Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ideas we'd like to invest in: Industry-specific SaaS solutions

Following my post about electronic signing I'd like to describe another area that we'd like to invest in. It's not a specific idea this time, rather a category of startups that we're very interested in:

Industry-specific SaaS solutions

I talked about the topic before when I wrote about "The land of a thousand niches" and touched on it in my "1st DO for SaaS startups". There are several reasons why we're so excited about vertical SaaS solutions. *

  • Focusing on a specific vertical simply allows you to build a better product for the industry that you're after. Whereas a generic product needs to be the lowest common denominator for different types of customers, a vertical solution can be tailored exclusively to the needs of your specific target audience.
  • By the same token, a vertical focus also allows you to tailor your messaging to one target group. Take our portfolio company Clio as an example. Look at their website and think about how much weaker their proposition would be if they had to keep it generic to address a broader target audience.
  • Knowing exactly who your target group is also makes sales and marketing much more straightforward. It means you'll know which publications your target customers read, which conferences they attend, which other products they use, and so on. You can even get their names and addresses from the yellow pages or other directories. And because people in an industry usually talk to each other a lot, it's easier to get a critical mass of mindshare which is so important for organic growth.
  • Competition tends to be less intense in verticals. Maybe because building a SaaS solution for field-service businesses like landscapers and snow removers doesn't appear like the sexiest thing on Earth, maybe because opportunities in verticals don't seem large enough for big enterprises. This gives you a chance to dominate a category and achieve extraordinarily high market share.

Boris Wertz, a good friend and co-investor in two vertical SaaS solutions, Clio and Jobber, recently wrote about the topic as well and has some additional points.

I have one caveat regarding vertical SaaS solutions: Make sure that the vertical that you're going after is big enough, i.e. aligned with your ambition with respect to the size of the company that you want to build. Expanding from one vertical into another one isn't easy. Maybe you won't have to start from zero, but the very reasons which make a vertical strategy attractive in the first place can also mean that most of the value that you've built in one category (domain expertise, product/market fit, mindshare,...) can't be easily transferred into another category.


* This doesn't mean that we're not excited about SaaS startups which don't have a vertical approach. If you focus on a specific part of the value chain (e.g. accounting, marketing, sales) it makes perfect sense to go horizontal. It's the "practice management" type product, which encompasses a large part of the value chain, for which I recommend the vertical approach.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A KPI dashboard for early-stage SaaS startups

[Update 12/20/2013: I have extended the dashboard to include multiple pricing tiers and annual subscription plans. Check it out here.]

[Update 01/17/2015: There's a new company called ChartMogul (which we invested in) which makes it easy to get a real-time dashboard similar to the template below. Check it out!]

Over the last few years I've helped quite a lot of SaaS startups to create or fine-tune their KPI dashboards. While every situation is a bit different there's also a lot of overlap, which made me think that it would make sense to publish my template (not without polishing it a bit). I hope other SaaS startups will find it useful, and it will also make it easier for us to communicate what KPIs we're looking for when we talk to SaaS entrepreneurs.

Not surprisingly the dashboard looks quite similar to the financial planning sheet that I've posted some time ago. Below are two Excel screenshots, and 

here is the Google Docs version.

If you prefer the Excel version, which looks a bit nicer, click here to download it. (And if you like it, tweet it!)

The sheet contains some notes on the right side. I was going to note a few additional things here but it's gotten really late here in Europe so I'll leave that for another day. If you find any bugs, let me know and I'll fix them tomorrow morning. :)

One comment, though. Although I've developed this sheet on my own, I've learned a lot about SaaS metrics from David Skok, who I am very thankful for. David created a SaaS dashboard as well, it's a bit more sophisticated and has a slightly different focus, but it's quite similar. Check it out, and if you have not read his brilliant articles about SaaS yet I highly recommend that you do so. They are an absolute must-read for every SaaS entrepreneur.

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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Ideas we'd like to invest in

Inspired by Paul Graham’s “Startup Ideas We’d Like to Fund” post of a few years ago I’d like to start a series of posts about ideas that I find exciting and that we at Point Nine would be very interested in investing in. Here's the first one.

Electronic signing

I’m a huge, huge fan of electronic signing. Whenever I have to sign a document and I’m getting a “Please eSign...” email I rejoice because it saves me the hassle of printing, completing, signing, scanning and emailing the signature pages (don’t get me started on snail-mailing paper copies with original signatures!). This is of course especially true if you’re traveling and don’t have access to printers constantly. Apps like SignEasy and SignNow, which target the “signer” and let you e-sign PDF documents from your iPhone, are a pretty good solution and can be a live-safer if you’re sitting in a cab and have to sign an important document. Products like EchoSign, DocuSign, RightSignature and HelloSign, which are geared towards the signature-collecting parties, are even better in that they take care of the entire e-signing process from creating documents to collecting signatures and archiving signed contracts.

There are a couple of reasons why I think e-signing is not just a great product but also a great business:

  • The product is inherently viral. Very rare for SaaS solutions. That means low customer acquisition costs which, combined with a good revenue model, are a killer.
  • The product is valuable for individual users but becomes even more valuable if it’s used by an entire department or an entire company, which means you can use a Yammer-like land-and-expand strategy to get into bigger accounts. 
  • It seems easy to find a good pricing structure which lets you combine an affordable entry-level plan for small customers (or even a free plan) with expensive plans for large customers, since the value delivered to customers (and hence willingness to pay) should correlate strongly with the number of contracts and number of users.

Now – there are a couple of well-funded players already, and EchoSign, following its acquisition by Adobe, has been integrated into Acrobat Reader, giving the product massive distribution as well as an entry product that is geared to the “signer side”. So the big question is if there’s still room for a new entrant.

I don’t have a clear answer, but given that the vast majority of signatures are still done on paper and that the US players seem to have very low penetration in Europe I’m wondering if there could still be an opportunity – maybe for a European champion, maybe with a vertical approach, maybe with a mobile-first strategy or another special twist?