Salesforce is paying top dollar for growth — and not just in the cloud

Key Points
  • Tableau is Salesforce's biggest acquisition ever even though it's principally not a cloud company.
  • Until 2018, most of Salesforce's top deals were for companies in digital marketing and commerce technology.
  • As co-CEO Marc Benioff tries to achieve his aggressive growth goals, he's taking a different approach to M&A.
Marc Benioff, co-CEO of Salesforce, center left, and Angela Ahrendts, then CEO of Burberry Group, center right, take part in ringing the closing bell for the New York Stock Exchange during the DreamForce conference in San Francisco on Aug. 31, 2011.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

When Salesforce was first seeking public attention almost two decades ago, it created a mascot that consisted of the word "software" in bold letters on a prohibition sign — surrounded by a red circle with a line through it.

SaaSy, as Salesforce named the mascot, represented the evolution from traditional software to the cloud and helped distinguish Salesforce from older companies like Oracle. That's where co-founder and co-CEO Marc Benioff got his start selling software that businesses installed and ran in their own data centers.

But in the past 15 months, Salesforce has made two huge acquisitions, totaling $21.8 billion, that complicate its no software message. On Monday, the company announced the biggest deal in its 20-year history, agreeing to purchase data visualization company Tableau Software for $15.3 billion.

Tableau is not a cloud company. Its products run primarily in on-premises data centers, with over one-third of deployments in the cloud, CEO Adam Selipsky said on the call with analysts after the deal was announced. Similarly, in March 2018, Salesforce spent $6.5 billion on MuleSoft, whose software connects data that's stored in all sorts of places, regardless of whether it's running in the company's data centers or if it's hosted elsewhere.

It all speaks to Benioff's big challenge. Now that Salesforce is generating over $13 billion a year in revenue, with expectations to top $16 billion in fiscal 2020 and reach up to $28 billion three years later, the company has to seek growth beyond pure cloud plays. MuleSoft and Tableau are both high-growth businesses with many customers that also use Salesforce, and because Salesforce executives spend so much time surveying the company's client base, they know which other technologies get rave reviews.

On Monday's call, Benioff called Tableau a "jewel in our industry" and said "our customers are looking to do a lot more in this area" in terms of integrating the software across Salesforce's products.

"There really was no argument that said, 'If you want to do analytics in a meaningful way, the only way you can do it is in the cloud,'" said Mike Capone, CEO of Qlik, a Tableau rival that was acquired by private equity firm Thoma Bravo in 2016. "I think Salesforce made a big admission to that today."

SaaSy still makes the occasional appearance for Salesforce on the exhibition floor at conferences and on Twitter.


But there's a clear recognition at Salesforce that data is the valuable asset, and data lives all over the place. MuleSoft works with companies that for a variety of reasons don't have all their data in the cloud. They could be in highly regulated industries like finance or health care or they may be large enterprises that are slowly migrating over.

Tableau was founded in 2003, three years before Amazon introduced its cloud infrastructure offering. Even before that, the founders were working on data visualization at Stanford. Last year, Tableau introduced a new set of subscription offerings, recognizing the transition in how software is being consumed, and announced that the products would be available on premises or in clouds run by Amazon, Google or Microsoft.

Salesforce, the cloud evangelist, is showing a willingness to accept hybrid companies that have access to critical business data.

"Getting the data, integrating the data and analyzing the data is what's going to win the war," said Ted Smith, a partner at tech investment bank Union Square Advisors in San Francisco. Salesforce is saying, "If I have to reach down and take assets that today are not exclusively in the cloud in order to win that part of the critical war, on balance I'll do that," he said.

Benioff said on Monday's call that the company's strategy related to organic and inorganic growth hasn't changed.

"To be honest with you, we're excited to go to get a deal done when we can get a deal done," he told analysts.

Focus on marketing

What's clearly changed in Salesforce's M&A engine is the type of companies it's pursuing.

Prior to 2018, the bulk of Salesforce's capital, in terms of acquisitions, was spent moving the company beyond tools for salespeople and straight into the marketing department. Salesforce's five biggest acquisitions before MuleSoft were all in the areas of digital marketing, online advertising and e-commerce software, constituting what the company now calls its Marketing Cloud and Commerce Cloud.

Salesforce CEO: we're very lucky to have MuleSoft
Salesforce CEO: we're very lucky to have MuleSoft

Salesforce combines those two units in its financial statements, and together they accounted for $1.9 billion in revenue last year, or 15% of total sales. That's up from 12% two years earlier.

In the latest quarter, revenue in the Marketing and Commerce Cloud jumped 32% to $561 million, accounting for 16% of the total and outpacing overall sales growth of 24%.

Salesforce jumped into marketing in 2011 with the purchase of Radian6, which helps businesses monitor conversations on social media and elsewhere on the internet. It bolstered that business in 2012 with the purchase of Buddy Media.

But the big splash came in 2013 with the $2.5 billion acquisition of ExactTarget, which was by far Salesforce's biggest deal ever at the time. ExactTarget's cloud software helps companies run email marketing campaigns, figuring out who the right audience is for a particular message, tracking how many people open emails and providing analytics to improve future campaigns.

First billion-dollar deal

Here's how Salesforce explained the rationale in its press release:

"The dramatic increase in consumer and business use of social networks, mobile devices, and new digital technologies is causing a revolution in marketing, as budgets previously spent on traditional media are now moving to digital campaigns."

Based in Indianapolis, ExactTarget has been central to Salesforce's growth and was the catalyst for the opening in 2017 of the city's Salesforce Tower, which instantly became the tallest building in Indiana.

ExactTarget remained Salesforce's biggest purchase until 2016, when the company spent $2.8 billion on Demandware to add products that online retailers could use to run their online stores.

Marketing and Commerce Cloud is Salesforce's fourth-biggest business. Sales Cloud is first at $1.1 billion in the latest quarter, followed by Service Cloud ($1 billion) and the Platform and other category ($842 million). The Service Cloud unit, for customer service departments, got its start through the 2008 acquisition of InStranet, which was founded by Alex Dayon, now Salesforce's president and chief strategy officer.

Brian Pirri, a Salesforce shareholder and principal at New England Investment and Retirement Group, said Salesforce is smart to expand into business intelligence, especially after Google's $2.6 billion purchase of Looker last week. He also sees Benioff taking advantage of an almost tripling of the share price since early 2016 in doing big all-stock deals.

"Tech in general has had a massive run-up," said Pirri, who helps oversee about $575 million in assets. "If the Fed raises rates or doesn't cut or doesn't do what the market is expecting, we could certainly see a pullback in the market and growth will be the first to fall."

WATCH: Salesforce to buy Tableau software in stock deal

Salesforce to buy Tableau software in stock deal
Salesforce to buy Tableau software in stock deal