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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Plex's Growth Strategy: Glass Half Full

Those interested in cloud ERP know that Plex was the first provider to offer a cloud-only manufacturing system. Yet Plex has had nowhere near the growth of other cloud enterprise system providers, such as NetSuite. SAP receives a lot of criticism for only having sold 1,000 or so customers its Business ByDesign system--but ByD has only been in general distribution for three or four years. Yet Plex, which launched its cloud offering over 10 years ago, has fewer than 500 customers.What's wrong with this picture?

Last year, encouraged by Plex's new private equity owners, CEO Jason Blessing and his management team formulated a growth strategy, which they presented at the Plex user conference. Afterwards, I outlined what I thought Plex needed to do to execute on it.

Following up now half a year later, Jason circled back to give me another briefing, and it was a good opportunity also to see what progress Plex was making. Here is my take: 
  1. Management changes are part of the growth plan. Plex this week announced the appointment of Don Clarke as its new CFO. He appears to be a great candidate for the job. He comes most recently from Eloqua, a leading marketing cloud vendor, where he oversaw Eloqua's growth to nearly $100M in annual revenue, its initial public offering, and its eventual sale to Oracle last year, which put Clarke out of a job.

    I joked with Jason that Oracle's acquisition strategy has been serving Plex well in terms of recruiting, as several of Plex's top management team have come from companies that Oracle acquired: Heidi Melin, Plex's CMO, also came from Eloqua, Karl Ederle, VP of Product Management spent time at Taleo, which Oracle acquired in April 2012, and Jason himself came from Taleo.

    If Plex's growth strategy is successful, there is likely to be an IPO in Plex's future. Clarke's experience in taking Eloqua public will serve Plex well.
     
  2. Plex added 59 new customers in 2013, bringing its customer count to "nearly 400." As mentioned earlier, in my view, the total customer count is well below where it should for a decade-old cloud provider. Jason compares it favorably with the 500 or so customer count for Workday, overlooking the fact that Workday launched in late 2006 and that its typical customer is several times larger than Plex's.

    Still, Plex's growth in 2013 represents a 15% increase in its customer base and signals that its growth strategy is beginning to take hold.

    The new customer count includes some accounts that are larger than Plex has sold to in the past, such as Caterpillar, which is running Plex in a two-tier model for some smaller plants. In my previous post, I outlined some of the functionality improvements that Plex would need to make to better serve these large customers, and there are signs that these enhancements are underway.
     
  3. Plex doubled its sales force last year. This, no doubt, is behind the uptick in new customer sales. The new sales headcount is serving primarily to expand the geographic coverage outside of Plex's traditional Great Lakes concentration to the South and also to the West Coast. (As part of the expansion, Plex opened a Southern California sales office, which happens to be a short walk from my office near the John Wayne Airport.) There are also increased sales to organizations outside North America, another hopeful sign.
     
  4. Plex's industry focus remains in three industry sectors: motor vehicles, food and beverage, and aerospace and defense. In my view, this is probably the greatest constraint to Plex's growth strategy. Short-term, having more feet on the street and expanding geographically are low-hanging fruit. But at some point, there will be diminishing returns. Manufacturing contains dozens of sub-sectors, many of which are adjacent to Plex's existing markets. It is not a big jump to build out support and sell into these sub-sectors. We discussed a couple of these, and hopefully, Plex's product management team will have the bandwidth to address them.
     
  5. Plex's platform remains a weak spot. Most cloud systems today provide a platform for customer enhancements and development of complementary functionality. For example, Salesforce.com offers Salesforce1, a mature platform-as-a-service (PaaS) capability that has spawned an entire ecosystem of partners. NetSuite, likewise, has its SuiteCloud platform.  Although Plex has the beginnings of such a platform, it is still limited to use by Plex's own development team and a few carefully-vetted partners. Jason knows this is a need, and hopefully we will see more progress in this area. 
There is a lot to admire about Plex. Of the few cloud-only ERP providers that are addressing the manufacturing sector, Plex has the most complete footprint of functionality, rivaling mature on-premise manufacturing systems. In addition, customer satisfaction is readily apparent when I speak to installed customers, both new and old. Hopefully, Plex will build on these strengths and see growth accelerate.

There is a Plex 2013 year-end recap available on the Plex website.

Update: And right on cue, Dennis Howlett has done an on-camera interview with Jason Blessing about Plex's 2014 strategy. He also comments on Plex's approach to SaaS pricing. 

Related Posts

Plex Software and Its Mandate for Growth
The Simplicity and Agility of Zero-Upgrades in Cloud ERP
Plex Online: Pure SaaS for Manufacturing

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by Frank Scavo, 1/28/2014 02:56:00 PM | permalink | e-mail this!

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