Arik Hesseldahl

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Engine Yard CEO John Dillon Talks About Competing Against His Old Company, Salesforce.com

When Salesforce.com acquired the cloud development platform company Heroku for $212 million late last year, a lot of people were surprised.

John Dillon, the CEO of Engine Yard, was one of them. Dillon was CEO of Salesforce from 1999 until 2001, when he was ousted by founder and current CEO Marc Benioff. Heroku specializes in the development of Web applications on Ruby on Rails. So does Engine Yard. Now his old company is a competitor. He shared a few thoughts about that in an interview last week. But here are the highlights: First, he thinks Salesforce overpaid for Heroku. Second, he thinks the deal is an admission that Force.com, Salesforce’s own application development environment, isn’t working.


NewEnterprise: So John, what did you first think about the Heroku deal?

John Dillon: I certainly didn’t expect to compete with Salesforce. First of all, we know the Heroku guys really well. We even talked at one point about combining the companies. They’re into Ruby on Rails, which is the best environment for building applications in the cloud. We’re kind of going after the same market. They were going after smaller players and we were doing more industrial-size customers. Both companies had been approached to be acquired at different times, and in either case the deals didn’t get done. We had pretty good confidence in our future. So then Marc Benioff goes out and spends more than $200 million for a company doing maybe $2 to $3 million in revenue. It’s kind of an unbelievable multiple. Of course its a massive endorsement of Ruby on Rails, but it’s also an admission that Force.com isn’t working. You don’t spend that much to buy some additional technology if your core product is working well. I think they’re struggling, and I think they’ve created a bit of a Frankenstein.

You really seem to think Salesforce overpaid for Heroku.

Absolutely. It was somewhere between 80 and 100 times revenue. When VMware bought SpringSource it paid maybe 20 times revenue and that was considered a phenomenal deal.

If that’s true, why do you think Marc Benioff would pay that much?

Because he was desperate to find a way to shore up Force.com. He’s been touting it for three to four years and it hasn’t lived up to expectations.

So what does Engine Yard bring to the table?

We deliver a lot of the components you need to build and deploy and run applications in the cloud. There some 20 to 30 components, the load-balancers and Web servers and app servers, and databases, and Ruby on Rails. What we’ve done is we’ve integrated all that, and we’ve automated the ability to provision it and we’ve hardened it. That means the development team doesn’t have to worry about any of that. And that’s where you make a lot of mistakes that can cause your Web site to go down. But because we’ve used mostly open source, there’s not some big cost that you have to bear, when you’re using someone like Oracle that sells you all this stuff, and then you have to pay 20 percent a year in maintenance. Our customers pay us for success. Building the application is inexpensive. You can build it and if it doesn’t work you can throw it away. But when you build it and deploy it and lots of people use it that you start paying because it’s based on resource consumption.

Who are your customers?

They’re all over the map. And then we have your traditional enterprise companies. From a Web standpoint, we have Get Satisfaction. We have gaming companies like Playmesh that make social games for the iPhone. Most of our enterprise customers don’t let us name them. But we have a few Fortune 500 accounts. About 20 to 30 percent of the time we have customers who sign up using a credit card and we call them up and find they’re inside some household-name corporation.

What kind of an exit are you contemplating? IPO or get acquired?

I’m building the company to go the distance. We have the market opportunity and the executive management talent, and we have the business traction. So it seems very doable. The IPO market hasn’t been very friendly. If it opens up I think we’re a strong candidate to IPO in a couple years. It’s not very much fun to be a public company. We have a very real shot at it. But I also think this is going to be a really wild period in M&A activity. I think a lot of companies that don’t understand the cloud are going to buy their way in because they’re otherwise going to get left behind. Our investors are in it for the long haul and I have plenty of money and access to plenty of money. But if Salesforce is going to pay more than $200 million for Heroku then I like what our value looks like.


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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus