Monday, October 27, 2014

Impressions from the SaaS nirvana (a.k.a. as the 3rd annual PNC SaaS Founder Meetup)

Last week, we've held our third annual SaaS Founder Meetup in San Francisco. Following the first PNC SaaS Founder Meetup in San Francisco in 2012 and the second one in 2013 in Berlin, this has become a tradition for us: Once a year we're bringing together the founders of our SaaS portfolio companies, co-investors and leading experts for a full day of intensive knowledge sharing. To be precise, it was one day in 2012 and 2013. This year we've extended it to two full days.

It's hard to describe in a few words how awesome it was and how much we and our portfolio founders have been able to learn thanks to all the amazing speakers who were willing to share their insights at the event. I'll try to follow-up with some additional notes later, but for now here are some visual impressions from the meetup:

Impressions from the PNC SaaS Founder Meetup 2014 from Point Nine Capital

Huge thanks to all attendees and a special thanks to all of our incredible speakers and panelists:

Aaron Ross (Author of "Predictable Revenue"; former Director of Corporate Sales,
Albert Wenger (GP, Union Square Ventures)
Bill Macaitis (Former CMO, Zendesk; former SVP Online Marketing,
Boris Wertz (GP, Version One Ventures)
Colin Bramm (Founder & CEO, Showbie)
David Bizer (Founder, Talent Fountain; former Staffing Manager, Google)
David Hassell (Founder & CEO, 15Five)
Donna Wells (President & CEO, Mindflash; former CMO, Mint)
Doug Camplejohn (Founder & CEO, Fliptop)
Everett Oliven (National VP Sales, SAP)
Gil Penchina (serial entrepreneur & angel investor)
Heiko Schwarz (Founder & MD, riskmethods)
Hiten Shah (Founder & CEO, KISSmetrics)
Jason M. Lemkin (Managing Director, Storm Ventures; former Founder & CEO, EchoSign)
Jean-Christophe Taunay-Bucalo (Chief Revenue Officer, Vend)
Joel York (Founder & CEO, Markodojo; former CMO, Meltwater Group)
Julien Lemoine (Founder & CTO, Algolia)
Lars Dalgaard (GP, Andreessen Horowitz; former Founder & CEO of SuccessFactors)
Lincoln Murphy (Customer Success Evangelist, Gainsight)
Mark MacLeod (CFO, FreshBooks; former GP, Real Ventures)
Matthew Romaine (Founder & CTO, Gengo)
Nick Franklin (former MD Asia, Zendesk)
Nick Mehta (CEO, Gainsight)
Nicolas Dessaigne (Founder & CEO, Algolia)
Nikos Moraitakis (Founder & CEO, Workable)
Omer Gotlieb (Founder & Chief Customer Officer, Totango)
Paul Joyce (Founder & CEO, Geckoboard)
Rian Gauvreau (Founder & COO, Clio)
Ryan Engley (Director of Customer Success, Unbounce)
Ryan Fyfe (Founder & CEO, ShiftPlanning/Humanity)
Sean Ellis (Founder & CEO, Qualaroo)
Sean Jacobsohn (Principal, Norwest Venture Partners)
Sharad Mohan (Chief Customer Officer, Vend)
Steven Silberbach (VP Global Sales, Clio; former Area VP Sales,
Todd Varland (Solutions Architect)
Tomasz Tunguz (Partner, Redpoint Ventures)
Zvi Band (Founder & CEO, Contactually)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Benchmarking your SaaS startup

People often ask me questions like:

  • "How many people can I expect to sign up on my SaaS website?"
  • "My conversion rate is x% – is that good or bad?"
  • "My churn rate is x% – is that OK?"
  • "What kind of growth rates are VCs looking for?"

While we have quite a lot of data from our SaaS portfolio companies and from SaaS startups pitching to us (which I'll be happy to share, in aggregated form, in another post), I thought it would be good to increase our sample size by asking a larger number of SaaS startups to provide us with some key metrics:

If you're a SaaS startup I'd love you to participate in the survey. I kept it as short and simple as possible, focusing on three of the most important metrics for early-stage SaaS startups:
  1. Visitor-to-trial signup rate
  2. Signup-to-paying conversion rate
  3. Account churn rate
As soon as I have a meaningful number of submissions I'll share the results (in aggregated form) with the participants and will also publish them here.

Thanks in advance to all participants!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Five ways to build a $100 million business

Some time ago my friend (and co-investor in Clio, Jobber and Unbounce) Boris Wertz wrote a great blog post about "the only 2 ways to build a $100 million business". I'd like to expand on the topic and suggest that there are five ways to build a $100 million Internet company. This doesn't mean that I disagree with Boris' article. I think our views are pretty similar, and for the most part "my" five ways are just a slightly different and more granular look at Boris' two ways.

The way I look at it can be nicely illustrated in this way:

The y-axis shows the average revenue per account (ARPA) per year. In the x-axis you can see how many customers you need, for a given ARPA, to get to $100 million in annual revenues. Both axes use a logarithmic scale.

To build a Web company with $100 million in annual revenues*, you essentially need:

  • 1,000 enterprise customers paying you $100k+ per year each; or
  • 10,000 medium-sized companies paying you $10k+ per year each; or
  • 100,000 small businesses paying you $1k+ per year each; or
  • 1 million consumers or "prosumers" paying you $100+ per year each (or, in the case of eCommerce businesses, 1M customers generating $100+ in contribution margin** per year each); or
  • 10 million active consumers who you monetize at $10+ per year each by selling ads

Salespeople sometimes refer to "elephants", "deers" and "rabbits" when they talk about the first three categories of customers. To extend the metaphor to the 4th and 5th type of customer, let's call them "mice" and "flies". So how can you hunt 1,000 elephants, 10,000 deers, 100,000 rabbits, 1,000,000 mice or 10,000,000 flies? Let's take a look at it in reverse order.

Hunting flies

In order to get to 10 million active users you need roughly 100 million people who download your app or use your website. This is of course a gross simplification, and the precise number depends on various factors like your conversion rate, how active your users are, churn, etc. But it doesn't change the take-away: To get to $100 million in ad revenues, you need dozens of millions of users. I know of only two ways to achieve that (plus one mega-outlier which breaks all rules, Google). The first one is to have a product that is inherently social and has a high viral coefficient (Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp). The second one is a ton of UGC (user-generated content), which leads to large amounts of SEO traffic and some level of virality. Good examples of this second option include Yelp or our portfolio company Brainly.

Hunting mice

To acquire one million consumers or prosumers who pay you roughly $100 per year, you need to get at least 10-20 million people to try your application. This is – again – a gross simplification, but I believe it's order-of-magnitude correct. To get to 10-20 million users you almost certainly need some level of virality, too – maybe not Snapchat-like virality, but some social sharing or "powered by"-virality. Great examples of this category include Evernote and MailChimp. If you're an eCommerce business you might be able to acquire one million customers using paid marketing, but it requires huge amounts of funding.

Hunting rabbits

Most SaaS companies that target small businesses charge something around $50-100 per month, so their ARPA per year is around $1k. To acquire 100,000 of these businesses you need something in the order of 0.5-2 million trial signups, depending on your conversion rate. Let's assume that your CLTV (customer lifetime value) is $2,700 (assuming an average customer lifetime of three years and a gross margin of 90%) and that you want your CLTV to be 4x your CACs (customer acquisition costs). In that case you can spend $675 to acquire a customer. If your signup-to-paying conversion rate is 10% that means you can spend $67.50 per signup (assuming a no-touch sales model where your CACs can go entirely into lead generation).

So how can you get one million signups for less than $70 each? Most SaaS products aren't inherently viral, there usually isn't enough inventory to make paid advertising work at scale, and cold calling usually doesn't work at this ARPA level. There's no silver bullet, but the closest thing to a silver bullet is inbound marketing – besides having a fantastic product with a very high NPS (net promoter score) and being obsessively focused on funnel optimization. I've written about this in more detail in my "DOs for SaaS startups" series: Create an awesome product, Make your website your best marketing person, Fill the funnel, Build a repeatable sales process. Another option is a an OEM strategy (i.e. getting your product distributed by big partners), which can work but comes with its own challenges.

Interestingly, hunting rabbits looks much less straightforward than hunting flies or hunting elephants. Why we have a strong focus on rabbit hunting SaaS companies nonetheless is something for another post.

Hunting deers

If you're a deer hunter and want to acquire 10,000 customers paying you $10k per year each, most of the rabbit hunting tactics still apply. An ARPA of $10k per year usually isn't enough to make traditional enterprise field sales work, and you likely still have to get 100,000 or more leads. The main difference is that when you're hunting deers you can use an inside sales force to close leads, potentially also to generate leads. It also means that you can pay VARs and channel partners an attractive commission, although I've rarely seen this work in SaaS.

SaaS companies sometimes start as rabbit hunters and expand into deer hunting over time. This can work very well and we're very excited about these types of businesses, but to successfully execute this strategy, SaaS founders with a product/tech/marketing DNA usually have to bring in an experienced VP of Sales who has built an inside sales organization before.

Hunting elephants

Like it or not, most of the biggest SaaS companies derive most of their revenues from selling expensive subscriptions to large enterprises. Workday, Veeva, SuccessFactors,, you name it. Jason M. Lemkin, another friend and co-investor, once said (I'm quoting from memory) that if you have a good solution for a significant problem experienced by large enterprises, building a $100 million business is relatively straightforward. After all, you only need 1,000 customers, and the $100k you need from each of them is less than they spend on the salary of one executive. I think there's a lot of truth in that.

The other part of the truth, though, is that it may take you several years and millions of dollars to find out if you really are solving a problem (a.k.a. product/market fit), and once you're at that point, you still need tens of millions of dollars or more to finance the enterprise sales cycle. This does not at all mean that elephant hunting isn't attractive. It just requires very different skills, which usually means a founder team with enterprise sales DNA.

That leaves me with the million dollar – sorry, one hundred million dollar – question: Which other ways to build a $100 million business are there that I've overlooked? Let me know!

[Update: I've posted a follow-up post, "Three more ways to build a $100 million business".]

[Another update: Here's an infographic version of this post.]

[Yet another update: We turned the post into a poster!]


* If you have $100 million in annual high-margin revenue, you will likely be able to exit for $500 million to $1 billion or more. That's the kind of exit most venture capitalists are looking for, although we as a small fund can achieve a great fund performance with somewhat lower outcomes. 

** For eCommerce companies, which naturally have a much lower contribution margin than purely digital businesses like SaaS and are therefore valued at much lower revenue multiples, it makes more sense to target $100M in contribution margin.