Friday, April 24, 2015

Key Revenue Metrics for SaaS companies

Thanks to Nick Franklin for reviewing a draft of this post!

When I talk to SaaS startups and take a look at their metrics, it still happens quite often that some of the numbers aren’t quite clear to me and it takes some time to clarify things. I’m not referring to sophisticated reports or analyses but to the much more mundane question of what exactly people mean when they use a term like “revenues”.

It’s maybe not surprising that there’s sometimes confusion, given that there are several different ways to express revenues of a SaaS company and even more ways to label them: revenues, sales, turnover, MRR, CMRR, ARR, cash inflow, cash-in, billings, bookings, GAAP revenues, income and so on. That said, I believe most SaaS companies can focus on a small number of revenue metrics which aren’t overly complicated.

If everyone in the SaaS world can agree on the same nomenclature, I think that will make communication between founders and investors more efficient and will save all of us some time. So let’s take a look at the most important revenue metrics in SaaS.


Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) is, as the name suggests, revenue that you anticipate to recur on a monthly basis. If you’re selling monthly subscriptions, MRR is simply the price paid each month for the subscription. If your customers are paying you for more than one month upfront, you simply divide the amount you received by the number of months in the subscription period.

Say you’ve acquired two new customers. Customer A has signed up for a monthly subscription at $100 per month and Customer B has signed up for an annual subscription of $1100 per year. In this scenario, customer A increases your MRR by $100 whereas customer B increases your MRR by $91.67 ($1100/12).

This simple metric is the most important metric a subscription business needs to calculate, which is why ChartMogul (which for disclosure we’re an investor in) is highly centered on MRR. If you focus completely on MRR and calculate it correctly you’re in pretty good shape, so feel free to stop here and ignore the rest of this post. :-)


Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) follows exactly the same concept. The only difference is that it measures your annually recurring revenue as opposed to your monthly recurring revenue, so your ARR is 12x your MRR.

Since both metrics are interchangeable, it doesn’t matter if you’re tracking MRR or ARR. I personally prefer MRR, but I can’t tell you why. Probably just out of habit.

Cash inflow

Cash inflow or “Cash In” is the amount of money that you’ve received in your bank account. In the example above, it’s $100 for customer A and $1100 for customer B. A related term from the accounting world is “Accounts Receivable” and refers to cash that is legally owed to you but which you haven’t received yet. Since SaaS companies are typically paid upfront, at least for a month of subscription if not a year, you usually don’t have to worry too much about this and can focus on cash inflow.


Revenue means MRR plus any non-recurring revenue such as implementation fees, setup fees or charges for professional services. Let’s say you’re charging a customer $1000 for a data migration project that takes one month to complete, plus another $3000 for onboarding consulting in the customer’s first three months. In that case, the customer will increase your revenue by $2000 in the first month ($1000 for the data migration and $1000 for consulting) and another $1000 in month two and three each. But since these revenues aren’t recurring, don’t include them in your MRR.

Note that this definition of “revenues” is what I believe is usually the right way to look at revenues at the management and board level whereas the numbers which your accountant will produce for your financial statements will likely look slightly different. The reasons are a couple of subtleties in the way software revenues are recognized based on US GAAP and other accounting standards, which brings me to...

US GAAP Revenues

Since I’m not an accountant and don’t even have an MBA we’re now entering territory which I’m not very familiar with, so proceed at your own risk. :) US GAAP Revenues means revenues in accordance with the “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles” adopted by the SEC. Your US GAAP revenues will usually be close to your revenues based on the definition I outlined above, but there can be some differences. For example, US GAAP revenue is typically calculated using a daily recognition model as opposed to the more practical monthly model. That means that if a customer signs up for a subscription at $100 per month on January 15th, according to US GAAP you should only recognize $50 of those $100 in January, despite the fact that that customer is adding $100 to your January MRR. Another difference is that as I’ve learned when doing some research for this article, apparently you may have to recognize things like implementation fees over the subscription period as opposed to the period in which the implementation service is being provided.

This topic is a science of its own, and if you’re interested you can read this 150 page manual from Deloitte about software revenue recognition, but the good news is that you don’t have to worry too much about it. Find a good accountant who understands SaaS and let him figure it out.


I’ve seen several definitions of the term “bookings”. Broadly speaking, bookings are the total dollar value of all new contracts signed, but it’s not clear if the number should be annualized for contracts that are larger than one year, nor if non-recurring revenues should be included. Even worse, if your contracts have different subscription periods (e.g. one month and one year), the bookings number can be very ambiguous and misleading. I would therefore recommend to not use this metric and largely agree with the Bessemer Cloud Computing Law #2 which famously stated that “booking is for suckers”.


The term “billings” refers to the amount that you have invoiced and that is due for payment soon. If your ARPA is low and most customers pay you via credit card and/or your bigger customers usually pay you on or about the time of subscription or renewal, this metric isn’t important. If you agree on longer terms of payments with your customers, it can become important for cash flow planning purposes.

Committed MRR

Committed MRR or CMRR is a projection of your MRR in the next month or future months based on your current MRR, adjusted by guaranteed expansion MRR and anticipated churn MRR. SaaS companies sometimes have customers that start with a low price but have already agreed to a price increase in the future. CMRR is a great way to track and show this type of guaranteed expansion MRR. If you adopt the CMRR metric to show guaranteed expansion MRR, make sure that you also take into account “guaranteed churn” in order to make it consistent. That is, subtract MRR which you expect to lose from customers that you expect to stop using your software in the near future.

Closing thoughts

I believe that most SaaS companies do well by focusing on MRR and Cash Inflow plus, depending on the nature of the business, revenues and CMRR. The only thing I’d add is that if you’re selling annual subscriptions but you don’t get the full payment upfront (or similarly, if you’re for example selling 2-year-subscriptions but get only one year upfront), you should monitor your MRR broken down by contract length. That’s because there’s obviously value in selling longer subscriptions vs. shorter ones but that difference won’t show up in your MRR nor in your Cash Inflow in these cases. If you think there are any other revenue metrics that I’ve missed, please let me know.

Finally, I’m well aware that while all of these metrics are easy to understand conceptually, there are still a lot of devils in the details. The purpose of this post is to come to a common understanding of the key revenue metrics – how to deal with some of the many special cases that you’ll inevitably see (discounts, refunds, currency fluctuations, metered charges, etc) might be the topic of another post.


JC-Vend HQ said...

Thanks Christoph.

If I may, I will also add the following definitions to the list because they are very important for SaaS company with > ARR $10 M.

Gross MRR Churn = Cancelled MRR / Beginning CMRR

Net Expansion = Expansion (upgrades) - Contraction (downgrades)

Net Expansion % = (Expansion - Contraction) / Beginning CMRR

Net Churn MRR = Churn - Net Expansion

chrija said...

Absolutely, thanks JC. The only reason why I didn't include these is that I wanted to include only the various ways to express "revenue".

Matthew Buckley said...

Thanks Cristoph, great post.

How/when do you think that lifetime value and gross margin should also be taken into account when discussing SaaS revenue metrics?

chrija said...

Thanks, Matthew! The sooner you have an approximation of your gross margin and CLTV the better.

Benjamin Hoffman said...

I would even argue these definitions / metrics are important for startups that are < $10M ARR. As we know, churn is the silent killer... good to keep an eye on it from the start. :)

chrija said...

Agree, Ben. Really the only reason why I didn't include these metrics was that I only wrote about the various "synonyms" for "revenue".