The Path of Least Resistance Has a Habit of Prevailing

For every action, Newton tells us, there is an equal and opposite reaction. True in physics. Not necessarily so in business.

In another case of a traditional industry reacting in traditional ways to an untraditional threat, we have incumbent Marriott, the largest purveyor of hotel rooms in the world, drawing a line in the sand against that pesky start-up, AirBnB. Marriott is launching its “Homes & Villas,” which is a premium home rental service, very similar to what AirBnB offers with its AirBnB Plus service.

The fact is, in just a few short years, AirBnB, which owns no properties, has turned a software platform into a network that can claim about 5 times as many rental nights as Marriott alone.

The fact is, AirBnB has turned the hotel industry upside down. And the hotel industry is trying to adjust to the new game. But is it enough?

As has been the case with myriad industries, the incumbent struggles with a major dilemma: How to protect its cash-cow-generating machine while cannibalizing that machine to combat the attacker.

It rarely works. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to come up with an example where it has worked.

Uber and Lyft can be annoying to use. But is there any comparison with taking a taxi? Does anyone enjoy a taxi more? At least with Uber and Lyft you know the price, the driver’s name, his/her ratings, the length of the trip, and you never, ever have to worry about being “taking for a ride” for an additional 45 minutes to drive up the fare.

Yes, the auto industry is swapping out internal combustion engines for batteries faster than you can say “rickety-split.” But in the meantime, Tesla has rewritten the rules by amassing millions of miles of user data to be able to provide over-the-air updates to their customers. The other guys aren’t close, at least not yet.

The reaction of Blockbuster to Netflix has become a Business 101 case study. Blockbuster’s reaction to Netflix is a beauty. Blockbuster actually thought customers would enjoy the experience of traveling to the store to pick up a USB drive, vs. clicking a few clicks on a website from the comfort of their own homes.

The list goes on, with Amazon (not only in books and everything else, but in cloud services, an industry it single-handedly created right under the noses of the biggest hardware and software companies in the world). Google did the same thing with online advertising.

The pattern for the challengers is very similar. They enter an existing market orthogonally, usually using technology to rewrite the business rules. Their strategy is to:

  1. Disrupt the market with better, faster cheaper
  2. Go for growth and scale over profits short term
  3. Use that scale to reach a critical mass
  4. Capture the market
  5. Take profits
  6. Expand into new markets
  7. Never stop

Meanwhile, the incumbents react in similar ways:

  1. Ignore the start-ups
  2. Accept the start-ups by offering some low-end solution
  3. Realize the offering isn’t working and then do some soul-searching as to how to truly protect their territory and preserve their cash-cow-machine.
  4. Struggle with their hybrid business model and their legacy infrastructure while the new guys breeze through encumbered.

This pattern has repeated itself multiple times in the past 25 years or so and is documented in the brilliant book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” by Clay Christensen.

Having just spent the past three months traveling the world and using both AirBnB and VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owners) for about 80 percent of my nights, I can tell, unequivocally that the value that the challengers are providing to the hotel industry is noticeable. The average nightly cost is about half of what a comparable hotel would cost, and with that you get a kitchen, washer, dryer, a living room area. A hotel’s offering would be a square room with a bathroom and a Keurig coffee maker, if you’re lucky.

Now, I’m a big fan of Clay and the book, but I had the chance to have dinner with him some time back (2006) and I posed the question to the Harvard professor: “Why isn’t your industry (higher education) vulnerable to this challenge?”

He gave me a long, unsatisfying response.

This was long before Kahn Academy, Udemy, Teachable, even YouTube had come along that provide the ability to learn just about anything for free or a small fee. Yes, it’s not perfect by a long shot. But, as with all the other cases, you can see where it is heading.


VRBO

Like it or not, this disruptive force is unstoppable in virtually every industry. If it can be disrupted, it will be disrupted.

Electricity, it is said, follows the path of least resistant. That might a more apropos “law” for business than any of Newton’s.


Luxury properties. VRBO Vacation Rentals.

Links to products are on a referral basis, which means the author receives a commission — at no cost to you — should you decide to purchase using the link. You have the ability to bypass and go directly to any online retailer of your choice or your local book store. Regardless, it’s a great book!

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The SaaS consolidation trend

Consolidation. It’s the name of the game in the world of software. And as software manifests itself as a service (SaaS), the service companies are following the same path of consolidation.

If previous trends are any indication, we can expect the following:

Rapid innovation, which causes disruption.

Innovators battle it out with competition.

Some survive, some don’t and either get acquired or die.

History as an example

Let’s look at one example, the enterprise infrastructure software world. In 2000, there were a dozen or so companies — some startups and the big iron players such as IBM and Sun — trying to own the market. One company, BEA, starting making headway.

They acquired a smaller competitor, WebLogic, and this became the cornerstone of their revenue. They expanded and grew to be the big fish in the pond of enterprise infrastructure software with $1.5 b in revenue. (At the time, I believe they set the record for a software company reaching the $1 billion mark.) Then a bigger fish — Oracle — swallowed BEA. The enterprise infrastructure software (installed type) is now completely consolidated within the larger giants such as Oracle and Microsoft.

Or, let’s step back in further. Back to the future of the 1980s. Word processing was the killer app for PCs. Wordperfect quickly beat out competitors such as Wordstar and Multimate to be the king of the hill. Wordperfect’s stickiness was in its macros, keyboard shortcuts that, once you had learned them, you were reticent to try any other word processing app. Then along came Microsoft Word. With the inside track on DOS and then Windows APIs, Microsoft was able to displace Wordperfect as the predominant word processing app.

There were still holdouts: the legal profession in particular was dragged kicking and screaming into the new world. The killer death blow came when Microsoft cannibalized their own app and subjugated it to be part of its Office suite. And with that and a little magic known as OLE (object, linking and embedding), Microsoft could make drag and dropping from Excel, Powerpoint and Word seamless to the user.

The rest, as they say, is history. In the 2000s, search went through the same competitiveness, until Google, through a better search algorithm and little bit of luck as it stumbled upon the concept of Adwords and Adsense, beat out the competition.

Business Intelligence went through its innovation phase in the 2000s as well, and by the end of the decade, the major players were swallowed up.

What’s next?

So what can we expect to see in the world of SaaS (Software as a Service)? Mulesoft was recently acquired by Salesforce for a whopping $5.6 billion.

The interesting sidebar on this acquisition is that it came one year after Mulesoft went public. What motivated Salesforce to wait a year? Why didn’t they swoop in prior to IPO to offer a premium that would have saved them a few dollars.

Could be a few explanations. Perhaps the team at Mulesoft was more eager in testing the waters of the public offering. It could also be that Salesforce was — at least allegedly — a target of a takeover itself at the time Mulesoft went public. Perhaps Salesforce had its hands full.

Other significant acquisitions include Appdynamics scooped up by Cisco, just prior to Appdynamics IPO (the usual timing for these mergers). A study by a San Francisco firm tracked 95 software companies from 2005 onward. Seventy-eight percent — over three-fourths — of those companies have been acquired in the time period.

SaaS, I believe, is heading the same direction.

The death of a Software Salesman

I don’t know if this take on Splunk is fair or not but it does help to underscore an important point that I have been trying to get across about the proverbial pail of cold water that has been dumped on the traditional software company’s sales force.

This Alphasights article spells out in excruciating detail what challenges lie ahead for Splunk, a company that started as a “Google” for log file searches, and claims to “turn machine data into answers.”

I worked with Splunk’s CEO Doug Merritt years ago at SAP, where we were both members of the senior management team.

I was impressed by Doug’s intelligence, his drive and his zeal.

But here’s the one sure thing, sure for Splunk or any other software company making the transition to SaaS (software as a service). The change is more difficult than adhering to new GAAP revenue recognition requirements. The change is a vast cultural shift.

First and foremost the glory days of selling to IT are over.

This was an easy sell, all things considered, where renewal rates were almost a given and service and support was automatic.

The sales cycle was long, to be sure — usually 6-9 months. And often the customers started with modest pilots.

They also had to contend with selling vaporware and bloatware and dealing with the consequences of holding the customers’ hands as they awaited new features and bug fixes, which could take months and sometimes years.

But they loved this model, because it was a perpetual license where the commissions were up front. And once they had them locked in, renewal was a cakewalk.

It’s not so easy on the SaaS side. That’s because first of all, the relationships that software vendors have built with IT are only part of the story. Today, lots of people can influence what software or service they want to use, because of the rampant viral adoption.

In this world, they are competing to continually maintain the relationship with the customer, and they do so knowing the barrier to change, or the switching cost, is considerably lower for a customer than it was for that customer acquiring installed software that locked them.

The upgrades and new features are iterative and this requires constant connection with the R&D group who are spitting out bug fixes, new features etc. as they complete them, rather than bundled once a year.

The vendors acutely know their customers are not going to overpay as they did in the past, because they use Elastic Computing to subscribe to only the compute resources they need for any application.

And they know, again, that the customer can switch at any time, making it important for them to be realistic in setting expectations in the sale.

All the big guns — SAP, Oracle, Microsoft, Adobe — in the software world are well on their way to making the transition. But they have been at it a long time. Interesting that Microsoft Office 365’s revenue surpassed it’s traditional installed Office version last quarter. This is a seminal moment.

The opinions in this article are mine (George Paolini). I have no investments in Splunk and no affiliation (other than as a reader) with AlphaSights.