Talking Burn: Appearance on the Metric Stack Podcast on Cash Conversion Score and Related Metrics

I have to say it was a combination of luck and foresight that I started talking with Allan Wille and Lauren Thibodeau about capital efficiency as a potential topic for their Metric Stack podcast many months ago.  Because now, as the episode is coming out, capital efficiency is the hot topic of the day.  Good luck (if not for a bad reason), but I’ll take it.

Here are some of the things we discussed on the podcast:

  • If you think of startups are organisms that convert venture capital (VC) into ARR, then we need some metric for how efficiently they do that.
  • Bessemer’s cash conversion score (CCS) is one such metric, which they have published with interesting benchmark data that shows the correlation between investment IRR and CCS within their portfolio.
  • I believe Bessemer defines CCS upside-down; I find it more intuitive to use capital consumed as the numerator and ARR (to show for it) in the denominator — as you would do with a CAC ratio.
  • Using my formula (= 1/CCS) for aggregate burn, here are some benchmarks.
  • < 1 is amazing (i.e., burning <$50M to get to $50M in ARR)
  • 1-2 is good (i.e., burning $50M to $100M to get to $50M)
  • 2-4 is questionable (i.e., burning $100M to $200M to get to $50M)
  • 4+ is bad (i.e., burning $200M+ to get to $50M)
  • On IRR, Bessemer companies with a ratio of <1x had an IRR of 120%, 1-2 had an IRR of 80%, and 2-4 had an IRR of 40%.
  • At some point, I’d somewhat tongue-in-cheekily defined a metric called hype factor on the theory that startup organisms actually produced two things:  ARR and hype.
  • The impact of strategy pivots on overall capital efficiency, what that can mean for future funding, and how that sometimes leads to recapitalizations and pay-to-play financing rounds

The episode is available on AppleSpotify, and YouTube.  Enjoy it!  And watch that burn!

Preview of My SaaStr Europa Talk: The Top 5 Scale-Up Mistakes

I’ll be speaking next month in Barcelona on the first day of SaaStr Europa, held at the International Convention Center on June 7th and 8th.   My presentation is scheduled at 11:25AM on June 7th and entitled The Top 5 Scale-Up Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.  While I usually speak at SaaStr, this is my first SaaStr Europa, and I’ll be making the trip over in my capacity as an EIR at Balderton Capital.

For those concerned about Covid, know that SaaStr Europa, like its Silicon Valley namesake, is a primarily outdoor and open air conference.  I spoke at SaaStr Annual in Silicon Valley last September and between the required entry testing and the outdoor venue felt about as safe as one could in these times.  Earlier this year, the folks at SaaStr moved the Europa venue from London to Barcelona to enable this primarily outdoor format.

After historically focusing a lot of my SaaStr content on the start-up phase (e.g., PMF, MVP), this year I thought I’d move to scale-up, and specifically the things that can go wrong as you scale a company from $10M to $100M in ARR.  Even if your company is still below $10M, I think you’ll enjoy the presentation because it will provide you with a preview of what lies ahead and hopefully help you avoid common mistakes as you enter the scale-up stage.  (If nothing else, the rants on repeatability and technical debt will be worth the price of admission!)

Without excessively scooping myself, here’s a taste of what we’ll talk about in the presentation:

  • Premature go-to-market acceleration.  Stepping on the gas too hard, too early and wasting millions of dollars because you thought (and/or wanted to believe) you had a repeatable sales model when you didn’t.  This is, by far, the top scale-up mistake.  Making it costs not only time and money, but takes a heavy toll on morale and culture.
  • Putting, or more often keeping, people in the wrong roles.  Everybody knows that the people who helped you build the company from $0 to $10M aren’t necessarily the best people to lead it from $10 to $100M, but what do you do about that?  How do you combine loyalists and veterans going forward?  What do you do with loyalists who are past their sell-by date in their current role?
  • Losing focus.  At one startup I ran, I felt like the board thought their job was to distract me — and they were pretty good at it.  What do you do when the board, like an overbearing parent, is burying you in ideas and directive feedback?  And that’s not mention all the other distraction factors from the market, customers, and the organization itself.  How does one stay focused?  And on what?
  • Messing up international (USA) expansion.  This is a European conference so I’ll focus on the mistakes that I see European companies make as they expand into the USA.  Combining my Business Objects experience with my Nuxeo and Scoro board experience with both Balderton and non-Balderton advising, I’m getting pretty deep on this subject, so I’m writing a series on it for the Balderton Build blog.  This material will echo that content.
  • Accumulating debilitating technical debt.  “I wear the chain I forged in life,” said Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol and so it is with your product.  Every shortcut, every mistake, every bad design decision, every redundant piece of code, every poor architectural choice, every hack accumulates to the point where, if ignored, it can paralyze your product development.  Pick your metaphor — Marley’s chains, barnacles on a ship, a house of cards, or Fibber McGee’s closet — but ignore this at your peril.  It takes 10-12 years to get to an IPO and that’s just about the right amount of time to paralyze yourself with technical debt.  What can you do to avoid having a product crisis as you approach your biggest milestone?

For those in attendance, we will have an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session after the presentation.  I’ll post my slides and the official SaaStr video after the conference.

This should be fun.  I hope to see you there!

The Board Boss Delusion

I talked to a founder a while back who felt like they’d lost a year or two thanks to some strategic distractions foisted upon them by a well-meaning board of directors.  While most startup boards try to follow the Hippocratic Oath, some — like well-meaning but overbearing parents — smother their founders and their companies with love.  This was, in my opinion, such a case.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this tale, so I thought I’d write a quick post on the topic, which serves as a follow up to my previous post, Whose Company Is It Anyway?

Most of the writing I’ve done on board relations focuses on the hired CEO for two reasons:

  • That’s the path I personally took, having been a hired CEO at two startups.  I could write about it first hand.
  • I thought it was the harder path.  Alas, the grass is always greener, so I always assumed life was easier for founders because they possessed the irrevocable moral authority of being founder and accompanying invisibility cloak [1] that shield them from the same level of termination risk as a hired CEO [2].

But some founder/CEOs — particularly younger, nicer, and/or first-time ones — suffer from a dangerous delusion that we need to challenge.  When I asked the aforementioned founder how they ended up in this situation, they said this:

“I was younger then.  I was still under the impression that the board were my bosses.”

That’s it.  The board boss delusion:  the belief that a founder/CEO should try to please the board in the same way that an employee wants to please their manager.  Why is this a delusion?

  • The board is not a person.  It’s a committee.  It’s not of one mind.  It may literally be impossible to please everyone, and often is.
  • The board does not want to be the boss.  Despite appearances otherwise, the board always wants the CEO to be boss.  Admittedly that may be more apparent with some boards than others, but even the most idea-generating, directive [3] boards do not want the CEO treating them like the boss.  They’re just adding value by providing ideas.
  • As CEO you are accountable for results, not for pleasing people.  You’re not a director executing someone else’s plan who is rated on execution and congeniality.
  • There is no get out of jail free card.  If a founder/CEO fully executes exactly what a powerful board member said and it fails, they do not get to say, “but, but we agreed that was plan.”  The invariable response if you do:  “you’re the one running the company and you decided to do it.”  It’s on you.  It’s always on you.
  • The board is usually not qualified to be boss.  How many of your board members would make the short list in a search for your replacement?  Some, maybe, even ideal in cases.  But most?  No.
  • The board doesn’t work there.  You spend 50-70 hours/week at the company.  They go to six four-hour board meetings per year and sit on 8-10 other boards.  Informed outsiders?  Yes.  But outsiders.
  • It’s your company.  As a hired CEO it’s metaphorical, as a founder/CEO, it’s literal.  Either way, you need to run it.  The board’s there to challenge you, give you ideas, pattern match, and leverage their networks.  You’re there to run the show.

If you don’t believe me, try one of these ideas:

  • Ask your board members, over a coffee (not in a board meeting), if they want to be treated like the boss.  They will say no.
  • Throw them the keys.  A few of the gutsier founders I know do this when the board gets too directive.  They literally take their car keys out of their pocket and throw them across the table:  “if it looks so easy, you can do it.”  They will throw them back.
  • Ask them to tell you a story about CEOs who got replaced.  Drill into those stories.  Find out whose plan the CEO was executing.  Ask if the board approved the plan.  Ask if the CEO failed executing an agreed-to plan, particularly if they were executing it well but it just wasn’t working, why they got replaced?  They’ll say, in the end the CEO decided to execute it, so it was their plan.

Whose company is it?  Yours.  Run it that way.

Is the board your boss?  No.  And the faster you learn that, the better.

# # #

Notes
[1]  Potentially including actual control provisions.

[2]  I am not saying this is bad, by the way.  Having “it’s my company” moral authority makes founder/CEOs less vulnerable to termination in ways that I believe are more good than bad.  Yes, in the end, if someone is continually failing they need to be replaced. But, on the flip side, if it now takes 13 years (i.e., 52 quarters) to go public, there is a virtually 100% chance of bad periods along the way and, particularly on a VC board where there are N stakeholders with potentially divergent opinions, it can be difficult to survive such downturns without either a protector (i.e., alpha) on the board or the moral authority of being a founder.

[3]  You should do this!  You should do that!

The Pipeline Progression Chart:  Why I Like It Better Than Just Tracking Rolling Four-Quarter Pipeline

When asked, “how is it going?” many companies will respond with something akin to, “things are looking strong, the pipeline is up to $50M.”

Not a bad statement, but certainly an imprecise one.  “Over what timeframe?” you might ask.  To which you’ll typically hear one of two answers

  • “Uh, that’s the whole thing.” I don’t love this answer as many companies –particularly the ones who answer with all-quarter pipeline — let junk opportunities get parked in the 5Q+ pipeline.  (You can fix this by including a timeframe as part of the definition of opportunity and ensuring you review the entire pipeline whenever you do a pipeline scrub.)
  • “That’s the rolling four-quarter (R4Q) pipeline.” I don’t love this answer either because, in my experience, companies who focus on R4Q pipeline as their top pipeline metric tend not to put enough emphasis on pipeline timing.  It’s too easy to say in January, “this year’s number is $20M and we’ve got $50M in the pipeline already (2.5x pipeline coverage) so we are golden.”  The problem, of course, is if 80% of that pipeline is backloaded into Q4, then while “the year may look great,” you’re going to need to survive three wasteland quarters to get there.  Even if that $40M Q4 pipeline were real, which it usually isn’t, most sales VPs won’t be around in October to close it.

I never look at rolling-four-quarter pipeline for the simple reason that I’ve never had a rolling-four-quarter sales target.  We have quarterly targets.  Instead of looking at R4Q  pipeline and hoping it’s well distributed (over time and across sellers), my philosophy is the opposite:

Let’s focus on ensuring we start every quarter with 3.0x pipeline coverage.  If we do that, the year takes care of itself, as does the year after that.

Once you accept this viewpoint, a few things happen:

  • Someone needs to start forecasting day-1 next-quarter pipeline coverage. What’s the point of focusing on next-quarter coverage if no one is tracking it and taking corrective actions as needed?  As mentioned, I think that person should be the CMO.
  • We need to start tracking the progression of the pipeline over time. This quarter’s starting pipeline is largely composed of last-quarter’s next-quarter pipeline and so on.  Since there are so many ebbs and flows in the pipeline the best way to track this is via periodic snapshots.

Towards that end, here’s a chart I find useful:

Let’s examine it.

  • Each row is a snapshot of the pipeline, broken down by quarter, taken on the first day of the quarter. (Some allow a week or two, for pipeline cleanup before snapshotting, which is fine.)
  • We’re tracking pipeline dollars, not opportunity count, which generally works better if you have a range of deal sizes and/or a multi-modal distribution of average sales prices. Doing so, however, can leave you overconfident if you create new opportunities with a high placeholder value.  (See this post for what to do about that.)
  • We show pipeline coverage in the block on the right. Most people want this-quarter coverage of around 3.0.  Targets for next-quarter and N+2 quarter are usually less well understood because many people don’t track them.  Coverage needed in the out quarters is a function of your sales cycle length, but the easiest thing is to just start tracking it so you get a sense for what out-quarter coverage normally is.  If you’re worried about that 1.6x next-quarter coverage shown on the 7/1 snapshot, read this post for ideas on how to generate pipeline in a hurry.
  • It’s good to carry at least one year’s prior snapshots so you can see historical progression.  Even more is better.
  • I’m assuming bigger deals and longer sales cycles (e.g., 6 to 12 months) so you will actually have material pipeline in the out-quarters.  For a velocity model with 25-day sales cycles, I’d take this template but just switch the whole things to months.

The most fun part of this chart is this you read it diagonally.  The $7.5M in starting this-quarter pipeline at the 7/1/21 snapshot is largely composed of the $6.5M in next-quarter pipeline at the 4/1/21 snapshot and the $3M in pipeline at the 1/1/21 snapshot.  You can kind of see the elephant go through the snake.

When you add this chart to your mix, you’re giving yourself an early warning system for pipeline shortages beyond simply forecasting starting next-quarter pipeline.  You should do this, particularly with big deals and long sales cycles, because one quarter’s notice is usually not enough time to fix the problem.  Yes, you can and should always try to mitigate problems (and never give-up saying, “looks like we’re going to hit the iceberg”), but if you give yourself more advance notice, you’ll give yourself more options and a better chance at reaching the goal:  starting every quarter with 3.0x coverage.

Add this slide to your QBR template now!

How Should CEOs Answer the Question, “What Keeps You Up at Night?”

I’ve always felt that “what keeps you up at night?” was a trick question for CEOs.

There’s one part of it I’m quite sure about.  There cannot be anything that you control that keeps you up at night.  Why?  Because you’re the CEO.  If something is keeping you up at night, well, do something about it.

Stress, as I like to say, is for VPs and CXOs.  They’re the ones that need to convince the boss about something.  They’re the ones worried about how something might look.  The CEO?  Well, you’re accountable for results.  You get to make or approve the decisions.

If you’re a founder/CEO then you shouldn’t be particularly worried about how things look to the board.  It’s your company.  You’ve got an invisibility cloak that your hired CEO counterparts lack, and which you should use when needed.  Think of founder privilege the way the kitschy Love Story described love:  it means never having to say you’re sorry.

For what it’s worth, and I won’t claim to have been God’s gift to CEOs, I lived by the control rule — that is, if I controlled it and it woke me up in the middle of the night, then I was going to do something about it.  That’s why one of the worst things I could say to one of my VPs was, “I woke up last night thinking about you.”  If that happened, and it sometimes did, then either our working relationship or their employment status was changing soon.

I put this in the same “listen to your gut” class as the I don’t want to talk to you anymore rule.  If you’re one of my VPs, then you’re running a key part of my company, then I should look forward to speaking with you each and every time.  If I don’t look forward to speaking with you, it’s a massive problem, and one I shouldn’t ignore.  After all, why wouldn’t I look forward to speaking with you?  Who don’t I like speaking to?  People who:

  • Don’t listen
  • Don’t follow through
  • Can’t keep up
  • Grinf-ck me
  • Can’t or won’t change
  • Are negative
  • Are mean

There are probably other classes, but the point is if I don’t want to talk to someone, it’s a huge signal and one I should dig into, not ignore.

Waking up in the middle of the night is an even bigger signal.  If you agree that CEOs should not wake up in the middle of the night over things they can control, then we can move onto the second category:  things they can’t control.  Should CEOs wake up in the middle of the night over them?

Again I say no.  Why?

Making bets is a big part of a CEO’s job.  Based on available information and working with the team, the CEO places a set of strategic bets on behalf of the company.  The company then needs to execute those strategies.  While the quality of that execution is under the CEO’s control (and should be high to remove execution as a source of noise in the strategy process), the outcome is not.

Why be stressed while the roulette wheel is spinning?  It’s a natural reaction, but does it change the outcome?  You’ve placed your chips already.  Does stressing out increase the odds of the ball landing on your square?  Does not stressing out decrease it?  No.  It changes nothing at the roulette table.

I’d argue that in business, unlike roulette, stressing out can effect the outcome.  A CEO who’s constantly under stress while the wheel is spinning — e.g., waking up in the middle of the night — is likely to perform worse, not better, as a result.

  • A tired CEO does not make great decisions
  • A haggard CEO does not inspire confidence
  • A grumpy CEO does not handle delicate situations well

I’m not trying to minimize the very real stress that comes with the CEO job.  I am, however, trying to provide a rational, contrarian, and hopefully fresh point of view that helps you better frame it.

In the end, there are two types of things that CEOs can potentially stress about:

  • Things they can control.  They shouldn’t stress over these because they should do something about them, instead.
  • Things they can’t control.  They shouldn’t stress over these because doing so will not change the outcome.  Worse yet, it may well change the outcome — for the worse — over the things they can control.

Ergo, CEOs should never stress about things.  QED.

As Warren Buffet said, “games are won by players who focus on the playing field — not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard.”  Focus on what you can control and, as Bill Walsh says, the score will take care of itself.

Congratulations.  You’re the CEO.  You’ve got the best job in the world.  Enjoy every day.  And sleep well every night.

# # #

Notes

  • To reiterate, none of this is to trivialize the stress that comes with the CEO job nor to suggest that CEOs shouldn’t work hard.  It is to say that I believe they will be happier and more effective if they find a way to sleep well — as most senior executives do.
  • To look at this from an outcomes perspective, while I was pleased with the operational results at both companies I ran, I was not particularly pleased with the outcomes.  Did I work hard and obsess about things?  Yes, in general.  If I worried more and slept less do I think it would have improved my outcomes?  No.  Were some of the worst decisions I made in part due to being worried and stressed about things?  Yes.  Did I in general sleep well?  Yes.  I have always naturally focused on running plays well and believed that the score would then take of itself.  In my experience, sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn’t.
  • In writing this post, I found a few anecdotal, fun, and one somewhat ironic article on success and sleep.
  • This Bill Walsh quote seems to undermine my argument.  “If you’re up at 3 A.M. every night talking into a tape recorder and writing notes on scraps of paper, have a knot in your stomach and a rash on your skin, are losing sleep and losing touch with your wife and kids, have no appetite or sense of humor, and feel that everything might turn out wrong, then you’re probably doing the job.”  That said, he’d use this as an opener to speeches which were largely about focusing on what you can control.
  • Walsh’s other quote on sleep was more proactive:  “If you want to sleep at night before the game, have your first 25 plays established in your own mind the night before that. You can walk into the stadium and you can start the game without that stress factor. You will start the game and you will remind yourself that you are looking at certain things because a pattern has been set up.”