Friday Rant: Coupa Sam Talks Smack to Ariba Spendman

This is a rant. I won’t pretend to dig into details of the accuracies, fallacies, and potentially overlooked comparisons in Coupa’s latest napalm drop on Ariba. No, I’ll save the meat of my analysis for a regular post or two next week that takes a more objective look at some of Coupa’s claims in its comparison of its product to Ariba. What I will do, though, in the next few paragraphs is lavish a bit of praise on, well, a truly ballsy marketing campaign. (I'll also examine a few of the risks involved in Coupa's slam job on Ariba.)

First, the basics. For those who have not yet seen it, Coupa, a SaaS eProcurement vendor, this week unleashed a marketing campaign that encouraged direct comparison between its product and Ariba’s. It also has its cartoon mascot, Coupa Sam, talking smack to Ariba’s superhero, Spend Man. This is the most competitive excitement the procurement and supply chain sector has seen since Reagan Lancaster dressed up as Tom Cruise from Mission Impossible at an i2 event, rappelling down a wall and attacking manikins that represented the ERP giants and other software competitors.

How smart is Coupa’s move in practice, despite the humor and shock value it brings? In my view, Ariba represents a bit of a sleeping giant: You don’t necessarily want to get in its crosshairs. Still, despite the fact it takes Ariba so typically long to react, the chance of remaining a target for long is slim, especially since Coupa’s overall revenues to date represent less than what some of Ariba’s largest clients have paid them over their lifetime relationship. In other words, Coupa, as an Ariba competitor at this point in time, does not exactly move the deal needle, even if the cloud upstart is yapping at its Spend Management toes in some deals, and taking away the occasional prospect.

Yet Ariba has proved litigious from a patent/IP standpoint in the past (as has competitor ePlus), and any marketing campaign that begs a response like this has the potential to invite the wrong type of response (the type where only the lawyers win) from a number of parties. This is a risk Coupa customers and prospects may wish to consider, especially considering how litigious ePlus has been in the recent past, suing Ariba, Perfect, SAP, Verian, Sciquest, Lawson, and virtually every other eProcurement vendor known on the regular vendor stage. You can be sure this campaign will put Coupa on the map for ePlus’ lawyers, let alone Ariba’s. And I doubt the upstart’s balance sheet is as bulletproof as that of its larger competitors when it comes to patent trolls.

Now that we’ve dispensed with the biggest potential drawback to the campaign, I’ll turn to the positive. For one, Coupa Sam has clearly shown himself a better mascot than Spend Man. Spend Man is the type of superhero that procurement may aspire to, but -- well, he’s a superhero. He doesn’t exist, people. In contrast, Coupa Sam is procurement: a slightly tubby, overwhelmed guy who wants to get his job done so he can get home. Sam is a Spend Management samurai because of the benefits it brings -- like going home early. He wants to grab a beer just like the rest of us, and if eProcurement is the ticket to an early happy hour, then why not make the investment? Oh yeah, there’s that savings and compliance bit, too.

What else is worthy of my rant? In its Ariba-focused campaign, some of Coupa’s comparisons are highly subjective, and others gloss over the details, which may cause Coupa's overall argument to fall apart. Moreover, there are still serious material shortcomings to Coupa’s P2P solution relative to Ariba’s, especially for larger middle market companies -- more on these next week. But when it comes to presenting P2P eye candy for small and middle market users who want to start saving and driving compliance quickly, Coupa’s comparison may in fact be a smart move. I am seeing a demonstration of Coupa’s latest capabilities next week, but from my notes on the last demos I saw in 2008/2009, I came away very impressed with the simplicity of execution and overall user experience relative to Ariba and others. That said, not all P2P environments can -- or should -- be simple.

This is where Coupa Sam may ultimately end up having to commit ritual spend seppuku once he realizes he’s entered a battle lacking some of the key armaments he might need to even stay in the same ring. Spend Man may be an easy target to take pot shots at, but when it comes to suiting up for battle, I'm not so sure I'd put my chips on the alternative given a binary outcome.

Stay tuned for our analysis next week when we analyze whether Coupa's ninety-five theses against Ariba are accurate -- or not.

Jason Busch

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