Planning vs Doing as an Entrepreneur

Back in college I spent 100+ hours working on a full 50-page business plan for the Duke Startup Challenge. Everything was meticulously spelled out in painstaking detail with projections out to two decimal places. After submitting the plan I waited, and waited, only to hear back that I didn’t make it past the first round. Crushed.

Without third-party approval of my idea, Hannon Hill would never be successful. I needed external validation. I needed to be told that my idea would succeed. Not true. I didn’t need anyone’s approval. The only thing I needed was a customer. And that’s what I did — pushed forward with a failed business plan and focused on the customer. We signed up one customer, and then another, building one of the most important content management systems for higher education.

As an entrepreneur, I oscillate between planning and doing. Mentally, I know that working on the business is more important than working in the business, but I’m predisposed to getting stuff done — doing is my default. Of course, as the startup grows more time needs to be spent planning, and just as important, aligning the team and getting buy-in.

On the planning side, my favorite tool is the Simple Strategic Plan. Over the years I’ve tried a number of different worksheets and exercises but none are as comprehensive and easy to follow. The most important thing: implement a planning process and run the process on a regular basis (at least quarterly).

Entrepreneurs need to find a balance between planning and doing. Early days require more doing and later years require more planning. Recognize the need and act accordingly.

When SaaS Valuations Weren’t So Rosy

With Thomasz Tunguz’s recent post The 5 Forces Driving Startup Valuations Today it reminded me that SaaS valuations weren’t always so rosy. Today, the median forward multiple for public SaaS companies is 8.5x (meaning, these companies are valued at 8.5x expected revenues).

10 years ago we were out actively raising money for Pardot after hitting $1M in annual recurring revenue. We met with 29 different venture firms in Atlanta, D.C., Boston, and Silicon Valley. After being turned down several times with the message that the total addressable market for marketing automation was too small (hah!), we had three interested parties that floated valuations and wanted to talk potential term sheets.

By the time of these advanced conversations, we had $1M in trailing twelve months recognized revenue, $1.3M annual run rate, and 300% growth rate. Here were the verbal offers:

  • $500,000 investment at a $2M pre-money valuation
  • $1M investment at a $2.5M pre-money valuation
  • $5M investment at a $7M pre-money valuation

After doing some spreadsheet math it became clear that we were better off not raising money and continuing to go it alone. We decided not to raise money and kindly discontinued conversations with the VCs. If the valuations back then were what they are today, the spreadsheet math would have likely turned out differently.

Know that SaaS valuations have never been better but that we’re in unusually good times — it wasn’t that long ago when they were substantially lower. Still, do what’s best for the business and don’t raise money just because valuations are high.

What else? What are some more thoughts on SaaS valuations?

3 Alternative SaaS Funding Strategies

One of the things I love about startups is that every week I’m learning something new. Naturally, there’s no one way to do things and so entrepreneurs are always trying out different ideas and occasionally sharing them with the world. Earlier this week three different blog posts came out detailing alternative SaaS funding strategies a) Raise one time from angels ($1.3M) and might do more, b) Raise from multiple rounds but smaller amounts ($2.5M) each time depending on the progress of the business, and c) Raise a tremendous amount of money ($700M+) as quickly as possible over multiple rounds. Let’s dive into some of the highlights.

SparkToro Raised a Very Unusual Round of Funding & We’re Open-Sourcing Our Docs

  • “We believe that there’s room for a company that can be successful for its customers, employees, founders, and investors (generally in that order) without demanding a multi-hundred-million or billion-dollar outcome. We spent a lot of time discussing the frustrating binary (succeed on a massive scale or die trying) of the classic tech startup model, and how we might craft a creative structure that would allow for the potential of a huge outcome without forcing an unhealthy growth rate or a destructively impatient approach.”
  • Only raise from non institutional investors so that there’s no timeline
  • Investors initially expected to get their money back via dividends (1x non pref)
  • Keep optionality open to go the venture route but don’t drive towards that

Anatomy of our $5 million seed round

  • “SaaS companies do not require large amounts of capital all at once in order to fund expensive R&D, brand marketing, or giant sales teams. Instead, we require small amounts of capital over an extended period of time, in order to experiment and continuously push harder on the things that work. This is why most SaaS companies today should raise several smaller rounds of funding during their “seed phase” before raising a series A. The ideal funding for a SaaS company looks closer to an IV drip than a shot of adrenaline to the heart. We need more funding sources that understand this.”
  • Most SaaS startups don’t warrant the traditional VC model of go big or go home
  • Raise enough money each round to get to breakeven at another milestone
  • SaaS supports dripping in more modest amounts of capital and still producing great outcomes

Domo IPO | S-1 Breakdown

  • “Domo recently drew down $100M from their credit facility and currently only has ~6 months of cash left with their current burn rate. Given they raised $730M in equity capital from investors and another $100M through their credit facility, it implies they have spent roughly $750M over the past 8 years to reach a little over $100M in ARR, an extraordinary and unprecedented amount of cash burn for a SaaS company.”
  • Last quarter burned $40M to add $8M of new ARR
  • CAC of $430k with avg ACV of $67k
  • Median payback of 98 months

It’s great to see people detailing different funding strategies as there’s room for innovation and new ideas. Figure out what’s best for the business and execute accordingly.

SaaS Winners and Daily Newspapers in the 1980s

After reading Buffett: the making of an American capitalist by Roger Lowenstein I couldn’t help but equate Warren Buffett’s views on daily newspapers in the 1980s with the SaaS winners of today.

After Buffett bought The Buffalo News he was sued by the other daily paper for launching a Sunday edition and initially lost on the grounds that it was anti-competitive (which was patently false). In the trial, a number of statements came out including the idea that owning a daily newspaper with no competitors was like having an exclusive toll bridge that crossed the main river in town. Buffett was focused on businesses that had pricing power such that they could raise prices and continue to thrive even in an inflation-heavy environment (a.k.a. a strong moat!). Eventually, the other daily newspaper in Buffalo went out of business and The Buffalo News generated a tremendous amount of cash for many years until the Internet disrupted it.

SaaS winners demonstrate many of the same characteristics as monopoly daily newspapers in the 1980s. Only, instead of being specific to a geography, they are specific to a market and a segment. People love to comment how marketing automation had many success stories, but it really was a winner per segment at time of market consolidation:

  • Eloqua – enterprise
  • Marketo – mid-market
  • Pardot – low mid-market
  • HubSpot – small business

Just like New York is a market and Buffalo is a segment for daily newspapers, there are hundreds of SaaS markets and thousands of segments that will produce winners. Let’s look at some more comparisons between daily newspapers pre-Internet and SaaS winners:

One question I’ve been asked many times over the years is, “Why can’t Google take 10 software engineers and just copy XYZ product?” The answer, it seems, is the similar to trying to be the number two or three daily newspaper in the 1980s: the scale, expertise, product/market fit, and accumulated brand value was too much for an upstart. Put more simply, the market and segment coalesced around one winner and that momentum steamrolled everyone else. Google took 1,000 software engineers and tried to compete with Facebook as a new social network, only to lose miserably.

Now, in this comparison, one type is a monopoly media provider to consumers and the other type is a business software provider to businesses, but many of the same desirable characteristics that Buffett looks for applies to both. Winning a SaaS market and segment is incredibly valuable, just like monopoly newspapers in the 1980s.

Happy Ears and Sales Contracts

By my senior year in college I was working full-time on Hannon Hill both building and selling content management software. Just down the road there was a prestigious business school where I had networked my way into the IT director that was in charge of the website. After a great meeting with him, he said, “If you add kerberos for authentication, we’d be very interested.”

Naturally, my “happy ears” perked up and I thought that if we added that feature they’d be a customer. I emailed him after the meeting and set up a time to meet two weeks later. The night before our scheduled meeting to walk through the new kerberos module, I still hadn’t gotten it working (extra C++ code to go with the core PHP app). Undeterred, I stayed up the entire night writing code (literally!) and walked into the 9am meeting with a beautiful kerberos module. The potential buyer took one look, said they’d chosen another product, and wouldn’t be moving forward as a customer. I was devastated.

Positive feedback from a prospect doesn’t equal a sale (verbals are for gerbils). Ask for the sale before building the next set of features. Ensure the prospect is truly buying before committing more resources. Don’t make the common entrepreneur mistake: check for happy ears and get a sales contract before moving forward.

What else? What are some more thoughts on happy ears and sales contracts?

The Relentlessly Resourceful Entrepreneur

Earlier this week I was meeting with a successful entrepreneur that’s constantly getting things done. Every time I talk to him he’s moved the startup forward in a meaningful way and refined his thinking.

Normally, when I meet with a successful entrepreneur, they fall into one of two buckets: sales-oriented or product-oriented. Sales-oriented entrepreneurs are always selling something, even if it doesn’t exist yet (sell in advance of the roadmap). Product-oriented entrepreneurs are usually heads-down building the best product possible, often to the exclusion of other important activities (need to be paired up with a growth-oriented entrepreneur). Yet, this entrepreneur I met with didn’t fall into either bucket: he wasn’t focused on selling and he wasn’t focused on the product.

This entrepreneur falls into a unique bucket: relentlessly resourceful. Resourceful, defined as “having the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties” sums it up perfectly. Entrepreneurship is about moving fast (quick) and constantly solving problems (overcome difficulties). Also known as cockroaches of the corporate world, these entrepreneurs just keep moving and don’t die.

Signs of a relentlessly resourceful entrepreneur:

  • Check-ins – Never afraid to ask for help, they also check-in on a periodic basis and come prepared with a specific question or idea for feedback. Every conversation you walk away believing that they’re going to take the feedback to heart and make something happen.
  • Updates – Proactive updates via email are sent several times per year in a thoughtful and valuable format. These entrepreneurs value relationships and seek to keep their network current and up-to-date on progress.
  • Recruiting – People are attracted to the entrepreneur and get pulled into help, even if there are limited resources or compensation. And, they consistently find new people that can help the mission, even if that person isn’t needed immediately.
  • Progress – Finally, the startup is always growing, winning new customers, earning industry accolades, and making great progress. Momentum is strong and it’s clearly a winner.

Relentlessly resourceful entrepreneurs epitomize the entrepreneurial spirit and continuously move their business forward. Look for these entrepreneurs in the community and work to help them achieve even greater levels of success.

Implications of Raising Venture Capital

Last week I was talking to an entrepreneur that was dead set on raising venture capital. Naturally, I wanted to understand more and asked a number of questions. Turns out, this entrepreneur just thought it was the next step to being successful. Venture capital shouldn’t be viewed as just another step in the startup journey — raising venture capital is a serious decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Here are several implications of raising venture capital:

  • Growth – Startups are growth-oriented organizations. Raising venture capital takes the emphasis on growth and raises it to max — everything is focused on growth. If growth stalls, more money needs to be raised or the company needs to be merged with someone else that is growing faster. Grow, grow, grow.
  • Timeline – As soon as you raise institutional capital (as different from angel capital, family office capital, etc.) the business is now on a timeline to sell in as little as 3-5 years and as long as 7-10 years. No matter how you feel, the business has to be sold (or go public) in an effort to generate returns for the limited partners (the people and institutions that provide capital to the venture capitalists).
  • Partnership – Selling a piece of equity is signing up for a long-term partnership with the investor. The relationship should be viewed as a partnership and not merely as an investment. Only raise money from investors you want to work with indefinitely.

Raising venture capital puts the startup on a path to grow at all costs, and has serious implications. Most startups fail and most startups that raise venture capital don’t make any money for the founders. Entrepreneurs should deeply study the pros and cons of this type of capital and know that most of the time it doesn’t make sense. Yet, when everyone is aligned and the startup does well, it’s a beautiful thing.