Sage Turns a New Leaf: Top Takeaways from Sage Summit 2012

At this year’s Sage North America 2012 event, Sage North America CEO Pascal Houillon unveiled Sage’s strategy to reckon with changing market realities, rationalize its product strategy and set clear directions for itself, its partners, and its position in the market.

Houillon set forth Sage’s strategy to move from a heavily decentralized product management and marketing approach to one that is more centralized and focused—and to put the company on a stronger growth trajectory. By streamlining its offerings, Sage intends to provide customers and partners with a more integrated experience and more flexibility to take advantage of new cloud-based connected services .

Rebounding from Rebranding

At Sage’s Summit 2011 event, then newly appointed CEO Houillon announced that Sage NA would embark on a phased approach to drop individual product brand names  (such as MAS, Peachtree, etc.) in favor of the Sage brand. The reasoning was that a stronger, more unified brand would drive cross-selling opportunities in the Sage installed base, and elevate consideration among small and medium businesses (SMBs) not yet using Sage products.

Last year’s rebranding announcement initially sent shock waves across the partner and influencer community. While the initiative was designed to strengthen the Sage North America corporate brand, many expressed concerns that it would erode the brand equity that individual brands had built up over the years.

My minority view at the time was that this decision would produce some short-term pain, but was necessary for Sage’s long-term gain. By this year’s Summit, it seemed that many more people agree with this perspective. While the name changes are still confusing for many customers, most of those I spoke with were neutral to enthusiastic about the rebranding, and a few told me that it was time for Sage’s brand identity to catch up with the vendor’s actual size. And although some partners were still grumbling about the costs of revising marketing materials and educating prospects and customers about the name change, most seem to have accepted the rebranding and moved on.

Realigning for Growth

Sage executives focused their keynotes on plans to reinvent and reinvigorate the company. Sage has been stuck in a rut for a long time, with revenue growth in the low single digits. And although millions SMB customers use Sage products, about 2/3 of them aren’t currently buying anything from Sage—whether upgrades, add-ons or support.

Dispersing development, marketing and service investments over its gangly portfolio of 60-plus North America offerings had become untenable. The company needed to reset, refocus and re-energize for growth–something it hasn’t seen much of in recent years. The company has set its sights on three high-level goals: growing the addressable market, increasing market share and growing share of wallet among existing customers.

Sage is relying heavily on customer input to help achieve these goals, conducting personal interviews with more than 300 SMB CEOs to better understand their requirements. In these discussions, Sage heard a recurring theme. SMBs want to put the power of technology innovation—whether mobile, cloud, social or analytics to work for their businesses. But they want this innovation delivered to them when, where and how they want it, without minimal business disruption.

Bringing the Core Portfolio into Focus

Houillon indicated that although 22% of Sage’s employees are in R&D roles, this investment has been spread thin across too many products and projects. So Sage is focusing to differentiate between “core” and “non-core” applications. By deliberately focusing on core products, Sage believes that it can deliver the innovation and the simplicity SMBs require, and drive its own growth.

Core solutions include selected accounting, ERP and related solutions (payments, payroll, CRM, etc.) that Sage believes are best suited to helping it drive growth in key SMB markets. For instance, Sage has designated Sage 50 (formerly Sage Peachtree) and Sage 300 (formerly Sage ACCPAC) as core accounting solutions, and Sage CRM as its core CRM product. Most innovation will happen in this core set of products, and be shared across them.

Sage has also anchored its core portfolio strategy around the needs of three distinct market segments—which align directly with its growth goals.

  1. Cloud-based Sage One, for micro-businesses with 10 or fewer employees. Sage introduced Sage One  for North America in May of this year. Built on open-source Ruby on Rails, Sage One is a cloud-based business services solution that provides invoicing, project tracking, payments, expense management and collaboration in an integrated solution. Designed for true small businesses without any IT support (or VC funding), Sage One is aimed squarely at helping Sage grow the addressable market with a true entry-level solution. Sage One offers a free 30-day trial, and is priced at $29 per month per business for an unlimited number of team members, and includes 5GB of storage and support. Sage One also features a friendly interface–you don’t need to be an accountant to understand how to manage your books with it.
  2. Hybrid solutions for small and medium businesses. Sage announced that it is partnering with Microsoft and using its Azure platform to help its existing ERP and accounting customers bridge to and take advantage of cloud solutions. Sage is surrounding its existing applications with integrated, cloud-based connected services. For instance, Sage will provide common mobile, payments (Sage Exchange), identity management and in-context support (Sage Advisor) to all core products via these connected services. Over time, Sage will move more functionality from ERP and accounting to more flexible cloud services that customers can turn on and off as needed. Sage is betting that this approach will not only help it increase wallet share among existing customers, but make it more attractive to new, off-base prospects as well.
  3. Sage ERP X3 for midmarket companies. Sage ERP X3 is a comprehensive, highly customizable ERP solution for midmarket companies and divisions of larger companies with a two-tier ERP approach. Sage announced a new subscription licensing offering for Sage ERP X3, hosted on dedicated databases at Sage data centers. Sage also revealed Project Syracuse, the next-generation, fully web-enabled version of Sage ERP X3, which is very strategic to helping Sage grow share in this market. The new version, scheduled for availability in 2013, takes advantage of RESTful architecture, and features a cleaner UI, more modular design and enhanced mobility capabilities, among other things.

Non-core Doesn’t Mean Over and Done

What happens to the rest of Sage’s North America portfolio? Sage is basically grouping the rest of its products in two different buckets:

  1. Products that Sage will continue to support, but plans to phase out within a few years. This primarily include accounting, ERP and related products such  as Sage BusinessWorks, Sage DACEasy, Sage 500 ERP (formerly MAS 500). These generally older products are not the best fit for applying the common R&D innovations that Sage has on the drawing board.  Sage committed to clearly communicating what it will phase out and when, and to help partners and customers with migration to core solutions.
  2. Products that are strong and have a long life ahead, but that Sage needs to manage differently. These include industry-specific solutions such as Sage 300 Construction and Real Estate (formerly Sage Timberline Office) and Sage 100 Fund Accounting for non-profits and government. It also includes Sage ACT! contact manager and Sage SalesLogix CRM, which have been used primarily as standalone (not integrated with Sage accounting and ERP). Underscoring the likely longevity for at least some in this group are the fact that Sage Construction Anywhere is Sage’s first offering built on Azure; and that Sage is developing a new SaaS-based version of ACT!, slated for release in 2013.

The Rest of the Story

There is a new vitality at Sage that I haven’t seen before. In his year at Sage, Houillon has retained some of Sage’s strongest executives, including Himanshu Palsule, Chief Technology Officer and Head of Product Strategy, and Connie Certusi, EVP Small Business Solutions. At the same time, he’s attracted impressive new hires, such as Joe Langner, Executive VP, Mid-Market Solutions; Doug LaBahn, SVP Product Management; and Brad Smith, EVP of Customer Experience. The team appears realistic about Sage’s position, but confident and energized about the path they’ve charted to elevate that position. Partners and customers seemed much more upbeat about working with Sage, and appreciative of Sage’s clear-cut roadmap.

That said, Sage is taking the turn a bit late in the game and its course will not be easy. But Sage has taken those essential first steps to make the changes it needs to prosper and grow.

4 thoughts on “Sage Turns a New Leaf: Top Takeaways from Sage Summit 2012

  1. The best summary I’ve read so far.

    I’m still not convinced about core vs non-core because as the Sage story goes they are paring products, narrowing focus, centralizing R&D — yet they have these so called “non-core” products they’re still going to be carrying along managing separately. Seems odd.

    Some of the other new(ish) things:

    – Sage ERP X3 not going multi-tenant – lots of dancing when asked how quickly Sage could get it to MT status if customers demanded it. I believe this is a change from Sage’s prior announced strategy for X3 (think they have talked about MT for X3 on earnings calls)

    – Announced cloud strategy seems great for existing customers. Will it be enough to win new deals?

    – Still not seeing the Sage One strategy here. A lot of what Sage appears to be doing – including branding – seems tightly controlled by UK. How much would Intuit kill to have a migration path upward for their QB line — and here Sage has seemingly designed from the start without any announced upward migration path. Maybe they’re planning on scaling Sage One to the larger company size but I’m not betting on it.

    – Sage Advisor strategy – could Sage create an additional business out of selling anonymous data or was Joe Langner (remember his background is partly at D&B doing just this) politely nodding his head when an analyst asked whether Sage would re-package some financial data for sale either internally to customers or externally.

    I didn’t get a chance to ask much about the mobile apps they displayed but I’m assuming (perhaps wrongly) that at least one was designed with some off-shoot of HTML5. I think it’s the Sage Argos SDK. Am curious how that will perform speedwise as well as whether it needs constant connectivity (how well will that be used by salespeople traveling deep inside a metal warehouse)?

  2. Hi Wayne,

    Thanks for reading and your comments. And I do agree that the core/non-core thing is still a bit fuzzy–Sage needs to make sure that it is disciplined and sticks to the more focused route.

    On Sage ERP X3, I believe there was a Q about multi-tenant in the analyst Q&A, and they said then that it would NOT be multi-tenant–at this point, customers are not asking for that and in fact some are expressing a preference for dedicated.

    Sage One for NA will need to be tuned to NA–they did discuss that they are adding different capabilities than the UK version here. I thought the UI and capabilites are a good fit for the segment they’re targeting. And, most very small businesses stay very small for a very long time (if not forever)! So the upward migration path issue is a non-issue for many of these firms.

    I don’t know either how Sage will use the aggregated customer data but my opinion is that at this point, they need to devote all of their efforts to adding value to the customer experience, not to figuring out how to monetize the data via external sales.

  3. Other than changing product names, alienating partners, and talking about focus, the new team can hardly take credit for substance – Sage One, Sage Construction Online, Connected Services and Sage Advisor. All of those are initiatives were launched by the prior CEO and her team not Mr H. So let us see if this team can build on what they have been handed. That jury is still out. For now the signs are not good. For instance I have no idea why one would appoint a non-technical CTO. Does the T not stand for Technology? Palsule is a talented speaker for sure. I dont know how that qualifies him to be CTO. The consolidation of development under him is another astonishing move. The whole world is moving to flat organizations, agile and lean with many small independent, empowered, self-contained, cross functional teams. Sage is moving towards hierachy and centralization. Does Mr H know something the rest of the world does not? Then there is the whole Billing Boss fiasco. They want to end-of-life it. Ok. So what do they do? Deliver an impersonal end-of life email message to the literally 20,000 plus Billing Boss users. Bye. Really? Why not focus on courting them so that they all migrate over to Sage One especially since the US Sage One is built using Billing Boss I am told. Not very encouraging when you decide instead to actively drive your customer base into the hands of your competitors. We will know soon enough when the numbers come in.

  4. Thanks for reading! I agree about the former CEO steering some of the changes–see my post after last year’s Sage Summit, I gave Sue Swenson quite a bit of credit for creating a climate for change before she retired.

    On your other points though, I believe that Himanshu has both undergrad and graduate degrees in engineering, definitely what I’d consider a technical background.

    While my understanding is that Sage is retiring Billing Boss, I don’t think Sage One is built on Billing Boss (which also was invoicing only, while Sage One provides an integrated set of services for invoicing, money management, collaboration, project, task, and time tracking). I have also heard that Sage is offering Billing Boss users a free one-year subscription for Sage One–encouraging them to stick with Sage and not leave.

    Hope this helps.

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