Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) as a business model has a number of advantages including alignment of value between customer and vendor, strong cash flows, high gross margins, and great economies of scale. As with any growing startup, one of the most limiting factors is cash — the faster the business grows, the more cash it eats. Another benefit of SaaS that should be mentioned more often is that of pre-paid contracts.
With pre-paid contracts, like Salesforce.com requires, payments are made in advance of service being rendered. These contracts are often pre-paid quarterly or pre-paid annually with a discount (e.g. pay for the full year and get 10% off). For the startup this results in free working capital to grow the business. Yes, there’s an unearned income liability and an obligation to fulfill the service, but with the money in the bank, many startups use it to grow the business even faster than if they didn’t have pre-payments.
There’s another secondary benefit of pre-paid SaaS contracts: potential profits in the bank aren’t taxed until revenue is recognized and profit earned. Say it is December 31st and the startup’s bank account has $100,000 more than it started the year. Normally, if that’s profit it would be taxed around 30% leaving only $70,000 left to invest and grow the business. Well, with accrual accounting and $100,000 of unearned income due to pre-paid contracts, that money isn’t taxed until the revenue is recognized resulting in more capital to grow the business on January 1st.
Pre-paid SaaS contracts provide free working capital for startups and should be considered when thinking through business ideas (e.g. can we get customers to pre-pay us to help fund the business?).
What else? What are your thoughts on pre-paid SaaS contracts as free working capital for startups?