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 PardotRigor, 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?

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.

A Failure at Raising Money

Back in 2009, we were in our third year of Pardot and things were looking good, really good. We had just cracked $1M in annual recurring revenue (a big milestone!) and went out to the market to raise money from venture capitalists. Only, we botched the process (actually, it was all my fault). Some of the mistakes:

  • Made the timeline to raise money too loose such that we were at different phases with different investors over the course of several months (best practice is to run a serious process over 4-6 weeks)
  • Made the personal time commitment too loose such that I was still 80% on the business and 20% fundraising when it should be the other way around
  • Met with 29 VCs from Atlanta to D.C. to Boston to Silicon Valley and didn’t do a good job of lumping meetings together resulting in lots of flights with only one or two meetings
  • Personally prepared the financial forecast without outside expertise resulting in a session with a VC where I was being grilled why gross margins were going down three years out instead of up, and I wasn’t prepared
  • Not really understanding how to put more money to work other than pointing to our cost of customer acquisition relative to payback period and saying we’d put most of the money into sales and marketing (a bottom-up SaaS revenue forecast is the way to go)

In the end, it didn’t matter. After doing some spreadsheet jockeying, it was clear that we were better off continuing to bootstrap the business as we couldn’t see a 5-to-1 payback on raising money (e.g. invest $1 and make the business $5 more valuable). Raising money doesn’t ensure success, but if you are going that route, don’t make the same mistakes we made.

What else? What are some more lessons learned from raising money?

Two Routes to Starting Great Startups: Audience Building and Consulting

Earlier this week I was at SalesLoft’s annual Rainmaker conference and couldn’t help but be in awe of the palpable energy from 1,000+ attendees. People were smiling, talking (go figure with a bunch of sales people attending a sales conference!), and genuinely excited to be there. After reflecting on the event, it reminded me of the early days of SalesLoft at the Atlanta Tech Village.

From the start of SalesLoft, Kyle Porter, the founder/CEO, focused on building a passionate audience of modern sales professionals through public speaking, blogging, and interviewing of sales leaders. Site traffic, email subscribers, and Twitter followers grew tremendously. Only, the company didn’t have a product sales people wanted — the first product was a nice-to-have and not a must have.

Despite limited commercial success with the first product, the passionate audience was there and growing. So, if the product isn’t working but there are a ton of fans of the company, the next step is to ask the them what they want. After many conversations, and more product iterations, sales engagement was identified as the next major opportunity in the sales technology market. Today, SalesLoft has thousands of paying customers and is one of the fastest growing startups in the country.

Now, contrast it to another amazing startup: Terminus. Terminus is the leader in account-based marketing and was founded by Eric Spett. The first year of Terminus was completely focused on consulting for marketers with an eye towards finding a product opportunity and turning it into a SaaS platform. And, that’s exactly what happened.

Consulting is generally a tough way to start a startup because it’s easy to get comfortable with a decent paycheck and not have the time to build a compelling product. Yet, consulting actually works well in that there’s a professional that needs a problem solved, and is willing to pay money to solve it — the perfect environment to do customer discovery. In the case of Terminus, as soon as the market opportunity was clear, the shift was made away from consulting and to full-on product development. Today, thousands of marketers use the Terminus product.

Ultimately, there are many different paths to success. Too often, entrepreneurs get enamored with their initial idea and don’t evolve it fast enough to meet the needs of the market. Building a passionate audience and doing consulting work are two different routes that get close to the customer and help accelerate success.

The Simply SaaS Forum – Network and Learn from SaaS Pros

Next month we’re hosting the first of many Simply SaaS Forums in the Southeast. Taking a page from Jason Lemkin and SaaStr Annual, we’ve set out to build a community for SaaS entrepreneurs and professionals that want to network and learn from other experts. The faster you learn, the faster you grow.

As for the structure, it’s a 4.5 hour event from 1-5:30pm with an optional dinner afterwards. Being in Atlanta, we have direct flights and short drives for more than 80 million people in the Southeast whereby you can travel here in the morning, get a tremendous amount of value in the afternoon, and be home that night without having to even get a hotel room. We understand the grind and are providing a program and format to take actionable insights across a variety of functions for SaaS pros.

As for the program, we’ve broken it out into sales, marketing, product/engineering, and people/culture followed by a founder discussion on scaling from $0 to millions in recurring revenue. Here’s our first lineup:

  • Tonni Bennett, VP of Sales at Terminus – Tonni will share her lessons learned as a sales leader growing Terminus from $0 to tens of millions in ARR.
  • Tami McQueen, Co-founder of 31south – Tami McQueen, formerly of SalesLoft, will share marketing lessons learned when growing SalesLoft into one of the largest sales engagement platforms on the market.
  • Hubert Liu, Engineering Lead at Atlanta Ventures – Hubert Liu will share experiences from his time as CTO at Rigor about what it takes to grow a product from $0 to Inc. 500.
  • Karen Houghton, VP of Atlanta Tech Village – Karen has been with Atlanta Tech Village since the beginning and will share lessons learned on building great culture for startups.
  • Craig Hyde, CEO of Rigor – Craig is the founder/CEO of Rigor and was recognized last year in the Inc. 500 as one of the fastest growing companies in the United States.

Overall, we’re on a mission to connect the Southeastern SaaS community with great content and programs to ultimately increase our quantity and scale of success. Please join us on our journey.