I've always thought of Sage Software as an interesting mix of ERP and CRM companies. A holding company of sorts. I have wondered when we might see the vendor trying to impose some sort of "Sage-ness" to the varied companies it owns; trying to bring it all together under one brand. Or if that was indeed the plan. Sage's partner conference in Nashville, Tennessee August 12-15 was a great way to learn about how far the vendor has come in its efforts. What better situation shows off Sage's mix of products and markets than having a North American CEO with a strong Parisian accent speaking to partners in the heartland of America. (I think that plays better today than it would have in the past.) Here were the highlights and insights I took from a partnering perspective.
Image: Sage CTO Himanshu Palsule echoes CEO Pascal Houillon's message about "focus".
This event has morphed over the years from a pure partner event to also including a customer portion in recent years. This is the opposite to what many companies have done in that it's the partner event that came first, and the customer event second. It was great to hear just how many partners were hosting their clients during the second half of the week that was dedicated to customers. Between the partner and customer portions of the event, there were over 3700 attendees present, including many Sage employees.
The event itself was well run and everything came across as professional and polished. But as Sage management tried to show the company more as a singular unit, some partners were left wondering where their place was.
Sage underwent a re-branding exercise just over a year ago to try to add some of that "Sage-ness" to the collection of companies it had acquired. Sage Peachtree became Sage 50. Sage ERP Accpac became Sage 300 ERP. Sage ERP MAS 500 became Sage 500 ERP. And more. The reaction has been mixed from partners. Some are frustrated that their very well known brands are being taken away. They preferred the days when they were independent, or at least when Sage didn't try to impose on their individual momentum. Others weren't too worried as long as the products did what they said they did. But I'm not convinced yet that partners really feel like they are Sage partners. Many still identify themselves with the brands that were supposed to fade away a year ago. Sage MAS 90, Simply Accounting, Peachtree, and more.
Re-branding was just one step of trying to become an integrated company. If Sage wants to appear as one company with one vision, it has to start to unite the silos that resulted from its acquisitions. Sage announced that it is centralising key functions such as support, research and development, and marketing. Sage's competitive differentiator can be the same thing that has confused many in the past: it's vast portfolio. If Sage gets it right, a salesperson or a partner can offer customers a whole choice of products. Today, with numerous organisations and silos from the old world, it's more difficult for a customer to see that choice. One Sage executive stated to me that they were working very hard on the organisational structure to get this right.
Apart from the unfortunate pronunciation of the word by the Parisian-sounding leader, there was a very strong message about focus. Sage's opening keynotes talked of the fact that they would be placing bets on certain products, while de-investing in others. This was news to many in the audience and caused many to sit up in their seats. The focus will be on three key platforms:
- SageOne - online accounting solution for small business (ie. 1-10 employees)
- Hybrid - taking existing on premise applications and marrying them up with hosted cloud services (think payments, depreciation services, etc.)
- X3 - Sage's highest end ERP, designed to compete against other mid market ERP offerings.
CEO Houillon said not to blame him for lighting the fires that the industry and customers have started. He said that fire is an essential but harsh part of nature. Fire in a forest is occasionally necessary to renew life and allow it to re-grow. These three platforms will be the way Sage goes into the future. And there will be products like Sage 500 that will have an end of life coming in five years time. Partners seemed to understand and accept this message about change and evolution. But many felt that it was a harsh since they had very good practices and were finding a lot of success in these lower priority products. X3 should supposedly be the new target of many partners consulting on ERP solutions, though there are only a few handful of partners in North America selling and implementing it actively today. More of a roadmap was needed for partners to show them what the next five years will look like. Instead, many were left wondering if there was a shelf-life for their particular product area, and whether or not they should be investing in a new area such as X3.
Sage still seems to be discovering who it is. It once was a collection of like minded companies offering different sizes and styles of ERP and CRM applications, where partners from each brand were happy in their isolated worlds. It now seems to be trying to impose more "Sage-ness" across the cornucopia of brands, and offering customers choice. The idea of Sage or its partners offering such a wide choice of business application solutions from one vendor is a very powerful concept. Getting the partners to be in lock-step with that vision is going to take time.
Posted by Darren Bibby, Program Vice President, Software Channels Research, IDC