The future of Salesforce

I’m attending a strategic planning session at Salesforce.com this week devoted to planning the roadmap for non-profit use of the product. This should be an interesting event and an exciting opportunity to help steer one of the most exciting applications to hit the industry in some time. I remember walking through the exhibitor booth’s at the “Science Fair” during the 2005 NTEN Conference in Chicago and noting, in the corner, the guy with a shaved head standing at a small booth titled “Salesforce.com” and wondering what, on earth, he was doing there. Wasn’t Salesforce that corporate application used by all those people trying to sell me enterprise software? The next year, in Seattle, Salesforce was a key sponsor of the show, and the whole gang from the foundation was there. I was a lot more educated as to why, as well – in the interim, my former organization had signed up and I had started work deploying it.

Salesforce appeals to me because it lives up to many of the standards I look for in an online database:

  • It’s open. Any Salesforce customer can download their entire database into Excel pretty much at any time. There are no technical or contractual walls separating me from my information as a Salesforce customer.
  • It has a community around it extending, developing and integrating the product. While Salesforce is far from the only commercial application with such a community, it is far more analogous to the open source communities around applications like Joomla and Drupal than it is like their commercial counterparts. Salesforce has provided excellent forums and support, nurturing their partners in ways that most commercial developers are far too guarded to allow.
  • Sharing and philanthropy are part of the corporate ethic, fairly deeply ingrained. I like to joke that their stated policy of “one percent of people, product and profits goes back to the community” is not that big a deal, given that 100% of a non-profit’s revenues are recycled back into their missions, but the truth is that they do a lot more than just give away software, and I’m certain that it ends up being much more than 1%.
  • Salesforce is audacious and ambitious in all the right ways. They want to do away with your infrastructure and change the way that technology is deployed, and they are by far the most sophisticated example of how that can and should be done. And don’t ever mistake them for a CRM company just because that’s what they’ve primarily been – they’re a shard data and computing platform, and the next few years are going to see them break out of the CRM neighborhood into a new role as a data management middleware provider. Store your data and build your processes, they’ll handle the hardware.

Finally, in this era, when internet business is shaking up traditional business models in dramatic fashions — just ask the RIAA, or the telecoms, or your local newspaper’s classifieds editor — Salesforce is the disruptor in our community. Blackbaud, Kintera and Convio, along with the other established donation-based business support vendors, are all rapidly changing their models to more closely match the open approach. And Social Solutions and the case management crowd are well aware that they’re next. This bodes well for the customers.

I’ll be blogging from the conference (as allowed) and hope to spread exciting news.

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