Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Knowing when to scale (and how to prove that you can do it)

When you’re talking to investors about a Series B, Series C or later round, one of the questions that will inevitably come up is “What are your CACs?”. It sounds like a simple question, but from the question of what costs to include and the right way to account for organic traffic to the pandora box of multi-touch attribution, there are lots of devils in the details.

What's more, the real question is not "What are your CACs?" but "What will your CACs be if you invest $10-20 million in sales & marketing?". It’s hard enough to calculate historic CACs for different acquisition channels with a high degree of accuracy. It’s much harder to predict future CACs at bigger scale.

And yet it shouldn’t come as a surprise that later-stage investors are so focused on this question. When you’re raising a Series B or later round, you’ve achieved Product/Market Fit (which is hard to define, see me attempt here) and you’ve got what Jason M. Lemkin calls “Initial Traction” and “Initial Scale”. At that point, the biggest thing standing between you and building a $100M+ business is finding scalable and profitable customer acquisition channels. Obviously you still have to overcome lots of other challenges along the way, but if you’re at $5-10M in ARR and you are confident that you’ve found scalable sales and marketing channels you are in an excellent (and rare) spot.

So how do you know if your customer acquisition channels will scale, that is, if a 10x increase of your sales and marketing spend will lead to a 10x increase in new customers? Consumer Internet startups are sometimes in the fortunate position to have found a profitable customer acquisition channel that offers huge potential for expansion. If ads on TV, YouTube or Facebook work for you, you might be able to increase your spending by 10x (and maybe much more) because these platforms have such a gigantic reach. In the B2B SaaS world this is very rare. Mass-market advertising won’t work because there’s way too much ad wastage, and targeted ads usually don’t give you the volume to easily 10x your spend.

Without a careful keyword volume analysis, being able to profitably spend $10k a month on AdWords doesn’t mean much in regards to your ability to spend $100k a month. If you spend small amounts on AdWords you will by definition (AKA by algorithm) capture the lowest-hanging fruits. As you’re trying to spend more, prices will go up. You might be able to offset the price increase by optimizing your campaigns, landing pages, onboarding, etc, but don’t take it as a given.

The underlying problem is that the existing “hot demand” for your product – people who are actively looking for a solution – is usually quite limited. The good news is that the amount of “lukewarm demand” – companies that would benefit from your product but aren’t aware of it yet – is usually much larger. That’s why content marketing is so critical in SaaS: it allows you to capture leads at a much earlier stage of the discovery process. But scaling up your content marketing by 10x is not as straightforward as simply 10x-ing your ad budget.

So how do you know, in B2B SaaS, if you’ve found scalable acquisition channels?

Nothing is completely certain here, but one great sign that should give you a lot of confidence is if you can hire new salespeople and the new hires (once they’re ramped up) are hitting their quota. If you add two AEs, add another two, and then another two, and most of them are hitting quota it shows that you’re able to increase the amount of high-quality leads. If that wasn’t the case, your growing sales team would quickly start fighting for the best leads and some of your salespeople wouldn’t be able to hit their quota any longer. Equally important, it also shows that you’ve managed to industrialize the sales process to a certain extent. Firstly, it doesn’t take the founders or superstar salespeople to sell your product, it can be sold by “normal” people. And second, you’ve managed to attract the right people, to set up the right processes and infrastructure and to create the right incentive structure and culture that is required to make a sales team successful.

Besides a growing, successful sales team, there are a few other factors that you can look at when you’re trying to decide if it’s time to put the pedal to the metal:

1. Are you able to make outbound sales work?
Doing outbound at reasonable CACs is usually very hard because you’re dealing with lots of unqualified leads. It requires lots of persistence from every AE and your sales leader as well as a strong commitment from the founders, since a serious attempt to make outbound work can cost a lot of money and time. The beauty of outbound sales is that if it works for you, you may have found a highly scalable customer acquisition channel: emailing or calling every single target customer in the world will keep your sales team busy for a while. :)

2. Have you managed to increase your SEM budget consistently and significantly without negative effect on CACs? What is your impression share, and how large is the search volume that you can still tap into?
As mentioned above, past performance in scaling an SEM budget from A to B alone is not a reliable indicator of future performance to scale from B to C. But in combination with a thorough analysis of the relevant search volume it can be a relevant data point.

3. Have you built a content marketing “machine” that consistently generates more leads month-over-month? 
If you can consistently increase inbound/content leads for some time, it means that you’ve found your narrative, or “North Star”; started to build content distribution channels; and managed to attract the right marketing people and make them effective. (Check out this great post from my colleague ClĂ©ment for much more about this.)

If there are other aspects that you’re looking at to decide if you’re ready to scale, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

Thank you Rodrigo and Janis for reviewing a draft of this post and the valuable feedback.