SAAS

Popular SaaS metrics to consider while investing in a Tech Venture

by Sandeep Kumar

SaaS metrics can answer important questions about your venture: Do I have the right business model? Is this the time to accelerate growth or to hit the brakes? Do I need to add new customers or focus on the existing ones? Should I add that new pricing level the products guy has been pestering me about? Is there really a limit to how much my venture can grow? Can it be changed?

With all the jargon and metrics whizzing around, it can be hard to keep track of what really matters. Today we break down what is that needs to be measured to unlock explosive growth! This article focusses on:

  • What are the most crucial metrics to measure at each stage of the startup?
  • Why are SaaS businesses different and how are the challenges they face different from other software startups?
  • And finally, is your SaaS business model viable?

Here goes…

So, what makes building a SaaS business so tough?

In one word.

Subscriptions.

Think about it. The revenues from a customer do not come instantly, like how it does when you sell a product. The revenues come over a period of time. If your subscriber is happy with your product and sees no reason to change it, they will stick with it for longer. And the longer they stick, the more money you pull out of them (on second thoughts, that sounds so pervert!). The longer a customer stays with you, the more you profit.

If on the other hand the customer signs up but ends up finding a better product or cheaper pricing or whatever, the customer will hit that CANCEL button and leave (churn). If this happens before you recover the money you spent in acquiring them, then, my friend you just made a loss. (Ouch!)

So, let’s get it straight. SaaS is not just about selling some piece of software to a customer. It has more to it. There is not just one but two sales you have to make. That’s right, two!

  • Getting your customer. Well, because, you need someone to buy your subscriptions.
  • Retaining that customer. So that you can increase the revenues generated from that customer. The longer the customer stays, the more revenues you get.

There is one last and final aspect to the two sales above. That is monetizing your customer.

Let’s look more into each one by one.

Getting those Customers (Acquisition)

Now, what do you think happens to your P&L while you are acquiring your customers? (Hint: Nothing good)

If ‘you bleed cash’ seems too hard a way to put it, then let’s just settle on, ‘you suffer significant losses’ Your server costs, employee wages, office rents, and all other costs don’t go on a pause magically.

And to add to your sorrows you also have to spend a bomb to woo your customers to your product.

A newbie SaaS business spends 92% of its revenues to acquire customers.

All this takes cash. Loads of it.

But wait, it gets worse.

The faster you try to grow, the more you bleed. (Ouch again!)

This naturally will extend to a cash flow problem as your customers will pay you only at the end of the year or month.

If you spend 1000 bucks to acquire a customer and bill them for $50 pm, you’ll need 20 months to break even on just one customer. Even worse, the customer may leave just after one year. Before you could recover your $1000.

But it’s not all blood and tears. The humble J curve is here to help you.

The horror story I just told you, well that applies only to the trough you see above in the J curve (the hockey stick head).

Once you hit breakeven on the individual customers, you’re off to the races!

So how do I know if I have hit the breakeven? Well, we have two metrics that help you do just that.

The first one is the Customer Acquisition Cost or the CAC, the horrors of which we discussed above. The CAC has been dubbed as the killer of startups. This is the amount you spend to get each customer. This of course varies from business to business.

Some businesses find a way to hack their way through the miseries of CAC. They build an audience first and then offer a solution to them. This way you get access to a ready-made audience that most probably will throw their money at you. You won’t have to spend (or spend not much) anything to get your customers.

The accompanying metric to CAC is the Long-Term Value or the LTV of a customer. Loosely, this is the total revenue you expect to get from each customer.

Using these two, you can find out if your business model works or not.  There are two rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  • Make sure your LTV > 3x CAC. Even higher LTV is better. Some startups have LTV at 4, 5, 6 even 7x to their CAC. While such a high ratio may seem good, just make sure that you are spending enough on marketing. Chances are you could do with putting in more money.
  • Make sure the months to recover CAC is less than a year. Basically, you should hit break-even within one year of acquiring your customer. Good startups have has this figure at just 10, 8, even 5 months.

This second rule can also be inverted and used to get a rough idea of how much you should price your product. Remember that $1000 spending to get your customer to pay you $50 pm? Well maybe you should bump your subscription cost to $83 (= 1000/12) or reduce your CAC.

Once you have these two rules nailed down, you can really step on the gas and expand like crazy. The LTV > CAC shows that your business model is viable and the CAC within 12 months shows that you can do hit profitability without going bankrupt. You have these two working in your favor, most VCs will be ready to fund you. (Nice!) Otherwise, maybe you need to change your business model somehow.

Based on Unity’s disclosure in its S-1 about the number of >$100,000 customers, adjusted with a bit of extrapolation for a single quarter we arrive at the numbers for the beginning of 2018. We are no able to judge that Unity added approximately 116 new and increasing >$100,000 customers in 2018 and approximately 111 new and increasing <=$100,000 customers back in 2019.$1.6 Mn per customer might seem huge, however, these are a large token of customers who are willing to spend more than $100,000 per year.

You can also combine them with segmentation (another qualitative metric of sorts) to see what segments of your customer base seem to be most promising. Alternatively, you can also use LTV: CAC to gauge what ad streams offer you the best returns and then heavy down on the ones that offer the most customers for the cheapest.

Making those Customer stick with you (Retaining)

So, you have a proven business model that has LTV > 3x CAC and time to LTV < 12 months. You’ve also secured funding now and have also expanded the team. Now you just scale the business and very soon you’ll make a bank!

You begin with 100 customers. At the end of the month, you find that 3 of them are no longer with you (not dead, they canceled subscription). 3 fewer participants on the platform. Big difference. You simply shrug it off and keep expanding rapidly.

A year passes and now you are acquiring customers by thousands. One fine month you acquire 10000 customers. At the end of the month, you notice 300 of this cohort (the group of customers acquired this month) have left.

Maybe losing 3 customers a month was okay, but 300 is big!

My friend, you’ve just run into customer churn

The churn is the % of customers you lose from a cohort each month. And this isn’t just another number in the spreadsheet. These are the number of people that tried your product but did not want to continue with it. You can only guess the reasons. Maybe they found a better product or maybe they found something cheaper. Either way, this sheds light on if your product is lacking.

The appropriate churn for a medium-stage startup is less than 5%. Great companies like Salesforce have kept it to less than 3%. This means that out of the 100 customers that signed up, 97 stayed on. Now as the scale of your business goes up, the goal must be to keep the churn numbers lower. As low as possible.

Now for all those who run a B2B SaaS. Let’s say you lose 5 customers out of the 100 you have. No big deal maybe. But what if these were your 10 biggest clients, responsible for a substantial churn of your MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue)? Well, now you’re trouble. (again)

This kind of churn is called revenue churn. Again, there isn’t a clear way to get out of this, maybe you need to reiterate on your product or maybe you need to get a better sales team. There is however one trick to hack your way out of it.

Advance Subscriptions!

You just ask your customers to pay upfront and provide them access to your platform or app or whatever that you have. There are two benefits of doing this:

  • You get good cash flow, even before the sale is officially recognized. This increases your capital efficiency.
  • The customer is also less likely to churn as they have already parted with their money, they must as well use your product.

You may keep a track of this using the ‘Months up Front’ metric. The more months upfront you have, the lesser are the chances of cash flow issues and customer churn.

One has to be careful in asking for upfront payments though. A lot of the customers will not be happy paying for the product before they use it. (did I ask you to get a better sales team…?)

There is another superpower that only a few startups have. And that is the negative churn. Negative churn is when you increase your revenue from existing customers such that it offsets any revenue you lost from the churned customers. There are two ways to get to this coveted stage:

  • Up-sell your existing customers. Maybe sell premium versions or cross-sell other subscriptions.
  • Add a variable to your product. Maybe keep a variable number of accounts allowed/leads tracked/seats used. As the customer expands usage, the more you get paid.

Now as your startup expands to new customer segments or other markets, you may wonder if there was a way to know beforehand if the churn would trouble you or not. To counter that, we suggest startups use a Customer Engagement Score and Net Promoter Score.

Customer Engagement Score is a startup-specific metric that tracks how likely is a customer to continue using the product based on the features of the product they use and the frequency with which they use it. You basically assign points to each feature of your product (or to each product, if you have multiple products). Allocate more points for features/products you think would be more engaging.

You can verify your points allocation by using your historical churn data to see if the features/products you used actually predicted that churn.

You can also use this to find out which are the best features/products so that you can double down on improving that feature or up/cross-selling those products.

To put things into perspective Unity grew by 33% without taking into account any new customers and its actual growth was 42% because it added new customers. A growing base of customers that spends more every year is the reason behind the stellar growth numbers of Unity. Organic growth is much easier when you have a niche product.

The other metric worth tracking is the Net Promoter Score. This is a startup agnostic score, making it useful to compare across startups. You can learn more about NPS here.

The range lies between -100 to 100. Anything above zero is considered ‘good’, 50 above is ‘excellent’, and 70 above is ‘world-class. Any score above 71 is rarely attained.

For Unity, the score is between 41-50 among various platforms, which makes it number one amongst its competitors. Even the best of the companies like Amazon (54) and Apple (47) haven’t attained a score beyond 70.

There are a lot of additional factors to consider as well. The market has changed slightly, with many VCs now prioritizing profitability over crazily high growth. Companies that have both are ideal, but they are quite rare. Financial indicators are an excellent method to measure the health of a firm if it has more than a million ARR, but we also take a lot of qualitative aspects like the addressable market size, its demography, management and the team, and other factors into account.  The majority of traditional SaaS businesses aren’t like that. In order to push the expansion forward, the business must cautiously look at the health of its metrics mentioned above and invest money in sales, marketing, and its team.

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This article has been co-authored by Khubaib Abdullah, who is in the Research and Insights team of Torre Capital.

UiPath: On the Path to a Blockbuster IPO?

by Sandeep Kumar

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UiPath is a pioneer of the Robotic Process Automation industry. The company filed its first S-1/A this week, setting an initial price range for its shares. Shares are going to be listed in the price range of $52 — $54 bringing the valuation to $26.90 Bn — $27.90 Bn. It is all set to launch the IPO under the ticker ‘PATH’ on the New York Stock Exchange.

Incorporated in 2015 and headquartered in New York, UiPath develops computerized workflows to build, manage, measure, and engage with processes. Customers benefit from the platform’s innovative capabilities by eliminating work spent on time-consuming, repetitive, and tedious tasks.

The company’s products have become increasingly attractive for companies looking to boost productivity. This is especially true amid the global pandemic that has enforced technology and automation adoptions. The demand is much higher than initially expected. This has been driving the demand for IPO and the investors are bullish on the ‘PATH’ stock.

Company Snapshot 

  • Annualised Renewal Rate (ARR): $580 Mn
  • Annualised Renewal Rate growth Yoy: 65%
  • Total Customers: 7,968
  • Customers ≥ $100k
  • ARR: 1002
  • Dollar based net retention rate: 145%
  • Net Loss: $92 Mn

So how does UiPath make money?

Product Offering: The end-to-end platform provides a whole range of robotic process automation via a suite of interrelated software offerings. The flagship product offering, the UiPath Studio is an easy to use, drag-and-drop development platform designed for RPA developers engineering complex process automation. Other offerings include the UiPath Robot which emulates human behavior to execute the processes built-in Studio and the UiPath Orchestrator that tracks and logs Robot activity.

Market Model: UiPath has an efficient go-to-market model, which consists primarily of an enterprise field sales force supplemented by a high velocity inside sales team focused on small and mid-sized customers, as well as a global strategic sales team focused on the largest global customers.

Revenue Model: UiPath generates revenue from the sale of licenses for its proprietary software, its maintenance and support, and professional services. The license fees are based primarily on the number of users who access the software and the number of automation running on their platform. The license agreements have annual terms, and/or multi-year terms. Additionally, UiPath provides maintenance and support for its software as well as non-recurring professional services such as training and implementation services.

 

 

License (57% of revenue): UiPath’s primary business model is selling licenses through annual and multi-year subscription contracts. Being 57% of its business it shows a vibrant business model and the right product mix which is well received by the market.

Maintenance and Support (38% of revenue): The relatively large amount of maintenance and support revenue suggests that the customer base is being retained.

Services (<5% of revenue): A small part of its business is customer education and technical services likely around their UiPath academy.

UiPath’s Road to Dominance

UiPath is at the forefront of technology innovation and thought leadership in automation.

Companies such as UiPath have two ways to grow: either blasting through the market and acquiring more and more customers or be more docile and focus more on retention than expansion. UiPath chose the former. The company expanded internationally very early on, acquiring more and more customers from different nations. The growth was absolutely out of control.

Surprisingly, this does not mean that UiPath compromised on customer retention, the killer of all SaaS companies. UiPath managed to find the middle ground between blatant expansion and customer retention. The S-1 reveals an extremely high 96% “gross retention rate” and a dollar-based net retention rate of 145%. So, this says UiPath’s existing customers are spending more with the company and also sticking with it.

The Robotic Process Automation Landscape

According to an estimate by Bain & Company the size of the market for automation software will grow to approximately $65 Bn.

The market for automation is super-hot right now with the COVID pandemic making automation a dire necessity. UiPath is the clear market leader in this category. The S-1 puts their Total Addressable Market (TAM) at $60 Bn. Pre pandemic this figure stood at $30 Bn. Double the market size, in just under a year. That’s some serious growth.

It is clear that UiPath wishes to tap into the red-hot IPO market and rightly so. It needs to pad its balance sheet with as much cash as it can muster for the massive opportunity and the competitor risk it faces ranging from its peers such as Automation Anywhere to the giants like Microsoft. The principal purposes of this offering are to increase its capitalization and financial flexibility.

This is data from the Brookings Institution and the Organization for Economic Co-Development that depicts productivity statistics for the U.S. The smaller charts on the right are for Germany and Japan.

                                  Source: Brookings Institution and the Organization for Economic Co-Development 

The US showed productivity growth in ’95-’04, but that slacked off later. Similar is the case with Germany and Japan where the productivity levels have been falling continuously.

Humans are slowly reaching the very limit of what they can do alone to solve the most pressing challenges around the globe. Automation is what can free up labor and divert human intelligence and creativity into more engaging and worthwhile problems. The market is ready for automation and the post-pandemic world will witness never seen before levels of automation. 

Key Industry Risks

  • Barriers to Entry: Robotic process automation is very difficult to implement and therefore many organizations will not able to implement it thereby affecting the industry growth.
  • Sustainability: Any automation, no matter how advanced is not capable of perfectly emulating human behavior.
  • Affordability: The entire automation process is a costly proposition and affordability is an issue.

Key Company Risks

  • Growth Opportunity: The revenue growth rate of above 80% YoY may not be sustainable in the future due to the maturation of the business, increased competition, and changes to technology.
  • Limitations to Scalability: While the UiPath platform is intuitive and beginner-friendly, intra-organizational scalability poses an issue. Also, many features offered by UiPath are offered for free by other productivity platforms.
  • Pitfalls of Constant Innovation: Automation and Productivity Software is a fast-changing landscape. UiPath will need to disrupt itself to stay relevant.

Financial Highlights

Revenue: Total Revenue of $336 Mn in 2020 grew to $607 Mn in 2021, a YoY growth of more than 80%. Most of the increase was fuelled by the maintenance fees and other incomes. A 71% increase in license fees indicates a very fast-growing customer base.

UiPath has gone from making $169 Mn in the last quarter of FY 2019 to $580 Mn in the last quarter of FY 2021.

Gross-profit Margin: The gross profit margin stands at 90% and has increased from 72% in 2019 to 90% in 2021. This comes on the back of reduced travel costs due to the COVID pandemic and rapid international expansion which generated 66% and 61% of the revenue in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

Net-profit Margin: The Net Loss has also been improving over time, in spite of the break neck speed that UiPath seems to be growing at. This is explained by the Operating Expenses Line Item where all the three viz. licensing costs, maintenance costs, and other costs should have gone up, keeping in line with the revenue growth. On the contrary, all the three went down, while as the revenues shot up.

Cash Flow: Unlike a lot of other growth startups going public, UiPath has a positive free cash flow, saving cash on the operational front. This is rare for a rapidly growing company. Other growth stage companies to go public such as Snowflake and CrowdStrike had negative free cash flows. Quite a few haven’t made money, even months after listing.

This may pose a concern for investors who view UiPath to be a rapidly growing, disruptive startup. Generating cash may be interpreted as a sign of UiPath transitioning into its mature stage.

Alternatively, the plan may be, to slow down the growth, settle down, consolidate the customer base and the product offering, and then continue explosive growth. Daniel Dines, the founder of UiPath has been an unconventional CEO on many fronts, this may as well be a part of the bigger picture.

Other Interesting Tid-bits

Annualized Renewal Rate (ARR) is the key metric UiPath uses to gauge its business. It illustrates the ability to acquire new subscription customers and to maintaining the existing subscription customers. The ARR may fluctuate as a result of a number of factors, including customers’ satisfaction, pricing, competitive offerings, economic conditions, or overall changes in customers’ spending levels.

 

UiPath’s “ARR” rose by 65% over the last year, indicating a massive jump in the number of new consumers using UiPath. This again highlights UiPath’s ‘expanding, yet retaining’ value proposition.

  • Number of Customers: 6,300
  • Number of Enterprise Customers: 1,500. As of January 31, 2021, UiPath had 7,968 customers, including 80% of the Fortune 10 and 63% of the Fortune Global 500.
  • Number of Developers on the UiPath platform: 200,000
  • Number of People enrolled in UiPath Courses: 100,000

Is UiPath prepared to handle the competition?

The platform addresses the market for Intelligent Process Automation, which International Data Corporation, estimated would have a value of $17 billion by the end of 2020 and is expected to grow at a four-year compound annual growth rate of approximately 16% to $30 billion by the end of 2024. According to an estimate by Bain & Company the size of the market for automation software will grow to approximately $65 billion.

 

UiPath is a market leader in the Automation industry commanding a whopping 44% of the entire market.

Nearly every company’s a winner that gets to feature in the RPA Magic Quadrant from Gartner, and even just getting on the chart is a win for some companies. UiPath ranks very high, at the very top right of the matrix, strongly positioned as an industry leader as well as a visionary, with only Automation Anywhere coming close.

 

Source: Gartner’s RPA Magic Quadrant

The UiPath IPO will be a decisive moment for not just UiPath itself, but also Automation Anywhere. A tie-breaker between the two, the UiPath IPO will either force Automation Anywhere to respond with an IPO or simply perish.

Are the Valuations on the Right Path?

The NASDAQ 100 Technology Index is up by 62%, this year alone. This coupled with the high demand for the RPA products worldwide, and you get a red-hot market for the UiPath IPO. This is likely to benefit UiPath massively but is the valuation justified or the financials go for a toss?
UiPath was valued at $35 Bn following its last financing round in February. Based on a recently released statement by the management UiPath is likely to launch IPO with shares in the price range of $52-$54 bringing the valuation in the range of $26.90 — $27.90 Bn. This brings the EV/Revenue multiple to 45.88x.

 

 

How well do the Peers Fare?

Being the market leader with a 44% market share and its colossal size relative to the peers it is difficult comparing the company to its peers. However, we have compared it to its direct competitors Automation Anywhere (Private Company) and Blue Prism (London Stock Exchange: PRSM).

Taking the Taking EV/Revenue multiple into account and weighted average calculation of the comparable companies, we arrive at an NTM multiple of 12.33x which gives us an intrinsic valuation of $8.96 Billion.

Investment Recommendation

The UiPath IPO in any case is highly anticipated, being a market leader in the red-hot Robotic Process Automation market. The company has a strong reputation and a substantial client base. Despite that, it was a bit of shock that the IPO price range failed to reach the valuation company garnered in private funding. This might be caused by the general cooling of IPOs over the past few months.

Going public in a dynamic market like RPA is tricky. However, UiPath has demonstrated strong performance and growth potential and this should be an extremely successful IPO only cementing its leadership position. We forecast a strong performance and growth for the share and recommend a long-term positive outlook. 

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This article has been co-authored by Khubaib Abdullah and Ayush Dugar, who are in the Research and Insights team of Torre Capital.

Project Management Simplified?

by Sandeep Kumar

“The stock might be valued at around 45x forward revenue at the mean of this valuation, which would be among the highest multiple for valuations in the entire tech industry”

Imagine we told you that in the coming week you could invest in a company which has carved out a new space in the category of software? Hold on to that thought. Let’s say the company has recurring revenues, experiencing consistent growth in the recent past – capturing clients from government offices to professional cosmetics including a third of the Fortune 500 names. What if we say that the Co-Founders have already had a proven track record working with Facebook and that 98% of its employees would recommend it to a friend as a great place to work? If all of this interests you, read on…

We are talking about Asana – a work management software-as-a-service platform that helps teams orchestrate their work, from daily tasks to cross-functional strategic initiatives. Asana’s distinguishing factor is its integration capabilities including over 100+ popular applications that combine Dropbox, G Suite, Salesforce, Mail Chimp, and Slack. The company will shortly be traded on NYSE under the ticker symbol “ASAN”

 

Company Highlights

Asana has over 82,000 paying customers as of July 31, 2020 and over 3.2 Million free activated accounts since inception, representing a large opportunity to convert these accounts into paying customers.

The dollar-based net retention rate of Asana was over by 120% as compared to 2019. They don’t have a lot of meaningful product releases to date but the core features are worth the buck, as their biggest customers are spending more than they did a year ago. For customers with an ACV greater than $50,000, Asana’s NRR expands to over 140%, indicating that its biggest customers are spending significantly more than they did a year ago.

The company’s focus on user experience underscored by sleek and intuitive design is not easily imitable. This indicates the extra productivity and admin features, Asana brings to its premium subscribers including advanced admin controls, specialized support and custom branding.

With already 41% of its business com­ing from outside North America, there is a huge potential to expand internationally by tapping enterprise-wide deployments with optimized budgets and its workflow-automation capabilities.

Asana has experienced a strong business growth in recent years, and trends seem to remain robust, although growth has been slowing modestly. Revenues were up by 86% year-to-year growth at $142.6 Million. In its most recent quarter ending July 2020, Asana recorded 57% year-to-year growth.

However, the market for work management solutions is increasingly competitive, fragmented, and subject to rapidly changing technology. The situation would only become more complicated for Asana, given the low barriers to entry in the industry and highly differentiated SaaS products.

With the current hype for anything SaaS, Asana’s IPO could open trading at a minimum of $9 – $10 Billion valuation just double the last reported secondary market valuation of $5 Billion, replicating the reactions in the lines of SaaS companies like Zoom, Tesla, Snowflake and Unity. The stock might be valued at around 45x forward revenue at the mean of this valuation, which would be among the highest multiple for valuations in the entire tech industry. Read the full report to find out how?

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Popular SaaS metrics to consider while investing in a Tech Venture

by Sandeep Kumar

SaaS metrics can answer important questions about your venture: Do I have the right business model? Is this the time to accelerate growth or to hit the brakes? Do I need to add new customers or focus on the existing ones? Should I add that new pricing level the products guy has been pestering me about? Is there really a limit to how much my venture can grow? Can it be changed?

With all the jargon and metrics whizzing around, it can be hard to keep track of what really matters. Today we break down what is that needs to be measured to unlock explosive growth! This article focusses on:

  • What are the most crucial metrics to measure at each stage of the startup?
  • Why are SaaS businesses different and how are the challenges they face different from other software startups?
  • And finally, is your SaaS business model viable?

Here goes…

So, what makes building a SaaS business so tough?

In one word.

Subscriptions.

Think about it. The revenues from a customer do not come instantly, like how it does when you sell a product. The revenues come over a period of time. If your subscriber is happy with your product and sees no reason to change it, they will stick with it for longer. And the longer they stick, the more money you pull out of them (on second thoughts, that sounds so pervert!). The longer a customer stays with you, the more you profit.

If on the other hand the customer signs up but ends up finding a better product or cheaper pricing or whatever, the customer will hit that CANCEL button and leave (churn). If this happens before you recover the money you spent in acquiring them, then, my friend you just made a loss. (Ouch!)

So, let’s get it straight. SaaS is not just about selling some piece of software to a customer. It has more to it. There is not just one but two sales you have to make. That’s right, two!

  • Getting your customer. Well, because, you need someone to buy your subscriptions.
  • Retaining that customer. So that you can increase the revenues generated from that customer. The longer the customer stays, the more revenues you get.

There is one last and final aspect to the two sales above. That is monetizing your customer.

Let’s look more into each one by one.

Getting those Customers (Acquisition)

Now, what do you think happens to your P&L while you are acquiring your customers? (Hint: Nothing good)

If ‘you bleed cash’ seems too hard a way to put it, then let’s just settle on, ‘you suffer significant losses’ Your server costs, employee wages, office rents, and all other costs don’t go on a pause magically.

And to add to your sorrows you also have to spend a bomb to woo your customers to your product.

A newbie SaaS business spends 92% of its revenues to acquire customers.

All this takes cash. Loads of it.

But wait, it gets worse.

The faster you try to grow, the more you bleed. (Ouch again!)

This naturally will extend to a cash flow problem as your customers will pay you only at the end of the year or month.

If you spend 1000 bucks to acquire a customer and bill them for $50 pm, you’ll need 20 months to break even on just one customer. Even worse, the customer may leave just after one year. Before you could recover your $1000.

But it’s not all blood and tears. The humble J curve is here to help you.

The horror story I just told you, well that applies only to the trough you see above in the J curve (the hockey stick head).

Once you hit breakeven on the individual customers, you’re off to the races!

So how do I know if I have hit the breakeven? Well, we have two metrics that help you do just that.

The first one is the Customer Acquisition Cost or the CAC, the horrors of which we discussed above. The CAC has been dubbed as the killer of startups. This is the amount you spend to get each customer. This of course varies from business to business.

Some businesses find a way to hack their way through the miseries of CAC. They build an audience first and then offer a solution to them. This way you get access to a ready-made audience that most probably will throw their money at you. You won’t have to spend (or spend not much) anything to get your customers.

The accompanying metric to CAC is the Long-Term Value or the LTV of a customer. Loosely, this is the total revenue you expect to get from each customer.

Using these two, you can find out if your business model works or not.  There are two rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  • Make sure your LTV > 3x CAC. Even higher LTV is better. Some startups have LTV at 4, 5, 6 even 7x to their CAC. While such a high ratio may seem good, just make sure that you are spending enough on marketing. Chances are you could do with putting in more money.
  • Make sure the months to recover CAC is less than a year. Basically, you should hit break-even within one year of acquiring your customer. Good startups have has this figure at just 10, 8, even 5 months.

This second rule can also be inverted and used to get a rough idea of how much you should price your product. Remember that $1000 spending to get your customer to pay you $50 pm? Well maybe you should bump your subscription cost to $83 (= 1000/12) or reduce your CAC.

Once you have these two rules nailed down, you can really step on the gas and expand like crazy. The LTV > CAC shows that your business model is viable and the CAC within 12 months shows that you can do hit profitability without going bankrupt. You have these two working in your favor, most VCs will be ready to fund you. (Nice!) Otherwise, maybe you need to change your business model somehow.

Based on Unity’s disclosure in its S-1 about the number of >$100,000 customers, adjusted with a bit of extrapolation for a single quarter we arrive at the numbers for the beginning of 2018. We are no able to judge that Unity added approximately 116 new and increasing >$100,000 customers in 2018 and approximately 111 new and increasing <=$100,000 customers back in 2019.$1.6 Mn per customer might seem huge, however, these are a large token of customers who are willing to spend more than $100,000 per year.

You can also combine them with segmentation (another qualitative metric of sorts) to see what segments of your customer base seem to be most promising. Alternatively, you can also use LTV: CAC to gauge what ad streams offer you the best returns and then heavy down on the ones that offer the most customers for the cheapest.

Making those Customer stick with you (Retaining)

So, you have a proven business model that has LTV > 3x CAC and time to LTV < 12 months. You’ve also secured funding now and have also expanded the team. Now you just scale the business and very soon you’ll make a bank!

You begin with 100 customers. At the end of the month, you find that 3 of them are no longer with you (not dead, they canceled subscription). 3 fewer participants on the platform. Big difference. You simply shrug it off and keep expanding rapidly.

A year passes and now you are acquiring customers by thousands. One fine month you acquire 10000 customers. At the end of the month, you notice 300 of this cohort (the group of customers acquired this month) have left.

Maybe losing 3 customers a month was okay, but 300 is big!

My friend, you’ve just run into customer churn

The churn is the % of customers you lose from a cohort each month. And this isn’t just another number in the spreadsheet. These are the number of people that tried your product but did not want to continue with it. You can only guess the reasons. Maybe they found a better product or maybe they found something cheaper. Either way, this sheds light on if your product is lacking.

The appropriate churn for a medium-stage startup is less than 5%. Great companies like Salesforce have kept it to less than 3%. This means that out of the 100 customers that signed up, 97 stayed on. Now as the scale of your business goes up, the goal must be to keep the churn numbers lower. As low as possible.

Now for all those who run a B2B SaaS. Let’s say you lose 5 customers out of the 100 you have. No big deal maybe. But what if these were your 10 biggest clients, responsible for a substantial churn of your MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue)? Well, now you’re trouble. (again)

This kind of churn is called revenue churn. Again, there isn’t a clear way to get out of this, maybe you need to reiterate on your product or maybe you need to get a better sales team. There is however one trick to hack your way out of it.

Advance Subscriptions!

You just ask your customers to pay upfront and provide them access to your platform or app or whatever that you have. There are two benefits of doing this:

  • You get good cash flow, even before the sale is officially recognized. This increases your capital efficiency.
  • The customer is also less likely to churn as they have already parted with their money, they must as well use your product.

You may keep a track of this using the ‘Months up Front’ metric. The more months upfront you have, the lesser are the chances of cash flow issues and customer churn.

One has to be careful in asking for upfront payments though. A lot of the customers will not be happy paying for the product before they use it. (did I ask you to get a better sales team…?)

There is another superpower that only a few startups have. And that is the negative churn. Negative churn is when you increase your revenue from existing customers such that it offsets any revenue you lost from the churned customers. There are two ways to get to this coveted stage:

  • Up-sell your existing customers. Maybe sell premium versions or cross-sell other subscriptions.
  • Add a variable to your product. Maybe keep a variable number of accounts allowed/leads tracked/seats used. As the customer expands usage, the more you get paid.

Now as your startup expands to new customer segments or other markets, you may wonder if there was a way to know beforehand if the churn would trouble you or not. To counter that, we suggest startups use a Customer Engagement Score and Net Promoter Score.

Customer Engagement Score is a startup-specific metric that tracks how likely is a customer to continue using the product based on the features of the product they use and the frequency with which they use it. You basically assign points to each feature of your product (or to each product, if you have multiple products). Allocate more points for features/products you think would be more engaging.

You can verify your points allocation by using your historical churn data to see if the features/products you used actually predicted that churn.

You can also use this to find out which are the best features/products so that you can double down on improving that feature or up/cross-selling those products.

To put things into perspective Unity grew by 33% without taking into account any new customers and its actual growth was 42% because it added new customers. A growing base of customers that spends more every year is the reason behind the stellar growth numbers of Unity. Organic growth is much easier when you have a niche product.

The other metric worth tracking is the Net Promoter Score. This is a startup agnostic score, making it useful to compare across startups. You can learn more about NPS here.

The range lies between -100 to 100. Anything above zero is considered ‘good’, 50 above is ‘excellent’, and 70 above is ‘world-class. Any score above 71 is rarely attained.

For Unity, the score is between 41-50 among various platforms, which makes it number one amongst its competitors. Even the best of the companies like Amazon (54) and Apple (47) haven’t attained a score beyond 70.

There are a lot of additional factors to consider as well. The market has changed slightly, with many VCs now prioritizing profitability over crazily high growth. Companies that have both are ideal, but they are quite rare. Financial indicators are an excellent method to measure the health of a firm if it has more than a million ARR, but we also take a lot of qualitative aspects like the addressable market size, its demography, management and the team, and other factors into account.  The majority of traditional SaaS businesses aren’t like that. In order to push the expansion forward, the business must cautiously look at the health of its metrics mentioned above and invest money in sales, marketing, and its team.

– – – – – –

This article has been co-authored by Khubaib Abdullah, who is in the Research and Insights team of Torre Capital.

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