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At Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco on Monday, Marc Benioff unveiled his company’s much anticipated Wave Analytics Cloud product. Marketed as “analytics for everyone” with a focus on mobility and slick visualizations inspired by video games, Wave aims to bring more analytics to decision makers more quickly.

Wave is great news for Salesforce’s massive customer base. Current customers will gain the ability to easily attain valuable insight via modern dashboards on any device, and to even execute advanced analytical operations on all types of business data. This business-intelligence (BI) approach, which appears to treat customer analytics (sales, customer support, and marketing) as a first-class citizen, is quite a departure from current horizontal BI tools like GoodData, Birst, and Tableau that focus more on performing analytics across a myriad of functions. This Salesforce Analytics Cloud is sure to deliver real business value by offering a platform that’s more specialized for customer needs, which makes sense since most use cases for BI are related to sales and customer analytics.

Why analytics is a great move for Salesforce

Anyone close to Salesforce knows that Analytics Cloud is a huge step beyond the company’s standard reporting capabilities, which have historically been rather limited. Until now, the system really just scratched the surface of a business’ sales data (try to report on something like your sales cycle lengths by lead source over time, and you’ll see what I mean). That said, it was smart of Salesforce to leave analytics up to its AppExchange partners in the beginning, because the company was busy building the SaaS world we all play in today, starting with its customer-relationship management platform. Tackling analytics at that time would have been like running two entirely different companies.


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However, over the past couple years, the data needs of modern sales and marketing leaders have grown dramatically with the rise of big data. Customers are hungry for insight, and have been asking why Salesforce doesn’t offer seamless, built-in, advanced analytics. Most companies just don’t want to move data between multiple services, especially if they have rigorous security policies or huge data sets. In this data-driven environment, Salesforce’s customer satisfaction has become heavily dependent on partners it can’t control, making it increasingly important for the company to shift toward a hands-on approach to analytics and meet customers’ needs directly.

Wave will also help Salesforce feed its healthy growth engine, which supports the company’s lofty $30+ billion valuation and ~75 forward price-to-earnings ratio. Benioff knows new revenue streams will be key to meeting the stock market’s growth expectations, and what’s better than entering a market as big as BI? Just look at the hundreds of millions of venture-capital dollars being funneled into analytics, and IDC’s forecast that this market will grow from $2.2B in 2013 to $3.4B in 2018. Numbers like that are too big for Salesforce to ignore.

Possible roadblocks for Wave

Of course, it’s not going to be easy for Salesforce. One thing that might trip it up is the typical analytics user. Salesforce’s bread and butter is salespeople, but most sales folks are only going to dig so deep into the data. Salesforce is proclaiming Wave’s simplicity (which a mobile-first design necessitates) to make it attractive to its existing sales end users, but many companies have started hiring data analysts and even data scientists (on either their sales operations team or a separate analytics team) who own tools for advanced analytics. This is quite a different end user than Salesforce is accustomed to selling into.

BI vendors work very hard to cater to this fairly technical audience by offering meetups, education programs, and professional-development opportunities just for them. In order to accommodate the expectations of a more sophisticated target user, Salesforce will need to adjust its product to support more advanced functionality, and beef up its support for professional services and data connectors to outside systems. This puts Salesforce in an interesting conundrum: either Wave is simple, but too simple (i.e. not advanced enough for data-focused end users), or the product team gets sucked into building more advanced functions to satisfy those users, but they bloat the product and depart from its simplicity message, which would alienate the traditional sales users.

Most BI and analytics providers also invest quite a bit of effort into building partner integrations and providing services to help customers extract more data for analysis. Even if 80 percent of a company’s customer data resides in Salesforce, every business has at least some data elsewhere, like contracts and terms in a financial system, or your own product usage data in Mixpanel, KISSmetrics, Google Analytics or even a custom SQL database. It can be powerful to join this activity information with Salesforce data so you can for example identify trends from your free trials — i.e., when a user takes a certain action in your product, it indicates he or she is likely to become a high-spending customer. However, developing all these integration points and connectors is challenging and time-consuming because it inevitably requires custom development work or engaging with consultants.

In addition, Salesforce’s SaaS bias could pose a problem in the world of big data. Although the company continues to tout the “end of software,” there’s a reason that most of today’s BI tools still aren’t in the cloud. Vendors like Cloudera, Tableau, and Pentaho primarily sell downloadable software so their customers can achieve scale and speed by bringing analytics closer to the data. In almost all cases, moving your computation closer to your data is easier than migrating data out of a database and into a system like Salesforce. If you have millions of rows of data in Hadoop, for example, moving that information into the Salesforce Analytics Cloud would require a lot of time, expense and complexity (i.e. data migration work and custom scripts) — and it might not be possible at all. But then again, these companies might be the exception rather than the norm. Plenty of businesses have enough data sitting in Salesforce to party on, which makes Wave incredibly valuable.

What the news means for Salesforce partners

It’s worth noting that Salesforce has given rise to a number of hugely successful analytics companies, such as Birst, C9, Domo, GoodData, and Tableau, which are undoubtedly taking notice of this latest news. It will be important for these analytics and BI partners to become less Salesforce-dependent by focusing on power users where they can add the most value through more advanced analytics and integrations with external data services and systems. Salesforce is a moving target, and it isn’t going to stop expanding its empire anytime soon, so smart partners already know that it’s crucial to stay a step ahead of the cloud powerhouse’s next move.

Wave gets Salesforce into the game of straight-up analytics and visualizations, but it’s not yet offering its own predictive-first applications as part of the platform. Instead, the company is relying on partners like Infer to provide predictive functionality. With Salesforce now playing in this huge and evolving space, I expect the entire market to grow, and all kinds of new angles and winners to emerge. Let the SaaS data-analytics games begin!

Vik Singh is a co-founder and chief executive of Infer, a provider of data-powered business applications. You can follow Vik at @zooie.

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