The world of Enterprise SaaS is a dull place.
I mean that, of course, in jest. I just think that it’s unnatural to feel genuinely excited about the latest obscure enterprise tool. This is a world where people geek out on the best sales dialers (we love Dialpad and Aircall) and the most accurate lead enrichment tools (big fan of Clearbit). We love all these tools, and more, because they are useful and unadorned in the value they deliver. Modern enterprise tools are the result of nearly two decades of indoctrination into the SaaS jobs-to-be-done ethos, and they are very, very good at what they do.
Ever seen Scott Brinker’s Marketing Tech landscape? There are currently 6,289 companies in the marketing technology space, which is up from 150 in 2011. That’s a 60% CAGR. You want an email cadence automation tool for companies with 100-250 employees in the vertical farming industry? Here, have three.
Blogs, books, and conferences like SaaStr have democratized the building blocks for starting a software business. In the waning twilight of this current decade, the playbook for starting a basic SaaS business is relatively well-worn. It reads as follows:
- Find an overlooked area of the customer funnel / ERP tech stack that hasn’t been revamped in years, or find a vertical industry with legacy software providers who have underdelivered value
- Find what it takes to be good at that one very specific job in that area, or what it takes to deliver value to that vertical
- Iterate until you are best in breed at these things
- Expand from that into adjacent jobs
- Repeat steps (2) and (3) for each new area entered in (4)
- Build up enough proprietary data or integration lock-in to become a platform
Most companies spend years trying – and failing – to find an accurate and truthful answer to (1). But there are a few other things that fall out of this playbook:
There is a nice looking piece of software that exists for nearly every task within each defined function of a modern organization.
Let’s assume that a startup discovers a neglected area of promise, figures out how to deliver value within that area, and sets on its way to becoming the leader at doing that task. They have now entered the ever-more-crowded battlefield of modern software. They are now competing against 6,288 other hungry startups to be the function of choice for a buyer’s job-to-be-done.
Software decisions are increasingly made at the team and IC level
The technology industry exists in a perpetual state of oscillation between various states which are in opposition to each other. Client / server, modular / bundled, open source / closed, vertical / horizontal, abstracted / discrete.
There is a similar pendulum that swings between buyers of software. Enterprise sales software used to be purchased by a CRO or VP of Sales (it still probably is in many companies. I may be a little naive). In R&D teams, developers have been some of the main buyers of software for years, and we are seeing the equivalent thing happening in nimble sales and marketing teams. The email inbox of every revenue-generating or decision-making role is a veritable graveyard of Martech 5000 functions, and ICs and tactical teams are the only people who can separate the signal from the noise.
In 2030, what are the skills that we will take for granted but which in 2019 are only held by those in specialized roles? Spreadsheets are second nature to most corporate employees but were only used by accountants in the 1980s. Powerpoint has helped everyone learn to create presentations identical to those done by professionals only decades ago. Youtube and iMovie taught us all to create, edit, and distribute high-quality videos. I think that making software will be a skill which everyone has in 10 years and it won’t be because everyone suddenly learned to code. It will be because software exists which allows non-technical people to create contextual and purpose-built software within organizations of all shapes and sizes. Shishir Mehrotra of Coda agrees.
I think the days of the Martech 5000 are coming to an end. Enterprise software will be dominated by a few large platforms – Salesforce, Shopify, Slack, Intercom 🙂 – in the same way that the consumer internet is dominated by Facebook / Google / Amazon / Apple. We’ve reached the end of the beginning. Companies like Coda, Airtable, Notion, and Figma are some examples of what I think the future holds.
The next era is:
- Code free
- What will software look like when everyone can create it? Code free software will usher in an era of tailor-made software for organizations all across the world – not just those with access to top tech talent.
- Power shifting from the decision maker to the doer
- I can use Coda, Airtable, Notion, and Figma by logging in with my Intercom Gmail account. They get my info and my contacts, and I get a secure login with no credit card. When ICs in an organization are able to effortlessly start using a piece of collaborative software, the usage will be driven bottoms-up and not top-down.
- APIs abstracted into visual components
- APIs do a pretty good job creating an interaction method for the data and work done by a piece of software. You knows what’s even better? APIs represented by visual modules in tools like Airtable and Coda. I had the original Lego Mindstorms kit when I was young. It had a drag-and-drop coding interface. Connect this block to that one and the robot turned left and went one foot. Imagine modules like that but for the tools used in your workflow today.
- Collaboration first
- I think we all probably have Dropbox to thank for driving the idea that all software should have collaboration built-in. Tools like Notion unlock platform-free browser-based collaboration for design elements that previously needed to be manipulated on specialized Macs. The next generation of tools will design around collaboration as a core differentiator, and not just as a feature.
- Contextual linking between previously disconnected units of information
- Among other things, today’s internet enables us to create context between disparate forms of information. Think Google Image search converting a text query to matching images, but for pieces of information from proprietary pieces of software. I could use Coda packs to pull in lead information from Intercom, parse the conversation text using Google Natural Language processor, and enrich the email address with contact information from FullContact. The next era will connect our existing tools in ways that were previously unimaginable. You should also just probably do the above example all in Intercom though 🙂
I listened this past weekend to Patrick O’Shaughnessy interview Alex Danco on his podcast. One of the points Alex made was around how new tools will enable entrepreneurs around the world to build businesses like a “carpet of flowers blooming on the forest floor.” I thought that was a wonderful way to put it, and I hope it happens that way.
Thank you for reading.