about it because there's no inherent gain for other people. But then there are also a few things that are on our side that public companies don't. So, what, how do we play the advantages. For example, we don't have a timeline and a time horizon to operate. Now we can plan out a decade in advance. Some projects have been in the last 6-9 years in Zoho that haven't seen the light of the day. And when you have a public company running on a quarter-by-quarter basis, they don't have the advantage to plan it out. We try to focus on the process and what is in our control and do it the right way.

Critical decision points

What were critical decision points? Do you think those decisions changed the trajectory of Zoho? What would have happened if you did not make those decisions?
I'd say some early lessons helped a lot. Initially, our primary customers were optical companies. When the telecom bubble burst. We had about 305 customers, of which 300 or 301 of them died. Over a year or two, imagine that when 99% of your customers vanish, you might as well. We had zero debt, and we had some savings. And we had very hungry engineers. We took all the savings and invested in the engineers, and pivoted. Even from the beginning, we always believed in zero debt, which is a crucial reason for survival. Another lesson we learned was that diversification becomes vital for the product. Now we are fully diversified - product portfolio, regions, countries. We don't have a customer that is contributing to more than 1% of our revenue. The exciting thing is that not all the products we created back then exist today, but most of the employees who made the products still exist and are just creating new products. One hundred people have been with the company for at least 20 years, and they are just creating new things.

Deciding product roadmap

How did you decide to develop which apps and in which order?
It's one of the extremely simplest ways to decide. What are the apps that we do not use to run our business? What are the apps that we need to run our own business? And, and if there is a missing piece, we build it. So we believe that if we run our entire business on our own products and benefit from it, other companies will have the same benefits. We have 50 apps now, but I look at the road ahead and say we still have a long way to go. More importantly, can we make the boundaries between these applications disappear and appear as a single application? Why should users pick and choose the apps they want? Why can't everything contextually tie together? Why are there walls? A business may not have segregation between a front office or a back office. Why should there be a separation in software, support, sales system, marketing system, and several vendors that serve the needs? As simple as that. And that segregation has to, and separation has to go away. And that is one of the walls. So, it's a journey, but our tools and the missing pieces define our roadmap.

Surviving and thriving

Did you ever reach a crossroad, break-it, or make-it stage?
Survival instinct comes immediately after the break or make moment. I vividly remember when we pivoted, we created a product to address the IP market. And we demonstrated the product at a Vegas show. We were so tense because our future was dependent on that product. As we kept on demoing the product, more and more people started liking it. And that is when we said; now we have a future. Survival was a priority. And then, later, we started focusing on expansion and thriving.

Mentors and learnings

Who do you turn to for learning and mentoring?
We have a tightly-knit team. The management team has been sitting next to each other for a couple of decades. We go through the journey together. We also learn a lot from external companies. We study companies. How did all the private companies become one of the top leaders, for example, Aldi? Or the makers of M&Ms, which have been around for 100 years. Or how has Marvin Window been successful for the last 115 years? Or take a company like Bata. If you grew up in India, it is ingrained in you but is not an Indian company. It is a company out of the Czech Republic.

Salesforce admiration – purchasing vs. selling, small and enterprise customers

Salesforce started with a focus on small businesses but pivoted to enterprise customers. Now it is re-engaging with SMBs. Did you ever want to become a Salesforce?
There is one area that I admire in Salesforce. It educated the market about SaS. I have respect for the Salesforce platform on the technology front because they lead the way. But on the sales and distribution model, we decided to take a different approach. We are primarily an engineering-centric company, so and won't be a sales and marketing-centric company—money matters. We instead re-invest the money in our engineers than on sales and marketing. We like the bottom-up approach, where we started selling to small businesses. We named Zoho itself after Soho, small office, home office market. Slowly, we started serving larger companies. It is the customers pulling us into their organizations and not Zoho selling to those organizations. It's a subtle but essential difference. In other words, in a lot of cases, our products are chased, not sold. And that changes the dynamics. We see lately an increase in mid to large size customers adopting Zoho. If you look at our sister division ManageEngine the target market is mid-sized to large enterprises, and 60% of fortune 500 companies are our customers.

Respect for competition

Do we ever want to become a Salesforce or SAP? We are not sales-focused. We have a good number of salespeople, but it is a tiny percentage of the total workforce. We will continue to be an R&D company. We understand that there is competition, and we respect them. But then we respect our customers a lot more. We will build products, focus on R&D, and have these local, transnational teams, which will be on the ground, looking at customers developing solutions to meet their needs. Our business model is relatively simple, mainly because we are a private company. We only worry about two sets of people – customers and employees - because the third set, investors, are no longer at play.

Next 25 year changes – transnational localism

What will you change in your evolution for the next 25 years?
There are a few things that won't change - culture, values, people, and the investment in R&D. What will change is what we call transnational localism, which means we will have local teams available in multiple countries, geographically. We are strengthening our local presence in every country we are present in to serve the local customers. And that's an important strategy. We are present in about 20 countries, and we will see our team expanding in each of these countries, and that team will be solving the local customer's problems.

 raju vegesna headshot

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Salesforce – a step closer to enabling connected business with connected insights

On Monday, 10th June, Salesforce announced a definitive agreement to acquire Tableau bringing Salesforce one step closer to empowering analytics-driven digital transformation for its customers, enabling enterprise performance management, driving connected businesses and hurtling itself on a collision course with Microsoft and SAP. Microsoft’s Power BI is rapidly dethroning many analytics platforms including Tableau and SAP is taking giant leaps towards customer experience management with Qualtrics.

Besides adding to topline revenue of Salesforce, the acquisition will likely not have any significant material effect on revenue growth rate as Tableau’s revenue is less than 10% of Salesforce’s revenue with Q/Q growth rate only slightly more than half of Salesforce.

Salesforce began as a SaaS company in 2000 with its famous “No Software” logo and attention-grabbing advertising of a fighter jet striking a biplane. In the last seven years it has transformed into a leading cloud SaaS company with creatively created and strategically segmented solution offerings – Sales Cloud, Marketing Cloud, Services Cloud, Commerce Cloud and Analytics Cloud. But collectively these are only customer-focused applications that operate within the Salesforce platform. But the scope of SaaS impact mirrors the scope of activity in the enterprise itself. SaaS is being meaningfully applied to IT operations, to core business functions (finance, HR, business operations, ERP) in addition to customer-facing tasks (customer service, marketing and sales). There are dozens of discrete SaaS application categories and thousands of applications that address part or all of the requirements in a specific area, or which bridge across process requirements.

The true benefits arise when cloud applications are connected to each other. Connected applications provide businesses the benefits of agility, efficiency, collaboration, alignment, customer intimacy and innovation. This cross-functional visibility is important to diagnosing issues within the business and formulating enterprise strategy. Almost all businesses, from small to enterprise are on their digital transformation journeys. Frequently, a key step in the digital transformation process is to automate related tasks within and across business process. In the absence of adjacent SaaS applications such as ERP, HR, financial management - Salesforce was forced to acquire MuleSoft, the integration solution to help businesses of all sizes create connected applications.

But a key missing piece from Salesforce’s portfolio has been analytics. Regardless of the business issue, analytics provides an answer. Businesses are prioritizing a wide range of improved outcomes: improvement within existing operations and processes, expansion of customer base, profitability, creation and accelerated delivery of new offerings, reduced cost, and enhanced ability to manage the unknown. Remarkably, each of the issues can be addressed with analytics solutions – and indeed, businesses are using analytics to address each today. This provides analytics vendors with a powerful ability to link product/service capabilities with critical ‘care-abouts’. And exactly this capability was missing from Salesforce’s portfolio. Its AI-led analytics platform Einstein was not proving to be a true analytics solution but rather a collection of dashboards. And for that matter, neither is Tableau (which leans more towards data visualization than analytics). However, with some of its recent announcements such as Ask Data and updates of VizQL, when combined with Salesforce platform may prove to be very useful for new and common customers.

If connected cloud applications is a logical starting point for connect businesses then connected insights is the logical destination. A fact that I feel is being pursued by Salesforce. Most businesses are developing an understanding of the power of advanced analytics, and many are well along the path of installing a “data culture” in which facts are used to identify options, not simply to justify decisions based on instinct or anecdotal feedback. Many cherished but complex metrics, such as return on marketing investment or lifetime customer value, can be established by providing analysts and data scientists with rich data and sophisticated tools. Both MuleSoft and Tableau bring Salesforce closer to delivering an Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) system which will allow businesses to have a new attitude and culture that values and uses data analytics as the quickest way to gauge overall performance and specific areas of interest at a glance. And a key reason why SAP purchased Business Objects many years ago, Oracle acquired Hyperion and IBM absorbed Cognos and SPSS, but some fell by the wayside.

Most businesses including SMBs and midmarket firms that have used CRM and ERP systems within the past few years are familiar with the dashboards that are available with many of these applications, either embedded or purchased/developed separately. Dashboards will continue to evolve and be dynamic in several ways; the way they use data from subsystems like ecommerce and other real time feed sources, the way users can personalize the layout of their dashboards, and the ability to build KPIs “on-the-fly” by calculating variables on the screen and saving the result in a meta-repository for all to use. While several SaaS vendors allow this kind of metric building and start the user at a dashboard, we have yet to see anything targeted to the mid-market or SMBs that connects the performance across front office, production, fulfillment and customer service almost out of the box – so the future has been here for a while and we are waiting for the market to catch up. Microsoft fired the most recent salvo with Power BI and now Salesforce is responding. If only Salesforce bought an ERP firm or HR or collaboration or virtual workspace or customer experience/survey. It would certainly be a game-changer.

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SMB SaaS adoption growth creating new services opportunities

Techaisle SMB and Midmarket SaaS adoption data comparison from 2015 to 2019, illustrates that US SMB SaaS adoption went from widespread to practically ubiquitous. In 2015, less than 60% of microbusinesses and only 62% of all US small businesses were using SaaS, though the balance reported an intent to adopt software-as-a-service. In 2019, microbusiness use of SaaS has reached 77%, and overall small business SaaS use is up more than 29% to 80% of all US firms within the 1-99 employee segment. Looked at another way, growth from 62% to 80% means that within four years, over 47% of small businesses that weren’t already using at least one SaaS service adopted the technology.

The relative increase in the midmarket is even more striking. In 2015, 83% of US firms with 100-999 employees were using SaaS; by 2019, this figure has reached 98%, meaning that 88% of the 17% of midmarket businesses that hadn’t adopted SaaS in 2015 began using SaaS in the 2016-2019-timeframe, and leaving only 2% of US midmarket businesses without any SaaS services in use.

Data gathered from Techaisle SMB and Midmarket SaaS adoption survey suggests that the immediate planned progression of SaaS portfolios will be measured in the US but not so in most other regions. European SMB SaaS adoption is still tepid at 49%, Asia/Pacific is not far behind Europe at 46%, and Latin America is still only 36%.

As is generally the case with cloud solutions, SMB buyers who have purchased or plan to acquire SaaS applications most often approach the ISV directly. While SPs/MSPs have traditionally been the most common alternative source of SaaS solutions, new SMB customers are increasingly turning to consultants – and to specialized cloud brokers – if they are not engaging directly with the ISV. The data indicates that these cloud service brokers are emerging as an important force in the SMB SaaS market.

Add-on services represent a large and essential source of revenue for SaaS suppliers; license spend represents less than 25% of total SMB customer spending, while non-license spend on services accounts for over 75% of the total. Support for analytics/dashboards and system integration are the two most widely adopted add-on services. Current SMB users are looking to invest in systems integration, sales process design, disaster recovery and deployment services, while new SaaS buyers are adding maintenance and operations, systems integration and analytics/dashboards to their new SaaS solutions. Some services are ‘stickier’ than others. Survey also found that SMBs often drop services after initial deployment is complete, but backup/DR, data cleaning, security, and analytics support are each retained by at least three-quarters of initial SMB SaaS buyers.

Stickiness, however, is mainly a function of company size. Very small (<10 employees) businesses tend to dramatically reduce annual spend after deployment, while small and mid-sized businesses report relatively flat year-over-year spending.

System configuration (including designing reports, dashboards and analytics), customization, data and/or application integration, consulting (including sales process design) and training are the top five non-license services acquired by SMBs, as measured by percentage of total services spending.

Let us drill down into services usage with the adoption of CRM.

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US$8B spend on IT Security solutions in the US SMB market

Techaisle research shows that the US SMB spend on security (including managed security services) is likely to be US$8.4 B in 2017. Within the entire SMB (1-999 employees) segment it is easy to point to a lack of budget as a reason why US small businesses (1-99 employees) are not proactive when it comes to addressing security (or other IT) issues, but that may not be the whole problem, or perhaps even the greatest obstacle to small business adoption of security technology. Techaisle data illustrates, relative to midmarket (100-999 employees) firms, small businesses have limited internal IT security staff, are not generally working with a managed service provider capable of managing security needs, are about one-third less likely than larger peers to work with outsourcers delivering Security-as-a-Service, and are about 50% less likely to embrace external vendors’ software-based security solutions. While microbusinesses could theoretically pursue the same strategies that are used by larger competitors, they lack experience and skills needed to identify, deploy and manage the products and relationships used to develop shields protecting valuable corporate data, application and human assets.

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