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SDL Tridion takeover of Alterian – just meeting expectations

December 12, 2011

When I returned to Twitter the other day after giving it a rest for most of 2011 there was some expectation that I would be commentating on the recent takeover of Alterian by SDL Tridion. I presume this is because I have been quite challenging on occasions about how things have evolved in the UK content management space since the acquisition of Immediacy by Mediasurface a few years back.

To be honest I don’t really have that much to say about this latest acquisition other than following up a comment I made back in October when I felt Alterian would be making a big mistake if it continued to reject SDL and offering a bit more explanation to the comments I have made on Philippe Parker’s recent insightful post – much of which I agree with based on similar evaluation and implementation experiences.

The Alterian CEO’s resignation in mid 2011 really just underlined the issues that were already apparent to outside observers in the direction the company was going. It was only a matter of time before something had to happen. Unfortunately it meant the remainder of the original Immediacy folks losing their jobs when the company cut almost half its workforce recently.

You never really know what happens behind closed doors before takeover bids become public knowledge but it wouldn’t surprise me if Alterian hacked off a big chunk of its Web Content Management operations in anticipation of an offer being made from the likes of SDL. WCM was clearly the most disposable part of an organisation that at one time had three separate offerings and had the unenviable task of trying to make some sense of this after taking on Mediasurfaces’s dubious ‘three bears’ strategy.

Having evaluated SDL Tridion against EPiServer and Sitecore for a big web globalisation project back in 2008 I very much agree with Philippe’s observations that the company has been lucky and/or shrewd in being able to maintain a ‘leader’ position with the likes of Forrester and Gartner – (although IMHO these analysts took their eye off the CMS ball years ago now). Immediacy won regularly against the original Tridion solution on usability, where multilingual deployment wasn’t a top priority, and EPiServer and Sitecore were deemed in our pilot testing as far more intuitive when it came to globalisation needs.

While the Morello product that formed the core of Alterian’s eventual single WCM offering had reasonable usability (although never in my personal opinion the ‘work of art’ Gartner is claimed to have called it) globalisation support was not its strength. Yes, it was one of the better, if expensive, UK originated offerings for multilingual deployment but fell well short of solutions like Tridion, EPiServer and Sitecore that had multilingual handling baked into their DNA.

So maybe, just maybe, there are synergies to be had in combining Alterian’s usability with SDL Tridion’s globalisation strength? As far as other synergies are concerned, Alterian’s ‘marketing platform’ vision has always looked more like presentation over substance with little tangible or accessible evidence of just how the strands of social media analytics, email marketing, campaign management and WCM really fitted together in useful and meaningful ways, beyond what you could achieve by combining ‘best of breed’ components.

To be consistent with comments I have made in the past, the thing that really hacks me off about these acquisitions is when the interested parties pretend that the motivations are something more or different from what they really are. My tolerance for this type of artifice has declined further in the wake of endless examples of how this type of financially motivated boardroom behaviour has plunged us all into deeper and deeper economic trouble.

I will never forget the first meeting I had with Mediasurface’s CEO after they acquired Immediacy. To his credit, he made it pretty obvious to me that he was far more interested in Immediacy’s sales operation than he was in anything to do with the product, other than getting a better insight into the SharePoint connectivity which they had been struggling with. I was left in no doubt after just one conversation what direction things were going to take, which is why it was so painful to watch the subsequent death of the product by a thousand cuts and the developers feeling they had wasted several years in continuing to put their heart and souls into a product that had been pretty much doomed from the moment the company was sold.

As well as developers being left disappointed that their efforts have been in vain, customers are left with a lot of uncertainty, particularly when the profit imperative is at the heart of their vendor’s strategic decisions.

While I could very much imagine how Immediacy customers felt following the Mediasurface acquisition and felt frustrated on their behalf that Alterian kept giving out mixed messages about the product’s future, I had first hand experience of this uncertainty following EPiServer’s change of ownership in 2010.

Having come to respect and admire EPiServer for its product focus and development activities, which had more in keeping with open source orientated projects than the more overtly commercial WCM offerings, it was disappointing that preceding and following change of ownership, the emphasis shifted very firmly to the financial aspects of the organisation with fundamental changes to the licensing model that effectively priced it out of the picture as far as my wider project was concerned.

So, after a decade of being ultimately disappointed by how the development of proprietary WCM solutions fall victim to financial strategies and the profit imperative, these last 12 months have been somewhat of a revelation in working closely with the Drupal community and the development of Drupal Commerce from alpha, through beta to version 1.1.

Poor old Mr T keeps stepping into the line of fire …

As this is where my current focus lies, I am going to draw a line under any further commentary on SDL Tridion and Alterian – or SDL Altridion as it is being referred to. No doubt my former colleague Ian Truscott will breathe a sigh of relief at this as he has been in the unfortunate position of being in the line of fire with my inquisitions and previous commentary about the demise of Immediacy and Alterian’s apparent hype over substance. As Mediasurface’s sale to Alterian was undoubtedly an investment decision by the senior management rather than a product driven one, I have no doubt that it was as much of a surprise to Ian as to any other Mediasurface and Immediacy employee at that time. Likewise, as the SDL Tridion takeover of Alterian looks more financially motivated than product driven, I’m sure he has been equally at the mercy of financial rather than product related strategy and I wish him the very best of luck in the efforts to make some sense of this latest bucket of products. Sadly the folks who are truly passionate about the product and champion the customer’s position are the ones with the smallest voice in these scenarios when money talks :(

Also, I wish the last of the Immediacy folks the very best of luck in whatever they do next and I very much agree with the sentiment expressed the other night when Immediacy was described as having been a great place to work.

Now… if there are any organisations reading this who want to make serious improvements to their online presence and commerce operations ready for the 2012 xmas period, but are very worried about high project costs, then we should start talking soon.

Plan early to avoid disappointment ! Great value rates for the new year !

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2011 2:47 pm

    Nice post James. Shame that the company that we helped build has all but gone. Have you read Steve Jobs Biog? It’s an insight into tech-acquisitions and certainly rings true with my own experiences. Here is an extract:

    “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” So salesmen are put in charge, and product engineers and designers feel demoted: Their efforts are no longer at the white-hot center of the company’s daily life. They “turn off.” IBM and Xerox, Jobs said, faltered in precisely this way. The salesmen who led the companies were smart and eloquent, but “they didn’t know anything about the product.” In the end this can doom a great company, because what consumers want is good products.
    This isn’t quite the whole story. It’s not just the salesmen. It’s also the accountants and the money men who search the firm high and low to find new and ingenious ways to cut costs or even eliminate paying taxes. The activities of these people further dispirit the creators, the product engineers and designers, and also crimp the firm’s ability to add value to its customers. But because the accountants appear to be adding to the firm’s short-term profitability, as a class they are also celebrated and well-rewarded, even as their activities systematically kill the firm’s future.

    Spooky eh?

  2. December 12, 2011 4:46 pm

    Spot on Matt – good find :)

    It also explains why I’ve had such good experiences with Drupal 7 over the last year.

    As with Apple products, the release dates are not driven by financial imperatives but by when the product is ready and most likely will exceed the vision and expectations.

    I don’t know much about Dries Buytaert but it seemed he needed the same steely resolve to steer Drupal 7 to a successful launch as Steve Jobs showed with his iconic Apple products.

    Similarly, it provides a very solid foundation on which even bigger and better products can be built and an eco-system of providers can develop.

    It’s a shame more organisations can’t find the strength of purpose to step back from the corporate merry-go-round and focus on building top quality results …

  3. Hao permalink
    December 12, 2011 7:04 pm

    Great post James.

    From an insider’s viewpoint failing to sell ACM was a deciding factor of the cut of the entire Poole/Newbury offices thus (I hope it is clear to everybody now) the WCM line of business. Now thinking back, I had heard sales complaining about the product internally and although it was not all true, it probably was the first sign. Very subtle and easy to ignore, especially when you are in a warm pot of water (with flame beneath).

    Also so far I almost felt that whether to focus on product or money is something in the blood of those top guys of a company. Obviously they all care both but when it comes to unresolvable conflicts, their nature and experience largely decide which way to go. There are people from a different background understanding the importance of products, so much so they also choose it over money. But people in concern need to be sure of that – Customers, partners and product engineers/managers, etc. are all included. James’ talk to Lawrence was a great example – it didn’t take that much effort.

    I feel sorry for those loyal Immediacy customers, and more sorry for those who were persuaded to “upgrade” from Immediacy to ACM. Their money can’t disappear – it’s just changed hands. At the end of the day, it is all business. Brutal. All counted experience for me, though.

  4. December 12, 2011 7:47 pm

    Many thanks for your comment Hao.

    Please, please, please pass on the learning from your experiences to the good folks at EPiServer as it would be awful to see them following the same paths and making the same sort of mistakes.

    During the times I spent with them in the UK and Sweden they always seemed to have the similar spirit Immediacy once had and it was worrying when the emphasis starting shifting much more to the commercial – seemingly at the expense of the product.

    I know very little about ACM and the Immediacy upgrade path, so thank you for your insights. Presumably SDL is going to find itself with the exact same dilemma when it comes to defining how ACM and Tridion will sit together. I somehow suspect it may learn from the Immediacy/Morello challenges and kill ACM quickly?

    Anyway, this is all in a proprietary upper tier space that doesn’t interest me much these days although I am itching to do a Drupal 7 based global deployment sometime – as and where relevant :)

    I guess from your perspective though if SDL are as indecisive about their WCM offerings as Alterian was, it gives a great opportunity for the Danes and the Swedes to ride the crest of the Forrester Wave ;)

  5. Rob permalink
    December 13, 2011 5:58 pm

    Further to Matt’s insightful quote from Steve Jobs … On the subject of accountants have you read the latest Alterian financial statement?

    It makes entertaining reading on income recognition and cash burn. The “money men” appear to have reached back to 2009 to find revenue wrongly taken in 2009-10 at the point of sale but now deemed to be spread over 3+ year term. Good news! Income is pushed forward to save 2011’s sales figures and even 2012. A good trick but small comfort to investors who bought shares on the back of 2009-10 sales.

    You can mess with income but cash is either there or not and it doesn’t look like there’ll be much left for a Christmas party.

  6. December 13, 2011 8:12 pm

    Thanks for your comment Rob.

    Presumably you guys aren’t going to be rushing to acquire a Web Content Management system anytime soon then?

    Are you worried about how SDL might successfully integrate its new analysis and campaign management toys into their well renowned digital marketing platform? Or are you confident that your ‘point solution’ approach is better than a ‘one-stop-shop’ platform?

  7. December 13, 2011 8:23 pm

    That’s such an interesting point James (integration versus point solutions). My experience is that “platform sales” are positioning and big picture plays. The reality is that the tech challenges of a full end-to-end integration is just too great especially across different technology/code/frameworks etc…

    Point solutions are what people buy – because they fix the problems. Platforms are what customer use to justify investment and vendors use to differentiate themselves. I prefer to take the approach of building lots of point solutions that can talk/play nice together.

    One amazing thing that seems to have been overlooked by SDL is that the Alchemy product, the so called flagship product, is a Silverlight app. A sizable development and a technology just about to be sunsetted by MS.

    This is what happens when *big ideas* override the tech teams who will be told (just like the Alterian devs) to come up with solutions, aka workarounds that will impact customers.

  8. December 13, 2011 8:47 pm

    Is the Silverlight discontinuation confirmed now or still in the land of FUD? No doubt the rumours have been debated endlessly on Twitter but I’m afraid I haven’t been paying much attention …

    Agree on point solutions. The benefits of integration have to be very compelling to justify the effort and expense and I think therein lies the biggest challenge for SDL in making sense of its new box of tricks.

  9. Rob permalink
    December 14, 2011 5:53 pm

    On the general point I’d agree with Matt (I think) that people aren’t usually looking for a big bang solution. They often have part of ther solution covered or at least some favourite technology. WCM is not really our bag. At Apteco we have tended to stick to our areas of expertise in data analytics and campaign management while supporting integration with email broadcasters, web analytics and other tools. This flexible approach seems to be popular with our users and intergration partners. We are no doubt missing some potential revenue streams but we’re a classic “product company” with all efforts focussed on research, product development and customer service.

    I’ve always respected Alterian as a competitor in the analytics space but the original technical architects Tim McCarthy and Mike Talbot both left this year so I’m not sure where that leaves their product direction. What little I’ve heard of “Alchemy” suggests that it is a thin Silverlight skin on their existing analytics applications. But that might make more sense in the context of combining elements of their big picture solution. While SDL are busy consolidating and integrating their products we’ll continue to push further ahead in our areas.

  10. December 14, 2011 9:19 pm

    Thanks for your disclosure Rob. I think your point about pushing forward while SDL are busy elsewhere hits at the heart of why Alterian failed so miserably in the WCM space – as very evident from that very interesting stock exchange document you linked to. They were so busy figuring out what to do with their big bag of products and getting overly distracted by social media hype that the market moved on a pace without them. With open source solutions like Drupal 7 becoming much more enterprise capable SDL don’t have long to mess about before alternative solutions are biting at their heels in the upper-tier space. Will certainly be an interesting one to watch and good luck competing with SDL on analytics and campaign management :)

  11. April 19, 2012 1:00 pm

    As someone who left Alterian last year after 5 years this makes interesting reading. I don’t think Immediacy was really a critical factor in why Alterian had to sell to SDL. In my role i wasn’t privy to top level information but i think that all thought that the Immediacy takeover was quite a successful business move. Trouble at mill was elsewhere. I worked on Immediacy WCM for a while and thought it was quite a nice product. I think it was let to slide quite badly in favour of the Enterprise solution..or ACME as we weren’t allowed to call it.

  12. April 19, 2012 9:07 pm

    Thanks for your comment fellow Drupal convert :)

    It sounds like you are agreeing with the general sentiment of this post and subsequent comments then…

    … That Alterian took it’s eye off the rapidly shifting WCM space in favour of social media hype, got side-tracked by a very dated Java monolith and chose not to invest in the product set that had the most potential.

    It just so happens I spent today touring a Tridion install and couldn’t wait to get back to Drupal this evening …

    All good fun :)

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