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Zoho's last stand

Zoho's Sridhar Vembu believes Google won't get serious about the apps business because it lacks the high growth and margin of the search business.

Sridhar Vembu Zoho

Sridhar Vembu, CEO of AdventNet, is not afraid of going up against Microsoft Office or Google Apps. He is also the CEO of Zoho, which recently announced that it had achieved 1 million registrations (between 300,000 and 350,000 log on to the service monthly) for its cloud-based set of productivity applications. Vembu is now making a financial case that Zoho is better positioned than Google to take on Microsoft in the upcoming office suite sweepstakes.

Vembu's analysis is based on a comparison of revenue per employee and profit per employee metrics. "The gap in revenue per employee between Google and SAP and Salesforce.com, for instance, indicates that Google would more likely be more interested in what eBay does or in monetizing YouTube than in Zoho or Salesforce.com's barely profitable business. Companies invest in what generates the best return on investment," Vembu explained to me.


In an e-mail explaining his financial analysis, Vembu wrote:

We simply don't believe Google has the rational business incentive to go deep into the business/IT software category. The lower revenue and profit per employee figures would be tolerable if there were huge growth opportunities there; but when very successful companies like Adobe and Intuit pull in revenues well shy of a Yahoo, when even the enterprise software leader SAP is the same size of Google (Google makes more in profit per employee than SAP makes in revenue per employee), it is fairly clear this market is not going to make a material contribution to Google's growth and profitability objectives. So what is Google's plan here? It is fairly obvious they are in it to put Microsoft on the defensive on its home turf, so that Microsoft's offensive capability in the internet is diminished. It is also perfectly clear why Microsoft wants to be an Internet player--as Google has shown, it is a higher margin business even than its monopoly-profit core business.

"Google's margins are a once in a lifetime occurrence, and Google will move in that high-growth direction--that's why Microsoft is so desperate about search. It has a higher growth rate. We are more worried about Microsoft than Google. Microsoft will address the Internet, but pulling down Office margins is a challenge for them. No company peacefully accepts a lowering of margins," Vembu said. "Our intention is to help erode Microsoft's profit margin, coming in from below." Zoho has built a more comprehensive suite of cloud-based apps than Google or Microsoft, and most of them are currently free to users.

Vembu cites the cost of sales and support as a drag on revenue per employee and profit per employee. "If salesforce is a proxy, it would be difficult for Google to justify the investment. More costs are associated with support than in R&D, even with on-demand software. The moment you have paying customers, the expectations are different, and Google is finding that out with recent Gmail problems," Vembu said. In addition, he noted that selling into small- and medium-size businesses is difficult, but the margin is higher than for large enterprise accounts. Adobe Systems and Intuit, for example, have more revenue per employee than Oracle or SAP.

Zoho's revenue per employee is mostly nonexistent given most of the Zoho suite is currently free and not-ad supported. Vembu estimates Zoho's revenue per employee will be in the $200,000 to $250,000 range when the revenue spigot is fully turned on at some undetermined point.

While Zoho behaves like a scrappy start-up, it is well-funded by India-based parent company AdventNet, which develops enterprise IT management software. AdventNet has 900 employees and is profitable, according to Vembu. "One of the privileges we enjoy as a private company is to not disclose revenue/profit numbers, which lets us do the kind of analysis on competitors they can't do on us," he joked.

The problem with Vembu's logic is that Google has an enormous pool of cash to invest in improving the economics of business and consumer productivity software suites. And, part of being a software company is having multiple and adjacent revenue and user data streams. Microsoft is a highly profitable software company with many adjacent divisions. Google Apps won't be as profitable as search, but it will be profitable and ties users into the Google platform and monetization engine.

If Google can attract consumers with its apps, gaining entry into small- and medium-size business won't be a huge profit-sucking sinkhole of sales and marketing. The search giant claims that more than 500,000 businesses and schools have signed up for the free and $50 per-user-per-year Google Apps. According to Dave Girouard, head of Google's enterprise division, the Google suite has about 10 million active users. Google can afford to invest in building the the market for Google Apps, and Microsoft will be forced to alter the economics of its Office business as cheap and capable cloud-based suites, with offline capabilities, gain traction.

What does that mean for Zoho? Run faster and hope that Google and Microsoft move slowly.