With Wildfire Sale, One Large Social SaaS Target Remains Amid Plenty of Hungry Buyers

By Erin Griffith , written on July 31, 2012

From The News Desk

Normally I wouldn't call selling to Google "giving up." But as each of its direct competitors has been snapped up in recent months, Wildfire Interactive has been adamantly independent. Today, the company, like its competitors, gave up on that.

Just a month ago, I wrote an article titled "Wildfire Rages On," which pointed out that Wildfire was one of the few remaining targets in a fast-consolidating space. While most of its competitors -- Buddy Media, Involver, Vitrue -- were selling out, Wildfire was fiercely independent, evidenced by uncharacteristically cutting remarks issued by founder Victoria Ransom and the super secret upcoming release of a bunch of new features to its platform.

“The exit from the market of both Buddy and Vitrue as standalone companies leaves Wildfire as the uncontested pure-play leader in the space. Our undivided focus on social marketing is a clear advantage for us,” she said after Buddy Media and Vitrue sold to SalesForce and Oracle.

Wildfire Interactive raged on as an uncontested pure-play leader in the space for all of a month before inking a deal to sell to Google today for $250 million. So why the about face? The company's announcement gave zero hints as to the reason it sold beyond saying that "Google will make it easier for us to realize our vision of changing the way the world markets."

Ransom's reversal on staying independent wasn't the only surprise. The price also seemed low to me, considering that even though Wildfire raised far less venture capital than competitor Buddy Media, it had a similar number of employees and comparable revenue. Buddy Media sold to Salesforce for $689 million.

My guess is that the lower deal value had something to do with Wildfire's customer base, which mostly consists of small and medium businesses, 16,000 of them to be exact. Companies selling more deeply integrated enterprise solutions are able to charge more per installation and can scale more easily. Selling to 16,000 smaller businesses means more salespeople reaching out to more potential customers for smaller transaction values. Complete conjecture (not for a lack of asking), but I do not imagine that Wildfire had the same 90 percent gross margins as Buddy Media.

With three of the biggest players now tucked under the wing of a conglomerate parent, I have to think that the boom of social SaaS startups is basically over. In selling, the most successful companies in the category concede that they weren't IPO material (blame the market, or the Facebook-driven social backlash, or whatever). Further, it tells us that social media is such a tricky, complex, fast-growing beast that any startup serving the market needs the resources -- be it a sales force in the case of Buddy Media or access to a wider market of customers in Wildfire's case -- to remain competitive.

Here's why I think the market will only continue to consolidate, despite protestations of anyone who remains:

1. Syncapse is the only big competitor standing. There's also slightly smaller players like Shoutlet and Hootsuite (which is also consumer-facing).

2. The suitors interested in this space are many, and they reach beyond the typical enterprise players and into the ad network market.

Syncapse has raised $28.3 million in venture backing, mostly from ABS Capital. The company is going as far upmarket as it can, selling on an enterprise-wide basis to customers with high transaction values. The near-profitable company has around 300 employees, 100 of which are focused on engineering. Last time I spoke to CEO Michael Scissons (before the Wildfire deal), he said he believed the market warranted a "very large independent player," and that Syncapse was focused on becoming that player. I feel like I've heard something like that before…

There's also Shoutlet, which has raised $24.2 million in venture backing. The company has 50 employees and 400 customers as of June, offering a self-serve platform that targets more of the smaller end of the market. The most recent round of funding is apparently to help the company work its way up to an IPO. Again, heard that one before.

Meanwhile, a company called PromoJam, apparently Buddy and Wildfire's "biggest competitor" went on record today to say it "won't be bought."  Suitors beware!

Clearly I'm skeptical that any of these social tools will emerge from this period of consolidation. The "remain independent" song becomes even more unlikely when you consider the universe of potential buyers. There are the ad networks owned by the likes of Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL which compete with Doubleclick. There are the standard enterprise companies who are now looking to sell to the chief marketing officer, including SAP or IBM. And there is the long list of curveball buyers that actually make sense: consider any company large enough under the DSP, exchange, or agency trading desk categories on the Luma Partners display chart. On the agency holding company side, WPP didn't get to buy Buddy Media, even though it had invested $5 million into it in 2010. (I'm pretty sure Buddy Media and Salesforce were fated for a match-up, so I don't believe WPP had a chance there.)

It's only a matter of time before we'll talk about the great boom era of social SaaS platforms.