The dream of the Universal SaaS

Can one system manage operational data across all your verticals?

With all the recent excitement about Data Science and AI, we often forget about all the other ways an organization uses data, particularly the operational data that records and enables day to day, rubber-meets-the-road activities. There are a lot of custom tools for specific verticals in this area - CRMs, ERPs, project/task management software, LIMS, ELNs. But if you want to share data between different ones (which you will if you don't already) it can be a huge technical mess.

Therefore a number of players seem to be developing different approaches to creating a single framework that allows you to address multiple verticals within a single system and thus share data seamlessly. Since everyone, including these players, is moving to Software as a Service (SaaS) these days, I'm going to call this idea the "Universal SaaS".

Some players have a successful offering within a single vertical and have added the ability to define custom tables and functionality to support other verticals. The ones I can think of are Salesforce's popular CRM and Benchling and Dotmatics' suites of lab-related tools, but I'm sure there are others. By extending the schema beyond the core functionality, these tools allow you to incrementally expand your use from one vertical into other adjacent uses.

Others are approaching this by building or acquiring multiple verticals and bundling them into an interconnected suite. It’s common for companies to provide multiple interconnected tools/systems within a single vertical, and use acquisitions to add more to this toolbox. But I think we’re going to start seeing more of these that extend outside the original vertical. For example, Atlassian offers closely linked task management (Jira) and wiki (Confluence) systems, while Notion offers both verticals in a single package.

Still other players have approached this by building a completely generic framework that allows organizations to mix and match or build from scratch their own choice of verticals. AirTable is my favorite example of this. The different low/no-code frameworks also do this, though the handful of examples I’ve looked at seem to have less emphasis on cross-vertical integration.

I think this trend is only going to increase as organizations recognize the importance of having all their different verticals seamlessly integrated at an operational (as opposed to just analytics) level. However, there remains an important barrier from the lock-in and cost structure of SaaS in general. Migrating a single vertical to a new system is bad enough; imagine doing this for all your organization's verticals together. So putting yourself at the mercy of a single vendor for all your verticals is quite a leap of faith.

The cost structure is something that SaaS providers have control over, but may be hard to get right. How do you define prices that will be fair for organizations at all different scales, with different members using different parts of the system to different extents? How do you set this at a point where both the provider and the customer organization get the value they expect, particularly as the customer organization grows and evolves?

This is going to be a very interesting space to watch in the coming years.