SAP's Down-Market Gamble

The German giant's new, Web-based software targets smaller outfits than its usual corporate clients. But is it too tricky for small business?

After years of meticulous engineering, internal friction, and explanations to Wall Street about how it would justify the cost, German software giant SAP (SAP) on Sept. 19 unveiled a product aimed at the smaller businesses it needs to attract for growth. SAP is unveiling the software, called Business By Design, at a Sept. 19 press conference in New York featuring Chief Executive Henning Kagermann. In an interview, Kagermann called the software "a fast and affordable solution" for small and mid-sized businesses. A company with 100 users could license it for less than $180,000 year, compared with project costs that can run into the millions of dollars for SAP's traditional software for managing companies' manufacturing and back-office operations.

A New Business Plan

SAP has been talking for years about the need to expand beyond its core of large corporate customers, but what makes Business By Design different is the delivery: over the Web as a service paid for by fees, rather than as a package that gets installed on a fleet of computers and which is purchased through a licensing agreement. That's a critical distinction in a computer industry that's shifting quickly toward software delivered online. Even so, SAP plans to take a measured approach to sales, leaving analysts wondering whether the $10 billion-a-year company has the luxury of time.

With its cut-rate price, modern Web technology, and the untangling of SAP software's notorious complexity, Business By Design would seem the antidote for an ailing stock performance. SAP's traditional big-company manufacturing market is saturated, and Kagermann must look down-market and outside the developed world for growth (BusinessWeek, 4/20/07). SAP's shares are up just 10% in 2007, while arch-rival Oracle's (ORCL) stock has jumped 21% on growth from a string of acquisitions.

And after the March departure of SAP's technology visionary and chief executive heir-apparent Shai Agassi (BusinessWeek, 6/8/07), the new product launch is SAP's chance to show it has not been left behind by the movement of more software to the Web. "With Shai gone there's now more pressure on them to show they know what the future of software will be," says Bruce Richardson, chief research officer at AMR Research .

Targeting New Customers

But after committing hundreds of millions of dollars to its launch, ironing out an overlapping project once spearheaded by Agassi, and dipping into the relatively uncharted waters of running thousands of companies' business applications from within its own data centers, SAP is proceeding just a few markets at a time. Initially, SAP will sell the software only in the U.S. and Germany, followed by China, Britain, and France later in 2007. India, Australia, and South Africa come in 2008, followed by the rest of Europe. "It makes sense to have a very cautious, phased approach," says Kagermann. "We have to do everything right."

SAP has high hopes for the product. It's spending $500 million in 2007 and 2008 to launch it, and hopes to build a $1.3 billion business by 2010—about 9.5% of revenues if current growth rates hold up. But SAP's engineering, marketing, distribution, and sales are tuned to reach big accounts (BusinessWeek, 9/14/07), not the fragmented small-business market.

Business By Design will target customers that haven't bought SAP products before, namely those with 100 to 500 employees and international operations. By 2010, SAP hopes to claim 100,000 customers overall, vs. about 42,000 today.

A few things could go wrong along the way. Business By Design's price—$149 a month per user—could compel SAP's traditional customers to demand added discounts. The company could also err on positioning. Business By Design will aim for companies that have outgrown Intuit's (INTU) QuickBooks or Microsoft's (MSFT) Great Plains accounting software—plus offer them supply-chain management, customer relationship management, and human resource features.

Missing a Market?

That's fine, says AMR's Richardson, but SAP could miss out on the opportunity to reach large companies that run SAP in their corporate headquarters, but still have decades-old mini-computer software that's ripe for replacement in overseas plants. "For the first time, they have an attractive product at the right price point that could cause customers to move, but they don't want to go after that," Richardson says.

If mishandled, SAP's approach could present opportunities for competitors, including Oracle, which reports second-quarter earnings on Sept. 20. Smaller rivals are also sniffing the same ground. (CRM) on Sept. 17 introduced programming tools called that would let independent software developers use its technology to create new software products—and if successful, would help Salesforce expand beyond customer management software (BusinessWeek, 9/14/07). David Duffield, chief executive of online software company Workday and the former CEO of PeopleSoft, has said he'll position Workday's human resources and financial software as an alternative to SAP's new mid-market products.

And NetSuite, majority-owned by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, said on Sept. 18 that a U.S. subsidiary of Japanese manufacturer Asahi Kasei had replaced SAP with NetSuite's online accounting software. NetSuite CEO Zach Nelson says SAP will have to overcome a perception that its new products may be difficult to use. "I don't know what their slogan will be. Maybe 'the world's most complex software for small business'," he says.

The rap on SAP is that can't conquer its complexity. By taking it slow with its important new product, SAP hopes to prove its critics wrong.

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