Friday, October 19, 2012

The 2nd DO for SaaS startups – Build the right team

Continuing my little series using the "minimum viable" approach, here is my

2nd DO for SaaS startups:
Build the right team

I've written about the topic before, so if you've read this post from early this year most of what I'm going to write now won't be new for you and you may want to skip this article.

I'm going to assume that you want to build a modern SaaS solution for the "Fortune 5,000,000" – a great product that's easy to understand and so useful that it will almost sell itself. If your plan is to create a bloated piece of enterprise software with an ugly interface and make it up by hiring a large field sales force from the get-go you might succeed as well, but in that case please don't ask me for advice. :)

Let's start with the founder team. If you want to build a great SaaS product that's (relatively speaking) easy to market and sell you will need
  • domain expertise
  • UX/UI talent, and 
  • a great engineer who can code the application. 
The reason is obvious, you need to understand the problem that you are solving for your target customers, you need a product that looks good and feels good and can be sold online and last but not least, to say it how Dave McClure would probably say it, you need someone to get sh*t done. :) If you're a genius you might combine all of these threes qualities in one person, but it's more likely that you'll need a founder team of two or three persons to cover all three areas.

What if you don't have that SaaS founder dream team – a CEO with domain expertise, a great CPO and a rock-star CTO? If you're only missing the domain expertise that may be comparably easy to acquire. In many (but certainly not all) markets you can probably learn a lot of what you need to know within a couple of months. If you don't have product and engineering knowledge that's tough. In my opinion you absolutely have to have this in the DNA of your company. Don't even think about outsourcing product design or engineering to an agency, I can almost guarantee you that it ain't gonna work. So if your founding team consists of five MBAs who've never built a product before, don't start a SaaS company, build an eCommerce business instead (there's nothing wrong with that either).

What comes next? The first hires after the founder team usually are, in this order:
  • Developers (get even more sh*t done)
  • Someone for customer support (in the beginning the founders should do customer support themselves in order to stay as close to the customer as possible, but at some point you'll need more manpower to deal with customer questions and support issues. Your customer support person will also likely act as your first inside sales person who helps converts trial users into paying customers.)
  • One or more inside sales people (to maximize the conversion of your inbound leads)
  • A marketing person (depending on a variety of factors, this person can also come in before the first sales person)
With the exception of the developers (arguably), these hires can all be pretty junior people – young, smart, hungry people that learn fast. Later in the game you'll need people with a lot of experience, for example for the VP Sales role. But for most positions, most of the SaaS CEOs that I've talked to have a strong preference for "raw talent" and people with the right attitude.

PS: As you know, this whole series is, and will continue to be for some time, a work-in-progress. Any comments or feedback is very welcome!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

1st DO for SaaS startups, continued

Further to my post about my "1st DO for SaaS startups" (and again, in the spirit of releasing early and iterating fast) I'd like to touch on a few additional points with respect to the right market.

Market size
  • If you want to go big and build a large, successful company it's obviously important that your market is big enough. How big is big enough? Most large VCs would answer that the TAM of a SaaS company should be at least $1B. The thinking is, if it's a $1B market and you grab 5-10% of it and get a revenue multiple of 5-8x, the company will be worth $250-800M at exit. This is where large VCs start to get excited. 
  • We as a small early-stage fund are a little more modest but we also want to see a clear potential for a $100M+ exit, which means there needs to be a clear potential to get to at least $10-20M in revenues. If you assume 5-10% market share, that means the TAM should be $100-400M at the minimum.
  • Note that by TAM I mean your primary market. If there's potential to expand into new products or geographies that's great and can be a big plus, but given the uncertainty of these expansions it's important that your primary TAM alone is big enough.
  • Can't you target a smaller market but aim for much bigger market share? The general thinking is that it's much easier to get to, say, $50M in revenues in a $1B market than in a $200M market. My gut tells me that's right, but it would be interesting to see some real data on this question.
  • Note that I'm answering the question from my biased VC perspective. There are plenty of opportunities to build very respectable companies in smaller markets or niches. They just may not be VC-fundable – which can be completely fine if you don't need that much capital and if your competitors don't get VC funding either.
Fortune 500 vs. Fortune 5,000,000
Should you go after the Fortune 500 or the Fortune 5,000,000? At Point Nine we're big fans of the latter. To some degree that's just a personal preference. We don't have expertise in enterprise sales and we just love consumerized, low-touch sales SaaS businesses. Some of the most valuable software companies have been built based on the enterprise sales model (including SAP, probably the most successful high-tech company coming out of Germany in the last 40 years) and maybe that's still possible. It's just not our thing.

Here are a few of the reasons why we like targeting SMBs:
  • You need less time and money to get a first version to the market. The lean startup approach doesn't work well for enterprise software as you need to invest much more money into product development and sales.
  • When you develop for enterprise clients there's a risk that you become a victim of the law of small numbers: You develop your product based on the requirements of a handful of pilot customers but you don't know if the rest of the market has the same needs. When you target SMBs you'll develop and iterate your product based on the needs of a much bigger sample size.
  • The same goes for the sales side: Because you're dealing with small numbers it's easy to draw wrong conclusions. For example, you may think that you have a great CAC/CLTV ratio and all you have to do is hire more salespeople whereas in reality you just had luck with a few good customer wins.
  • Customer acquisition is much less sales-driven, which means that you need less capital and that you can grow faster.
  • And finally, starting with SMBs doesn't prevent you from going upstream over time. As your product becomes more and more robust and you understand the needs of bigger clients better and better you can target increasingly bigger customers. Much better than doing it the other way round since it's very hard to take an enterprise product and strip down features to make it usable for SMBs.

Horizontal vs. vertical
  • The advantage of a vertical product, i.e. a product made for a particular industry, is that you know exactly who your target customers are. That makes it much easier to find out the precise needs of your target customers and also makes your marketing efforts easier. The downside of a vertical product is that your niche might not be very large and you might struggle to expand into other verticals.
  • For horizontal products it's usually the other way round: Bigger TAMs, but it may not be obvious who the first adopters of your product are and it's harder to reach potential customers in a targeted way.