I've regularly covered annual reports, earnings announcements and other financial news about software vendors. These commentaries tend to stir debate and I am frequently asked why I bother to look behind the numbers. Is it really important?
Many vendors, in particular privately-held US-based ones, don't publicly release audited numbers. Instead they carefully select a few positive numbers to share via a press release. An example of this is seemingly successful CMS-vendor Ektron, which claims to be open and transparent, but will tell you only that their sales grew 38%. If you are willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement, they'll share more details on profitability, but can a vendor really claim to be transparent when you need to sign a contract to get some fundamental numbers about the financial health of the vendor?
In my view financial numbers and annual reports are a great way to gain insights about a vendor. These are the numbers you should indeed care about:
- Services revenue. A good example of this is FatWire, where your local key account manager might have told you that they are very committed to their partners, when in fact services bring in about 30% of the company's total revenue.
- New license sales. If this is down, it will tell you that the vendor is having difficulty signing up new customers. This can be a sign that an acquisition is lurking around the corner, which is what happened to Vignette as they got acquired by Open Text.
- Maintenance and support revenue. If this makes up a large part of revenue, it means that the vendor has many customers who keep using the product. If you can get hold of a renewal percentage or average customer lifetime, it will tell you something about how long the customers stay with the product.
- A break-down of revenue by product will tell you which products are really strategic to the vendor. IBM and Google are examples of big vendors, to who far from all products are equally important. This might reveal which products are likely to become discontinued. This happened with Microsoft CMS
- Cash is king. Look at the cashflow to find out whether the vendor might be facing survival problems or is sitting on a pile of cash.
After looking at a few vendors, you'll discover that the accounting models tend to differ hugely. Some will list licence sales straight away, while others will break it down and only list it partially over a given period. Some might also divide their revenue between a corporate entity and different geographic regions, e.g. CMS vendor Sitecore. Details like this obviously make it difficult to compare the numbers.
Finally, I would say that the past decade has showed that positive financial numbers by no means guarantee that your favourite vendor will not be acquired or that your favourite product will not be discontinued. 2009 saw quite a few acquisitions, most notably Adobe's acquisition of Omniture and Opentext which bought Vignette. I'm sure we will see more in 2010. These might not impact customers in the short-term, but down the road, they always also have significant impact, e.g. with closed regional offices, a new partner strategy or a cut in engineering spending.