“Do you think Sage should do more marketing?” CEO Stephen Kelly asks me rhetorically, in the cordoned off press centre, on the crowded exhibition floor of Sage Summit 2015 in New Orleans.
Sage is “Britain’s best kept secret” he continues ruefully, before launching into the facts and figures about just how under recognised his company is.
The company is a massive behemoth. It is used in a staggering number of small businesses, especially in the UK. Yet hardly anyone outside of its niche has heard of it. Now, Stephen Kelly, who took control in November last year, is intent on changing things. And his frontman personality appears crucial: he even plans to lead a quick 6am 5K jog on day three of the conference.
New Orleans is the first milestone in a huge global takeover strategy. And the evidence is all over the city. There are Sage signs plastered across the airport. Several of the massive multi-story conglomerate hotels near the French Quarter are overflowing with attendees. Whilst the broad boulevard leading up to the conference centre is lined with banners, like some kind of modern day triumphal march.
With 8,000 delegates, over 150 press, and a high profile line-up that has included Colin Powell, Deepak Chopra and Jane Seymour, this is the biggest event Sage has ever run. There even are teams of whoopers, congregated at the entrance to breakfast and the main keynote hall, who clap and dance at attendees on arrival.
This is Sage’s chance to show its hand for the foreseeable future. It is the “death of ERP” says Kelly – who on stage is strangely reminiscent of a cross between David Bowie and Roger Moore – yet this statement only generates a damp squib of localised cheering. ERP, he explains, stands for: “Expense, Pain, Regret”. Killing it off signifies an end of long-running bespoke projects which never go live and heralds a new dawn of simple plug-and-play products.
Like every business on the planet right now there is a lot of talk about mobile, the blur of the business and consumer experience, social media and millennials. Like many established businesses Sage wants to satisfy its legacy customers while bringing new young, entrepreneurs on board.
To achieve this Sage is keen to stress its high profile relationship with Salesforce announced earlier this year and their joint Sage Life product – now renamed Sage Live – which provides a collaborative real-time approach to business data. It also announced that core products: Sage 100, Sage 300 and Sage X3, now have cloud versions. This means customers can keep their existing solution with the option for more if they want it.
“’End of life’ and ‘forced migration’ are not in our vocab,” says Stephen Kelly in a savvy move to assuage the core audience who do not appear to embrace change.
One lady from West Virginia speaks candidly over lunch about how she hopes to retire before her team have to use cloud. Another from Pennsylvania, who gets chatting in the roof-top swimming pool at the Sheraton Hotel, explains that she doesn’t trust cloud security. Whilst an adjacent sunbather from Ottawa, says her organisation “just isn’t ready for cloud”.
Irrespective of initial customers reaction though, Kelly stresses that this strategy won’t have an immediate impact on revenue. Cloud is still a small part of the business in terms of finance. His focus is to gain users.
“What do you wish analysts understood better?” Asks a member of the press at one of the group panels. “I don’t care about analysts,” retorts Kelly. “I care about customers. The rest will take care of itself.”
This is an age old mantra and a good one: build a brilliant product and the rest will follow through on its own. And Kelly’s team is certainly very much on board. Jayne Archibold, CEO Enterprise Market Europe, describes how she has been with the company 17 years and hasn’t felt such energy since the early years. Klaus-Michael Vogelberg, the global CTO who has been with the Sage since German KHK Software group was acquired in 1997, talks with real excitement about Agile practices and working as a team to build great tech.
“Stephen Kelly came in with a totally different mind-set,” he says.
“What Stephen brought in was a huge ambition.” clarifies Himanshu Palsule, CTO of North America.“If a product manager has a business case Kelly would probably give him or her the budget to have a go,” he adds.
The passion, ambition and drive are there in spades, but there will always be challenges for a huge company like Sage. Besides the high profile Salesforce relationship, it is still one of the old guard companies making a cautious move into the cloud. This means it may not have the same appeal to target millennials as true cloud offerings like NetSuite.
“Netsuite has a pure technology approach to business, Sage has a business approach to technology,” says Jean Huy, VP of Product Marketing, North America before explaining why the Netsuite pricing model is not as good for small businesses as Sage’s.
Only time will tell how this will all pan out. One thing is certain though: making a big, exciting brand out of a company like Sage is going to be a long, hard journey. So, in the short term, it does look like we’re going to see an awful lot of marketing…
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