SaaS and the Arbitrary Release Cycle

I’m not a veteran marketer. I have only been part of two or three major product releases here at SugarCRM. But I do know a lot of hard work and innovation has gone into every release here at Sugar, and the more I get to know the process and the team the more excited I get about the roadmap in general.

SugarCRM has a “hybrid” model, for lack of a better term. The company does not limit its users to just one deployment option. Users are free to choose an On-Site or an On-Demand deployment. Hooray for choice. So, it makes sense that SugarCRM has product release cycles in the traditional sense – we bundle up a lot of new stuff and release it so that upgrades make more sense regardless of your deployment situation.

But I am growing more and more skeptical of the pure-play SaaS vendors’ release cycles. What I mean is, the main claim to fame of SaaS upgrades is that they are seamless and automatic, so there is no need to stockpile new features for some big heralded release. So, why do SaaS vendors like Salesforce.com still make so much noise around their quarterly releases? Shouldn’t the company instead be slowly bringing in this functionality to ease users into new capabilities instead of overwhelming them with new features in an instant?

The answer is, of course, less related to technology than it is sales and marketing. If Salesforce.com doesn’t have some big news around their product to write a press release about, then Wall Street and the tech media etc. will simply ignore it. This is sadly a model that we all follow in the application software world.

It would be nice to see a SaaS vendor change this model and simply say “hey, we’re gonna institute new features as we build and certify them as user-ready.” But I doubt that will ever happen, and even if it does, we’ll still see round-up release press pieces in arbitrary time periods such as “Winter ’09.”

But companies that set up these arbitrary release cycles can run into a different problem – that of not having anything to talk about every three months. Take the latest Salesforce.com product release announcement. There is really nothing new here at all…I mean, web-to-lead forms?  Hasn’t that been a part of the product for years? (I know Sugar has offered them for at least 2+ years.) Knowledgebase? Please, they already made the announcement of this functionality when they noted the M&A deal for InStranet (a deal that interestingly adds software to a “no software” company no less). The “ideas” forums concept?  All of these are pretty well known, pre-existing Salesforce.com features.

All told, it is some pretty stale stuff for a press release with a headline which includes the claim that Salesforce.com is redefining CRM.

But again, it looks like Salesforce.com painted itself into a little bit of a corner here. This is not a jab at the product, but rather the problem that arises when you set forth these arbitrary guidelines for releasing a product. Look, the economy sucks, Salesforce.com stock is not doing great in my opinion, and there is tons of competitive price pressure on Salesforce from all angles. And for a company that spends a small percentage of revenue on R&D as it is, these factors may have come in to play in terms of the company not having a huge list of cool new features this time around, if you ask me.

There have been other releases that were overflowing with features, but this non-release can be a caveat for other pure-play SaaS vendors…don’t set arbitrary release cycles that will force you to put out something when there isn’t much to tell.

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