Selling to large enterprises costs big dollars no matter how frictionless your sale is

I have written a number of times about frictionless sales and how on-demand companies have a huge opportunity to reduce their sales and marketing costs and subsequently scale their business more efficiently.  Here is an excerpt from a prior post:

Frictionless sales means reducing the pain for customers to adopt and use a service/product and consequently reducing the cost of sales and marketing to get a customer and generate revenue.  As I mention in an earlier post, "The less friction you have in your sales and delivery model, the easier it is to scale. The easier it is to scale the faster and more efficiently you can grow." The lowest friction sale can be a user clicking on a web page and the content owner getting paid for it.  The highest friction sale is spending lots of money on marketing and trade shows and having a large, direct sales force of expensive reps pounding the pavement for months trying to close a large deal with an enterprise customer.  Follow that with a 3 month implementation process to get the customer happy.  There are various grades of friction between these two extreme points like open source business models, software as a service, and reseller/OEM-type models as other forms of packaging and delivering a product/service.  And of course, each of these models requires a different methodology and way of marketing and selling to a customer. Ultimately what you want is sales leverage where every $1 you spend on sales and marketing equals multiples of that in terms of revenue.

The perception that it is much easier to scale definitely holds true if you are selling to consumers, small businesses, and workgroups within large organizations.  However, it seems that many public on-demand vendors are feeling the pressure to deliver growth and ultimately need to feed the revenue machine by going after larger customers.  And what many companies are learning is that no matter how on-demand your software is, if you are selling to huge enterprises you are going to have to spend huge dollars in sales and marketing.  Sales cycles are long no matter how you slice it and even if there is no massive hardware and software installation, many large companies want to have their service customized and integrated, even lightly, with other systems.  in other words, many of these high flying on-demand vendors are starting to look more like the old software companies they are trying to replace.  As per a Wall Street Journal article today, it seems that many of these public on-demand companies are finding out the hard way that no matter how frictionless your sales process is, the bigger the company you sell to, the more it is going to cost you. 

There is nothing to install, so workers can start using online software without the aid of the tech department. That makes it easier for companies that sell online software to get into a business than their on-premises competitors.

Seizing on this, investors bought into online-software companies in a big way. During the first 10 months of 2007, shares of 15 online-software companies tracked by Thomas Weisel Partners increased in value 61%. Since then, however, these companies have lost about a third of their value.

Wall Street has realized that it isn’t enough to simply offer online software—you have to have a sales strategy that can make your offering a corporate standard. It is possible to get individuals, project teams or small businesses to buy online software through word-of-mouth marketing, but it is hard to make money from these groups—at least the kind of money necessary to become a billion-dollar company.

In order to get there, they can’t operate like an Internet start-up, letting their technology spread virally as end users hear about it. They need to sell to the same executives and information-technology professionals who made purchasing decisions before online software was an option. Businesses have a lot riding on the decision to use one product or another. And while having pockets of workers advocate for a particular piece of software is a plus, the execs who sign the big checks still want to see demos, vet the seller and do all the things they have always done when they buy software.

So if you are an on-demand vendor, either stick to your focus of scaling with SMBs and consumers which requires a completely different sales and marketing approach more rooted in traditional online budgets and telesales or be prepared to spend some real dollars if you truly want to go after the big guys. 

M&A – it ain't over till it's over

The economy is clearly slowing down and the IPO market is nonexistent.  As I have always said, this is the time to hunker down and tweak your business to get your model right.  If you are interested in exiting today, M&A continues to be the only viable path along that front.  Having been through a number of acquisitions and potential acquisitions through the years, one point I must remind you of is that any deal isn’t over until its over.  On the surface, this seems so obvious.  And yes, once a term sheet is signed and a price and general terms are agreed to, you are in great shape.  But recently, through discussions with other VCs and entrepreneurs, I am hearing about more situations where strategic buyers may significantly change the deal terms after more serious due diligence or even potentially walk away from a deal.  This can be especially painful if you have spent a number of months meeting with the strategic and going through due diligence in lieu of running your business. Trust me, this happened to one of my portfolio companies last year and reasons cited can include we had a change of strategic priorities and or look at the economy, there is no way we can value you like we did when we started the deal.

While I can offer you no protection from this happening to you, all I can say is to be prepared and skeptical, be willing to walk away, and make sure that you both do enough diligence and meet with the right decision makers before you sign any term sheet and embark on the extended process.  Once the term sheet is signed, run like hell to get the deal closed because the longer a deal lingers the more opportunity there is for it not to happen.  Keep the hammer down and always have next steps and a defined timetable.  In addition, to the extent that the strategic acquirer has made other aquisitions in the past, I would try to leverage your personal network to reach out to some of the VCs or entrepreneurs involved to get a flavor for how the strategic will run their due diligence process and what doozies or surprises the strategic throw at you.  Before you start spending your money from the acquisition, remember there is a lot that can change and that probably will change so keep that in the back of your mind as you go through the process.