Sunday, May 13, 2018

10 Observations from Dropbox's S1

In last week's post I shared some thoughts about Dropbox and why, although Dropbox is unquestionably one of the most amazing SaaS companies ever built, I am a tad less confident in the company's long-term future than I am in other SaaS leaders such as Salesforce.com, Zendesk, or Shopify.

As mentioned in the first part of the post, I took a closer look at Dropbox’s recent IPO filing and would like to share some tidbits, along with a few observations.


#1 – Dropbox on consumerization

"Individual users are changing the way software is adopted and purchased
Software purchasing decisions have traditionally been made by an organization’s IT department, which often deploys products that employees don’t like and many refuse to adopt. As individuals increasingly choose their own tools at work, purchasing power has become more decentralized."
As mentioned in the first part, Dropbox was one of the early champions of the "consumerization of enterprise software" movement. This paragraph is a great description of that concept. If you ever have to pitch the idea of consumerization to anyone, copy these lines. :-)


#2 – The King of Freemium

Viral, bottom-up adoptionOur 500 million registered users are our best salespeople. They’ve spread Dropbox to their friends and brought us into their offices. Every year, millions of individual users sign up for Dropbox at work. Bottom-up adoption within organizations has been critical to our success as users increasingly choose their own tools at work. We generate over 90% of our revenue from self-serve channels — users who purchase a subscription through our app or website.
Before reading the S1, I didn’t know if Dropbox has become somewhat more focused on enterprise sales over the years. But here you have it – it really is the King of Freemium, generating more than 90% of revenue from self-service channels.


#3 – It’s a Mouse Hunter!



Dropbox’s ARPU is around $110 per year, confirming that the company is indeed the ultimate Mouse Hunter. It’s worth pointing out that $110 is the average revenue per user, not per account, and one account can consist of multiple users, so the company’s ARPA (which hasn’t been disclosed) is probably significantly higher. However, according to the S1, 70% of the company’s 11 million paying users are on an individual plan as opposed to a "Dropbox Business" team plan, so at least 70% of the company’s revenue does indeed come from mice.


#4 – More than half a million $ per head


As of December 31, 2017, Dropbox had 1,858 employees. Revenue for 2017 was $1.107B. That’s $595,800 per employee. Mind blown. For comparison, according to a Pacific Crest survey among private SaaS companies, the median SaaS revenue per employee of that group of companies was $136,000 in 2016.

Salesforce.com generates a similar (actually, even higher) amount of revenue per employee, but the company is almost twice as old and has much bigger scale, so you’d expect them to be more efficient. When Salesforce had around $1B in revenue, in 2008, it had around 3,300 employees, so at that time its revenue per employee was around $327,000. Not a bad ratio at all, but Dropbox’s revenue-per-employee ratio is truly spectacular – a testament to its extremely effective and efficient bottom-up adoption driven by product virality.


#5 – WTF?!

“Although it is important to our business that our users renew their subscriptions after their existing subscriptions expire and that we expand our commercial relationships with our users, given the volume of our users, we do not track the retention rates of our individual users. As a result, we may be unable to address any retention issues with specific users in a timely manner, which could harm our business.”
We “do not track the retention rate of our individual users”. Wait, what? Did I read this right?


#6 – A unicorn’s worth of office rent

“In October 2017, we entered into a new lease agreement to rent office space in San Francisco, California, to serve as our new corporate headquarters. The total minimum obligations under this lease agreement are expected to be approximately $827.0 million.”
When I read this number for the first time, I was wondering if there’s a typo. $827 million is going to be spent on office rent? A rough calculation shows that the number isn’t as crazy as it might appear on first sight. Assuming the company currently employs around 1,500 people in San Francisco and that that number will grow to 5,000 in the coming years, and assuming it’s a 12 year lease, rent per employee per year (at 5000 employees) would be around $13,800. That’s still expensive, but not “they must have accidentally added a zero” expensive.


#7 – I don’t understand this … is it just me?

“As of December 31, 2017, our blended Annualized Net Revenue Retention across the entire business, including individuals and Dropbox Business customers, was over 90%.”
“We continuously focus on adding new users and increasing the value we offer to them. As a result, each cohort of new users typically generates higher subscription amounts over time. For example, the monthly subscription amount generated by the January 2015 cohort doubled in less than three years after signup. We believe this cohort is representative of a typical cohort in recent periods.”
If you don’t understand how to reconcile these two statements, you’re not alone. Looking at the cohort chart on page 62 of the S1, you’d expect Dropbox to have a significantly negative net dollar churn rate, i.e. net revenue retention of significantly over 100%. The only scenario, in which the two statements above could be compatible, is if a user cohort’s revenue doubles during the first three years but then declines steeply, but I have no idea if that is the case. If you know or have an idea what I’m missing here, I’d love to hear it!


#8 – Weaning off AWS



Look at this. From 2015 to 2017, Dropbox increased revenue from around $600M to ca. $1.1B. During the same period, the company decreased cost of revenue from over $400M to less than $370M. In percentage terms, CoGS decreased from around 67% to around 33%. You don’t often see a company halving its CoGS percentage within two years. Either Dropbox was pretty wasteful in 2015 or they are extremely efficient now. ;-) I think it’s a bit of both.

According to the S1, the remarkable CoGS reduction was achieved primarily by closing accounts of inactive users and by moving more than 90% of all user data from AWS to Dropbox’s own server infrastructure. For what it’s worth, this also gives you a hint on the margins of AWS.


#9 – Eleven 9s?  

"Our users trust us with their most important content, and we focus on providing them with a secure and easy-to-use platform. More than 90% of our users’ data is stored on our own custom-built infrastructure, which has been designed from the ground up to be reliable and secure, and to provide annual data durability of at least 99.999999999%. We have datacenter co-location facilities in California, Texas, and Virginia."
I thought six 9s are considered best-in-class, so I was surprised when I counted eleven 9s in this paragraph. Eleven 9s correspond with 0.00032 seconds of downtime per year, which for all practical purposes means that Dropbox can never go down. I re-read the sentence and noticed that Dropbox isn’t referring to availability (i.e. uptime) but data durability, which, as I now know, is something else.


#10 - Multiple personalities?


This is how Dropbox wants to be viewed:





This is how I view it:



If you read the S1 and take a look at Dropbox’s website, it becomes clear that the company wants to become much more than just a service that takes care of file storage and synchronization behind the scenes. They don’t want to be just an icon in your file system, they want to unleash the world’s creative energy by designing a more enlightened way of working (Dropbox’s mission statement).

That makes perfect sense, as being a “background service” might ultimately prove not to be a defensible, high-margin business. I’m somewhat skeptical if their (relatively) new “Paper” product will become a success. But with 500 million registered users, 11 million paying users and 300,000 paying work teams, the company has time to figure it out.



Friday, May 04, 2018

Dropbox, the ultimate Mouse Hunter

I’m late to the party here, I know. Dropbox went public a bit more than a month ago and I’ve finally had a chance to take a close look at the company’s S1. I’ll be sharing a few specific observations from the S1 review, but let’s start with some more general thoughts about the company.


The mighty king of Freemium


Like Zendesk, Yammer, and a few other SaaS companies that were all founded around 2007-2008, Dropbox was one of the early champions of the "consumerization of the enterprise" movement. In contrast to Zendesk (and I think, Yammer), which eventually moved upmarket and now generates an ever-increasing percentage of revenues from larger customers, Dropbox is still getting most of its revenues from individual users and small teams. The company hasn't disclosed how much revenue it is generating from larger companies, but according to its S1 filing, a staggering 70% of its 11 million paying users are on an individual plan as opposed to a "Dropbox Business" team plans. More than 90% of its users are acquired via self-service channels, presumably driven in large part by the inherent virality of the product. These characteristics make Dropbox the "King of Freemium", as Tomasz put, or the ultimate “Mouse Hunter”.

And what an almighty King it is! Dropbox was the fastest SaaS company ever to hit $1B in ARR. As every aspiring SaaS entrepreneur knows, getting a hundred million dollars in ARR within around eight years is incredibly hard and extremely rare. Getting to more than one billion within the same timeframe is completely nuts. If the improbability of reaching a $1B valuation is epitomized by a unicorn, getting to $1B in SaaS revenues within eight years is as unlikely as seeing a unicorn with three heads.

Dropbox is one of the very, very few companies in the top left corner of the LTV/CAC chart.

A three-headed unicorn


So what is it that made Dropbox beat all odds? I believe that no single factor alone can explain a success of this magnitude. Instead, I think that the right team has to hit the right opportunity at the right time. Call it the positive equivalent of a perfect storm.
More specifically, here are some factors that I think contributed to Dropbox's success, in no particular order:

1. Timing
As consumers tend towards using more devices over time, they’ll experience a  bigger need for a solution that synchronizes files across all of their devices. Until 2005 or so, most people used only one or maybe two devices to work with their files: a desktop PC and/or a laptop. Dropbox was founded in 2007, the year the iPhone was launched and just when the move to a multi-device world started to become inevitable. Dropbox also benefited from an ever-increasing number of remote workers who need easy access to their company's files. According to a 2016 study by Deloitte that is mentioned in the S1, 30% of full-time employees primarily work remotely.

2. Product
Dropbox managed to beautifully solve a very difficult problem. It might look like a simple product on the surface, but from handling versioning conflicts to building deep integrations with different operating systems to ensuring secure and fast access to files, it required solving a number of hard technology problems. I remember that before switching to Dropbox, I used another piece of software to sync files across two computers. It was pretty messy. With Dropbox it just works.

3. Virality
While it's possible to use Dropbox just by yourself, my guess is that at some point, most users use Dropbox to share files with one or more other users. It's this built-in virality that allowed Dropbox to grow at a pace that no other B2B SaaS company has seen before. As if this wasn't enough, Dropbox also had a famous two-sided referral program that augmented the inherent virality with additional referral incentives.

4. Team
I don't know the founders of Dropbox, but looking at the quality of the early product and their referral program, it's clear that the founding team combined excellent product and tech skills with a strong growth mindset. In any case, the results speak for themselves – there's no question that a remarkable team must have been at work here.


Dark clouds on the horizon?


As much as I love Dropbox – the product and the company – I'm not entirely sure about the company's long-term prospects. Dropbox's one big weak spot, in my opinion, is that the product is almost UI-less. While you can access your files using Dropbox's (simple) Web app, there's very little need for it. We use Dropbox for all of our files at Point Nine and I have it running on four devices, but Dropbox does its magic almost entirely in the background. That makes me think that Dropbox is much less sticky than other SaaS products, e.g. workflow tools that require training. I could imagine that if a company's IT department decides to switch the file storage and sharing provider for its entire workforce overnight, most people wouldn't even notice it. In contrast, imagine the outcry that would ensue if you took away Zendesk from a support team or if you tried to get your development team off Slack.

Would I switch to another provider to save $20 a year? No, not worth the hassle. Would I consider moving all files to Google Drive if it's significantly cheaper and if a tighter integration with GMail, Google Calendar and Google Docs offers more and more benefits? Yes. (Interestingly Google Drive’s “Quick Access” feature is already using e.g. information from your calendar to predict which file you are likely to need at which point in time.)

I think the company has recognized this issue. Two and a half years ago they launched "Paper", a collaborative document-editing app, presumably to get more "face time" with its customers and to own a bigger part of the value creation chain. However, I know almost nobody who uses Paper and the company doesn't disclose any usage numbers, so my guess is that it's not a big success so far.

Don't get me wrong, more than $1B in ARR and 500 million registered users are an incredible asset. The King of Freemium won't be dethroned any time soon. But for what it’s worth I didn't buy the stock yet :-)

Update: Here is part 2 of this post.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Quick thoughts about Blogger and Medium. Plus: The 2018 SaaS Funding Napkin!

I usually use this blog when I write new posts. Occasionally I re-publish selected posts on our Medium channel. Lately, however, I've observed myself publishing on Medium first, for the simple reason that the authoring experience is much better on Medium than on Blogger, especially when you're including a lot of pictures. 

What can we learn from this?
  1. You can lure users away from an old product by offering a much better UX. A bit better isn't enough to get over inertia and to offset switching costs. It has to be 10x better and cheaper, like Sarah Tavel said. (When I say "10x better" I don't mean it literally but figuratively because in most cases I don't know how the superiority of one user experience over another can be measured quantitatively.)
  2. If the incumbent benefits from network effects, it's much more difficult. A complete migration from Blogger to Medium would be very painful for me because like you, most of my readers are here – and many of you are reading the blog using an RSS subscription or an email subscription, or you've bookmarked www.theangelvc.net, all of which would cause friction if I decided to migrate.
  3. At some point I have to switch to a blogging platform that has not been built in the last millennium. :-) My current thinking is to switch to a hosted Wordpress provider, use a minimalistic Medium-like template, and find a solution that doesn't require readers to switch their RSS/email subscriptions. Let me know if you have any thoughts. :)
Anyway, the actual reason for this post is that I've just published a series of blog posts, along with the 2018 version of the SaaS Funding Napkin, on Medium, and I wanted to make sure that you don't miss it. 

Here you go:


You can also check out the napkin on Product Hunt, and if you're interested in the physical, real version of the napkin, fill out this short Typeform!


Tuesday, December 05, 2017

We’re looking for an Associate

I’m very excited to announce that we’re looking for a new Associate. In all modesty, I think that for a young, smart person who’s passionate about startups and technology, an Associate role at Point Nine is one of the fastest ways to learn, build your network, and advance your career. Case in point: Rodrigo, who started as an Associate four years ago, is now a Partner at Point Nine; Fabian is running his own fund; Nicolas became a “30 under 30” and is now VP at Insight; and Mathias is now GM Germany at Uniplaces.

As I wrote last time when we were adding an Associate to our team, I'm pretty sure that it took me more than 10 years to get the expertise and network which you'll get during three years in this job.

If you’re interested, here are all the details. If you know somebody who could be a great fit, please pass on the link or let me know. Thank you very much in advance!

PS: As you may or may not know, the Associate role at Point Nine has historically been called “Truffle Pig” – because just like a truffle pig is digging up the best truffles from the ground, we as an early-stage VC try to find the best startups among a large number of potential investments. I still kind of the like that analogy, but all good things must come to an end. For now, we’ll just call the new position “Associate” but if you have a creative idea for something funnier I’m all ears!


Friday, December 01, 2017

How public SaaS companies report churn, and what you can learn from them

While doing some research for another post I just stumbled on this excellent overview from Pacific Crest on the churn rates of publicly listed SaaS companies. I’ve seen posts with churn benchmarks of public SaaS companies before, but this one is by far the most comprehensive collection I’ve seen and I think it’s very useful.

What’s maybe even more interesting than taking a look at the numbers themselves is to see how different companies define churn (or the inverse, retention). Since there is no official US-GAAP definition of churn or retention, different companies use different ways to measure and report these metrics. And because public companies are under the scrutiny by the SEC, any non-GAAP metric they report must be accompanied by a razor-sharp definition.

Most public SaaS companies report churn in the form of their dollar-based net retention rate, i.e. the inverse of net MRR/ARR churn (as opposed to account/logo churn), which compares the recurring revenue from a set of customers across comparable periods. Here’s a particularly nice description of this metric, coming from AppDynamics:

“To calculate our dollar-based net retention rate for a particular trailing 12-month period, we first establish the recurring contract value for the previous trailing 12-month period. This effectively represents recurring dollars that we should expect in the current trailing 12-month period from the cohort of customers from the previous trailing 12-month period without any expansion or contraction. We subsequently measure the recurring contract value in the current trailing 12-month period from the cohort of customers from the previous trailing 12-month period. Dollar-based net retention rate is then calculated by dividing the aggregate recurring contract value in the current trailing 12-month period by the previous trailing 12-month period.”

If you take a look at the data assembled by Pacific Crest you’ll see that many companies use the same logic with minor variations. For example, some companies look at the trailing 12 month period, while others look at calendar years, quarters, or months.

Some companies exclude customers that do not meet certain criteria, for example:

  • Box includes only customers with $5k+ ACV and annual contracts
  • Alteryx considers only customers which have been paying customers for at least one quarter.
  • AppDynamics includes only customers who have been paying customers for at least one year.
  • Zendesk excludes customers on the starter plan.

This makes perfect sense: It tells you what type of customer the company is focused on, and you can see the retention metrics in regards to this type of customer.

Other companies use variations that I think are questionable. Some companies report customer count-based retention, which I think is much less interesting than dollar-based retention. Some report renewal based on the number of seats; one company, Fleetmatics, reports churn based on the number of vehicles under subscription. But the majority of companies does report dollar-based net retention rate in a way that allows for an apples-to-apples comparison across companies.

What can you learn from this?

(1) There is not one perfect definition of churn that is right for every SaaS company. Depending on the specifics of your business you might want to:

  • focus on monthly, quarterly or annual retention
  • exclude customers that churned within the first, say, two months
  • include only customers that represent the core of your business, e.g. customers above a certain ACV

(2) Having said that, dollar-based net retention is the way to go. You should stay close to the definition above and tweak it with care.

(3) There may not be one perfect way to define and measure churn, but there sure are lots of ways to get it wrong. :) One classic example is to calculate a monthly churn rate and to mix in annual plans with monthly plans. By including customers on annual plans who aren’t up for renewal in the period you’re measuring you’re underestimating your true churn rate.

(4) Whatever metric you choose, make sure that you use it consistently and that you have a razor-sharp definition.

Bonus tip: Whenever you report numbers, be it in monthly updates or in a Board deck, include footnotes or an appendix with definitions of every metric that you’re reporting. I can almost guarantee you that this will save you ten minutes of discussion with your VC Board member(s) who (understandably) want to make sure that they understand the numbers you’re showing them. :)


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Getting feedback from your Board

After a Clio Board Meeting last week I received the following email from Jack Newton, the company's amazing co-founder & CEO.

Hi everyone,

I'd like to experiment with requesting some 1:1 feedback on our board meetings. Please take 5 minutes and provide feedback through this Typeform:

https://xxx.typeform.com/xxx...

Cheers,

Jack


I thought this was a really great idea and worth sharing here. I removed the URL from Jack's Typeform but rebuilt it quickly so that you can check it out:


powered by Typeform

If you're not getting feedback from your Board members you're missing out on something. Preparing and holding Board meetings is a big time investment, and making them really effective isn't easy. So you should try to get as much value out of them as possible.

Sending out a post-meeting Typeform is, of course, not the only way to get feedback: In some Boards that I'm a member of we sometimes do an executive session between the CEO and the directors. Sometimes I try to summarize my thoughts at the end of the meeting, sometimes I do it in a followup email after the meeting.

But doing it with a Typeform might help you ensure that you'll be getting feedback more consistently: after each Board meeting, from each director. I think this format might also help you get more candid feedback because not everyone is good at delivering honest feedback in a meeting. As a side benefit, you'll start building an archive of feedback that you can revisit later. No rocket science, but sometimes little things can make a difference, and I'm curious to see how this one will pan out.

Thanks to Jack for giving me permission to share this here (and thanks Fred Wilson, who, as I've learned from Jack, inspired Jack on this topic).



Saturday, November 18, 2017

Unsure how much you should pay yourself? Check out this Founder Salary Calculator.

Founder salaries are not a topic I’ve had to spend a lot of time with so far. I usually just “OK” them, since the founders we are working with are all super reasonable people who carefully weigh how much they need against the interests of the company – their company. But sometimes founders ask me for a suggestion or some guidance because they are uncertain as to what is fair, and so I thought it might be useful to create a simple model.

Here it is.

The model calculates the founder salary based on three drivers: stage, family situation, and location.

Stage

Unless you’re in the fortunate position to generate revenues almost from day 1 or to raise a sizable seed round right at the start you’ll probably not be able to pay yourself any salary at all, at least in the first few months, for the simple fact that the company doesn’t have any money to spend. If you raise a small angel or friends & family round, you’ll probably want to spend it on other things than founder salaries. Once you’ve raised a bigger seed round and/or you start to generate revenues, that changes and you can pay yourself a modest salary.

In the calculator, I’ve assumed that the “entry salary” for a Berlin-based founder who doesn’t have kids is $50,000. I’ve then assumed that that amount increases to $75,000, $95,000 and $115,000 when you reach funding and revenue milestones that roughly correspond with a Series A, Series B and Series C round, respectively. I don’t think founders should get salaries that make them rich, but as soon as the company can afford it the founders should get enough so that they don’t have to be worried about how to make ends meet all the time. And if a little more allows them to outsource some errands and chores after a 100-hour-work-week I’m all for it!

Family

It might surprise you to hear this from a venture capitalist, but my approach to founder salaries is a little communistic: I think founder salaries should not be based on performance alone but should also take into account what the founder needs. If that means that one founder gets more cash than the others because in contrast to them he or she has a family to take care of, that’s fine with me. A founder’s cash compensation doesn’t reflect the value which she contributes to the company anyway, so who cares if one of them gets a little more than the others.

My model, therefore, assumes that for each kid you add $10,000 (multiplied by the location factor, more on that soon). Whether this is the right amount is of course debatable, and there can be other aspects besides having children that need to be taken into account.

The “need-based” approach can, of course, go both ways: if a founder had a sizable exit already, he may want to forgo his salary or reduce it to a symbolic amount, at least in the first few years. I did that at my last startup, Pageflakes, and thought that besides saving the company some money it can also have a positive impact on the company culture if people know that the founder’s interests are 100% tied to the company’s success.

Location

The third factor that I’ve included is location. I’ve defined Berlin as 1.0x and have assumed that in Paris, London and San Francisco, you’ll have to pay yourself 1.3x, 1.5x and 1.8x as much in order to have a similar standard of living. These ratios are roughly in line with the data published on this website. If you want to find out the ratios for other cities, take a look.

Notes

  • The numbers in the model reflect what I think is market and fair based on the data points that we have and some industry benchmarks that we were able to get. However, our data set is quite limited and the numbers produced by the calculator should by no means be taken as the ultimate truth. If you disagree with my assumptions or have seen different numbers in the market I’d love to hear from you!
  • I saw a study according to which founder salaries are much lower. According to this data source, 75% of Silicon Valley based founders pay themselves less than $75,000, with 66% paying themselves less than $50,000. Based on these numbers, even for companies that have raised more than $10M the average salary is only $81,700. This looked odd to me, and maybe the difference is due to the fact that the study is three years old. I ignored this data source for now, but again, suggestions and input are very much appreciated.
  • The model assumes that the founder gets a fixed salary with no bonus. I’m not strongly against including a bonus component in a founder’s package, but I think it’s usually not necessary. If you own a big chunk of equity, I don’t think you’ll need a performance bonus to be motivated and rewarded.
  • The model doesn’t differentiate between the founding CEO, tech founder and other roles. In the first couple of years it’s usually not necessary to differentiate based on the founder’s role because everyone in the founder team carries a similar load. At a later stage, when the company has a bigger leadership team, it makes sense that the CEO gets more than the other founders. The numbers in the model are calibrated for founder CEOs, so you may want to reduce the amounts for other founders at the Series B or C stage.
  • The calculator shows the results for the various stages and locations simultaneously, so you can easily compare the numbers side-by-side. The number of kids, however, needs to be entered (column I). If you enter a different value here, the numbers in column K and column P will be updated accordingly. Showing the results for various numbers of kids simultaneously would have added a lot of additional permutations and would have made the sheet very large.
  • The blue numbers are input variables and you can change them if you’d like to adjust the model. The brown numbers can be changed, too, but aren’t used as inputs for the calculation. To play around with the numbers please make a copy (File > Make a copy).