Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Seven Questions for Mike Gregoire, CEO of Taleo

Suddenly Taleo is the company that everyone is talking about. In the wake of Saturday’s acquisition of SuccessFactors, the cloud-based maker of human resources software, by the business application giant SAP, no fewer than five different financial analysts have suggested that Taleo, a SuccessFactors competitor, is likely to be the next company to be taken over. The most likely buyer, everyone has been saying, is the software giant Oracle.

Taleo’s CEO, Mike Gregoire, has been in this position before. As executive vice president of Global Services for PeopleSoft, he lived through Oracle’s hostile acquisition of that company. In an interview with AllThingsD, he didn’t comment directly on the speculation that Oracle might make a bid — Oracle hasn’t hasn’t said anything on the subject, either — but it was clear that he didn’t exactly seem to relish the thought, either. Having run $2.3 billion of PeopleSoft’s $2.7 billion in revenue, he was with that company “until the bitter end,” he told me.

After a stint as an angel investor and sitting on the boards of a few companies, Gregoire decided he was “more of an operational guy.” He joined Taleo and took it public in 2005, and has been at its helm since then. Taleo was at that time the second cloud-based software company to go public after It was so early for software-as-a-service (SAAS) companies, where customers pay a subscription fee to use the application, that when he approached banks for some financing, upon hearing the word “subscription” they would initially compare it to a magazine. Eventually they understood, and Gregoire got his loan. Now some of those banks are his customers.

Cloud-based enterprise software companies are suddenly hot acquisition targets. Aside from the SAP-SuccessFactors deal, Oracle acquired RightNow in October. As a growing cloud-based rival to SuccessFactors, with a protein-rich customer base, a solid operating model and an affordable market capitalization of about $1.6 billion, Taleo’s shares have shot up on speculation that it could be next.

On Dec. 2, the day before the SuccessFactors deal, Taleo shares closed at $32.96. On Dec. 5, the first trading day after the deal, Taleo rose almost 20 percent to $39.50. The move by SAP — long a vendor of traditional on-premise business software — to embrace the cloud-based or SAAS model is an important acknowledgement that the business of selling business software is fundamentally changing, Gregoire says. Indeed, it’s a fact that SAP’s co-CEO Bill McDermott acknowledged even before bidding on SuccessFactors.

And it’s hard to argue that Taleo (pronounced Ta-LAY-oh) isn’t making an impressive showing. The company has been growing its sales at between 17 and 20 percent since since 2008, and it’s on track to hit $325 million in sales this year, up from $237 million last year. It has 5,000 customers, including 180 of the companies on the S&P 500, and its product is available in 38 languages.

Naturally, my first question for Gregoire was about his thoughts on the SuccessFactors deal.

AllThingsD: Mike, it has been a busy few days since the SAP-SuccessFactors deal was announced. What did you think of the deal? And what, if anything, does it mean for Taleo?

Gregoire: I think it started a few weeks earlier, with the Oracle RightNow deal. It’s a confirmation that the on-demand model is moving into the next phase of its adoption. We’ve got 5,000 customers. We’ve been the No. 1 on-demand player in the enterprise. No one has as many Fortune 100 customers as we do. We drive the second-largest number of transactions volume of any on-demand player. It kind of felt like we had been pushing this rope, trying to get people ready for that next phase of adoption. So Oracle and SAP are acknowledging that the on-premise solution is running out of gas, and they need to augment that solution with some off-premise cloud solutions. Second, it’s important that SAP has recognized that talent management is extraordinarily important, and it complements a back-end Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. Taking care of people helps your company grow, and without it, your company is at a competitive disadvantage.

A lot of people look at the the phrase “talent management” and think it’s kind of specious — or even boring — software that only the human resources office needs. What does it mean?

If you want to talk about an application that moves the needle for business performance, there’s nothing better. The No. 1 expense in businesses is people. We see the news about the unemployment rates, and then we see that companies can’t hit their productivity goals because they don’t have the right people in the right jobs. Its absolutely crazy. That’s the problem we solve. Talent management is about getting the right people into your company, having them work on the right things, because you’ve got performance goals, measuring those goals, tying that to pay-for-performance and compensation. And, by the way, the chances that person has the right skills at the right time is about zero, so you want to tie those goals to a learning management system, and making that happen in real time, and then providing intelligence about the whole ecosystem of employees. That moves the needle with respect to business performance.

What’s a classic example of this software in action?

I’ll talk about SunGard, which is a customer of ours. They use an Oracle ERP system, and they use our learning management systems. Let’s say you’re a SunGard sales rep and you just got promoted. The day that your promotion goes through in the ERP system, it kicks off a transaction in our learning system that checks your history to see what courses you’ve taken and whether you’ve got all the certifications you need. And then it automatically builds out the courses you need to take to be successful in your new job. We also do succession planning. And the days when you’re only going to consider people inside your company are over. You’ve got to think broader than that. United Airlines, which is a customer, when they think of succession planning, they’re not only thinking about the 200 high-potential individuals within the company. They’re talking to people in the industry so they can take a look at the people inside and outside the company and consider different scenarios. Our application is graphical, so you can drag people around in a visual tree and see what each scenario looks like. And then you can save them for later, so that if someone gets promoted, fired, or leaves the company for another job, you’ll know what to do, should any of those three things happen. Most people do this sort of thing in their heads.

How do you think Taleo stands up against SuccessFactors competitively?

Going forward, we’ll have to see how that works out. [With] due respect to what I’ve read about the deal in the press, I don’t think the integration with SAP is going to be a walk in the park. There’s at least seven platforms in SuccessFactors. And in this deal, you have two companies who have struggled to do SAAS at scale. SAP doesn’t have a very good track record executing on SAAS. They spent a lot of money building Business ByDesign. Rumor has it that SAP spent as much as $500 million building it. Their track record has been very marginal. The same is true with SuccessFactors. They’ve done a good job with one product that’s on an old platform for between 5,000 and 10,000 employees. They don’t have a good track record in the upper end of the enterprise, and they haven’t been able to get revenue from outside of their core, which is performance management. They went and bought a company in learning management. We’re dominant in recruiting; they’ve been trying to build a recruiting engine for five years. I don’t know that they have any significant reference customers on that yet, but they should have some soon, because they’ve been at it for so long.

So why did SAP buy SuccessFactors, then? Was it for the customer base?

SuccessFactors has a pretty small customer base. We’ll know more after they publish the 10-Ks and 10-Qs, so we’ll see more of where the synergies really are. But the synergies that have been reported is they want to be able to take the SAP technology and repurpose it into the SuccessFactors stack, which sounds expensive and time-consuming, and then take that stack and combine it with Business ByDesign and compete with Workday. We work pretty closely with Workday, and often go in with them shoulder to shoulder on deals when a customer needs recruiting and learning. And they use our recruiting products.

So, let’s handle this one piece of business. I’ve seen no fewer than five analyst reports saying you’re going to get taken out by Oracle. Have you been contacted by Oracle, or anyone else, about a possible acquisition?

We don’t comment on that kind of speculation. But a first-year MBA student could connect those dots. We’re positioned to be the only independent full-suite SAAS player in the market right now, and that’s a good place to be. How everyone reacts to that, I can’t control. But we’re on track to do $325 million in revenue this year, and we’re growing at about 20 percent per year. We have 12 percent operating margins. Who else has that? We’ve not only figured out how to do SAAS at scale, but we’ve done it profitably. And we continue to innovate. That’s where we want to be.

What are your priorities for 2012?

Three things. Selling back into our customer base. Most of them came to us for our recruiting heritage. If you take a look at last quarter alone, 36 percent of our net new bookings were in products other than recruiting; we’ve been reporting that number every quarter. So there’s a big push to sell our other products into our existing customer base. Second is geographical expansion. We bought a company in France that effectively doubled the size of our European salesforce. Despite what you hear going on Europe, they are not going to spend as much on technology in 2012 and 2013. If they are going to spend any money, it’s not going to be on upgrades of perpetual software licenses. I think they will spend it on SAAS, and I think Europe is generally way behind on SAAS. If I were to tell you our biggest deal last quarter was going to be a seven-figure deal with a Swiss bank, you would have said I was crazy, and that it would never happen. But it did. The reason it happened is that SAAS is orders of magnitude cheaper than paying maintenance fees on perpetual software licenses. The same thing happened with Société Générale, the French bank, which stopped an upgrade of either Oracle or SAP midstream, and they went with us. There is definitely room for SAAS in Europe, and there will be more room for SAAS in Europe in 2012; I think we’ll be a net beneficiary of that. Third is innovation, both organic and inorganic. We’ve been acquisitive, and every transaction we’ve done has been accretive and has worked out well. We’re good at either buying technology or customer bases and integrating them very quickly. Organically, we’ll be doing a lot of work on mobile and social features.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald