Topics of Interest Archives: Order-to-Cash

From Algebra to Calculus: Financial Planning in the XaaS Economy

Recurring Revenue and EPM: Time for Change. Source: Pixabay.comThe pace of change in ‘new economy’ companies is accelerating. When it comes to cloud-based anything-as-a-service (XaaS) businesses, the types of planning, budgeting, and forecasting strategies that have worked for more traditional product-focused enterprises just don’t fit. From long-term strategic plans to annual budgets, the reality of recurring revenue businesses calls for a different—and more agile—approach to these processes. With this blog, we’re hoping to add some momentum to this much-needed discussion in the market.

While SaaS companies tend to get most of the press in the recurring revenue arena, they’re not the only ones working through these issues. Any business that augments its asset sales models to include asset rental (or lease) needs to adjust their PBF practices. So too does any organization that features usage-based pricing such as per-sheet fees for photocopiers, per-gigabyte bandwidth fees for website hosting, or per-processor core hour fees for cloud computing. In all of these models, customers forego longer-term asset ownership to reap short-term savings. The result, however, is that the cycle time for contract expiration—and potential customer churn—is accelerated. It’s all a function of time, and shows how a compression of the customer lifecycle forces us to readjust our PBF processes to respond in turn.

Doing the Math: Algebra vs. Calculus
Why do we think things are so different now? At base, it all has to do with business velocity. Here’s what we mean: in the older, product-centric environment, you think about your business in annual cycles, with starting periods adjusted to smooth out any predictable seasonality in your particular industry. You look at growth linearly, plotting out FY ’12, ’13, and ’14 and finding that line of best fit to predict what ’15 will look like. The best analogy we’ve come up with is that traditional planning is like algebra – plotting some points, and finding the old school y = mx + b slope to understand what’s coming down the line.1

Recurring revenue business planning, in contrast, is like calculus. With business viewed on the basis of Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR), the relevant time periods for analysis are much, much shorter. We look at those recurring revenues, new customer acquisition velocity, and churn rates to paint a picture of the rate of change at a given point in time. In this environment, this September’s expected revenue pays a lot more attention to August’s base, new acquisitions, and churn than it does to last September’s numbers with a reasonable growth factor applied. It’s a fundamental difference: that of moving from a static representation of what the business is to a dynamic, constantly-changing understanding of what it will be.

Less Sizzle, More Steak
Those first few paragraphs were, admittedly, a bit heavy on the analyst-speak. Let’s be a bit more practical from here on out. Your planning process focuses on setting realistic goals and tactics for attaining them. Budgeting picks up to allocate internal investments to support those plans. Forecasting provides—in the best-case scenario—a reality check on where the business is headed from a results perspective.

Planning. When constructing our 1-year operational plan, we’d traditionally have our eye on the popular metrics like gross income, net income, earnings per share (for publicly-held companies), and EBITDA. Our growth projection is based on a linear projection of earnings. That’s what we’d feed into the budgeting process: expecting a 5% increase in sales, derived from a corresponding 5% increase in units shipped (assuming we maintain pricing). But in a subscription-based world, we care much more about the activity associated with customer acquisition, customer churn, and utilization in understanding what will happen in the future.

Budgeting. With that 5% expectation in mind, our functional heads provide their bottom-up budgets for what it will take to achieve the goal. In its most charitable form, it’s an exercise in allocating resources, deciding how many dollars are necessary to provide some required amount of capacity. In its least charitable form, budgeting is an exercise in expanding fiefdoms, with managers seeking to grow their spheres of influence – and ensuring, over the course of time, that those budgets are exhausted to prevent them from being cut in the next round. But in a more subscriber driver-driven world, budget is based on the expectations of utilization and activity. As CapEx flip-flops from being the majority of budgeted costs to a category subservient to OpEx and activity-dependent spend, budgeting changes from a fixed cost to a variable percentage of revenues that may be gated or altered at various levels of commercial activity.

Forecasting. Rather than looking at goals, now we switch to actuals. We’re most likely exporting some historical balance sheet and income statement lines to Excel and looking for trends. One million widgets shipped in ’12, 1.1m in ’13, 1.21m in ’14, so we’re expecting 1.33m this year. We see ten-percent bumps in past periods and expect similar results. In some industries we might have a bit more nuance, recognizing that our sales track with some industry-wide metric, like doorbell sales tracking to economy-wide new housing starts. There, still, we’d look at annual changes in the underlying driver, expecting what has come before to continue — absent more informed economic guidance to the contrary. Not only is it important to forecast based on corporate, microeconomic, and macroeconomic drivers, but based on solution adoption, upselling, and expectations for service and product updates either to stay ahead of the pack or maintain parity with competitors.

Getting to the Point
So what does all of this mean? It means that we have a lot more work to do – and more quickly. Planning metrics for recurring revenue businesses look a lot like those for traditional companies, with lifetime customer value, customer acquisition cost, upsell velocity, cross-sell growth, and things like seat-based or usage-based utilization measures loaded on top. To properly budget for operations in a dynamic environment, we need accurate financials as a starting point. That means being able to run through consolidation and close in days, not weeks. That’s the only way to accurately plan resource allocation and ensure adequate capacity to support a business whose growth can look a lot more like our mythical hockey stick than a straight line.

In traditional environments, we may expect to sell one million widgets, and we can plan backwards from there to ensure adequate logistics support, manufacturing capacity, and raw materials inventory. In a recurring revenue business where the number of seats required, processing cores utilized, or transactions processed can grow exponentially, we don’t have the luxury of planning technology infrastructure, sales headcount, or support capacity on an annual basis. We need to not only have visibility into performance close to real-time, we need to have planning and budgeting processes that operate in this accelerated timeframe as well. This is why companies across all industries need to think about their subscription billing strategy in context of existing financial planning and financial accounting tools. Without a subscription strategy, companies will be left unable to effectively bill and manage a new business environment dependent on complex and recurring revenue transactions.

In this context, Blue Hill looks forward to seeing how financial software solutions and financial modules will continue to partner with the likes of Aria, goTransverse, MetraTech, Monexa, Recurly, Vindicia, and Zuora to integrate the future XaaS world into existing corporate finance operations and bridge the gaps to the future of conducting and managing customer and service-centric business.

 

- Scott and Hyoun

 

1. Pun only 63.5% intended, but 100% forecastable based on knowledge of analyst psyche.

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Zuora Subscribed '15: Bold Vision and a Rising Tide

Focus on Relationships. Source: Pixabay.comLast week in San Francisco, Zuora’s fifth annual Subscribed event presented a bold view of the future of subscription-based business. As their “Relationship Business Management” moniker shows, they’re taking the conversation far beyond the billing component where it began. It’s a vision that seems to resonate, both with customers and investors. I’m not quite as bullish on the inevitable dominance of subscriptions over traditional asset ownership, but I appreciate Zuora’s conviction and believe that their enthusiasm in bringing that conversation to the market will help everyone involved. Here’s why:

If we only thought about subscription billing, its value would be judged mostly in terms of facilitating transactions. That doesn’t adequately draw attention to what’s required from the business side in rethinking how we design products and services, engage customers, and intelligently measure business performance. That’s a broader discussion that focuses on different concerns and involves different participants that wouldn’t usually be involved in the traditional quote-to-cash process for products or project-oriented services. So even if you’re not a current or potential Zuora client—or even if you’re a competitor—it’s beneficial for everyone to have someone championing this dialogue.

Farewell, ERP?
So let’s start with an idea that certainly deserves to be labeled “bold.” It wasn’t a focus of the main-stage presentations, but the idea of having a customer relationship-centric application supplant ERP as the main enterprise system of record was certainly present. In this environment, ERP is relegated to a home for the GL, rather than as the foundational system into which everything else must integrate. The system that manages customer relationships assumes that central role. To be honest, prior to the event, I hadn’t realized exactly how ambitious RBM really was.

That’s just crazy, right?
No, I don’t think so. ERP’s origins came out of a specific need tied to production. What began as Material Requirements Planning (MRP) grew and evolved over time to become what we know today as ERP. Its core, at least for the larger players in the space, remains dedicated to the making of things and all that entails. Newer entrants like NetSuite, Unit4, and FinancialForce are more in tune with the professional services world, which is certainly different than product manufacturing, but still isn’t naturally attuned to the pricing complexity, provisioning, and alternative financial metrics that subscription business requires. With that background, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility for something like RBM to form the core of a new system which follows the same path of evolution and expansion over time.

But it’s at least a little bit crazy.
For new businesses who focus on subscription-based services (i.e. those who are starting from scratch technology-wise) the storyline makes sense. For young businesses who have reached the limits of QuickBooks and would need to transition anyway, it’s not a stretch. But for established businesses that are already up-and-running on an ERP, the transition is more difficult and seems less likely. The same goes for businesses who are not exclusively subscription-oriented. For whatever portion of their portfolio requires manufacturing, warehousing, inventory management, logistics, etc., traditional ERP systems will win out. I don’t think this is a huge loss, or a sign of weakness for the model, however. You don’t need 100% penetration to be a wildly successful business.

A Counterpoint from a Grumpy Old Man
The belief that anything and everything will evolve to be subscription-based requires a pretty big assumption: that individuals and businesses will be perfectly happy in a rental economy.1 That’s what we’re really talking about. A move towards subscriptions means a move away from ownership. It makes all the sense in the world for the sell-side of the equation: they’re willing to potentially lose money on customer acquisition because they more than make up for it in the long run. Buyers, however, lose control. Let’s use a simple example: purchasing a car.

To keep the numbers easy, let’s say we purchase a $36,000 car at 0.0% APR and a three-year term. We’ll pay $1,000 per month and own it outright in three years. We could have leased the same car for $500 per month, or $6,000 per year.  At the end of Year 3, the lease looks like a good deal: we had the same amount of car usage for half the price. At the end of Year 6, assuming we picked up another lease with the same terms, we’re all tied up (ignoring inflation). But what happens next? Every year thereafter, the car owner drives for free, while the lessee pays another $6,000. Let’s say we get to the end of Year 10, and the owner needs a new car. They’ve gotten ten years of car usage for $24,000 less than the lessee.

Now, we all make choices. In this example, we could choose to own or we could choose to lease. It was up to us to figure out what option was best. In the “new world order” of aggressive subscription-ization, we don’t get to choose. We’re forced to pay that extra $24,000. For businesses, that is a demonstrable negative change in their Total Cost of Ownership for any investment. This is exactly what we’ve seen with the early-movers like Adobe (with the Creative Cloud) and Microsoft (with Office 365). Some folks are perfectly happy to accept less-than-cutting-edge functionality in order to extend the life of products they’ve bought in perpetuity. Those options are gone… for now.

Three Cheers for Economics and Michael Porter
The good news is that one of two main things will happen as the subscription pendulum swings a bit too far: either customer discontent will force providers to offer ownership options, or someone else will bring a competitive offering to market that does. If there’s an underserved market for perpetual licenses, someone will fill that competitive gap. Either that, or the FTC and DOJ will be very busy looking for signs of an underlying agreement to limit competition and force the subscription-only model on consumers and business customers.

This All Came Up at Subscribed?
Well, no. Subscribed was a great catalyst for these types of discussions, however. What did come up were a series of product updates and announcements that built out Zuora’s RBM vision. The two biggest (to me, at least) are the introduction of RBM Connect and the acquisition of Frontleaf, which is the foundation of the new Z-Insights product. With RBM Connect, Zuora introduced a new app marketplace that gives customers a one-stop shop to find and acquire supplemental solutions to add new functionality to their subscription management process. It’s a smart move, as it adds value (and stickiness) and cements Zuora’s position as the central hub for RBM. Z-Insights expands their portfolio with a customer intelligence solution capable of integrating multiple data sources to compile a holistic view of the customer – to better understand their experiences and needs, and to better tailor outreach and offers to reduce churn and facilitate cross-sell and up-sell opportunities. Not too shabby.

One of their recently-announced partnerships also underscores how the subscription business market is maturing. By bringing Tidemark into the fold, they enable the application of strong enterprise planning, budgeting, and forecasting in the subscription arena. Even in traditional companies, this is a process that all-too-typically is still run via spreadsheet – and all-too-often simply extrapolates from historical numbers rather than applying analytics to understand and model business drivers. Adding this level of functionality by means of the partnership helps to elevate the discussion, and positions it as truly within the realm of subscription business rather than just subscription billing.

(De)Parting Thought
As I head back from San Francisco and think about everything I’ve heard this week (both at Subscribed and IBM Vision, which is the subject of another publication), I’m encouraged with where this market is headed. While I may be a bit more reserved in my expectations for (or, actually, adamantly opposed to) subscriptions being applied to everything in the economy, I think there a huge number of areas where they can make sense. Right at the top of that list is the data, and data-enabled, services that we’re seeing evolve in the Internet of Things space. There is a huge opportunity here for product and services companies, and an equally large opportunity for providers who can help them understand, plan, and successfully execute subscription business strategies. Even if you don’t end up choosing or evaluating Zuora in that context, it would be tough not to thank them for helping to push this important conversation forward.
-Scott

 

1. There’s another, related concern to keep in mind as well: a lot of data-oriented services and customer analytics solutions rely on the existence and accessibility of large customer datasets to mine for behavioral information. These services’ and solutions’ potential will be compromised if there is a societal/political push-back against ubiquitous data collection and exploitation. When we’re simply talking about integrating weather data to better understand its impact on retail sales, no one will object all too much. When we pivot to retailers or financial institutions analyzing your spending behavior to predict what life events you’re planning (new house, new car, new marriage, etc.), it starts to feel much more invasive. Big Data is all fun and games until you realize you’re being targeted as a “Segment of One.” But that’s a grumpy old man discussion for another time.

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How to Make Money with the Internet of Things

Money and IoT - Source: Pixabay.comThere seems to be a consensus that the Internet of Things is going to change the world.  We’ll be connecting up our homes, our cars, and all manner of personal and medical devices. It will change the nature of work… and the nature of business. That’s what we’ve been hearing, and it’s certainly a worthy—if lofty—goal. What we don’t hear quite as much about is how it actually works, and what is actually required to get these things up and running. Thankfully, this practical conversation is beginning to emerge as well.

If you look out in the market, you’ll probably see two main camps: one highlighting all of the great outcomes that IoT will bring, and another focused on the technical details of sensors, communications protocols, security, and data management. For the most part, you won’t see them actually come together. The good news is that this exact thing happened right here in Boston earlier this month. Over the course of a few days downtown, PTC LiveWorx brought together the technical and financial, both in terms of topics discussed and technology partners in attendance.

Taking “the edge” to the bank
The topic of monetizing IoT is pretty complex, but can be illustrated fairly quickly: somewhere out in the world is a sensor. That sensor lives at “the edge” and collects information. That information is stored on a device. That device communicates back to a central location, which is collecting information from a bunch of other devices. At this point, one of three things happens: (1) that data is used to monitor and improve the performance of a specific asset, improving reliability and/or productivity; (2) that data is sold to other people who can use it to make better decisions; or (3) that data is made available for analysis, and that analytics capability is made available as a service, for a price. Application #1 helps save the asset-owner money, and may also help the asset-manufacturer sell more. Applications #2 and #3 create new data-derived revenue streams for the folks collecting that information.1

Why PTC?
I think it’s quite interesting that the hub for this conversation was at an event run by someone who those of us on the financial side of the fence wouldn’t normally expect. PTC is big for engineers and designers. They’re one of the companies you go to for computer-aided design (CAD) and for product lifecycle management (PLM). So, at least in the beginning, they were the folks who helped you design the physical product. Then they acquired ThingWorx, which provides a platform upon which you can develop applications deployed on those physical products. And they acquired Axeda, which gives you a secure communications stack to connect those devices. This year, they announced the acquisition of ColdLight,2 which provides analytics technology that you can embed on those devices. Put all of that together, and you can see why they’re involved: they’re touching smart connected devices across the entire hardware and software design phases, including the much-needed analytics and communications layers.

Fair enough. But what about the monetization part? That’s where their growing partner network comes in. One notable attendee, who will be facilitating more of these types of discussions at their own Subscribed event this week, is Zuora. They’re a ThingWorx partner and provide a good example of where the financial connections happen. PTC helps with the design of smart, connected products, and Zuora provides pre- and post-sale process management for handling orders, subscriptions, and billing. So if you’re selling subscriptions to sensor-captured data streams, or if you’re offering analytics services on a per-processor or per-gigabyte basis, that’s where the tie-in comes.

Who Else Is Getting Involved?
While I think PTC LiveWorx did a great job making these connections, I’d be dropping the ball if I didn’t mention others who are getting in on the game. Alongside Zuora at LiveWorx was MetraTech (now part of Ericsson), who are very keen on participating in all things IoT. And at the same time that show was going on in Boston, SAP was announcing its HANA Cloud Platform for the IoT and its related partnerships with Siemens and Intel down in Orlando at Sapphire. And there was NetSuite’s messaging at SuiteWorld. And Informatica. And I would expect to hear a thing or two this week at both IBM Vision and Zuora Subscribed. And that’s just what’s going on in the span of two or three weeks in May. You shouldn’t even need to keep an eye out for further developments – I’m fairly certain they’ll be coming to the front page of news and media sites near you in the not-too-distant future.

Why Should I Care?
I think those of us who comment on the space still owe you a good explanation of why you should be paying attention – other than IoT being the latest “shiny object” in the business world. Here’s my pitch: if you currently sell products that collect some sort of data (or could be retrofitted to do so) and there is someone out in the world who would find that data valuable, IoT is a new revenue source for you. If you sell physical products that degrade or need to be serviced, IoT means you can offer remote monitoring services, or preventative maintenance services – new revenue streams. In the alternative, you can increase the attractiveness (and value) of those products by giving customers the ability to conduct that monitoring and maintenance themselves. If you sell services that could be expanded if you only had access to more data, it’s new money. And if you sell technology to help sense conditions, facilitate secure communications, conduct analysis, manage service provisioning and billing, or forecast and plan revenue – this market is going to need you.

If none of that matters to you, there’s still one very good reason to pay attention: it’s simply a fascinating topic of which we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. No one knows exactly how it will all play out – but it is going to be something special.

 

-Scott

 

1. That’s just a quick example of one way that it can work. In some scenarios, there’s analytics happening on the end device itself. In others, there are different layers of data gathering – say, a localized server that gathers information for one geographic location (like a building or farm), and a secondary location that aggregates ecosystem-wide information from all geographies (or all buildings you own / manage, or individual farms within a collective).

2. That link is to my colleague Tony Rizzo’s Market Alert on the acquisition. It provides the full context for the deal and is a great read on where IoT is headed.

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From Bottoms Up to Bottom Line: Ariba Live Returns to Vegas (Pt 2 of 2)

Ariba Live Wrap-Up Part 2: Bottom Line. Image Source: Pixabay.comLast week’s Ariba Live event at The Venetian and Palazzo in Las Vegas gave us a lot to think about — and not just from a business process perspective. Cirque du Soleil‘s live acrobatics woke us up, and Candy Chang‘s fusion of art, public space, and community-based collaboration, got us engaged. It’s not always easy–or natural–to smoothly transition from non-business to business content and messages in these type of environments, but I think it’s fair to say that the non-practitioner content did its job in getting us to think a bit differently about what’s possible when we apply equal parts creativity, skill, and preparation. And that’s where I make the tie back to the wonderful world of procure-to-pay.

Looking back over the different sessions and conversations, there are four main things that I think are important to note, for current customers, prospects, and the market in general. These have to do with (1) network expansion, (2) user experience, (3) partner ecosystem, and (4) payment options. I discussed the first two in my previous post, and will wrap things up here with the final two pieces of the puzzle.

Opening the API
The attractive storyline here is that SAP and Ariba learned from Concur’s success in nurturing a developer network for their platform and are embracing the approach post-acquisition. That said, folks like Salesforce.com and NetSuite have been doing this very well for a while too, and their success has been quite visible in the marketplace. Regardless of whether any of those were the real genesis of Ariba’s Open API initiative, I think it has the opportunity to start something special.

Until now, Ariba has been running a pretty classic two-sided network of buyers and suppliers. An honest review has to point out that what has been missing is the two-sided benefit model that leads to true network effects. By that, I mean that the vast majority of development (and marketing) has been focused on buy-side benefits. That serves to attract buyers, and they bring suppliers with them – but there isn’t an independent value source attracting new suppliers to the system.  That’s where we get into the realm of the telephone model of value: new buyers make the system more attractive to sellers, leading to new sellers who make the system more attractive to buyers. And B-school professors everywhere go wild…

With an Open API, the model changes a bit: there’s a third community that can participate, adding value that can attract new buyers (and perhaps sellers too). The number of participants already on the network attracts developers to add functionality on a completely separate development track than Ariba’s own roadmap. The cool thing is that, as we’ve seen with the Force.com/Salesforce1 platform approach (1), this adds new features but maintains the connection to the data that runs the show. That’s the big difference between API-based platform developers and third-party solutions that communicate with, but live apart from, the main system.

Since that was all quite general, let’s get specific. I think new apps will focus, at first, on the buy-side. That’s where the focus has been, and that’s probably who will benefit first. That said, I think there’s a real opportunity to show some love to the sell-side community as well. Ariba’s started doing this on their own. One subtle point that a sell-side attendee pointed out to me is that they’ve started referring to sellers as “customers” as well, and not keeping that label just for buyers. The same sentiment was there when I chatted with folks who were entirely focused on supplier satisfaction and retention.

I think this could be a real inflection point for the network, depending on how it all shakes out. If someone—either Ariba or the developer community—builds out functionality that provides enough value to suppliers to get them signing up without needing their buyers to invite them, the equation starts to get really interesting. New suppliers and broader participation from existing suppliers are two things that could (if we trust models… and professors) catch the attention of new buyers. I thought Discovery might have had a chance to play this catalyst role, but that hasn’t been the case. Who knows, though – perhaps the Open API will lead to development of functionality that makes Discovery more attractive, and everything will come into alignment.

Building the Payment Alternative
Last but not least, something directly related to finance. As I mentioned previously, I had the chance to sit on a panel discussing B2B payment options. For Ariba, that means their continued development of AribaPay. From conversations with buy-side and sell-side folks at the show, Ariba and Discover seem to be on to something here. They’re discussing it as an ACH replacement, removing the need/ burden for you to store and manage all of your suppliers’ bank account information. When compared to ACH, the settlement time is the same (two days, generally) but the transaction cost is a bit higher. You’ll need to see if that is offset by savings in other areas (IT support, security infrastructure, supplier information management reduction). One very interesting value point they’ve highlighted is AribaPay’s ability to improve on-boarding rates for procurement programs. If you can drive greater procurement savings by using AribaPay as an incentive, the per-transaction costs may not be an issue at all.

If we look at the roadmap, I think the some significant buy-side value will come when AribaPay does something that ACH/EFT cannot (at least outside of SEPA): go cross-border. When we talk international, we’re in wire territory – with the costs that go along with that channel. True, wires are a small portion of most companies’ payment mix, but if a lower-cost (and almost as fast) option exists—and is acceptable to suppliers who may value the non-recourse/certain nature of wires—that could be a fairly easy swap.

On the sell-side, AribaPay is more attractive as a card replacement. Ariba hasn’t published the exact pricing, but different conversations at Live point to rates a few decimal places away from the 150-350 basis points suppliers currently incur on card-based payments. In addition, there’s a hard-dollar cap on that transaction fee that makes it an absolute no-brainer for suppliers when compared to currently-uncapped card fees.  The flipside, of course, is that the buyer loses the rebate income. The suppliers I spoke with say that they end up pricing those rebates into the sales anyway, so the rebate income may actually be illusory in the end.

 

 And that’s a wrap. If you missed the first part of the series, you can find it here. It will be interesting to see how these developments are received by the market as the solutions, partnerships, and design approaches are put through their paces in live enterprise environments.

 

-Scott

 

1. Let’s not undersell what’s possible with that open platform approach. Salesforce.com began as a CRM/SFA application, but it’s creation of a development platform for others to build from has led to the creation of FinancialForce.com — an entire ERP on-top of Salesforce1. True, they weren’t starting from scratch. It was a joint venture between Salesforce and Unit4 (FinancialForce began its life as Coda). Even still, that’s a heck of a lot more than a simple plug-in.

Posted in Blog, Executive Management, Finance & Accounting, Financial Operations, General Industry, General Management, Procurement, Research | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

From Bottoms Up to Bottom Line: Ariba Live Returns to Vegas (Pt 1 of 2)

Bottoms Up - Ariba Live Part 1. Image Source: Pixabay.comIt was an interesting few days in Vegas for this year’s edition of Ariba Live. With a new captain at the helm, there was a lot of talk of the future. For those of us outside of core procurement, this provided a view into new financial functionality as well as some foundational changes to the platform that bring Ariba in line with what started at last year’s SAPPHIRE with the UI5/Fiori and HANA announcements. There were also some main-stage acrobatics care of Cirque du Soleil, which provided a helpful jolt to attention for an early morning Day 1 start in Sin City.

Looking back over the different sessions and conversations, there are four main things that I think are important to note, for current customers, prospects, and the market in general. These have to do with (1) network expansion, (2) user experience, (3) partner ecosystem, and (4) payment options. For this blog, I want to spend a bit of time talking about this first two. The discussion of the third and fourth items continues here.

Networking the Network
There’s a push to expand the Ariba Network by connecting up with other platforms out in the market. When I heard Alex Atzberger (Ariba’s new President, and SAP CEO Bill McDermott’s former chief-of-staff) say that the “network needs to network” my first thought something along the lines of: you mean like hooking up with Tungsten/OB10? While I’ll admit to a temporary (if naïve) elation at the thought of standardized, provider-agnostic, cross-network invoicing to cut down on the number of access points buyers and sellers need to manage, the answer to that is a ‘no.’  The effort is to connect with complementary (rather than competing) networks, like eBay and Alibaba to facilitate the managed purchase of items not available through currently-enabled catalog sellers.

The eBay partnership was initially teased at last year’s SAPPHIRE, and it looks like it has come along well and can serve as a model for other network partnerships. Applying procurement rigor and review to off-network purchases seems like a win all around. It just means that we have to pin our hopes for portal rationalization on something else – perhaps the OASIS project’s ability to define some agreed-upon standards for XML business documents that can be easily integrated into ERP and financial applications large and small.  Naiveté can only go so far, of course. For the foreseeable future, there will still be a great number of connections and logins and UIs and unique flows to manage.

UX > UI
I’ve got two thoughts about Ariba’s new UX approach, which uses the SAP Fiori UI and has been engineered for mobile. The first is that, much like when Fiori was rolled out last year, it seems like a great way to present information – and tailor that presentation by persona. No complaints. I didn’t think Ariba’s old UI was horrible (especially relative to what most ERP UIs look like), but this is a nice, sleek revision. The team’s take on mobile is cool as well. They don’t try to fit the desktop experience into a mobile form factor. Rather, they’ve kept an eye on the types of tasks you’d look to complete on different devices and made those things the focus. When we roll in dashboarding with drill-down capabilities, it’s hard to complain.

But not impossible. My point of contention isn’t with the design, but with the messaging that goes along with it. I’m not sure that usability as judged by millennials should be the standard for enterprise UI and UX design. If that was the case, Ariba would have announced an image-recognition feature where employees can take a selfie with the desired good and that would trigger a purchasing workflow. All vowels would be removed from UI elements and any instance of “100%” would be replaced with “totes.” In reality, what they’ve adopted isn’t about appealing to millennials – it’s about making solutions more usable and intuitive. I’ll sign on for that. As long as that is the real driving force behind design choices, we’re in a good place.

That’s a wrap for the first installment of this two-part Ariba Live wrap-up. For more, take a look at the second half right here.

 

-Scott

Posted in Blog, Executive Management, Finance & Accounting, Financial Operations, General Industry, General Management, Procurement, Research | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

FinOps 2014: Looking Back and Forging Ahead

Astronaut_640It’s been quite an eventful year. I’ve seen a lot of activity in the market, with acquisitions, partnerships, and new products. I’ve had more interesting and engaging conversations with practitioners and providers than I can count. Taking a step back and looking at a year’s worth of those discussions (and publications), I’ve put together a quick summary of what I see as the high points, broken out across four big categories: Procure-to-Pay, Discounting and Supply Chain Finance, Order-to-Cash, and Subscription Billing.

For each, there is far more to say than can be captured in a single paragraph. My hope is that these quick bites highlight some key themes, and provide a jumping off point for deeper dives into past research and further conversations about future projects. As always, I welcome your feedback and participation in this collaborative research process. And now, on with the show!

Procure-to-Pay

Early on, it looked like 2014 might be a repeat of what we’ve heard in years past when it comes to P2P: folks still looking to reduce paper, lower costs, and explore some degree of automation. I was prepared to keep advocating for a different mindset, but hadn’t seen much reason to expect change. I’m happy to report that I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I’ve seen pieces like The Rockstar Controller and Financial vs. Operational Savings strike a chord with their discussions of how AP’s potential to provide strategic working capital benefits can catch the eye of peers who traditionally viewed it as a tactical function. I won’t say that we’re quite “there” yet, but I’m more optimistic today than I have been in years that AP’s true potential will be more broadly recognized than just among its champions in the analyst world.

What’s Next?

Even though I sing AP’s praises, I recognize that the biggest threat to progress is an inability to provide a realistic business case for automation. Building on my earlier framework for analyzing AP costs, I’ll be taking an honest look at the ROI of P2P solutions. This means being mindful of different stages of maturity, identifying the different choices available, and getting a handle on how those choices impact both benefits gained and costs incurred.

Discounting and Supply Chain Finance

One of the biggest boons for P2P this year was the publicity (and the message, of course) of the White House’s SupplierPay initiative. To me, it served three very important purposes: (1) it brought wider attention to the P2P world; (2) it underscored the strategic importance P2P can have both for the companies themselves and the wider economy; and (3) it sought to bolster small businesses, a group that is not normally given priority in discussions of payments and invoicing. With the goal of accelerating payments to SMB suppliers, SupplierPay also put the focus on efficient invoice processing, programs that provide incentives for earlier payment, and the provision of access to alternative financing solutions when companies do not want to fund accelerated payments from their own working capital. In other words, it put a big spotlight on AP automation, discounting programs, and supply chain finance. Awesome.

What’s Next?

The biggest thing on the horizon here is sharedserviceslink’s upcoming Dynamic Discounting and Supply Chain Finance Summit in Scottsdale, AZ at the end of February.  For my part, I’ll be presenting on “SupplierPay Decoded,” continuing the discussion of what it is, what it means, and what opportunities it holds for buyers and suppliers alike. Blue Hill and sharedserviceslink are partnering on a pre-event survey, which will both inform the summit’s sessions and fuel additional research publishing in the New Year.

See Related Research

Order-to-Cash

I’ve said it many times, but it bears repeating: I think the AR side of financial operations is a sadly underserved area. It’s in a bit of a different position than AP, however. AR has to work harder to demonstrate the benefits of automation, as it doesn’t have the same discount/rebate-based savings card up its sleeve that AP boasts. Perhaps ironically, it’s AP that I think is giving AR a bit more exposure. As buyers look to push out payment terms to improve their own working capital positions, discussions of how to accelerate those payments and mitigate those terms extensions get more attention. This goes beyond offering discount-based incentives. It means a focus on collaboration and data sharing to ensure bills are accurate and disputes are resolved efficiently. This also means looking outside of DSO when gauging “success,” by including factors like customer satisfaction and renewal rates in the evaluation of AR’s impact.

What’s Next?

Since I think the business case for O2C technologies is there, but has yet to be properly set out, that’s first up on my AR agenda. There are some very interesting use cases for billing and payments technologies, eInvoicing from the supplier perspective, and the application of analytics to sell-side data. I’ll be working through a maturity framework to detail what those options are, what impact they can have, and for which companies/environments they might be good fits.

Subscription Billing

Last, but certainly not least, subscription billing really has had a banner year. I say that for two reasons: (1) “as a service” offerings are expanding today in both the B2C and B2B worlds, and (2) this flavor of billing is at the heart of the monetization of future technologies. In the more traditional context, service-based offerings are helping to hammer home the importance of customer satisfaction on future revenues. I think everyone can learn from that. When we look out to the future, we see very interesting developments with the Internet of (Billable) Things, and we’ve already seen some market activity hinting that the preparations are well underway. In contrast to the AP and AR topics discussed above, this is about as cutting-edge as topics in financial operations get. When we move beyond some of the hype, there is still some work to be done in providing a complete and frank assessment of what this model means, what choices businesses have in tackling it, and what outcomes they can realistically expect.

What’s Next?

I’m doing some work now on a model for analyzing the different flavors of subscription billing solutions, seeing how they impact operations, and working through their potential benefits. The goal is to embrace what is different in an as-a-service model, while being mindful of the lessons learned from the more traditional, individual purchase approach. As this market continues to gain exposure and attract new entrants with new solutions, it will be important to have a solid foundation to evaluate which option might be a good fit for a particular billing environment. Not every solution is right for every business, and we’ll kick off 2015 looking to provide a bit of guidance to help folks navigate their way through.

Were there other developments that caught your attention this past year? Anything you’re keeping your eye on in the months ahead? Let’s talk.

-Scott

Posted in Blog, Executive Management, Finance & Accounting, Financial Operations, General Function, General Industry, General Management, Research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

AP and Treasury: A Growing Friendship (AFP Wrap-Up Part 2)

FriendsIf this year’s AFP conference was any indication, I think we’re coming to a bit of a crossroads in financial operations. For years, we’ve been talking about how to deal with paper. Our focus has been on getting payments out on-time, and we’ve largely viewed “improvement” in terms of efficiency and headcount reduction. The space is evolving, however, and we’re finally seeing some light at the end of the AP automation tunnel. From my own research, and from the topics discussed and conversations I had while in D.C., the strategic importance of AP for folks in treasury and the CFO’s office is rising.

This is the second of a two-part series on this year’s AFP conference. You can find the first part, discussing payments and fraud, here.

Traditionally, AFP’s main draw has been in areas like treasury and financial planning and analysis. The exhibitor hall was mainly banks, software companies, and service providers focused on payments execution, investments, workstations and the like. This year was a bit different. While the perennial players were certainly in attendance, so too were folks like C2FO, Direct Commerce, Direct Insite, NVoicePay, Scan One, and Taulia. These are providers focused on AP efficiency, discounting, and supply chain finance. They’re providers who we’d expect to see at more operationally-focused conferences run by IFO or IOFM. That’s not by mistake: these providers made a smart move, recognizing the increasingly close tie between AP efficiency and strategic working capital decisions. Treasurers and CFOs may not have paid much attention in the past, but they’re increasingly doing so now.

Why?

When you’re focused on paying invoices on-time, and doing so more efficiently, you’re dealing with a mostly tactical issue. You might avoid late payment penalties, which is great. From time to time, you might also pick up a discount from a supplier with pre-existing discount terms. Again, that’s wonderful. Because it is accomplished more by chance than by a programmatic approach, the overall impact on cash flow is fairly small. In that scenario, you’re also likely handling these decisions on a one-by-one basis, prioritizing a specific invoice for payment when a discount is available – and when there’s adequate funding to make the payment in the short term. That leads to a few ad hoc conversations with folks outside of AP operations, but not to a strategic, ongoing relationship.

See Related Research

Things change a bit when we look at discounting and supply chain finance programmatically. When discounting programs cover a large majority of suppliers and you’re efficient enough to capture all of them, decisions here can lead to huge cash flow impacts. If you traditionally pay in 30 or 45 days, do you have the cash on hand today to fund an accelerated payment? If not already in a disbursement account, can it be transferred? Whether done to reduce fraud risk or to take advantage of short-term investment opportunities, treasury likely has funds stored somewhere else. Now that the ability to capture discounts is firmly established and accelerated payments are predictable, they’ll need to revise their cash management strategies to ensure adequate funds are available to take advantage of discounting’s great returns. This requires partnership; AP cannot do this on its own.

I think that this is an important step in raising AP’s profile. When discounts are predictable, they can be accurately modeled for budgeting and planning purposes. The effective return that discounting provides (the oft-cited 36% annualized rate for 2/10 Net 30 terms, for example) is difficult to beat. It necessitates efficient AP operations to support, and requires supplier on-boarding to scale up.  The good news is that this too can be modeled, making business case development that much easier. As the space continues to evolve, and more stories of successful programs circulate in the market, I think we’ll see this now-emerging trend become more commonplace. With that, we should see more and more familiar faces at AFP in years to come.

-Scott

 

 

 

Posted in Blog, Executive Management, Finance & Accounting, Financial Operations, General Function, General Industry, General Management, Research | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Are Banks Aligned to Corporate Receivables and Payments Needs?

Idea LightbulbWhen we think about business banking relationships, some of the first things that come to mind are things like lockboxes, disbursement accounts, and positive pay arrangements. But what about things that help operationally with receivables and payments processes? Are they in the mix? That was one of the questions we wanted to explore in a collaborative survey pilot between Blue Hill and Direct Insite. We’ll be releasing the full results soon, but wanted to give you a sneak preview here a little bit early.

We began the pilot with a handful of main questions that looked to the goals practitioners have for AR, what challenges they face, what they feel they’re doing well now, and what choices they’re making to help improve things moving forward. The goal was to lay the foundation for future research, looking to uncover some areas to dig into further and to take a first pass at understanding the alignment between what responding companies were sharing about their businesses and what responding banks believed about their clients. The results to date have been pretty interesting.

What Do AR Professionals Want?

When we looked at the objectives companies have set for their AR operations, three choices rose to the top: (1) lowering DSO, (2) reducing receivables processing time, and (3) increasing customer adoption of electronic invoicing. To me, this told a story of inefficient payables processes on the AP side of the fence. Here’s why I say that. Lowering DSO means completing the cycle from invoice to application faster. If DSO was high mainly due to late or missed payments (which absolutely do exist and show up as a very real challenge), that would point to large issues in the credit review process. Since only one-in-five respondents said that was a priority, it leads me to think there’s something bigger at play.

A push to increase electronic invoicing is our first hint at what’s going on. If it’s not about customers’ ability to pay, it may be about their ability to pay on-time. How would we address that from the AR side? We’d want to tee them up with a more efficient way of receiving invoices – that’s moving from paper to electronic, in some form. We can’t dictate what capture or approval workflow solutions they use (though some AR solutions exist to provide them with similar functionality), but we can help them move to a format that can be transmitted, shared, and (hopefully) reviewed more quickly. Assuming customers have both the ability and desire to pay on time, that’s a great first step.

The next piece of the puzzle looks at our internal processes: ways to reduce receivables processing time. It’s a question of doing things efficiently on the AR side of the equation to facilitate faster payments, and to get them processed and into the system (and the bank account) as quickly as possible when they do arrive. For folks who have transitioned to larger volumes of electronic payments, this means finding a better way to handle the decoupling of remittance information. By that, I mean simply that paper checks would come alongside remittance details in the same envelope, while with electronic payments, deposits are made and information about those transactions is usually sent via a secondary channel like email. Again, there are products and services that aim to help make this reconciliation easier – and it’s something on a good number of companies’ improvement roadmaps.

What Do Banks Think?

So far, we’ve only looked at the study from one perspective. If I stopped here, my title and introduction would be very misleading. Taking a look at that same question from the bank perspective, we see some good news: responding banks are pretty well-aligned with their clients when it comes to understanding their goals and objectives. They think DSO and receivables processing are at the top of the list – and they’re right. They were a bit more likely to view credit review as a focus area, and a bit less likely to see electronic invoices as a key priority. Since this is a pilot study, I wouldn’t read all too much into those differences just yet. That said, they do give us something to keep in mind moving forward, to see if those results play out when the questions are posed to a wider audience.

Another area where there is good alignment is in assessing the relative priority of different projects in the financial operations arena. Both corporates and banks put AR projects at the top of their lists, claiming their spots ahead of AP and procurement initiatives. Corporate respondents, on average, ranked AR Payments #1 and AR Invoicing or Billing #2, with a small separation between the two. Banks, while also having those two choices at the top, swapped the priority, expecting Invoicing to be the highest. Here again, there’s a lot to be positive about, as both sides are very much on the same page when it comes to what’s important.

See Related Research

What’s Next?

So, if banks have a good understanding of client objectives, and also are on the same page when it comes to how they prioritize improvement efforts, they’re a natural choice as a partner for those initiatives. Right? That’s another question we were very much interested in. Specifically, we asked who end-users would prefer to work with when pursuing these improvements. Would they prefer to stick with internal IT resources? To work with their ERP provider, or a third-party software company? Perhaps they would choose their own bank – or are they frustrated enough to change to a new banking relationship to achieve their goals?

If you’re interested in how that question came out, or what other interesting things we found in this pilot, stay tuned next week when we release the final report!

 

-Scott

Posted in Blog, Executive Management, Finance & Accounting, Financial Operations, General Function, General Industry, General Management, Research | Tagged | Leave a comment

How Does Tech Impact Financial Ops Jobs?

ChangeIFO’s Q3 Financial Ops magazine features an interesting cover story by Caroline Glenn entitled Evolutions in Automation: From the Cave to the Cloud. In it, she takes a look at how technology has advanced and how it can drastically change the way that traditional processes are run. “New advanced technologies and innovations in the finance industry have not only changed the ways AP and AR manage cash, but have brought these departments out of the Stone Age and into an era of efficiency.” As a companion to that piece, I was honored to contribute my own perspective on how these technologies have changed—and will continue to change—the financial operations employment landscape.  

As time moves on, things change. There are people in the workforce today who have never known a world without color televisions, or the internet – or mobile phones for that matter. As an analyst, I have never used a typewriter for a research report or done my analysis on paper; those approaches have been improved upon with the advance of technology. The same unavoidable evolution has happened—and will continue to happen—in the realm of financial operations jobs.

When I look at these areas, I see two important trends converging to impact what you, as a financial operations professional, do on a day-to-day basis: technology adoption and technological evolution. The former impacts what you do, as more and more tasks are automated; the latter impacts how you do it, as providers (finally!) focus more effort on user experience.

Technology Adoption

While things may be moving a bit more slowly than many of us would expect, we are progressing towards wider automation in financial operations. On the receivables side, IFO’s 2013 AR Automation Study reported that 54% of responding organizations already used eInvoicing technology, while another 34% had plans to move that way (with varying timelines for change, of course). Looking at payables, the 2013 AP Automation Study found that in addition to the 36% of respondents who had already transitioned to mostly electronic payments, another 49.9% were either planning for or actively migrating in that direction. Those are just two examples, but we see similar sentiment in other areas as well, with priorities focused on things like approval workflow and document imaging.

The takeaway here is that as technology changes, it either modifies or replaces the things you currently do. OCR removes the need for hand-keying, and shifts the work to error detection and correction. Electronic invoicing removes the data input step entirely, with errors now flagged during the (potentially) automated matching process. AP jobs, then, are less about keying in information and more about problem solving and communication to address and correct errors.  Successful AR has always been focused on communications (both internal and external), though offerings like electronic billing and portals have certainly replaced physical bill creation, prep, and mailing for many organizations. In both disciplines, then, your day-to-day tasks are moving away from the tactical, and the required skills for success involve effective communication, collaboration, and troubleshooting to contribute more directly to strategic goals.

See Related Research

Technology Evolution

There has been a lot of action in this piece of the puzzle recently. Specifically, I am referring to improvements in user interface design that are aimed at making it easier to complete (and track) your outstanding tasks. Enterprise applications have not always been the easiest to use, with ERPs earning the least goodwill. In the market, there are two main strategies to help you get your job done in these environments: some solutions embed within your ERP or financial system, so you have a single look-and-feel and user experience across all aspects of the process; others take advantage of browser-based interfaces, which have much greater freedom to be designed to be intuitive and user-friendly.

What’s the result? We should be able to avoid the explosion of different job requirements based on specific systems in use. Put differently–keeping an eye on the employers in the audience—with the evolution of these technologies, you should not need to limit yourselves to candidates with experience working with specific point solutions. For a time, experience with specific underlying systems like Oracle, SAP, Microsoft Dynamics, etc., will still be helpful. Due to the scope of these solutions, they’re a bit slower to change. Even here, however, we’re seeing much more focus on the user experience. It will likely take a decade or more for these newly-available solutions to be widely implemented, but the trend is in the direction of less proprietary—and more intuitive—systems. When we get there, the focus can truly be on finding the best person for the given job, based more on skills like problem-solving and interpersonal communications than on typing speed or past experience with specific software applications.

Is your organization there yet?

-Scott

Posted in Blog, Executive Management, Finance & Accounting, Financial Operations, General Function, General Industry, General Management, Procurement, Research | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Apple Pay, Mobile Wallets, and B2B Payments (Part 1 of 2)

Mobile Wallet. Image Source: pixabay.comJust over a week ago, Apple made its much-hyped announcement of the iPhone 6, and a few other items. Admittedly, as someone who has never crushed a piece of candy or farmed a ville, the new hardware wasn’t much of a draw for me. What was a bit more interesting was Apple’s foray into mobile payments with Apple Pay. For consumers, it seems like a good development, though not earth-shattering in light of the other players in the market (Google Wallet, PayPal Here, Softcard, etc.). While there may not seem to be much to be excited about for business folks and the businesses they work for, I think there are some bright spots to highlight.

For me, the biggest benefit to come out of the announcement was the attention that tokenization is getting. The improved security of facilitating payments without the need to exchange account information is something everyone should applaud. Of course, that’s nothing new in the B2B space. Virtual cards have done this for purchasing card (p-card) programs. AribaPay (with Discover) and Basware Pay (with MasterCard) both have recent introductions that do this as well. Bottomline Technologies’s Paymode-X platform uses its own ID and facilitates payments over multiple channels. AOC Solutions and Paymetric offer tokenization as well. For those interested in the “net-net,” it’s safe to say that the B2B space is pretty well-covered when it comes to this approach to security.

The Immobile Wallet
When we think of B2B payments, we can break that into two categories: point of sale purchases (expenses) and post-invoice payments (traditional purchases). Most of the work, thus far, has been focused on the latter: finding secure ways to transmit payment for purchases that have been invoiced. The wallet that stores your payment information for that type of transaction is your ERP system. I, and many others, have written quite a bit about the importance of moving to electronic payments and the great potential afforded by alternative approaches to payments. Of course, none of that helps you when you’re standing in line at Staples with a box full of printer paper.

So what is there for you? To answer that question, I think it will be good to sketch out a few attributes of what we’d call a helpful program, and then see where we stand in today’s B2B mobile payment world. When making point-of-sale purchases, we want a method that: 1) is accepted, 2) is easy, and 3) provides some degree of control. With a traditional purchasing card, points 1 and 2 are par for the course: they’re hooked up to popular payment networks and transactions can be completed with a simple swipe. Number 3 is a normal part of purchasing card programs as well: the ability to set transaction-based and/or monthly dollar limits and the option to restrict purchases to specific types of retailers based on Merchant Category Codes (MCC). While we do see reporting of detailed Level 3 data, we don’t see preemptive transaction restrictions based on the identity of the items, rather than the retailer.

Have a Question? Get In Touch!

Ground AP Control to Major Tom Non-compliant Purchaser
At this point, I don’t have an exact answer to that last issue – but here’s what I’m thinking: there has been a lot of work done on making post-purchase receipt capture, expense reporting, and approvals much easier for businesses to handle. They’ve made great strides in identifying non-compliant purchases during the review stage. There’s a bit of difficulty in automating everything, however, because of the technical requirements on the retailer side of providing Level 3 data for these purchases. They’re not insurmountable, of course, but they’re enough added work/expense that they’re not ubiquitous. And that’s a key point: when the value of any program or application is based on things outside of your control (i.e. you rely on retailers to provide the info), it is difficult to standardize. But there may be another way.

First, let’s take a company like Scandit, who boasts a database of information on 25 million products, searchable by UPC (or other standard industry product identifiers). Next, let’s connect that type of solution with an expense management stalwart like Concur, who is always pushing the boundaries of T&E. The third piece of the puzzle—which brings us back to the discussion of mobile payments—is a mobile wallet. Both Apple Pay and Google Wallet have developer APIs, allowing apps to make the connection and facilitate in-person transactions. If some industrious developer were to tie those three things together, we could have a flow where a businessperson on the road scans an item they intend to purchase, it is recognized by the item database, its product type (and perhaps even manufacturer) is recognized, and we can make the go/no-go decision on that purchase not based on the name on the sign outside, but on the actual item the employee intends to purchase. If he or she gets the green light, payment can be completed via the mobile wallet, with the product-based gate-keeping function taken care of by something within the company’s control. That approach makes for a more reliable solution, as all of the steps are managed by one party. Yes, the gate-keeper is only as good as its product database, but no one has ever accused enterprises of an inability to collect data.

That’s it for this installment. Next up, I’ll continue the discussion by taking a look at BYOD policies, OS market share, and how they both impact the standardization necessary for reliable B2B payment solutions.

 

-Scott

 

Posted in Blog, Executive Management, Finance & Accounting, Financial Operations, General Industry, General Management, Procurement, Research | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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