Sardined into their seats and stacked three and four deep around the walls of a stuffy conference room in Boston, the sweating faithful gathered to hear Christopher McCleary, CEO of application service provider (ASP) startup USinter-networking (USi), tell them how ASPs were going to change everything.
It was 1999, and ASPs were the new new thing. Everyone hung on CEO McCleary's words. Until....
Maybe it was the lack of air in the room, but when McCleary announced that the Annapolis, Md.-based ASP wasn't going to charge a dime to implement its menu of complex rented software applications, the audience started to laugh. And it wasn't a scattered twitter here or there; it was a deep, rolling, communal belly laugh. Caught like Johnny Carson in the toils of a bad monologue, McCleary, who is now USi's chairman, did what Carson used to do; he turned on his material. "Look," he joked, "they tell me to say this stuff."
You couldn't blame McCleary. Last year, ASPs didn't have to admit that the costs for implementation (among other things) were hidden in their monthly software rental fees. They didn't have to prove much of anything, either -- that they were making money or even in some cases that they had live customers. Most could float along on the hype generated by the ASP concept itself and its solid underlying logic of low cost and convenience for companies that either couldn't afford or didn't want to manage complicated applications like customer relationship management (CRM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP).
But that was then. This year, no one's floating and no one's laughing. The venture capital faucets are being turned off, and investors are beginning to clamor for a payback from an industry that generated a pitiful $300 million in revenue last year, according to Framingham, Mass.-based research company IDC (a sister company to CIO's publisher, CXO Media) -- less than a single big ASP client makes in a year. McCleary's company, which is touted by analysts as one of the better run ASPs, is still standing, but last year it lost $103 million on revenues of $35 million. (And much of that revenue came from -- you guessed it -- implementation consulting services.) USi's main competitor, San Carlos, Calif.-based Corio, lost $45 million last year on revenues of just $5.8 million.
The losses can be explained in part because ASPs spent a lot of money on infrastructure and marketing to gain their first customers -- a building year, as they say in sports. But there's more to the struggles of the leading ASPs than that.
Just a few years after its birth, the ASP industry's original premise -- that companies would be willing to rent big, complex software applications right off the shelf -- is being criticized by the software analysts who describe the market and the venture capitalists who fund it. More significantly, businesses are resisting the core ASP sales pitch: A generic piece of software can work as well for a company that sells chemicals as it does for one that sells cars or computer chips, with no modifications or extra functionality built in to serve the particular quirks and needs of those industries. And with that resistance, the ASP business model, based on the economies of scale to be reaped by usinng the same basic software to serve many different customers at once, is showing significant leaks in logic and, most critically, money.
The predicted shakeout of the ASP market -- which, according to Stamford, Conn., research company Gartner Group, will be a swift and brutal 60 percent of the current herd of about 500 by the end of next year -- has begun. And one of the acknowledged pack leaders, Pandesic, was the first to go.
The Price Was Wrong
Pandesic in Sunnyvale, Calif., was established in 1997 by two of the three biggest, richest technology companies in the world: Germany's ERP software maker SAP and Silicon Valley-based chip giant Intel. For the past three years, it has been renting e-commerce management software to online retailers. But on July 28, Pandesic's customers received an abrupt e-mail: "We are winding down our business," it said, "because we don't see a timely road to profitability due to slower than anticipated market acceptance of business-to-consumer electronic commerce solutions."
This was not a case of a couple of guys in a garage running out of borrowed money. This was a strategic decision made by a company whose six-member board was an even mix of SAP and Intel big shots. Pandesic exited a market, business-to-consumer retailing, that, three years ago, seemed ready to burst wide open.
It did. But it gushed red ink.
Although Pandesic blames its failure on the downturn in the Internet business-to-consumer retailing market this year, its demise contains more than a few warning signs for the rest of the ASP market.
Pandesic, which by all accounts had happy customers and working software, built its business model on a foundation of optimism that turned out to be misplaced. First, it pioneered the loss-leader approach to software installation fees -- a bread-and-butter revenue source for traditional consulting companies -- that its major competitors in the ASP industry also have embraced.
Pandesic chose not to charge its customers for such traditional consulting services as figuring out who would use the applications, deciding which business activities would be affected, installing software upgrades and hooking up to the company's network. Instead, it simply tried to bury those costs in a flat monthly fee and by taking a 2 percent cut of everything that customers sold over a Pandesic-powered website. (Most of its competitors now opt to charge customers a fee per user per month so that as application usage expands, the ASP can make more money.)
Pandesic's revenue strategy had two unwholesome effects. First, it attracted the customers that Pandesic needed least: small, unproven dotcom startups with no revenues to speak of and therefore very little to lose. (Sources estimate that about 80 percent of Pandesic's customers were small dotcoms.)
Second, among the customers Pandesic did want -- big brick-and-mortar retailers that desired a Web presence -- the scheme hit a sensitive nerve.
"Profit margins in retailing are just not that high [between 3 percent and 7 percent or less]," says Randy Covill, senior analyst for e-commerce strategies and applications for AMR Research in Boston. Cutting into 2 percent of that margin essentially meant Pandesic would be helping itself as much as 20 percent to 30 percent of profits. "To say you're going to take [that much] away is a hard sell," Covill says. Bigger retailers also resented the prospect of having an outsider's hand in their pockets. "Companies resist giving up a piece of their business in return for a service," adds Covill.
For Pandesic spokeswoman Paula Stout, the company's inability to attract big customers was simply a matter of wrong pplace, wrong time. With the booming economy, says Stout, most big companies believed they had the resources to build their e-commerce websites themselves. "Our No. 1 competitor was people who were building [the websites] in-house rather than outsourcing them," she says.
Though Pandesic's e-commerce engine was by far the most complete ASP package available on the market, it still could not be all things to all customers. "Let's say customers wanted 1,000 different functions and were willing to pay $10 million to do it themselves," says Stout. "We'd say, 'We'll give you 900 of those functions and charge you $1 million a year.'" But the big prospects wanted those last 100 features, says Stout, and, again given the economic good times, they were willing to spend the time and money to build them themselves.
The customers Pandesic did have called for more features in the software. But unlike traditional outsourcing companies that manage individual application portfolios for individual customers -- and can charge a pretty penny to each customer for any changes in those portfolios -- Pandesic couldn't charge for its time. Instead, its developers were left with the Sisyphean task of winnowing out a list of enhancements that would satisfy as many customers as possible while not bloating the software and bringing the company's hosting infrastructure to its knees. For example, Oshkosh, Wis.-based children's clothes maker OshKosh B'Gosh was one of a number of companies that wanted Pandesic to upgrade its software so that it would be possible to offer Web customers a free shipping option. "We wanted it in two weeks; they said six months," says OshKosh B'Gosh Vice President of MIS and CIO Jon Dell'Antonia. To its credit, Pandesic responded and built the new functionality well within the six month time frame it had promised Dell'Antonia and other customers.
But such responsiveness does not come without a cost. The proof is in the software itself: After just three years, Pandesic was on the fourth version of its software -- as many incarnations as SAP has offered in the seven years since it first wrote R/3. Indeed, SAP gave up trying to make its core R/3 program all things to all people years ago and formed specialized task forces to customize the software to the specific needs of the oil, apparel, chemical and education markets, among others.
When Startups Stall
Three years ago, Pandesic could at least count on a steady stream of startup dotcoms that were prepared to forego a few bells and whistles to get up and running quickly. But lately, even that well has dried up. "Just try getting venture capital money for a pure-play Internet retailing dotcom startup today and you won't get 3 feet," declares Christopher Terry, president and CTO of Boca Raton, Fla.-based ASP HostLogic, which serves the business-to-business market.
In a world of hype that heats up and cools down like a cheap toaster oven, the B2B market is now as hot as the B2C market is not. Pandesic never tried to rejigger its e-commerce engine to adapt to the needs of B2B commerce, which generally requires more feature-rich, specialized software highly adapted to the needs of a particular industry. "Our system was built to handle high volumes of low-cost transactions," says Stout. "For companies doing less than 100 transactions a day, it just wouldn't make sense." To adapt the engine for B2B would have required a major rewrite, she adds.
ASPs outside of Pandesic's narrow B2C realm claim immunity to the low-revenue customers and sagging market demand that did in Pandesic. Yet whether they focus on plugging gaps in big companies' application portfolios or on the lower volume, higher cost transactions of B2B e-commerce, these companies face the same problem Pandesic did: How to make their software specific enough to serve the individual needs of customers without allowing the code to grow out of control.
ASP Survival Guiide
ASPs hoping to survive leaner times are going to need to specialize. "You won't see good ASPs going after 20 different companies in 20 different industries anymore," says David Boulanger, AMR Research's service director of enterprise applications. "The good ones are going to fight to get a reference customer in a particular industry and then try to resell that solution to other companies in that industry. It won't be easy, but by the time you get to the eighth customer in an industry, it gets a little easier." He cites USi's recent specialization in Internet-based CRM for the telecom industry as an example.
As ASPs move farther from their original mission and begin to create more specialized software and more individualized customer relationships, they become more vulnerable to competition from traditional providers like systems integrators on the one hand and big outsourcers on the other. Indeed, some of the major consulting houses such as New York City-based Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), and outsourcers like EDS in Plano, Texas, have already entered the market. Other consulting and outsourcing companies are poised quietly like vultures around the edges of the market, watching and waiting to see which ASP startups will bite the dust.
Defenders of the ASP market say that these outsiders will not be able to simply swoop in and snap up the orphaned customers. ASPs, they say, are developing skills that traditional outsourcers and systems integrators don't have. "The traditional outsourcing mentality is that you take a customer's applications and put them on autopilot for eight years," says Boulanger. "You make as few changes as possible and try to reduce your maintenance costs." Meanwhile, ASPs are driven by their subscription models to redesign and refresh their application technologies frequently with a creativity that most traditional outsourcing companies lack.
ASPs also have developed another advantage over traditional consulting companies -- speed. Driven by their pricing schemes to minimize the costs of installing software, ASPs are getting good at being quick, installing complex ERP and CRM applications faster than the Big Five consulting outfits could ever dream of doing. "What ASPs are not doing is having a bunch of consultants sitting in a room for three months looking at their navels and drawing on a white board," says Boulanger.