SaaS Enemy #1: Churn

At time we sold Pardot several years ago, our monthly gross churn was 1.4%. On an annualized basis, it was roughly an 80% renewal rate. Back then, we had next to no upselling of customers due to a poor pricing model (it was subsequently changed), resulting in a net renewal rate (upsells less downgrades and cancels) that was essentially the same as the gross renewal rate.

With a growth rate of 100% year over year, we weren’t concerned with plateauing where new customer signings are negated by customer churn resulting in a no-growth business (general ballpark, depending on a number of factors, is that the growth rate goes down 20% per year e.g. 100% year one, 80% year two, 60% year three, etc.). Only, without a much better net renewal rate, ideally over 100%, it was clear that in the next few years the customer base would get so large, and the new customer signings larger, but not large enough, that the business would no longer grow.

Customer churn is the #1 enemy of SaaS startups.

So much shine wears off a startup when it isn’t growing fast, and the fastest way to ensure that it keeps growing, is to not have any churn (nearly impossible save for software to large, enterprise customers), or low churn plus upsell, resulting in growth even if no new customers are signed. Everything from custom professional services to great customer support to heavy qualification of the potential customer before they’ve signed should be employed to ensure the highest probability of customer success, and thus the greatest chance of being a customer for life.

Churn is part of the SaaS experience, but everything possible should be done to minimize it and maximize the chance for net negative churn.

What else? What are some more thoughts on churn as the #1 enemy of SaaS startups?

When Freemium Works as a Business Model

Last week an entrepreneur mentioned they were thinking about introducing a new product with a freemium business model. Freemium, where there’s a free edition of the product along with a premium upgrade, has been a mainstay of cloud software for decades now. Only, it doesn’t work for most products.

Let’s look at when freemium works best. Here are a few characteristics:

  • 2nd or 3rd generation product – Once the market has been educated, and people know how to use that type of product, freemium works as users can jump in and be productive (e.g. Mailchimp was a 2nd generation product when it came out).
  • Fast time-to-value – Products that deliver value quickly work best for freemium such that users can understand and appreciate the product with minimal handholding (e.g. Google Docs where you can start typing immediately). Complex, complicated products don’t work well in the freemium model as there’s too much energy required to get value.
  • Viral distribution – Freemium really shines when the very nature of using the product propagates it to other users. Think about Calendly links for scheduling meetings, Dropbox sharing of files to different people, etc. Distribution is one of the most difficult aspects of B2B software, and the most successful freemium products have a heavy viral component.

Freemium, when it meets these criteria, is one of the best business models around due to elegant product distribution and scalability. The next time freemium comes up, see if it has these three characteristics.

What else? What are some more characteristics of the most successful freemium products?

Characteristics of the Ideal SaaS Startup

Earlier this week I was talking with an entrepreneur about the ideal characteristics for a SaaS startup. Some characteristics can be identified at ideation and many of the characteristics emerge once the product is in market with customers. As more of the characteristics emerge, they drive how fast the startup grows and ability to raise capital (if desired).

Here are characteristics of the ideal SaaS startup:

  • Product Value – It can’t be repeated enough: every successful SaaS startup either helps the customer make more money in a quantifiable way or runs a function of the business that’s mission critical. Most startups fail and most startups have nice-to-have products.
  • Product Distribution – Getting the product into the hands of customers in a financially justifiable manner is one of the biggest challenges post product/market fit. Ideal go to market is either viral (like Calendly), high volume inside sales (like Terminus), or a combination of inside and enterprise sales (like SalesLoft). The more complicated the sales model, the higher the average order needs to be otherwise the business won’t scale efficiently.
  • Total Addressable Market (TAM) – Ideal startups serve small, fast growing markets that are going to be large (billions) in a few years but are too small currently for big incumbents to care. Tomorrow’s TAM should be dramatically larger than today’s.
  • Gross Margins – As the startup scales, margins should be in the 70% range at a minimum with 80%+ as the long term target. If the margins can’t be in the 70% range long term, the business likely isn’t SaaS.
  • Renewal Rates – Two of the most important metrics for SaaS startups are gross renewal rates (how many customers or dollars renewed in a time period divided by how many were up for renewal) and net renewal rates (how many dollars renewed and expanded in a time period divided by how many were up for renewal). Gross renewal rates should be in the 80% range, at a minimum, and net renewal rate should be above 100%.

The ideal SaaS startup has both great market fundamentals and excellent metrics across key categories. Most startups won’t achieve all the desired characteristics, but the ones that do have the opportunity to create large, enduring companies.

Top 10 Atlanta SaaS Startups on the 2018 Inc. 5000

Every year I enjoy jumping in and reading the Inc. 5000. The 2018 awards just came out and there are a number of excellent Atlanta SaaS startups on the list.

When reading the list, always remember that growing fast becomes much harder with scale (doubling revenue every year is hard!).

Here are the top 10 Atlanta SaaS startups based on growth rate:

Congrats to all the winners! Onward and upward.

3 Initial Studio Concept Ideas

One of the more popular questions about The SaaS Startup Studio is regarding what ideas we’re evaluating for our first studio companies. Great question! Before sharing the ideas, it’s important to note that most people would say wait(!), don’t share the ideas because someone could steal them. Ideas are common, execution is uncommon.

Here are three initial studio concept ideas:

  1. Tax Credit Management Platform
    States issue billions of dollars of tax credits per year that are turned around and sold through brokers at a discount to their value so that a portion can be realized immediately. Take the film tax credit it Georgia. Most companies that get the tax credit don’t pay enough taxes to use it all, so they sell it to other tax payers for 90 cents on the dollar (e.g. you get a $500,000 income tax credit based on expenses but only have $50,000 of state income tax bills, so there’s $450,000 left over to sell to someone else). Imagine a SaaS platform similar to Carta/eShares that keeps track of who has what and also doubles as a marketplace to bypass the middleman so that the seller gets more money and the buyer pays a lower price.
  2. Restaurant Ordering and Delivery Routing Platform
    With the rise of UberEats, Postmates, GrubHub, Caviar, DoorDash, and others, there’s tremendous competition to deliver food. Only, the delivery company owns the relationship leaving the restaurant without knowing their customer. Finally, combine that with delivery marketplaces having unique incentives (e.g. sign up a new customer and get $10), driver availability, and quality control creating an opportunity to route orders to the best delivery platform based on different attributes. Imagine a SaaS platform for online restaurant ordering where the restaurant owns the relationship with the customer (build loyalty!) and then routes the delivery of the order to the best service based on business rules (e.g. if UberEats has the shortest delivery time right now, give them the order).
  3. Human Presence System
    Open workspaces have put increased pressure on conference rooms, meeting rooms, and phone rooms. Combine the increased demand with the age old problems of people scheduling rooms too long, scheduling rooms and then not using them, and not being able to find a room ad hoc. Imagine a SaaS platform that connects to off-the-shelf cameras (e.g. Nest Cam) and uses machine learning to figure out if someone is in the room. Then, it displays a visual layout of the floorplan with open and occupied rooms highlighted and it interfaces with resource management systems like Google Calendar (e.g. if room scheduled for 90+ minutes and no person present after 15 minutes, release the room for someone else to book it and record that person as a no show).

These are three ideas we’re currently considering as well as several more (we have a large Google Sheet of ideas). Remember, ideas are easy — the hard part is executing well, finding product/market fit with a must-have product, and timing the market just right.

If you know a potential Studio Entrepreneur, please let us know as we’d enjoy talking.

The SaaS Startup Studio

One area I’ve been fascinated with is how to systematically start successful startups. I’ve talked to hundreds of successful entrepreneurs and thousands of unsuccessful entrepreneurs in search of patterns, best practices, and any insights into what does and doesn’t work. Even after talking to thousands of people, writing thousands of blogs posts, and reading hundreds of books, I can’t tell what will and won’t work.

What I have seen is characteristics that increase the chance of entrepreneurial success.

Founders full of grit, resourcefulness, and a past full-time entrepreneurial failure are more likely to succeed. The team matters.

Markets that are undergoing change and transformation are more likely to have great opportunities. The disruptive stream matters.

Must-have products that are clearly differentiated and not a nice-to-have are more likely to win. A not-a-meme product matters.

Over the last several years I’ve worked with a number of excellent entrepreneurs to start companies such as Pardot, Rigor, SalesLoft, and Terminus. Some thrive, most fail. Personally, I’ve started many more that have failed than succeeded. Thankfully, the power of SaaS plus bigger markets makes winners cover many losses.

Now, our amazing team is working on a startup studio to systematically start and grow successful startups. We’ll combine past learning with new learnings to start several companies per year and help accelerate the next wave of startups.

Know anyone looking to become a SaaS entrepreneur? We’re hiring entrepreneurs-in-residence (EIRs) to evaluate and build new startups. Please let me know here or on LinkedIn.

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?