Q&A With SAP's Sanjay Poonen: How We'll Use Mobile To Reach A Billion Users

Sanjay Poonen

Photo: Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg

SAP is best known for its financial software that helps 200,000 customers run their businesses.But Sanjay Poonen, head of the mobility division and president of technology solutions at SAP, describes a bolder plan. SAP is banking on mobile apps to vastly expand its customer base.

For example, Poonen would like to see SAP enterprise mobile apps be used by people that historically never used PCs, whether they are field employees or consumers in developing countries.

He is also putting SAP apps in the hands of U.S. consumers. Already, SAP has powered sophisticated, statistics-heavy mobile apps for the NBA and NFL sports leagues. 

In our Q&A, Poonen explains how SAP will rely on mobile and mobile apps to reach for an ambitious goal: 1 billion users by 2015. 

(Editor’s note: This in-depth Q&A is an exclusive for BI Intelligence members. An abridged version of this Q&A ran earlier this month on Silicon Alley Insider.)

Q: How will mobile help SAP reach 1 billion users by 2015? 

I think there are two ways you can think about our vision. One is that we seek to be the Apple of enterprise mobility, and the second, correlated to that, is touching a billion users.

If you think about what that implies, most often enterprise software is used by only a small, confined number of people inside of a company. Traditionally, people may have thought of SAP as only back-office. But we’d like to touch every employee: frontline people in sales or field service, people who are in software. And the significant way through which you can do that today is through mobile devices because many of those folks don’t have desktop computers. They may not even know or care about what SAP is.

We found that there was a huge opportunity to take the information that SAP tracks all the time and allow these folks on the frontline to get it. That’s really what we’ve been focusing on in mobility, and that’s how we get to a billion users.

So let me walk you through the map of how to get to a billion users and how we’re marching towards that goal. First off, among our 200,000 customers, when you do the maths, there are probably at least half a billion employees. So if we can touch every one of the employees of all our customers, we are substantially close to our goal. We’ll first start by touching every employee in every one of our companies.

Q: What do you mean by that, exactly? 

You want to touch the folks who are the frontline, the ones whom we wouldn’t have gotten to normally. That’s key to how mobility is going to help us. So imagine a person who is on an oil rig now, being able to get the metrics that they need to track. Or imagine the utilities employees going in to fix a generator around the post-Sandy storm situation. All of those people are now on mobile devices, and they’re going to need business information. So that’s one area for growth, clearly.

Q: OK, with SAP’s 200,000 customers who have a half a billion employees, you are halfway there. How are you going to double that in a few years?

The second area is going to be consumers. Think of it as B-to-B-to-C. So for retailers or banking, we sell mobile solutions that touch the consumer.

For example, we have mobile banking solutions out in significant parts of Asia, where we are the mobile banking solution to the unbanked. So you take one of our large banks that we’ve been working with in Bangladesh — it’s called the Dutch-Bangla Bank. It’s one of the bigger banks in Bangladesh. They have a couple million users, I think. But they plan to get up mobile banking solutions to half the population of Bangladesh. That’s 80 million people out of 160 million people in Bangladesh, which, by the way, is one of the world’s fastest growing countries. Those 80 million people have never seen an ATM card and don’t know what a bank looks like, but they all have a phone. And now with mobile banking solutions, they’re able to get their account balance, and even use it to make a microfinance payment for their agricultural purchases.

Two billion people in the world are folks we can touch through business-to-consumer or business-to-business-to-consumer solutions in banking, retail, and utilities. In the utilities case, imagine having a mobile solution where you can contact customer service when a telephone pole goes down and the electric lines are down, and you can’t get Internet on your laptop. On your mobile phone, you now have the ability to report the customer service problem, even take a picture of the electric pole that’s down, submit it to the utilities. You have the ability to pay your bill, and so on. That will touch tens and tens of millions of consumers.

Q: Would you like to make SAP a household name for consumers?

Absolutely, our goal is to be the Apple of the enterprise mobility world. We absolutely care about business consumers, and we want to be wherever there’s business information that’s relevant to consumers. We absolutely want to play everywhere we can and that’s the reason why we’re doing a lot of advertising too, like you see in the airports and so on.

Q: You’ve made some acquisitions related to mobile such as Syclo, a tracking company, and also Sybase, in mobile analytics. Are you going to make more acquisitions in mobile? 

We are always looking at the ways in which we can expand our footprint. Today, we are beginning to see ourselves as ahead of the rest of the market in enterprise mobility. So we will certainly look within a large landscape at possible acquisitions. We never say no to things, but at this point in time, we feel good about our strategy. We look at both buying and building. Also, in many cases, we’ll take on a partner. We are at a place in mobility where we’ll build some of the solutions ourselves, but a significant part of it will come from the ecosystem. 

Q: SAP created an investment fund for HANA, your in-memory database platform. Do you have any investment funds specifically focused on mobility? 

Yes, the fund we announced in April was for HANA and for mobility. We actually see the HANA and mobile areas as working together. You can’t have good mobile apps that aren’t going to run fast. You need a fast database underneath to do that. There is no point in having fast data if you can’t visualise it and you want to visualise it in mobile. HANA and mobility really sort of go hand-in-glove together. The fund that we announced is going to be used for HANA startups and hopefully for mobile. We’ve had a couple of startup forums where interesting mobile companies came by. We’ll continue to ensure that there’s support in our ecosystem for startups.

I certainly want to see our company as very successful at both partnerships with bigger and smaller entities. I try to keep one day of my week, mainly the Fridays of the week, free to meet with startups. I am an entrepreneur at heart sitting inside a big company. It keeps me kind of young at heart to meet companies that are also doing very innovative things.

Q: You keep mentioning SAP as the Apple of enterprise mobility. Do you have a relationship with Apple directly? 

Yes, Apple is a customer of ours. But, let me describe how we embraced mobility ourselves internally, because you have to drink your own champagne, or eat your own dog food — live your own vision 

Before we acquired Sybase, in mobile analytics, we saw this iPad phenomenon as something that could actually touch our own sales reps. So we bought thousands of these iPads and began to roll them out to our sales reps and said, “Listen, destroy your notion of spreadsheets. We want you to run all of your forecasting pipeline, what people call a CRM, on an iPad. And we’re going to take our CRM data, put it into HANA, make it run blindingly fast, and get information to your fingertips.”

It’s transformed our business significantly and we’ve placed orders to the tune of 18,000 or 20,000 iPads. We’re probably one of the larger deployments of iOS devices inside any company that Apple sells to. Now, we’re one of the walking examples of how to use iOS devices for competitive advantage that Apple can talk about to its own customers.

So we partnered with the Apple enterprise sales team. Many of our customers are Apple customers too, who were buying iPhones. Not to the exclusion of Apple, we also hope to have a relationship with the Android devices, and Samsung. We were featured as, I think, the only enterprise partner with the Windows 8 launch. We’re a Switzerland-style player. In a world with only Windows or only Apple, you might not need us. But it’s a heterogeneous world. We are going to play a key part in insulating people from device heterogeneity. 

Read more of our recent Q&As with mobile industry leaders: 

  • Q&A With StrikeAd CEO Alex Rahaman: How Demand-Side Platforms Bring Efficiency To The Mobile Ad Market
  • Q&A With Michael King Of Appcelerator: HTML5 Is Not All Or Nothing
  • Q&A With Ahmed Datoo of Zenprise: Helping IT Departments Love The iPad

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.