Once again one of the great brand names of High Tech has been prominently in the news, this one for it’s demise as a standalone company. This time it’s Novell, Inc. Attachmate announced that it had closed its purchase of Novell, which becomes a brand of Attachmate. The price was $2.2B–not chicken feed, but much less than the promise held by this company in the distant past.
This company holds a special place in my memory. In the early 90’s the Novell name was synonymous with Networking. The company was a pioneer in Corporate Networking, and played a major role in helping to create this market as we now know it. When I entered this market in 1990, the company’s core product, NetWare, held a commanding 70%+ market share in the networking software space, which was already very large at the time, and growing at a rapid rate. It was in this environment that I began my first general management position, starting up a systems and network management software business. Netware being the dominant NOS at the time, I got a very close look at the company’s activities, and some of the decisions and events that began Novell’s long decline. Novell is still a $1B business, but in terms of power and prominence, they are a shadow of the company I kept a close eye on in the 90s. There’s been speculation that the company would be an acquisition candidate for some time, so the news isn’t a big surprise. But it’s a story which is a cautionary tale, and many lessons for tech company management teams that don’t want to “blow it”.
So what caused the unfortunate change in fortunes for this former industry high-roller?
It’s a familiar story, actually, especially for those of you who are regular readers. The Novell story is particularly interesting, because several factors, each one itself capable of wreaking havoc on a solid company, came together to put this company into a long nosedive.
The first problem was what I call “Microsoft-itis”. Novell became very successful on the back of its flagship NetWare platform, which drew the attention of Microsoft. Microsoft tends to become unhappy when any other software company grows too big, too fast. The upstart is then viewed as a potential threat in Redmond, as well as the fact that the market this other company has helped grow now becomes large enough to be attractive to MS. So the first problem was getting in the gun sight of Microsoft. Now, it’s hard to blame the company for this, it’s more of a side effect of success. This situation has caused problems for many a company, and is enough unto itself to throw a large majority of companies off their game. To have Microsoft target you is quite disconcerting, and if you don’t make the right decisions, you may be in serious trouble. How a company reacts to this challenge is critical, and in truth, often life or death.
Unfortunately, in some cases, being targeted by Microsoft sometimes builds a company up in its own view. It’s almost a baptism into the big-time. Microsoft is worried about us; we’re a peer to them now! We must really be smart! This leads to a false sense of security about the company’s true position in the market, leading to the second factor which can bring a company down—Arrogance.
Novell had plenty of excuses to be arrogant, even without Microsoft’s attention. They were truly dominating the Network Operating System business. The brand was dominant, the product was good, and the worldwide distribution network of VARs and distributors was second to none. Sales people at Novell no longer had to sell—they took orders. That led to a need to keep the big ball fast growth rolling, even as the market matured and became quite large. Wall Street, you know. Novell became known as a company that pushed, rather than created via pull marketing. There were numerous channel-stuffing scandals, so sales people could make their quarterly numbers and max out their bonus. No matter, things were well in hand, Novell was on a roll.
The closest competitor at the time was Banyan, with their VINES operating system. Banyan had a nice niche in the largest, WAN oriented corporations, but was no threat to Novell’s dominance. There was also a fast growing peer-to-peer player, Artisoft, who had a nice niche in the entry level market. Again, Artisoft posed no serious threat. And then there was Microsoft, with its alliance on the LAN Manager NOS with 3Com. At the time, Microsoft’s distribution strategy was still to primarily be an OEM supplier, preferring to let others take the lead in bringing the product to the end user market. They had piggybacked the hardware vendors with DOS and the emerging Windows 3.0, and were attempting to use that strategy in the Networking market with 3Com as their main partner. 3Com at the time was a dominant networking hardware vendor. They also teamed with many suppliers of UNIX software to create private label versions of LAN Manager for each UNIX flavor—HP UX, for instance. There were about 17 other platform partners, as I recall. It looked like a formidable syndicate which could challenge Novell for market leadership.
However, like many early Microsoft entrées into new markets, the offering was a joke. LAN Manager ran on top of OS/2, which should tell you something about its lack of success, right there. Technically inferior, with too many players involved to advance and support it, LAN Manager never gained significant traction vs. Netware, even with huge amounts of money being poured into development and marketing. Major new releases would be announced, each which was supposed be the one to give Novell a run for its money. It became a running joke in the network business. At this point, Novell looked invincible.
Then the arrogance at Novell rose to new levels. Apparently thinking Microsoft couldn’t beat them at their own game, Ray Noorda and senior management at Novell decided to also take on Microsoft on their own turf. Not only that, but to compete across many, many categories. They decided they wanted to become the new Microsoft, and in doing so opened a multi-front war against a larger competitor, with far more resources (See Hitler opening up the Russian front in the War against the Allies).
Novell bought WordPerfect to compete with MS Word, Quattro Pro to compete with Excel, and announced a dizzying array of additional new initiatives. (See Netscape taking a similar approach in its heyday, as well as Google is now, as we speak—that ought to be interesting). No one, I repeat, NO ONE, has won a multi-front war with Microsoft. The people that have fended them off (which is a small list), when MS has put them in their headlights, have done so by sticking to their knitting, and playing by the rules of their own market segment. Intuit is a notable example, which was able to keep MS in a minor role in the Personal Financial software segment, by advancing and focusing on its own offerings and current market.
Well, many of you who have been in High Tech for a while probably already know the result. Microsoft finally split with 3COM, developed Windows NT, essentially building Networking into the Operating System. This finally began to hurt Netware, and although it wasn’t an immediate rout, over time NT became the clear winner. The terminator of Redmond can be knocked down, but they almost never give up—they just go deeper into their pockets, and keep on coming.
The acquisitions that Novell made were already second or third tier products, and their markets were outside of Novell’s core market and competency. Drained of resources and fighting losing battles on many fronts, Novell was soundly defeated, ultimately selling off many of its acquisitions, retrenching and changing their strategy—quite a few times over the years, I might add. They went into a long, slow decline, and once this begins at a large company, it’s very difficult to truly turn it around.
So what would have happened it Novell hadn’t reacted like Netscape later did, choosing to battle it out toe-to-toe with Microsoft, blinded in a fit of rage and bravado? What if they had followed a similar strategy to the one that Intuit took? What if they had marshaled their resources, and kept their focus on maintaining the lead they had in Network Operating Systems and related businesses—which were pretty big markets in their own right? Hindsight is always 20/20, but my guess is that they would have had a much better chance of continued success—and possibly avoided the headlines in the Trade Magazines of the last few weeks.
Have you seen similar missteps in your own companies or markets?—please post a comment below to share the insights.