Thursday, May 5, 2011

Salesforce Financials Revisited

It has been over two years since I looked at the financials of so I thought is was well overdue. To recap on previous analysis here are the links:

In September 2008 the price of salesforce (CRM) was $58.00 and the price of Microsoft (MSFT) was $27.34

In February 2009 the price of salesforce was $28.00 and the price of Microsoft was $16.15

As of today (4 May 2011) salesforce is $133.66 and the price of Microsoft is $25.81

I make no bones about the fact that my opinion is that the share price of salesforce is expensive for what it is. However, as can be seen, the market disagrees with me and that is why I am in IT and not retired on a luxury yacht sailing around the Bahamas. This is also why you should get financial advice from a licensed professional and not necessarily listen to the opinions of a CRM consultant. To be fair I am not the only one who is pessimistic on the prosperity of salesforce’ share price (,

That being said, how are the fundamentals of the business going?

Subscription Numbers

I recently came across a little treasure known as the detailed salesforce financials ( The last page has all the subscription numbers ever released by salesforce, including confirmation that the number of users (subscribers) has not been released since the end of 2007 (at least not to an accuracy greater than to the nearest million).

After a bit of digging, the conclusion I have come up with is this is no longer released because it covers all of salesforce’s products e.g. Chatter,, Sales Cloud, Service Cloud etc. Therefore a strict comparison of numbers against, say, the subscriber numbers of Dynamics CRM is not valid as it is one Microsoft product versus the entire suite of salesforce products. To make the comparison meaningful, we need to assume that the majority of the subscriptions salesforce has is with the sales product, which may not be true.

One interesting note to be made is that if we look at the subscription and support revenue per subscriber and customer a clear trend emerges. That is, while the number of people at a customer site using salesforce products is increasing, the revenue from each one is, on average, decreasing and the overall result is the revenue from each customer is relatively flat.

Quarter Customers Subscribers Average Customer Size Revenue Revenue Per Subscriber Revenue Per Customer
Q2 FY08 35,300 800,000 22.7 $159,998 $200 $4,500
Q4 FY08 41,000 1,100,000 26.8 $196,517 $179 $4,800
Q4 FY09 55,400 1,500,000 27.1 $266,110 $177 $4,800
Q3 FY10 67,900 2,000,000 29.5 $306,870 $153 $4,500
Q4 FY11 92,300 3,000,000 32.5 $428,534 $143 $4,600

This would support the hypothesis that salesforce customers are bringing additional staff on to salesforce products but onto products with a smaller monthly price tag e.g. Chatter. If salesforce ever release subscription numbers for individual products we will have a better idea if this hypothesis is valid. The alternative hypothesis is that customers are downgrading their services i.e. moving from Sales Cloud Professional down to Sales Cloud Group, which I think would be unlikely.

Looking at the last two lines is interesting. In Q3 FY10, the average customer had 30 staff each spending $153 per user per quarter. In Q4 FY11, they added 3 subscribers but the average went down to $143 per user per quarter. This is consistent with simply adding three paying Chatter subscribers to the average customer and the same mix being true for new customers. To put it another way: the growth in the last twelve months can be explained simply by the upsell of Chatter subscriptions and the signing up of new customers. The model suggests that there has been minimal upsell of additional Sales/Service Cloud subscriptions to existing clients. It also suggests around 25% of the million additional subscribers between Q3 FY10 and Q4 FY11 are Chatter subscribers.

For a comparison of how these numbers compare to Dynamics CRM, check out my upcoming presentation at  Decisions Spring 2011. click here to register:


P/E Ratio

The P/E Ratio, at a given point in time indicates the number of years a share will earn back its price. Historically, if you held salesforce shares it would be your children, grandchildren or their descendants that would see the doubling or your investment. In 2008 the P/E ratio was 200 according to MSN Money. In 2009 this improved to 100. Today, according to MSN money, the P/E ration is 280.

So if nothing changes, it will take 280 years for a share buyer to get back the price in dividends or asset accumulation. Something has to change i.e. the ‘P’ or the ‘E’. ‘P’ is the price. for the ratio to come down to a ‘normal’ level, this would have to crash to about 1/20 of its current value i.e. $6-7 . The other option is a dramatic increase in ‘E’, the earnings (or profits). For comparison, the P/E of Microsoft is 10.

Revenue Growth

From 2005-2009, there was a clear pattern in the revenue growth of salesforce. This pattern being a deceleration in the growth (84%, 76%, 60%, 51%, 44% revenue growth respectively) of around 10% reduction in growth per year. In 2010, the revenue growth dropped more sharply to 21% but recovered to maintain the pattern in 2011 with a growth rate of 27%. It will be interesting to see if the growth rate drops below 20% in January next year.

Not surprisingly Microsoft’s revenue growth rate is much smaller than salesforce’s and in fact was negative in FY2010.


Salesforce has been dogged by small profit margins for years. Between 2005-2009 the profit margins were 4%, 5%, 9%, 3%, 6%, 8%. Salesforce managed to break into double-digits in 2010 with a margin of 11% but has dropped back again to 6% in 2011.

As a comparison, margins at Microsoft have sat around the 30-40% range for over five years.

Sustainable Growth Rate

This is the rate at which a company can grow its revenues without borrowing or issuing shares. This currently sits at 9%, well below their revenue growth rate of 27% meaning more borrowing or share issuing is on the cards.

Microsoft’s sustainable growth rate is, according to my calculations, around 23%, well below their current revenue growth rate of 7%.


Salesforce still has strong customer growth and subscriber growth but it is maintained through the collection of new customers and the upsell of low-value products. Obtaining new customers is an expensive exercise, compared to upselling existing customers and, with margins as low as they are, it may be time for salesforce to shift gears in this regard. It is true they appear to be upselling products like Chatter but really they should be looking to transition customers to the high-end Sales and Service cloud products. The numbers suggest this is not yet happening.

It terms of the P/E ratio it is the same old story. Conventional wisdom would suggest the P/E ratio is very high, meaning the market is very optimistic for the future of the product. It is not clear to me how the earnings are going to grow to such a level as to justify this optimism.

Revenue growth is, and always has been strong but is slowing. However, the growth is still larger than what the business can support meaning it will continue to raise debt and shares for at least a couple of years or until the banks and investors politely decline the opportunity.

My prediction is, with the strong push from Dynamics CRM in terms of pricing and incentive deals, the next quarter’s announcement on May 20 will show an impact on growth. This will frighten the market and we will again see the shares dip below $100. However, do not see this as advice. Benjamin Graham, the man that taught Warren Buffett everything he knows famously said “"In the short run the market is a voting machine. In the long run it's a weighing machine." What Benjamin did not tell us is how long a short run is. Based on the last four years, longer than I expected.


peter said...

Leon, Please can you publish numbers of users for Microsoft Dynamics. The Financial arguments are all very well, but it's the user base and momentum within an industry that is equally important in determining longevity. Perhaps we can see the Financials MS Dynamics in isolation from Windows, office etc.

Leon Tribe said...

Hi Peter,

The best place to go would be my blog post from last year ( In the comments section I've mentioned new data points as they have come to hand. This is also what the Decisions presentation covers that I mention so this may be of interest.

In terms of momentum, and as a teaser for the presentation, the ratio of salesforce to Dynamics CRM customers is relatively flat (around 4:1). However, the ratio of subscribers is falling as the average Dynamics CRM customer has about 60 subscribers to salesforce's 30.

Also momentum is only good if it is profitable. The key metrics of revenue per subscriber and profit per subscriber are both dropping for salesforce. I assume it will flatten but it is ultimately the wrong direction for both.

The Dynamics financials are not available as far as I know so, yes, the Microsoft numbers are for the whole business. If the numbers are available I would be happy to run the same analysis on them.

My point though is not so much "Microsoft runs their CRM business more profitably than salesforce" but "salesforce runs their business with very tight margins, for their industry, and to justify the market optimism they should look to improve this dramatically". Focussing on upselling to their existing client base could help with that.

Leon Tribe said...

Based on a bit of feedback from a salesforce sales person, here are the assumptions in my revenue/subscriber model:
1) The subscriber numbers do not include free subscriptions
2) The mix of xCloud products has stayed relatively constant over the period
3) The majority of non-xCloud subscriptions are from Chatter.

Other explanations for the drop in average revenue per subscriber could be:
* A lot of free subscribers are included in the 3 million
* New customers are buying the cheaper editions of xCloud products over the more expensive ones bought historically
* Products such as are bringing the average down (but this would require a LOT more than 25% of the million additional subscribers to account for the large drop in average revenue)

Leon Tribe said...

I have been asked about my interpretation of the P/E ratio. I was quoting Pter Lynch I believe but here is the wiki version, taken from Shiller "The P/E ratio can be seen as being expressed in years, ... shows the number of years of earnings which would be required to pay back purchase price"