A decade ago, back in the “SOA days,” we compared various Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) vendors and the products they were hawking. When the conversation came around to TIBCO, we liked to joke that they were the “Scientology of ESB vendors,” because their technology was so proprietary that techies essentially had to devote their life to TIBCO to be worthy of working with their products.
But joking aside, we also gave them credit where credit was due. Their core ESB product, Rendezvous, actually worked quite well. After all, NASDAQ, FedEx, and Delta Airlines ran the thing. TIBCO obviously had the whole scalability thing nailed – unlike competitors like SeeBeyond back in the day, who competed with TIBCO in the Enterprise Application Integration space (the precursor to ESBs).
Cut to 2014, and TIBCO’s fortunes are now in question, as the stock market has pummeled their stock price, and a leveraged buyout (LBO) is in the works, with deep pocketed firms hoping to take the company private.
Sometimes, going private can be a good thing for a company, as it gives them the money as well as the privacy they need to make bold, innovative changes before relaunching as a public company. But in other cases, LBOs are opportunities for the venture capitalist vultures to sell off the company in parts, squeezing every last penny out of the assets while shifting all the risk to employees, customers, and basically anybody but themselves.
Which path TIBCO will take is unclear, as the buyout itself isn’t even a sure thing at this point. But TIBCO’s downfall – noting that I’m sure no one at the company would call it that – has some important lessons for all of us, because TIBCO’s story isn’t simply about a dinosaur unable to adapt to a new environment.
Their story is not a simple Innovator’s Dilemma case study. In fact, they’ve moved solidly into Cloud, Big Data, and Social Technologies – three of the hot, growing areas that characterize the technology landscape for the 2010s. So what happened to them?
It could be argued that they simply executed poorly, essentially taking some wrong turns on the way to a Cloudified nirvana. Rolling out a special social media product only for rich and important people – a social network for the one percent – does indicate that they’re out of touch with most customers.
And then there’s the proprietary aspect to their technology that is still haunting them. Today’s techies would much rather work with modern languages and environments than to have to go back to school to earn a particular vendor’s way of doing things.
Perhaps the problem is price. Their upstart competitors continue their downward pricing pressure, one of the economic patterns that the move to the Cloud has doubled down on. From the perspective of shareholders, however, TIBCO’s biggest problem has been growth. It’s very difficult for a large, established vendor to grow nearly as fast as smaller, more nimble players, especially when it still makes a lot of its money in saturated markets like messaging middleware.
Adding Cloud, Big Data, or Social Media products to the product list doesn’t change this fundamental mathematics, even though those new products may themselves experience rapid growth, since the new product lines account for a relatively small portion of their overall revenue.
So, how is a company like TIBCO to compete with smaller, faster growing vendors? Here’s where LBO plan B comes in: break up the company. Sell off the established products like Rendezvous to larger middleware players like Oracle. I’m sure Oracle would be happy to have TIBCO’s middleware customers, and they have shown a reasonable ability to keep such customers generally happy over the years.
Any SeeBeyond customers out there? SeeBeyond was acquired by Sun Microsystems, who renamed the product Java CAPS. Then Oracle acquired Sun, rolling Java CAPS and BEA Systems’ middleware products into Oracle SOA Suite. No one would be that surprised if Rendezvous suffered a similar fate.
The owners of whatever is left of TIBCO would focus their efforts on growing smaller, newer products. The end result won’t be a TIBCO us old timers would recognize, but should they ever go public again, they have a change to be a market darling once more.