Enterprise software is back in black

April 12, 2012: 11:02 AM ET

A generation of startups is harnessing momentum in cloud services, social networks and mobile computing to introduce fundamentally new ways for companies to do just about everything. That's brought sex appeal back to a sleepy sector.

Back in black, I hit the sack, I've been too long, I'm glad to be back.
— ACDC, "Back in Black"

By Christopher Lochhead, contributor

lochheadFORTUNE -- At the turn of the century, the enterprise software sector entered a nuclear winter innovation-wise.

Oracle (ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison declared it time for consolidation, and his company obliged by snapping up more than 80 smaller developers and technology vendors. Since 2003, IBM (IBM) Software Group has made more than 70 acquisitions, and SAP (SAP) has also done its part. From 2000 to 2010, I joked that the industry was idea-bankrupt. With the notable exceptions of companies such as Salesforce.com (CRM) and VMware (VMW), few enterprise software innovators made a name for themselves.

Of course, during the same decade, hoodie-wearing, 20-something entrepreneurial dudes in Silicon Valley fired up an amazing new crop of consumer web 2.0 businesses like Facebook and Twitter. Venture capitalists on Sandhill Road swooned for their attention like a gaggle of girls at a One Direction concert. In contrast, enterprise startups were treated like has-beens who couldn't get a first date with most Valley moneymen.

Now, enterprise software has gotten its mojo back.

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A new generation of startups is harnessing momentum in cloud services, social networks and mobile computing to introduce fundamentally new ways for enterprises to do just about everything. They offer digital channels for marketing and generating revenue. They provide platforms for engaging with customers. They support collaboration internally and across supply chains. They even overhaul basic functions such as billing, accounting and transactions.

These companies have a particular allure for the new breed of business tech consumers; aka "bizumers." These are workers who shun the recommendations of IT departments to find for themselves devices and applications that make their work lives more efficient. The freemium and subscription nature of cloud applications makes this process of circumvention easy, and bizumers are fueling astonishing adoption rates for some enterprise startups.

For example, in four years, enterprise social software company Yammer claims more than 4 million users, including 85% of the Fortune 500. It has attracted $142 million in venture capital along the way. Cloud file-sharing startup Box claims 8 million users at more than 100,000 businesses; VCs have made a $150 million bet on this company run by a young CEO. Even former enterprise software executives can't resist the allure. PeopleSoft founder Dave Duffield and Aneel Bhusri have formed a new cloud company focused on accounting and human resources applications called Workday. The company claims more than 250 enterprise customers and is rumored to be considering an IPO.

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These aren't unusual stories. Many enterprise innovators are reporting impressive user and sales growth rates. I recently attended the Wells Fargo Technology conference in San Francisco run by analyst-provocateur Jason Maynard. The number of compelling privately held enterprise startups was astonishing. Outfits like marketing automation developer Marketo; business intelligence platform Domo; community software vendor Lithium; enterprise social marketing player Hearsay Social; cloud subscription management software company Zuora and online advertising management platform Marin Software -- where, full disclosure, I am an advisor -- have compelling stories.

The investors I spoke with at the event seemed more interested in these startups than in many of the big-name public tech companies showing up at the podium. Wall Street money managers appear to be salivating to bite into a whole new breed of enterprise tech IPOs. And, large incumbents are hungry for a piece of these new enterprise technology innovators, with firms like SAP and Oracle making a series of forward-leaning cloud acquisitions to get in on the action. During a single week in April, Dell (DELL) disclosed three acquisitions focused on shoring up its position in the enterprise including the purchase of Clerity, a mainframe migration services company.

The new wave of enterprise innovation is signaling the biggest transformation in the way businesses use technology in a generation. If even a few of these companies succeed, the workplace of 2014 will be materially different than the workplace of 2012.

We could also see a re-drawing of the enterprise technology vendor landscape.

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The industry might be dominated by new companies in new bizumer categories. Some Goliaths of today are at risk of becoming Wang or Digital Equipment Corp 2.0. With their subscription-based pricing models and the relatively high cost of buying traditional enterprise software licenses and then paying yearly maintenance fees, these startups offer compelling economics to customers. That's especially true when you consider recent data from Forrester Research (FORR) that suggests flexible licensing models will claim at least 43% of enterprise software budgets by the end of 2012.

Many of the new breed of enterprise software innovators also seem hell-bent on staying independent, following in the footsteps of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Salesforce.com's Marc Benioff. Their tenacity, coupled with rapid user adoption and escalating valuations, could mean the incumbents may not be able to buy their way into the future, the way they have in the past. What is clear is that enterprise tech innovation is back. And businesses, bizumers, and investors are buying in.

Christopher Lochhead (@lochhead) is former technology executive, now strategy advisor & partner with Play Bigger Advisors.

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