• November 15, 2009
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Marc'ing Time in San Francisco

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Memo from the desk of Marshall Lager, November’s Chief SaaS-Appreciation Officer:

November reliably delivers icky weather, American football, and holiday expectations. It’s a time when we start to consider what in our lives makes us truly thankful.

“Oh, great,” you think. “Lager’s copping out again, giving us another holiday-of-the-month column. I wonder what’s on TV.” Not so fast, faithful reader—I would never disappoint you that way. (At least, not two months in a row.) No, I’m turning my thoughts of thanksgiving (the lowercase kind) to one company in particular.

Thank you, Salesforce.com. Thank you for giving me my CRM industry.

A big, not-entirely-accurate claim, you say? After all, there were companies dealing in CRM and sales force automation well before Salesforce.com’s 1999 launch. Many of those businesses are still around today, so why am I not thanking them? Because ultimately this column is about me, that’s why—and without the intervention of Marc Benioff & Co., it’s possible there may not have been much of a CRM industry for me to write about when I got into the field in 2005.

Remember the late-1990s tech boom fueled by the rampant, unchecked growth of the Internet? Investment in any and all things Web-related was the way to go, and CRM software was emerging as the next miracle cure for business issues of all kinds. By mid-2001, the dotcom bubble had imploded big-time, taking many businesses (and a lot of net worth) along with it. Due to bad timing—and the fact that CRM is actually not a magical elixir that can transmogrify bad processes into lucrative business models—the industry took a serious credibility hit. 

Around this time, companies were starting to experiment with the concept of the application service provider (ASP). An ASP promised to deliver, via the Web, “software” that ran on remote servers. Nobody was ready for this, and not just because the bandwidth wasn’t there. Some have argued that the dotcom bubble was like Cleopatra, in that both were—wait for it—killed by asps. (Insert knowing chuckle here.) Whether or not that’s valid, Salesforce.com—at the time, a simple ASP—survived the collapse.

Survival isn’t the story here, though. By 2003, people might have forgotten about CRM, dismissing it as nothing more than another three-letter acronym that led nowhere. Surprisingly, the reverse happened: Businesses began showing renewed interest in getting a better handle on customer interactions. 

A lot of that renewed interest—and the subscription money it generated—was going to Salesforce.com, not least because one of its founders had the gift of gab. Benioff’s tireless promotion pumped not only his new company’s offering, but the business model itself. Thanks to him, these companies were suddenly OK using this new thing called “software-as-a-service” (SaaS), which was absolutely, positively, most definitely not “providing applications as a service” like one of those dreaded ASPs. (Insert knowing pause here.) At any rate, Benioff’s marketing muscle propelled Salesforce.com to the forefront of the SaaS discussion, where it has remained ever since. He even chose “CRM” as the company’s stock symbol. That’s chutzpah.

In the past, I’ve described Marc, sometimes affectionately and other times sarcastically, as a cheerleader. The fact is, when he came along, CRM needed a cheerleader—and needs one still—and just because he cheers for one particular team doesn’t weaken the strength of his personal pep rally. (I also get a chuckle from picturing him sporting pompoms and a miniskirt, but that’s another story.)

I was coming into the CRM field just as SaaS was really starting to take off, so, in the spirit of the holiday, I can give thanks to Salesforce.com for (indirectly) putting food on my table for the past five years. So happy birthday, SFDC. Can I get my Thanksgiving turkey-as-a-service now? 

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Marshall Lager is managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, a social CRM strategy and analysis firm. Contact him at marshall@3rd-idea.com, or via @Lager on Twitter, and ask about anything CRM-related, even Salesforce.com. 

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