Salesforce.com beats estimates and raises forecast, says it’s outgrowing all competitors

Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com

Salesforce.com Inc. today beat earnings estimates and raised its full-year revenue guidance for the second time in two quarters.

The leading provider of customer relationship management software reported a net loss of $9.2 million on revenue of $2.39 billion for its fiscal first quarter. After adjustments such as the cost of stock compensation, profits were 28 cents a share, matching analysts’s high-end estimates and exceeding average estimates by about 2 cents.

Chief Executive Marc Benioff (pictured) said the company is continuing to outpace its competitors in growth, market share and financial performance. The company recorded the fastest growth of any top-25 enterprise software company in 2016 and increased its market share by a greater percentage than the other 10 top CRM vendors combined, he claimed.

Salesforce.com also tripled free cash flow over the last three years while doubling revenue. “No one else is closing more strategic CRM deals,” Benioff said.

Salesforce.com raised its revenue guidance for the full 2018 fiscal year to a range of $10.25 billion to $10.3 billion from earlier estimates of between $10.15 billion and $10.2 billion.  It also boosted adjusted earnings expectations slightly upward to between $1.28 and $1.30 a share. The company initiated second-quarter revenue guidance of between $2.51 billion and $2.52 billion, an increase of 23 percent over the previous year’s second quarter. Salesforce.com shares rose nearly 3 percent in after-hours trading.

With a price/earnings ratio of 337, the company is a Wall Street darling, but it’s also under pressure to maintain its growth to justify such a stratospheric valuation. “The question is whether that positive sentiment indicates a belief in the company’s uniqueness and market leadership, or simply shows that its shares are descending into speculation,” said Charles King, president and principal analyst at Pund-IT Inc.

Total first-quarter revenue of $2.39 billion was up 25 percent year-over-year. Subscription and support revenues comprised 92 percent of that total at $2.2 billion, up 24 percent. The ratio of subscription revenues to total revenues is a closely watched metric in the software-as-a-service business because a high correlation indicates a stable business. By contrast, in its most recent earnings report SAP SE said subscriptions and support comprised 17 percent of revenue.

“Revenue growth is what Salesforce investors are looking for, and that drives its stock price,” said Andrew Bartels, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “Salesforce has been setting lower expectations for revenue growth, in the 20 percent to 23 percent range, but then exceeding those expectations, as it did this quarter.”

However, Salesforce.com may be straining to maintain its growth. Bartels noted that the company grew its sales and marketing expenses 24 in the quarter to generate a corresponding 24 percent revenue growth. “Its ratio of sales and marketing to revenues remains high at 50 percent,” he said.

On the company’s earnings call, Benioff called out the performance of Demandware Inc.’s online retail platform, which Salesforce.com acquired about a year ago. Demandware served more than a half-billion shoppers in the quarter, up 30 percent from last year, he said. Demandware performance is seen as an important indicator of Salesforce.com’s success at diversifying its business into the business-to-consumer market, where it says it’s making major gains.

“B2C is a massive opportunity. They just have to educate the markets that they’re in that space,” said Sheryl Kingstone, research director for business applications at 451 Research. “There ‘s a lot of synergy for them there between DemandWare, [ad tech firm] Krux and [social media marketing platform] ExactTarget.

The CEO also said the Einstein artificial intelligence platform is increasingly driving sales. “AI is clearly the next platform” after social and mobile, he said, adding that the software has become as much of a trusted adviser to him as his C-level executives.

Outside its core Sales Cloud platform, Service Cloud revenues rose 26 percent and Marketing and Commerce Cloud revenues grew 56 percent, to $289 million. “The marketing and commerce cloud is the newest and smallest of Salesforce’s businesses and grew over 50 percent,” said Pund-IT’s King. “If the company can sustain that growth, it’s good news for the future.”

But 451 Research’s Kingstone said there’s no urgency for Salesforce.com to diversify out of its core market at this point. “We’re in a replacement cycle of on-premises for cloud platforms right now that will drive sustainable growth for the next five years,” she said.

More important is that the company nurture its burgeoning ecosystem to grow its scope beyond platform to ecosystem, Kingstone said. The platform is critical, especially as the company diversifies into more industries, she said. “The ability to use the platform to build applications is still a huge opportunity for their customers.”

The company continues to manage its money well. First-quarter operating cash flow of $1.23 billion was up 17 percent year over year. Deferred revenue of $5.04 billion was up 26 percent and unbilled deferred revenue of approximately $9.6 billion was up 26 percent.

However, maintaining growth rates above the 20 percent threshold may require some bold moves, Bartels said. “With revenue growth slowing in its core Sales Cloud and Services Cloud, Salesforce may well need to make another acquisition similar in size to Demandware,” he said.

The company is clearly saving up for something. Its cash horde grew 45 percent over the previous quarter to $3.2 billion. With a market capitalization of $62 billion, it will also have no problem raising capital.

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