Arik Hesseldahl

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Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to Investors: “Trust Me” (Video)

Shares of fell by nearly 5 percent from yesterday’s close as trading opened this morning.

That represents a drop in value of nearly 10 percent from the start of the year, but it has been an up-and-down-and-up-again ride. During the year, the shares have traded as high as $160 and as low as $109. In a word, it’s a volatile stock. The reason is that investors can’t seem to settle on what Salesforce is, and how to value it. The stock was killed yesterday — especially in after-hours trading, when it fell by as much as 10 percent — on disappointing quarterly results. And, frankly, management isn’t helping to clear up the picture one bit. More on that in a minute.

There was good news and bad news, but confusion appeared to reign over the minds of Salesforce investors, who couldn’t seem to get their heads around what’s going on with the company, and so assumed the picture must be bad. Because if it was good, it would clearly be unambiguously good, right? Today, they’re shaking it off: Credit Suisse lowered its price target on Salesforce from $140 to $135, but maintained a “Buy” rating. Deutsche Bank also maintained a Buy rating, and raised its target to $205, from $200. “Buy on the weakness,” argues RBC Capital Markets.

The Salesforce story is tricky. Revenue is growing, forward guidance is up; yet billings growth is slowing and cash flow from operations was down. As Brian Schwartz of ThinkEquity put it:

Salesforce reported mixed Q3 results as revenue, EPS, cash flow beat Consensus while billings growth of 29 percent missed both Consensus and our prediction for accelerating growth. The good news is that FY13 revenue guidance and Q4 billings guidance are well-above Consensus, which suggests strong business momentum, in our view, and should reverse a two-quarter slide of decelerating billings growth. However, billings grew slower than revenue for the second consecutive quarter and Q4’s guidance assumes this trend could continue for at least another quarter, with tougher comparisons ahead.

So, what is a Salesforce investor to think?

CEO Marc Benioff took to CNBC after yesterday’s results, appearing, as he often does, on Jim Cramer’s investor-tainment show “Mad Money.” Cramer — who has been known to admit on the air that, where Salesforce is concerned, he’s “drinking the Kool-Aid and likes how it tastes” — did his best to pepper Benioff with reasonable questions, which Benioff tended to dodge. Kicking into “master salesman” mode, he stuck to his well-worn argument that Salesforce is a company that has to spend money to keep growing. “We’re trying to aggregate market share and revenue, and we’re totally focused on top-line growth,” he told Cramer. “If we were a company focused only on earnings, we wouldn’t be growing as much as we are.” That, he said, would be “the wrong thing to do in our life cycle.”

Benioff also managed to lob a little grenade at his former boss, Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle. Cramer mentioned the September kerfuffle, during which Benioff was pulled from giving a speech at an Oracle customer event in San Francisco. Benioff instead crowed about winning videogame concern Electronic Arts as a new customer, replacing Oracle.

So, then, how should investors evaluate Salesforce’s prospects going forward, using, say, a once-reliable metric like the number of customers, Cramer asks. That’s no longer a good indication, Benioff says. After all those acquisitions that Salesforce has made in the last year — Heroku, Radian6 and Manymoon — Salesforce’s base of customers is vastly different. Instead, he says to rely on the company’s guidance.

And that guidance is pretty good. Salesforce expects to bring in $3 billion in sales next year. Impressive, for sure. But with that sales growth comes growth in operational expenses, and a lot of effort and muscle are being put behind products with uncertain prospects — like Chatter, which Benioff routinely portrays as strategically important, but which has many competitors, including Yammer and Jive Software, to name but two.

Trust the guidance, Benioff says. Okay, but that’s another way of saying “trust me.” If that makes you feel a little uncertain, you’re probably not alone. The video clip of Benioff’s 10-minute TV appearance is below:

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work