SuiteWorld – more to see than Zach Nelson’s show-stealing shoes

SUMMARY:

It’s been a busy, but successful week at SuiteWorld in San Jose, but NetSuite CEO Zach Nelson has a very quirky highlight from the conference.

Zach Nelson's shoes
Zach Nelson’s shoes

When I sat down with Zach Nelson and asked him what the highlight of this year’s SuiteWorld conference had been for him, I wasn’t really expecting that the NetSuite CEO’s response would be:

My shoes have their own Twitter handle – that’s the thing I was most excited about.

But he’s right – they do. #zachnelsonshoes. They’re nice shoes certainly – Ozwald Boatang I believe – but there’s a lot more to be pointed to in terms of good stuff to come out of SuiteWorld this year.

I’ve been coming to NetSuite events since the days when the firm was known as NetLedger, but this year’s was different. Prior to this year’s conference, I spoke to the firm’s new CMO Fred Studer who talked about his ‘stories round the campfire’ thesis of spreading the NetSuite gospel.

That idea, as I observed at the time, is dependent on getting customers up in front of the conference attendees and ready to talk.

That’s something that a lot of companies unfortunately struggle with, citing impressive client references in their press releases and on the quarterly analyst conference call, but then not being able to follow through at the big live events.

But this week’s SuiteWorld has racked up some impressive customer names – Amex Business Travel, Domino’s Pizza, Billiabong, TGI Friday’s etc – with good stories to tell and eloquent spokespeople to tell them.

When asked about this, Nelson said that it’s part of an overall push to stand up in front of customers, point to things that the firm had committed to in previous years and be able to say ‘we did it’. He told me:

We have always tried to approach this as storytelling. At the end of the day, we are a referral sale. People talk to software sales guys all the time, but it’s not them that they trust. They talk to other people like them. They listen to others like themselves. We’re fortunate – we have 24,000 stories that we can choose from.

These stories have a knock-on effect, he argues, citing the example of Shaw Carpets. Shaw itself began using NetSuite and its example was picked up on by its ecosystem of partners and distributors:

The entire supply chain said ‘If it works for them, it will work for us.

Detente and disruption

Away from the customer stories, the two main takeaways for me from this year’s conference were the detente with Microsoft around Office365 and the underlying theme of disruption.

On the former, Nelson took time out again to praise Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his willingness to partner, in the case of NetSuite with a company that only a year ago would have been regarded as a hostile rival.

While the introduction was brokered by Studer, Nelson had his own ‘6 degrees of separation’ moment with Nadella:

We were both at Sun Microsystems at the same time. I hadn’t recalled that.

I hadn’t been inside Microsoft for ten years. The dots connected very quickly. {Satya’s] just a good human who’s happy to share his views of the world.

zachnelsonshoes

As for the disruption theme, this is seen as the natural follow-on from last year’s mantra of transformation. Nelson explained:

As we said, most of the people at SuiteWorld have moved to the cloud. The cloud has won. But business models are changing all the time. Companies have to continue to embrace a changing envinronment. Having NetSuite as a platform enables them to have the ability to change themselves as their industries change.

Nelson referenced baseball legend Billy Bean, a NetSuite director and technology investor, who made an appearance during the SuiteWorld keynote this week, noting:

I was talking to him before we went on stage and he said everything is about change. He said he had been talking to a tech company that was maybe three years old and they were so set in their way of thinking. You have to keep evaluating things and change as you need to.

One sector  that doesn’t embrace change quickly and that I’ve discussed before with Nelson, is government. While a number of cloud firms have taken advantage of programs like the US Cloud First and the UK’s G-Cloud, NetSuite had always seemed to me to look slighly askance at the public sector space.

Then last year, the firm announced its deal with the State of Texas for which NetSuite has supplied government-to-government, or G2G, services through a marketplace for agency-to-agency transactions. State agencies are using the cloud-based TxSmartBuy to pick from among 2.4 million items ranging from pencils to road aggregate to food.

It’s a textbook example of the transformative potential of the cloud in breaking down often clogged-up and hidebound government processes. That said, I was curious as to why there didn’t seem to have been much follow through from other government buyers.

Nelson shrugged, indicating that he was himself somewhat surprised by this:

You’d figure that other states would have followed Texas. But government’s very slow.

Marketing looks set to be a far more responsive – and fast-moving – prospect for now, particularly in the wake of the recent Bronto acquisition. Nelson’s clearly hugely enthusiastic about this move:

What we get from them is that we now turn NetSuite into a machine for marketing. They have a great view of what marketing people need to manage campaigns.

ERP or e-commerce?

Before Bronto there was the Venda acquistion to beef up NetSuite’s e-commerce SuiteCommerce offering. We saw multiple examples of the e-commerce play this week from companies such as TGI Friday’s and Billabong, as well as ERP users such as Elite Models.

What’s intriguing these days is looking at what the lead sale into customers is – ERP or e-commerce? For example, Elite Models seems to have led on ERP, while Billabong is an e-commerce customer. Most interestingly, despite the emphasis over the years on the complete suite pitch, that’s not quite the same now.  Nelson commented:

Someone once said that the magic in the software industry is knowing when to bundle and when to unbundle.

If you look at Elite, they had 17 ERP systems. Who knows what they were. That’s the case in a lot of companies, especially when they’ve grown through acquisition. HP [one of NetSuite’s latest large enterprise customers] is an SAP shop, but there are a lot of other things in there.

But one thing Nelson was keen to clarify is the idea that because of the suite meme, it’s necessary to buy NetSuite’s ERP in order to use the e-commerce functionality. Not so, he insisted:

It’s just not the case. Look at Williams Sanoma  – they’re using e-commerce but not the financials. For Billabong, they have three systems of record and that’s not going to change. For them, General Ledger is not the problem and we’re not going to change that. Billabong is about how we can help them re-platform their e-commerce.

Who'd have thought it?
Nelson at SuiteWorld

That said, Nelson added, a lot of this is about contextualized terminology, a point he’d illustrated during his Tuesday keynote by showing screen shots of NetSuite solutions and asking the audience ‘Is this ERP or e-commerce? Is it a website or is it ERP?’. He explained:

E-commerce is a complete suite in itself. Often we use certain terms to speak to certain audiences. All the terms have a particular value in the end to the person who hears them, terms that are appropriate to the person we are trying to speak to. We could call something CRM if you want or something else. What it does is more important.

My take

A successful week for NetSuite with highly-confident and content-rich keynote presentations from Nelson and co-founder and CTO Evan Goldberg. Nelson even managed to bring his in 15 minutes under the scheduled running time – certain other CEOs might want to take a lead from that!

This was the most assured SuiteWorld to date, one that borrowed from other events in certain respects, such as having the keynotes in the round rather than presented from a stage at the front of the room, but which borrowed well. The customer storytelling was powerful and in the main compelling – a word that we heard a lot of from CMO Studer and as such one that I presume is an internal benchmark of success.

Overall, a lot to be pleased with and a lot to build on.

But yes Zach, they were very nice shoes.

Disclosure – at time of writing, NetSuite is a premier partner of diginomica.