No software, no cry

In 2000 Salesforce launched its product: a Customer Relationship Management —CRM— software. This space was already crowded by established competitors with mature products. Salesforce was the new kid on the block with a bare bone CRM, but it was different in a crucial way: its product was a website.

In February 2000 Salesforce launched the “No Software” campaign by staging a mock protest at Siebel Systems' user conference. Salesforce was going to “end software”. Software was the old way, Salesforce was the new way.

At first I found these statements confusing and midly offensive. Salesforce is itself software running on a server, how can it end software? Were Silicon Valley marketers and promoters already dropping acid back then? This made no sense. I stepped away from the computer, put the leash on my dog, and went out for an angry walk.

On the walk I thought about life in 2000 and how different it was. Windows 2000 just got released, software was sold in a box at a store, the general public was still adopting Windows 95 & 98. Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator were the dominant web browsers, while Napster was the hot new thing.

Buying CRM software at the start of the millennium sucked. You had to go to the store, or order it via phone, or maybe snail mail a cheque somewhere. Once you had the box with the installation media, you had to babysit the software install. This could fail in numerous ways: not enough disk space; not enough RAM; incompatible operating system; incompatible or missing libraries. Upgrading the software was also painful and expensive. People were less tech-savy than today, running CRM software often required hiring someone to help out.

A few weeks ago, I read a blog post: Executives don’t understand software and that’s a problem. If executives don’t understand software now, imagine what it was like 20 years ago.

That’s when the insight hit: “No software” was Salesforce’s value proposition.

Salesforce couldn’t advertise its CRM capabilities, the product was limited, it was inferior to the competition in many aspects. Its value proposition was its drastically lowered barrier to entry.

No software meant no problem for C-levels at companies looking for an entry level CRM. The campaign wasn’t meant for tech folks, it was meant for executives that feared software and all its problems. These folks wanted to help their salespersons be more efficient, not buy and run software.

Salesforce didn’t tell executives that its software was accessible via a web browser, back then most execs didn’t know what web browsers were capable of. Instead it said “We don’t have all the problems you associate with software”, and it simplified the message down to “No software”.

No SQL, no problem

A similar meme appeared 10 years ago in the database world: No SQL. It caught on quickly because at the time SQL databases dominated, and most database people knew their limitations:

The “No SQL” label came with various promises:

No SQL databases don’t have much in common, but they all offer something SQL databases can’t. This made the No SQL meme stick around, and it’s still used to this day.

When you advertise something that clashes with the dominant thinking, stating what you are not is all you need to get attention.