I’m at AMS Fest this week and rumors are swirling that an AMS deal is about to be announced. At 2pm EDT today, the Hot Off The Press segment of AMS Fest will be broadcast live on the ReviewMyAMS.com facebook page. Watch live for announcements!
In May 2017, ASI International, creators of the iMIS AMS platform, acquired Innovative Software Solutions Inc. (ISSI), as a wholly-owned subsidiary. ISSI is a 160-staff company offering “benefit administration software and services to multi-employer/union affiliated benefit funds in North America.” Read the press release.
ASI International accepted $26M in growth equity funding in July 2016.
A mere three weeks after Aptify and Abila got under the Community Brands umbrella, on April 26, 2017 it was announced that NimbleUser would be joining them.
NimbleUser is a Rochester, NY based company that has spent the last decade building a Salesforce-powered AMS called NimbleAMS. Prior to releasing the NimbleAMS product in late 2011, NimbleUser was an iMIS reseller and Solution Provider. A family owned business up until a few days ago, Sig VanDamme is the Founder, his wife, Dawn, serves as CEO, and Joe Klimek serves as President.
Industry observers had mixed reactions to the deal. Some were surprised, knowing that Sig and Dawn have a strong commitment to the city of Rochester, and their company culture — a deal that could risk the product of their life’s work seemed out of alignment with their values.
Others saw the writing on the wall: NimbleUser was one of only a few enterprise AMS companies to have not taken any funding. NimbleUser needed growth capital to accelerate product development. A phone interview with Sig VanDamme confirmed it. He said the alternative, continuing to fund research and development out of their own revenues, would result in delayed time to market for a number of initiatives they had on their roadmap.
Interest among association technologists in Salesforce-based AMS products has been climbing along with Salesforce’s rise to become one of the world’s most innovative and largest companies. Hitching your AMS to a database core that receives almost a billion dollars of R&D annually is attractive. But all that R&D money comes at a cost: Salesforce-based platforms are among the most expensive solutions on the market, competitive with other enterprise-grade AMS platforms.
NimbleAMS competes head-to-head with Fonteva’s MemberNation platform, which is also Salesforce-powered. They also compete (less directly) against other enterprise-grade AMS platforms like Personify, iMIS, Abila’s netFORUM Enterprise, and Aptify.
That’s right! If you’re keeping score at home, Community Brands now has three enterprise-grade AMS platforms in its pen: NimbleAMS, Aptify, and netFORUM Enterprise. While it’s still very early in Community Brands’ history, this fact should serve as evidence that they intend to deliver on the promise to allow its companies to compete for business. After all, why would anyone add another competitor to the pen if you didn’t really expect them to fight it out?
At the same time, some industry insiders acknowledge that this deal reduces choice for enterprise-grade AMS products; three of the seven are now owned by the same parent company. In interviews I conducted with association technology consultants, some prospects now feel like they’re “negotiating with themselves.” How much leverage does a prospect really have when they press two companies owned by the same parent for better contract terms?
What does this deal mean for NimbleAMS customers? In my view, not much. A Salesforce-powered AMS should be expected to stand on its own for as long as Salesforce is in business. Any risk that Nimble might be merged with Aptify or netFORUM Enterprise is very remote. However, based on a pattern that I’ve witnessed with other family owned companies that become investor-backed, there is a higher risk that the business processes will be more substantially impacted than a company that passes from one investor to another. NimbleUser customers should be prepared for some adjustments in the transition.
I received a tip yesterday afternoon that NimbleUser would be welcomed to the Community Brands family of companies. This post was scheduled yesterday evening, on the request of my source, and will be updated as new details, including a press release, are made available. The press release is scheduled to go out in the early morning hours according to my sources.
For those unfamiliar, NimbleUser’s flagship product is NimbleAMS, a Salesforce-powered AMS. They’re based in Rochester, NY, and Sigmund VanDamme is their Founder. NimbleUser may be best known in the association sector for their retro Airstream camper which they haul to major trade shows.
I have it from a well-placed source that Community Brands will announce that it has added a new member to its family of customers. The YourMembership users conference wraps up tomorrow, and this deal could be seen as the big news to cap off this gathering of the lead company in the Community Brands consolidation.
In the time since the Community Brands deals were announced, I’ve spoken with senior executives at Abila, Aptify, YourMembership, and some of their competitors. I also attended the Abila Users & Developers Conference, speaking with their customers and consultants, and listened to a keynote presentation from JP Guilbault, Community Brands’ CEO.
Over the next few days, I’ll analyze the implications of this deal from the standpoint of each company wrapped up in the transaction, based on the conversations I’ve had with my sources.
Let’s turn our attention to the most interesting addition to the Community Brands family, Aptify.
Of the three companies coming together under the Community Brands family, Aptify is the most surprising according to industry observers. The founder of Aptify, Amith Nagarajan, has long boasted the idea that Aptify is a privately owned firm that was fiercely committed to its independence from the influence of investors, and it was an important aspect of their sales pitch.
Aptify even went so far as to become Evergreen Certified, which touts the benefits of privately held businesses:
Taking advantage of the ability of closely-held private companies to have a longer-term view, greater confidentiality around strategies, and more operating flexibility than public or exit-oriented businesses.
Given this commitment, it seems shocking that Nagarajan would sell Aptify. But people close to Nagarajan had different perspectives on his decision. Some said the exit was unexpected, with Nagarajan still substantially involved in decision-making at Aptify and constantly touting the company’s Evergreen status.
Others weren’t surprised, knowing just how much investment money is flowing through the sector, and stating that he had expressed boredom with a technology environment that moved slowly compared to some of the other markets in which he has founded businesses. His need for speed comes as no surprise to those who know him well. Nagarajan is widely regarded in the association sector as a brilliant technologist and entrepreneur, and is rumored to have a dozen companies in his portfolio.
Nagarajan will stay on as a strategic advisor to Community Brands, but will not have any day-to-day responsibilities.
Aptify brings an upper-echelon clientele to Community Brands. Their 100+ clients tend to be among the largest associations measured both by members and revenue. This may be because Aptify is more white-glove-service oriented than many of its competitors, with a large professional services team, much of which works in India. This offshore development team may also be an asset to Community Brands.
Aptify also brings an Australasian office (based in Sydney) to Community Brands, giving the consolidated company a foothold in a new growth market.
Most industry observers I spoke to expect Aptify customers to experience a more difficult transition to new management than other customers. Aptify customers almost universally know Nagarajan, the company founder, personally. As a privately-held business, Aptify had a substantially different culture than equity-backed YourMembership and Abila. Employees at Aptify are experiencing their first change in ownership. Many customers have highly customized databases (though Aptify prefers to call them “configured”). Management at both YourMembership and Abila have been less inclined to take on custom work, and there will be tension between that posture and Aptify’s willingness to give clients virtually whatever they wanted (as long as they paid for it).
This transition isn’t a bad thing; whatever difficulty is experienced by Aptify customers and employees will be temporary. Based on experience with similar deals, we can expect that Aptify will emerge stronger in the end.
Industry insiders will be watching closely for clues on how Community Brands intends to manage two products in its suite (Abila’s netFORUM Enterprise and Aptify) that compete in the same niche.
It will also be interesting to see what happens to Aptify employees after the dust settles. Aptify’s business model is very different than that of Abila or YourMembership, and it’s difficult to imagine how Community Brands personnel could reconcile competing service strategies if asked to serve two kinds of customers: those who are accustomed to white-glove-service and those who expect more out-of-the-box solutions.
Aptify’s purchase price was rumored to be in the range of $75 million.
In the week since the Community Brands deals were announced, I’ve spoken with senior executives at Abila, Aptify, YourMembership, and some of their competitors. I also attended the Abila Users & Developers Conference, speaking with their customers and consultants, and listened to a keynote presentation from JP Guilbault, Community Brands’ CEO.
Over the next few days, I’ll analyze the implications of this deal from the standpoint of each company wrapped up in the transaction. Let’s start with the newly-formed parent company.
- Community Brands is a sister company to two others with a longer track record: Education Brands and Ministry Brands. All three companies are backed by private equity firm Insight Venture Partners, and I understand that Ross Croley, CEO of Ministry Brands, provides strategic direction for the three companies.
- Under Croley, Ministry Brands built an empire by acquiring dozens of companies in various technology verticals in church technology systems (fundraising, websites, accounting, etc.). It’s expected that Community Brands will emulate the business model of Ministry Brands. Therefore, we can expect Community Brands to acquire several more association technology companies over several years. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Community Brands amass a portfolio of 10 or more companies by the end of 2017.
- I’ve been told that Ministry Brands has allowed the companies it has acquired to continue to operate under the same branding, and it has not been typical for them to force migrations or decommission products. Likewise, JP Guilbault has promised no forced migrations for customers of the Community Brands line of products.
- Allowing brands to continue to operate begs the question: how can Community Brands sustainably and profitably maintain multiple competing products? It can be argued that the products don’t really compete; that they operate in different niches. But I’m aware of several instances where one brand is currently competing with another for a sale. Another way Community Brands can earn more profits on their structure is to consolidate behind-the-scenes business units such as marketing, technology infrastructure, accounting, etc.
- JP Guilbault ascends to CEO of Community Brands, and holds the title of CEO for Aptify, and Abila. He retains his CEO title at YourMembership. He is expected to announce leadership teams for the trio of companies shortly, and insiders anticipate he’ll name something on the equivalent of General Managers to run each of the three under his leadership.
There are two extreme points of view on the potential effects of this deal. I believe the truth is somewhere in between, but understanding both sides will help you inform your own opinion and draw your own conclusions. Let’s start with the skeptical point of view and then turn to the optimistic point of view:
- This deal is effectively cornering a substantial slice of the association technology market under one umbrella company. Community Brands boasts 13,000 customers. As more companies are acquired, that customer count will grow. Does this deal reduce choice in the market? That’s debatable. It has been promised that the brands will be able to continue operating independently, and there will be no forced migrations. However, is it really just a false choice when the brands are all owned by the same parent company? For example, in the rental car industry Enterprise, Alamo, and National are all owned and operated by the same parent company. Yes, you have a choice between these three companies, but your money is ultimately going to the same place.
- Promises have been made that there will be no forced migrations. But we’ve heard from skeptics that a common practice in business models like that of Community Brands is to invest more heavily in a few select products, making it more attractive for customers to move to the products that are getting more investment. Over time, this leads to “voluntary migration” of customers to “golden child” products. Skeptics say this tactic amounts to deliberately influencing customers towards voluntary migration, essentially leaving them with no alternative but to switch. If Community Brands can engineer a process for easily porting customers from under-resourced products to golden child products, it’s an attractive calculated risk.
- The companies will have access to new and more resources than they’ve had before.
- The conglomeration will be able to scale better and faster than the companies could separately. A rising tide raises all ships.
- Research and development resources that have been scattered around multiple companies and priorities can now be focused on the same challenges and opportunities.
- The association technology ecosystem is highly fragmented. Investment of time and money is dispersed and unorganized. Consolidation is necessary to give membership organizations access to world-class technology tools that can take them to the next level.
- Associations currently spend too much money on integrating technology vendors, which siphons resources away from accomplishing their missions. Access to a suite of products that are integrated out-of-the-box will help fix this problem.
Let’s be reminded that YourMembership (which I consider to be the lead company in this trio) acquired Affiniscape several years ago. That deal was a true acquisition and catapulted YourMembership into one of the largest AMS platforms by customers. In that acquisition, Affiniscape customers were forced to migrate, and that process was painful for YourMembership and Affiniscape clients. YourMembership learned some hard lessons, and I expect they won’t be repeated.
The Community Brands deal is not a merger, and I believe JP Guilbault when he says there won’t be forced migrations on his watch. The story of Ministry Brands, and JP Guilbault’s reputation for following through on his promises, inform my perspective on this.
But let’s also remember that the association technology market is incredibly volatile due to the investment money flowing (around $1 billion in the past year). A new investor with different objectives could step in and decide that migrations fit better into its investment objectives.
That’s why theNIRD.org exists. To inform you about M&A and investment activity in the association technology sector.
Stay tuned for an analysis of how the Community Brands deal affects Abila, Aptify, and YourMembership customers — coming soon.
The dust is settling after last week’s announcement that Abila and Aptify had been acquired by Community Brands, a new umbrella company that will also comprise YourMembership. A deal of this magnitude had been rumored back in March. JP Guilbault, CEO of YourMembership, assumes the role of CEO of Community Brands and will also take over as CEO of Abila and Aptify.
I’ll post an analysis of the deal in the coming days.
Many IT Directors and CTOs are wondering what to expect and what to do now. Based on my experience with other acquisitions, here are the steps that any Abila or Aptify client should take immediately (YourMembership clients are less likely to experience any disruption due to the consolidation):
- Pull out your contract and note the cancellation terms. Put appointments in your calendar to remind yourself of your next opportunity to cancel your contract. Based on my experience with YourMembership, I think Abila and Aptify customers will be pleased with the kind of service you receive from Community Brands. But if you’re not happy with the way things are going, you don’t want to miss an opportunity to cancel and be stuck in an unpleasant contract for yet another year or two. Also memorize or make a note of your Service Level Agreement, especially as the SLA relates to customer service and response time.
- Make plans to attend your AMS’s upcoming user conference. Abila’s conference is this week in Nashville. YourMembership’s is later this month in Orlando. Aptify’s is October 15-18 in Las Vegas. If you can’t make your own user conference, you may want to consider attending one of the other Community Brands conferences. These conferences will give you the opportunity to hear directly from JP Guilbault and other Community Brands personnel about plans for the products. JP is also a very approachable person, and in my experience is happy to talk one on one with any customer.
- Start networking with other personnel at your AMS and at the other Community Brands companies. There will be restructurings, reassignments, resignations, and reductions in force as a result of this consolidation. Keep your lines of communication with your AMS open by having multiple points of contact. You’ll be happier if one or more of your contacts happen to leave the company.
- Do not hesitate to complain loudly and to the most senior personnel if your SLAs are not being met. Community Brands has promised a smooth transition. Your staff and members should not be inconvenienced by this business transaction.
In full disclosure, I’m a former Avectra employee (before the acquisition by Abila), and YourMembership is a former client.