Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Why the Rumored Microsoft Deal for Yammer Rings True

For awhile now, rumors have been in the water that Microsoft was interested in buying out the social enterprise software company Yammer. A report in Bloomberg News, plus a tweet about a conversation overheard at a Silicon Valley coffee shop, has raised them to a fever pitch.

No one authorized to speak for Yammer is talking about this. I will say that a lunch meeting I had scheduled on Tuesday in New York with Yammer co-founder Adam Pisoni was suddenly canceled because of what I was told was a “personal emergency.” It could be coincidence, but then again it might not be.

Another bit of color I’ve heard — and again it may not mean anything — is that Yammer CEO David Sacks has invitations out for a big 40th-birthday bash in Southern California this weekend, at which rapper Snoop Dogg is expected to perform. Whether or not Sacks will be celebrating the sale of his company is still uncertain, but there’s a lot about the speculative story in Bloomberg — which cites two people familiar with the talks — that makes sense.

Outwardly, Yammer has looked to be the most promising of the social enterprise software players that are not named Jive. In February, it raised $85 million in a fifth round of funding led by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, at an implied valuation of about $1 billion. Meritech Capital Partners, Jeff Skoll’s Capricorn Investment Group and Khosla Ventures also participated in that round. Prior investors include Charles River Ventures, Emergence Capital, Founders Fund, the Social+Capital Partnership and US Venture Partners, and the angel investors are Bill Lee, Max Levchin and the football great Ronnie Lott.

That round of funding came on the heels of the late-2011 IPO of rival Jive, whose market capitalization as of Wednesday’s close was $1.03 billion. Lots of people got rich in that offering, especially founders Bill Lynch and Matthew Tucker, and CEO Tony Zingale.

Jive had followed a fairly specific path to going public, which Yammer could have followed, but hasn’t. For example: Before raising a $30 million funding round led by Kleiner Perkins in the summer of 2010, Jive had tapped Zingale, the veteran CEO of Mercury Interactive, who saw that company through its $4.5 billion sale to Hewlett-Packard.

Later, in early 2011, Jive added directors with public company experience to its board; then it set about making some important acquisitions, among them Proximal Labs, an “acqhire” deal; and then OfficSync, a deal that gave it crucial plug-in technology for Microsoft Office.

Yammer has done nothing like this, with one exception: Its April acquisition of the British start-up OneDrum looked an awful lot like Jive’s acquisition of OfficSync. Otherwise, there have been none of the classic pre-IPO signals from Yammer: No high-profile additions to the board, no more acquisitions, no chatter about bankers competing to lead it through the S1 filing and road-show process. When asked about his interest in doing an IPO, Sacks would, in conversations with me, tend to simply avoid the subject. A billion-dollar exit now would seem mighty attractive to Sacks and Yammer’s investors, rather than the uncertainty of an IPO in a shaky market, coupled with a head-to-head-to-head competitive slugfest with Jive and Salesforce.

Then there’s the simple matter of business challenges. Yammer is, by all accounts and its own publicly disclosed stats, having trouble converting its free users to paid status. It is quick to brag about its four million corporate users, but they’re fuzzy numbers. Many start using the service for free, experiment with it, but never turn out to be regular, daily users. Fewer still ever convert to paid status. Yammer has said in the past that its conversion rate is about 20 percent, which works out to about 800,000 paid seats. Getting companies to pony up has proven difficult. Jive doesn’t disclose the total number of seats, but it does disclose how many companies are customers: 676 as of March 31, all of them paying subscribers.

If Microsoft proves to be the buyer, then it would give the Windows and Office giant a key piece of technology to offer its enterprise customers. One big argument for the existence of the social enterprise software business is to attack Microsoft’s outdated collaboration software, SharePoint.

The players are many: Aside from Jive and Yammer, there’s’s Chatter service, which tends to be strong in sales departments where the mainline CRM service is already in use. Other players include Socialcast, owned by VMware; Moxie Software and Atlassian’s HipChat are others.

Once Microsoft gets its hands on it, two things will be true: Yammer, which is generally seen as still being buggy and in need of a lot of smoothing out of its rougher edges, will need some serious investment. The problem is that, even at a $1 billion valuation, Yammer is small enough that it will disappear inside Microsoft.

The other is that the freemium business model will have to go away. With the possible exception of Skype, it’s just not in Microsoft’s DNA to offer an enterprise product for free and leave it to the users to upgrade to the paid version when it suits them. When the rubber meets the road, many customers may dump Yammer in favor of something else. Those who are serious and willing to pay will consider Jive, which would probably capitalize on the opportunity by offering special deals to customers who switch. Those who demand free will switch to something they can still get for free.

We’ll see if this deal materializes. Bloomberg said a deal could be announced as early as today.

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