Category: financials

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As I looked through the list of public SaaS companies this morning, I read their forward multiples. ZScaler: 23.1x; Okta: 21.8x; Veeva: 18.8x; Coupa: 18.6x; Shopify: 17.0x. Those multiples are calculated by dividing the enterprise value today by its projected future revenue of the company. But what do they mean? What do they imply? First, we need to set some context. There are two kinds of companies: those valued on growth and those valued on profits.
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04 April / exits / financials / startups
Why does growth rate matter so much? Why does growth rate influence valuation so much? I was reading a book recently written by a hedge fund manager who discussed valuation frameworks. His explanation was one of the best I’ve come across. If your business is growing at 100% next year, then 90% the year after, and then about 80% the year after, the business will have grown 6.9x. That’s the way I’ve always looked at company.
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In 2014, I published a post called Do Startup Require Less Capital to Succeed than 10 Years Ago? It’s been five years and time to see how things have changed. In the analysis, I created a metric, the return on invested capital (ROIC). ROIC is the number of revenue dollars that one venture dollar bought. In other words, at IPO, how much revenue per VC dollar did the company generate. In 2014 we saw increasing efficiencies over time, which was very exciting because it reaffirmed the efficiency of SaaS go-to-market.
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08 February / financials / best practices
As you build out your startup’s financial model for 2019, a key component will be the hiring plan. You’ll need to calculate the number of managers and individual contributors to achieve your goals. But don’t forget to plan for mishires. You will make mistakes hiring people. We all do and it’s part of the process of building a company. Someone looks great on paper but isn’t a culture fit. Another doesn’t ramp quickly enough.
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07 January / financials
In the public stock market, share repurchases/buybacks have reached more than $1 trillion in 2018, a historic high. As the amount of private capital increases, share repurchases in startups are popping up. Typically, they are a very inefficient use of capital. A share repurchase occurs when the company uses cash on its balance sheet to buy shares from an existing shareholder, typically an employee or an early investor. For public companies, buying shares is a way of using excess capital to increase the earnings per share (EPS) and other metrics that investors care about.
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Your sales team is starting to close some terrific accounts. As your startup grows, your sales team will experiment with different sales techniques. For example, qualification, pricing, positioning, incentives and contract structure. This is a wonderful phase for a startup. However, there’s a common mistake to avoid. Your VP of Finance should model the impact and approve each experiment. Many startups don’t do this at the early stages of go to market.
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01 April / financials / startups
A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. This statement underpins all of finance. The idea has a fancy name: the Time Value of Money. It applies to all types of investments, including startups. Time Value of Money is the economic argument for startups to raise money when it’s available. If I give you a million dollars today, you can invest it. You might buy 151 bitcoins. Or invest in a certificate of deposit at 1.
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20 February / financials / strategy
What should be the return on investment of a startup’s cash burn? Fred Wilson posed this question last year in his post Some Thoughts on Burn Rates. In that post, he suggests, and I agree, that a 5x ROI on cash burn is a good target. How does one calculate ROI? It’s a simple formula: Cash_Burn_ROI = Revenue_Multiple/Revenue_Pay_Back_in_Years1 If a business is worth 7x revenues and revenue payback is 14 months, the burn ROI is 6x or 7 / 1.
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You’re two or three years into your startup. You have hired a great team and want to retain them. It’s time to consider refreshing their stock options to motivate them to stay longer. How many options should you grant to each employee? Startups should pay key people market rate to retain them. Otherwise, they may leave the business, lured by the promise of greater compensation elsewhere. Let’s walk through an example.
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09 November / financials
Founders often describe their unit economics in terms of their LTV/CAC ratio - the ratio of the Lifetime Value (LTV) of a customer to the Cost of Customer Acquisition (CAC). The LTV/CAC metric can be a powerful metric to unpack the health of the go-to-market team of a company, as Netsuite has shown. But this figure is often meaningless for early stage startups. Why? Because a company one or two or even three years into sales can’t yet accurately forecast customer lifetimes.
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01 November / sales / marketing / financials / saas
One of the major trends facing SaaS companies today is the rising cost of customer acquisition. Data on this trend has been difficult to find. Fortunately, Patrick at ProfitWell sent me his survey results across about 800 companies. The chart above shows the increasing cost of customer acquisition on a per company basis. Those surveyed have observed a ~65% increase in cost of customer acquisition over the last five years.
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29 October / financials
Starting in January, public software companies will report their financials using ASC 606. Normally, accounting changes are not that interesting, but ASC 606 will change several of the key attributes and benchmarks SaaS startups use. The two most important changes are changes to revenue and profitability. Today, all software revenue is recognized ratably over the contract period. If a business finds a 12 month contract for $12,000, the company record $1000 of revenue for each month.
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17 September / sales / financials / saas
How much should a SaaS startup invest in sales and marketing at different stages of the business? This is a very nuanced question, but benchmarks do provide some guidance for what is reasonable. Sales and marketing investment depends on many different factors including establishing product market fit, the business’s sales model (inside, field, freemium), and not least, cash balance and fundraising capacity. The chart above shows the sales and marketing investment of publicly traded software companies at different revenue levels.
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04 September / sales / financials / saas
Every startup’s sales commission plan is different. But it’s key to understand the theory and the benchmark data that governs the creation of sales commission plans to create a good one for your business. Before we begin, let’s define a few terms. Sales compensation is communicated in OTE, On Target Earnings. OTE has two parts: salary/draw and commission. Salary is the annual amount paid to the employee irrespective of how much business he/she closes.
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15 August / financials / sales / saas / startups
The cash conversion cycle is a key metric for startups, but one that often isn’t talked about until a business hires a CFO. Once a business established product market fit, the cash conversion cycle is a key metric of a company’s cash efficiency - how quickly a company can convert a dollar of investment into a dollar of cash flow. To calculate the cash conversion cycle for a software company, the formula is
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17 January / saas / history / financials / sales
Most SaaS companies dream of attaining the $100M ARR mark. The very fastest attain the goal in 6-7 years. Last week, Workday halted trading to announce it had signed Walmart as a customer. Brian White, research analyst at Drexel Hamilton investment bank, estimated this one customer could generate $100M-$200M per year for Workday in recurring revenue - a single customer. I couldn’t validate that this is the largest contract ever signed by a SaaS company, but if it is not the largest, it is most certainly the top 5.
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16 December / saas / management / financials
SaaS startups often find themselves in one of three different states when contemplating their burn rate. The first is the David Farragut strategy. Damn the burn rate, full speed ahead. The second is the conservative approach - attaining profitability using only the cash on the balance sheet. Those two are easy. Circumstances dictate the respective aggression or conservatism. Lots of cash or not so much. The more complicated state is the one in between, and that is the one that most SaaS startup operate within.
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30 November / financials / saas
Bookings, MRR, Revenue. All these metrics form part of the financial statements of SaaS companies. For as long as SaaS companies have existed, we’ve used one way of counting revenue, called GAAP. Starting in 2017, revenue recognition for SaaS companies will change, and SaaS startups will have more flexibility in the way they record revenue than in the past. BDO has published the clearest summary of these changes, which number more than 750 pages in the tax code.
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17 November / financials / benchmarks
Earlier this week, I published benchmarks on What Percentage Of Revenue Should SaaS Startups Spend On operating expense? Several founders asked to see this data broken down further. What fraction of operating expense is spent on sales & marketing, and what fraction of op is spent on engineering? Most businesses spend 2x more on sales & marketing than engineering. Looking at all publicly traded SaaS companies for four years before and four years after their IPOs, we see they spend about 40% of their operating expense on sales and marketing.
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09 September / financials / startups / saas / management
If I made a word cloud of the terms in 2016 that dominated Startupland, burn would be among them and perhaps the largest. On the contrary, burn would be absent from the 2015 list, replaced by unicorn. Starting in the end of 2015, Public companies have markedly shifted the way they manage their businesses pushing toward cash flow positive and net income positive. In parallel, startup founders and CEOs have markedly shifted the way they communicate and manage their businesses.
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13 July / financials / trends
In addition to increasing labor costs, startups in San Francisco are facing monotonically increasing real estate prices. JLL the real estate broker shared their data on the average asking rent in San Francisco from 2007 two 2016, year to date. In 2009, the average asking rent was $31.37. In 2016 that number has more than doubled to $73.05, for an average annual increase of just about 13%. The most expensive neighborhood in San Francisco is Mission Bay/China basin at approximately $85 per square foot per year for class A real estate, followed by South market for an average of $80 per square foot.
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09 May / financials
Just how real is the sudden importance and profitability for SaaS companies? The median publicly traded SaaS company has improved net margin from -25% to -8.8% in less than two years, after a nearly four-year trend of negative growth in net margin. The initial spike in 2014 occurs two quarters after the first SaaS correction and the second occurs in late 2015. Examining the trend by quartile, we see that the 75th percentile companies operate at breakeven.
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29 April / financials
In ServiceNow’s Q1 Investor presentation are the first semblances of SaaS metrics in public company reporting. If you sift through the 40+ public SaaS businesses, you won’t find mention of annual recurring revenue, churn, account expansion, or cash collection cycles in most of them - even though these are the the metrics the management teams employ to evaluate and steer their businesses. ServiceNow hasn’t published metrics on ARR or payback period, which for most public investors are still esoteric terms.
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There many ways of measuring a SaaS company’s efficiency: magic number, payback period on cost of customer acquisition, lifetime value to cost customer acquisition ratio, quick ratio. These metrics primarily focus on measuring efficiency in customer acquisition. But, a software company’s true efficiency also have to include the cost to service contracts. A SaaS company’s revenues are a collection of annuities, contracts that pay fees on an ongoing basis. And the goal of a subscription businesses is more than to acquire those streams, but to nurture and sustain them.
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22 March / financials
There are two common ways to model the growth of a SaaS business I’ve seen in pitches. the first one helps founders develop a sense for the trajectory of the business, while the second one helps teams plan for different scenarios and model the trade-offs with each strategic decision. The Percent Growth technique averages the company’s growth rate over the last quarter or so and projects it forward. For example, if a SaaS company has sustained 15% monthly growth over the last three months and is currently at $10k in MRR, the projections might look like the table below.
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28 February / financials
A dollar is a dollar is a dollar, right? Not quite. Not all revenue dollars are created equal, but all gross profit dollars are. Gross profit, not revenue, is the metric companies should be using to compare themselves. Ultimately, gross profits account for more than 55% of the forward multiple of publicly traded SaaS companies after normalizing for revenue growth. SaaS companies vary hugely in their gross margins. BenefitFocus, Five9 and Shopify operate at 45-55% gross margins.
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15 February / financials / fundraising
There are several forms of venture debt. Convertible notes are the most common, today. Most startups raise seed rounds using convertible notes. Startups that have substantial working capital requirements often employ lines of credit/revolvers. Last, many startups take out term loans. They borrow money for several years and repay it over time. Venture debt can supply additional capital for a startup to grow at a lower cost of capital than equity.
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12 February / sales / financials
When we discuss payback periods in SaaS, we implicitly mean customer payback periods. How much time does it take for us to recoup the capital outlay we invest in acquiring a new customer? But, there’s a second and equally important payback period – the payback period on hiring a new account executive. Let’s take a hypothetical SaaS startup that sells a $20k product at a 75% gross margin. Clients pay monthly and commissions are paid monthly.
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21 January / fundraising / financials
65% of entrepreneurs believe that fundraising in 2016 will be more difficult than in 2015, according to First Round’s survey. The volatility in the stock market, the steady erosion of public multiples, and the broad decline of seed, venture and growth investment in Q4 2015 seem to portend a repricing of the startup market. In light of those changing circumstances, entrepreneurs should prepare a few different analyses for 2016.
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12 November / financials / management / startups / saas
As the temperament of the fundraising market shifts, particularly in the later stages, the question of how much a startup should burn will become increasingly important. We’re living in a historic period of very inexpensive venture capital. These cheap dollars have fueled spectacular companies with record-setting growth rates. In such an environment, growth at almost any cost is handsomely rewarded. But we’re observing the ecosystem starting a correction - particularly in the late stage of the market.
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03 November / saas / sales / financials
What is the optimal quick ratio for your SaaS startup? Is it 4? Quick Ratio = (New MRR + Expansion MRR) / (Churned MRR + Contraction MRR) The quick ratio measures a SaaS company’s growth efficiency. The formula for quick ratio is above. It’s the new monthly recurring revenue (MRR) in a month plus the expansion MRR divided by the sum of the churned MRR and the contraction MRR. Churned MRR are customers who have not renewed contracts and contractions are those customers who have decreased their payments.
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21 September / saas / financials / sales / marketing
One of the most powerful levers for SaaS companies to master is payback period. Payback period is the number of months a company requires to payback its cost of customer acquisition. The median SaaS startup has a payback period of 15 months on a gross margin basis. A short payback period confers two massive advantage to a startups: smaller working capital requirements and a consequent ability to grow much faster.
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20 July / startups / financials / saas
I learned to drive a car at age 19 on a warm Santiago de Chile night, in an unusual way. A friend named Jose Pedro resolved to teach me after dinner at his apartment, suprised to learn I didn’t know how. It was past two am, and without anyone on the streets, it would be safe, he assured me. As we sat in the car, he showed me how to manage the three pedals and the gear shift, and explained the how the clutch worked.
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As I prepared the S-1 analysis for ServiceNow, the third largest public SaaS company in the world, I came across a section in their latest annual report called Key Factors Affecting Our Performance in which the company describes the two ways they evaluate churn. One is common, but another is unusual. Below I’ve quoted their definitions. Upsell rate. To grow our business it is important for us to generate additional sales from existing customers, which we refer to as our upsell rate.
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26 May / sales / financials / startups / saas
Creating a sense of urgency is one of the most powerful sales tools available to SaaS companies. There are many different ways of accomplishing this, but one of the most common ways is to offer discounts that expire. Discounts are powerful incentives to increase sales. But, they have to be crafted correctly, or they can have dramatic impact on a startup’s cash position. This is why sales incentives should be designed hand-in-hand with the company’s finance team.
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An entrepreneur last week asked me if bottoms up businesses are more efficient software companies than top down sales processes. Enabled by web and mobile app distribution, the bottoms up software business acquires individual users, small teams and eventually departments. The top down model sells to a C-level executive (CEO, CIO, CFO) and captures the relevant part of the organization through one sales process. Because the bottoms up processes tend to rely on seemingly less expensive customer acquisition techniques like content marketing and in-product up-sell initially, this founder suggested, quite reasonably I thought, that bottoms up companies are more efficient.
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27 April / data analysis / financials
The Information reported last week that in 2014, only 11% of tech IPOs in 2014 were profitable when they became publicly traded companies, an all time low stretching back to 1980, when the figure was 88%. This raises the seemingly absurd question, how important is it to be profitable for a startup? After all, growth is the largest determinant of valuation at IPO, not profitability. Only 19 of the 48 publicly traded SaaS companies in the basket I track have ever recorded a financial year with a positive net income.
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23 April / financials
Yesterday, I met with a bright, young SaaS entrepreneur who asked me to clarify four key numbers for SaaS companies: bookings, monthly recurring revenue, recognized revenue and cash collections. These four numbers are critical to understanding the health of a SaaS startup, and they can be quite different, so it’s important to have a strong grasp on the distinctions between them. MonthJanFebMarAprMay…Jan ACV Bookings12,000 Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR)1,0001,0001,0001,0001,0000 Recognized Revenue5161,0001,0001,0001,000484 Cash Collections3,0003,000
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25 February / financials / saas / startups
Once a startup has found an initial product market fit, the business must evolve the way it models its growth. Before product market fit, a startup’s financial projections focus on costs. The company has no visibility into their revenue growth. So, the management team should minimize costs, maximize cash and lengthen runway to provide as much time as possible to find that product market fit. As we’ve seen, staff are both the greatest asset of a business and also the greatest cost, at least initially, and modeling those is straightforward.
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10 February / startups / financials
It’s becoming more and more expensive to scale a startup in San Francisco. In fact, it’s twice as costly to operate a startup in 2014 as it was in 2009. According to data from Jones Lang LaSalle, office prices in San Francisco have nearly doubled in five years from $36 per square foot per year to $63. Typically businesses allocate about 150 square feet of office space per employee. Given the market rate for office space and annual salaries, hypothetical 20 person Series A startup will spend about $200k per year per employee in 2015.
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20 November / saas / financials / data analysis
Hortonworks filed their S-1 last week. Reading through the document, I noticed the company had quite a substantial fraction of professional services revenue; 41% of trailing 12 month revenue is services. Of the companies we have studied in our S-1 analyses, Hortonworks generates more professional services revenue as a fraction of total revenue than any other company. But, many companies do book a meaningful amount of revenue from professional services.
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Last week, Sean Ellis made an interesting comment in response to this post on public SaaS companies’ growth rates: I’m guilty of giving the same advice to startup founders without providing a transparent rationale. This post is my explanation of why the 15-20% MRR growth number is a reasonably good target for post-Seed/pre-Series A SaaS startups to aim for. Let’s create a hypothetical SaaS startup called SaaSCo with a set of founders who aspire to a fund-raising trajectory like the one in table below.
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Financial statements are a Rosetta Stone for startups. They reveal the strategies and the tactics of how to bring a product to market. These are the ten metrics I look at when sifting through a startup’s operational model, whether when considering an investment or in a board meeting. Revenue growth indicates how quickly a company can grow under the current way of doing business. The top line shows whether the market affords steady growth (SaaS) or lumpy revenue growth created by the long sales cycles of big customers (Telecom) and whether the company must sell one product or a collection of complementary products.
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23 October / startups / financials / fundraising
Financial statements are the Rosetta Stone for a business. They are the most succinct way of communicating how a business operates to management teams and boards, who weigh the trade-offs of different investments. In the early stages of the startup, financial statements aren’t used much as a management tool. They are most often used to keep an eye on monthly burn rate. But as companies grow, startups hire leaders to manage marketing and sales and product and engineering.