Is Another SaaSacre In The Offing?

I’m not a financial analyst and I don’t make stock recommendations [1], but as a participant and observer in the software investing ecosystem, I do keep an eye on macro market parameters and I read a fair bit of financial analyst research.  Once in an while, I comment on what I’m seeing.

In February 2016, I wrote two posts (SaaS Stocks:  How Much Punishment is in Store and The SaaSacre Part II:  Time for the Rebound?).  To remind you how depressed SaaS stocks were back then:

  • Workday was $49/share, now at $192
  • Zendesk was $15/share, now at $85
  • ServiceNow was $47/share, now at $247
  • Salesforce was $56/share, now at $160

Those four stocks are up 342% over the past 3 years and two months.  More broadly, the Bessemer Emerging Cloud Index is up 385% over the same period.  Given the increase, a seemingly frothy market for stocks (P/E of the S&P 500 at ~21), and plenty of global geopolitical and economic uncertainty, the question is whether there is another SaaSacre (rhymes with massacre) in the not-too-distant future?

Based just on gut feel, I would say yes.  (Hence my Kellblog prediction that markets would be choppy in 2019.)  But this morning, I saw a chart in a Cowen report that helped bring some data to the question:

cowen

I wish we had a longer time period to look at, but the data is still interesting.  The chart plots enterprise value (EV) divided by next twelve month (NTM) sales.  As a forward multiple, it’s already more aggressive than a trailing twelve month (TTM) multiple because revenue is growing (let’s guess 25% to 30% across the coverage universe), thus the multiple gets deflated when looking forward as opposed to back.

That said, let’s look at the shape of the curve.  When I draw a line through 7x, it appears to me that about half the chart is above the line and half below, so let’s guesstimate that median multiple during the period is 7x.  If you believe in regression to the mean, you should theoretically be a bearish when stocks are trading above the median and bullish when they’re below.

Because the average multiple line is pretty thick, it’s hard to see where exactly it ends, but it looks like 8.25x to me.  That means today’s multiples are “only” 18% above the median [2].  That’s good news, in one sense, as my gut was that it would be higher.  The bad news is:  (1) when things correct they often don’t simply drop to the line but well through it and (2) if anything happens to hurt the anticipated sales growth, the EV/NTM-sales multiple goes up at constant EV because  NTM-sales goes down.  Thus there’s kind of a double whammy effect because lower future anticipated growth increases multiples at a time when the multiples themselves want to be decreasing.

This is a long way of saying, in my opinion, as a chartist [3] using this chart, I would conclude that multiples are somewhat frothy, about 20% above the median, with a lot predicated on future growth.

This exercise shows that looking only at price appreciation presents a more dangerous-looking picture than looking at prices as related to revenues:  looking across the whole chart, prices are up a lot since April 2014 but so are forward-looking revenues, and the multiple is roughly the same at the start as at the end:  8x. [4]  Looking at things differently, of the ~350% gain since April 2016, half is due to multiple expansion (from a way-below-median ~4x to an above-median ~8x), and half is to stock revenue growth.

For me, when I look at overall markets (e.g., PE of the S&P), geopolitical uncertainty, price appreciation, and SaaS multiples, I still feel like taking a conservative position.  But somewhat less than so than before I saw this chart.  While it’s totally subjective:  SaaS is less frothy than I thought when looking only at price appreciation.

Switching gears, the same Cowen report had a nice rule of 40 chart that I thought I’d share as well:

r40 cowen

Since the R^2 is only 0.32, I continue to wonder if you’d get a higher R^2 using only revenue growth as opposed to rule of 40 score on the X axis.  For more on this topic, see my other Rule of 40 posts here.

# # #

Notes
[1] See disclaimers in my FAQ and terms of use in the blog license agreement.

[2] Nevertheless, 18% is a lot to lose if multiples instantly reset to the median.  (And they often don’t just drop to the median, but break well through it — e.g., in Jan 2016, they were as low as 4x.)

[3] And chartism doesn’t work.

[4] If you ignore most of the first month where it appeared to be falling from 10x to 8x.

The Two Dimensions of Startup Performance

When it comes to evaluating a startup’s performance, I think there are two key, orthogonal questions that need to be examined:

  1. Is the company delivering growth?
  2. Is management in control of your business?

Growth is the primary driver of value creation in a software startup.  I’m not going to quantify what is good vs. bad growth here – it’s a function of too many other variables (e.g., state of market, stage of startup).  For a seed stage company 100% growth (e.g., from $200K to $400K in ARR) is not particularly good, whereas 40% growth off $150M is quite strong.  So, the first question is — given the company’s size and situation — is it delivering good growth?

The second question is whether management is in control of the business.  I evaluate that in two ways:  how often does the company miss its quarterly operating plan targets and how often does the company miss its early-quarter (e.g., week 3) forecast for sales, expenses, and cash burn?

You can combine these two dimensions into a quadrant.

startup perf quadrant

Let’s take a look at companies in each of these quadrants, describe the situation they’re in, and offer some thoughts on what to do.

Moribund Startups
Companies that are moribund are literally on death’s door because they are not creating value through growth and, worse yet, not even in control of their business.  They make annual plans that are too aggressive and continually miss the targets set within them.  Worse yet, they also miss quarterly forecasts, forecasting sales of 100 units in week 3, 80 units in week 12, and delivering sales of only 50 units when the quarter is done.  This erodes the board’s faith in management’s execution and makes it impossible for the company to manage expenses and cash.  Remember Sequoia founder Don Valentine’s famous quote:

“All companies go out of business for the same reason.  They run out of money.” — Don Valentine, Sequoia Capital

While there may be many reasons why a moribund company is not growing, the first priority needs to getting back in control of the business:  setting realistic annual operating plans, achieving them, and having reliable early-quarter (e.g., week 3) forecasts for sales, expense, and cash burn.  I think in their desperation to grow too many moribund startups fail to realize that getting back in control should be done before trying to rejuvenate growth and thus die doing neither.

Put differently, if you’re going to end up delivering sub-par growth, at least forecast it realistically so you will still be in control of your business and thus in a far better position to either turnaround operations or pivot to a better strategic place.  Without control you have nothing, which is what your business will soon be worth if you don’t regain it.

Stuck Startups
Stuck companies face a different set of problems.  The good news is that they are in control of the business:  they make and hit their plans, they come in at or above their forecasts.  Thus, they can manage their business without the risk of suddenly running out of cash.  The bad news is that they’re not delivering sufficient growth and ergo not creating value for the shareholders (e.g., investors, founders, and employees).  Stuck companies need to figure out, quickly, why they’re not growing and how to re-ignite growth.

Possible reasons for stalled growth include:

  • Lack of product-market fit. The company has never established that it solves a problem in the market that people are willing to pay (an amount compatible with your business model) to solve. You may have built something that nobody wants at all, or something that people are not simply willing to pay for.  This situation might call for a “pivot” to an adjacent market.
  • Poor sales & marketing (S&M) execution. While plenty of startups have weak S&M organizations, a lot of deeper problems get blamed by startup boards on S&M.  Why?  Because most boards/investors want to believe that S&M is to blame for company performance problems because S&M issues are easier to fix than the alternatives:  just fire the VP of Sales and/or Marketing and try again.  After all, which would you rather be told by doctor?  That your low-grade fever and weakness is due to the flu or leukemia?  The risk is that through willful misdiagnosis you keep churning S&M executives without fixing (or even focusing on) a deeper underlying problem. [1]
  • Weak competitive positioning. Through some combination of your product and product marketing, customers routinely short-list you as a contender, but buy from someone else.  Think: “we seem to be everyone’s favorite second choice.”  This can be driven by anything from poor product marketing to genuine product shortcomings to purely corporate factors (e.g., such as believing you have a fine product, but that your company will not be a winner in the market).

Stuck companies need to figure out, with as much honesty as possible with themselves, their customers, and their prospects, why they are stuck and then take appropriate steps to fix the underlying causes.  In my opinion, the hard part isn’t the fixes – they’re pretty obvious once you admit the problems.  The hard part is getting to the unpleasant truth of why the company is stuck in the first place. [2]

Unbridled Startups
Like Phaeton driving his father’s chariot [3], the unbridled startup is growing fast, but out of control, and thus risks getting too close to the Sun and burning up or simply smashing into the ground.  Unbridled startups typically are delivering big growth numbers – but often those big numbers are below the even bigger numbers in their aggressive annual operating plan.  The execs dismiss the plan as irrelevant and tell the board to look at growth and market share.  The board looks at the cash burn, noting that the management team — despite delivering amazing growth — is often still under plan on sales and over plan on expenses, generating cash burn that’s much larger than planned.

If the growth stops, these companies burn up, because they are addicted to high cash burn and can suddenly find themselves in the position of not being able to raise money.  So to keep the perpetual motion machine going, they’ll do almost anything to keep growing.  That might include:

  • Raising money on an unattainable plan
  • Raising money on undesirable terms [4] that hurt earlier investors and potentially really hurt the common stock
  • Spending heavily on customer acquisition and potentially hiding that in other areas (e.g., big professional services losses)

Remember that once the Halo is lost, it’s virtually impossible to get back so companies and executives will do almost anything to keep it going.  In some cases, they end up crossing lines that get the business in potentially serious trouble.  [5]

Unbridled companies need to bring in “adult supervision,” but fear doing so because they worry that the professional managers they’ll bring in from larger companies may kill the growth, driven by the company’s aggressive, entrepreneurial founders.  Thus, the board ends up in something of a waiting game:  how long do we bet on the founding/early team to keep driving crazy growth – even if it’s unbridled – before we bring in more seasoned and professional managers?  The smart part about this is realizing the odds of replacing the early team without hurting growth are low, so sometimes waiting really is the best strategy.  In this case, the board is thinking, “OK let’s give this [crazy] CEO one more year” but poised to terminate him/her if growth slows.

The transition can be successfully pulled off – it’s just hard and risky.  I’d argue MongoDB did this well in 2014.  But I’d argue that Anaplan did it not-so-well in 2016, with a fairly painful transition after parting ways with a very growth-oriented CEO, leaving the top job open for nearly 9 months [6].

So, the real question for unbridled companies is when to bridle them and how to do so without killing the golden goose of growth.

Star Startups
There’s not much to say about star startups other than if you’re working at one, don’t quit.  They’re hard to find.  They’re great places to learn.  And it’s sometimes easy to forget you’re working at a star.  I remember when I joined Business Objects.  The company had just gone public the prior year [7], so I had the chance to really dig into their situation by reading the S-1.  “This place is perfect,” I thought, “20-something consecutive quarters of profitable growth, something like only $4M in VC raised, market share leadership, a fundamental patented technology, and a great team — I’m critical as heck and I can’t find a single thing wrong with this place.  This is going to be my first job at a perfect company.”

That’s when I learned that while Business Objects was indeed a star, it was far from a perfect company.  It’s where I learned that there are no perfect companies.  There are always problems.  The difference between great and average companies is not that great companies have fewer problems:  it’s that great companies get what matters right.  Which then begs the question:  what matters?

(Which is an excellent topic for any startup strategy offsite.)

# # #

Notes
[1] One trick I use is to assume that, by default, we’re average in all regards.  If we’re hiring the same profiles, using the same comp plans, setting the same quotas, doing the same onboarding, providing the same kit, then we really should be average:  it’s the most likely outcome.  Then, I look for evidence to find areas where we might be above or below.  This is quite different from a vigilante board deciding “we have a bad sales organization” because of a few misses (or a personal style mismatch) and wanting to immediately replace the VP of sales.  I try to slow the mob by pointing out all the ways in which we are normal and then ask for evidence of areas where we are not.  This helps reduce the chance of firing a perfectly good VP of sales when the underlying problem is product, pricing, or competition.

[2] And that’s why they make high-priced consultants – a shameless plug for my new Dave Kellogg Consulting business.

[3] See Ovid’s version, the one I was raised on.

[4] For example, multiple liquidation preferences.

[5] I seem to have a knack to end up competing with companies who do – e.g., Oracle back in the late 1980s did some pretty dubious stuff but survived its comeuppance with $200M in financing from Nippon Steel (which was a lot of money, back in the day), MicroStrategy in 2000 got itself into trouble with reports of inflated earnings and had to pay nearly $100M in settlements (along with other constraints), Fast Search and Transfer managed to get acquired by Microsoft for $1.2B in the middle of an accounting scandal (and were even referred to by some as the “Enron of Norway”) and after its $11B acquisition by HP, Autonomy was charged with allegations of fraud, some of which are still being litigated.

[6] Yes, you can argue it’s been a successful IPO since then, so the transition didn’t hurt things and perhaps eventually had to happen.  But I’m also pretty sure if you asked the insiders, they would have preferred that the transition went down differently and more smoothly.

[7] I was employee number 266 and the company was already public.  My, how times were different back then.

The Introvert’s Guide to Glad-Handing

One day back at MarkLogic, we invited our local congresswoman, Jackie Speier, to visit our offices.  Regardless of what you may think of her politics, she’s an impressive person with an fascinating background including, for those with long memories, that she was the congressional aide shot five times and left for dead on the runway in Guyana when Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate Jonestown.  I was looking forward to meeting her.

She arrived — early of course — with a few handlers.  We exchanged the usual greetings and took a few pictures.  Then, she said, “would you mind if I went around and met a few people before the presentation?”  “No, no — not at all,” I said.  Leaving the handlers behind, off she went into the sea of cubicles.

Affordable Care Act

What I saw next blew me away.

Cube by cube she proceeded, “Hi, I’m Jackie — what’s your name?”  “Great, what do you do here?”  “Oh, I see [from the picture on your desk] you have a son, what’s his name?’  “How old is he?”  “Oh, [insert something in common here].”  More chatter.  A few laughs.  “Are there any questions I can answer for you today?”

There are extroverted people.  There are gregarious people.  There are charismatic people.  And then there are politicians.  She was the best room-worker I had ever seen in my life and she did it as effortlessly as she did naturally.

“This,” I thought, ” is why you’re not a politician, Dave. You have no skills.”

But leading the troops is a key part of the job of a startup CEO.  While such glad-handing often comes naturally to sales-oriented CEOs, it usually does not for more product-oriented ones.  A sales-oriented CEO is typically an extrovert; a product-oriented one an introvert.  So what’s a poor introvert to do?

First, Run A Normal Communications Program
All CEOs should run some sort of baseline company communications program.  This could look something like:

  • Bi-annual kickoffs where the company is brought together to hear about progress, learn about new initiatives, and recognize achievement.  Think:  educate, decorate, inebriate.
  • Post-quarter all hands calls/meetings after the off-quarters to discuss company performance, progress on quarterly goals, and go-forward priorities.
  • Topical all-hands emails and follow-up live calls/meeting to announce breaking news and provide commentary.
  • Separate and/or built-in “town hall” sessions with open employee Q&A to the CEO and the exec team.

This is baseline.  If you’re not doing this and you’re over about 20 people you need to start doing aspects of it.  If you’re over 150-200 people you should be doing all of this and quite possibly more.

For most CEOs — even the introverts — this isn’t hard.  It’s structured.  There are presentations.  Most of the questions in Q&A can be anticipated, if not solicited in advance.

Management by Walking Around
Let’s say you’ve set up such a program and are getting good feedback on it.  But nevertheless you’re still getting feedback like:

“You’re in your office and in meetings too much.  People want to see more of you.  The answer isn’t more all hands meetings.  Those are fine.  But people want to see you in a more informal and/or 1-1 way.  I know, you need to do more MBWA — management by walking around.  You’ll be great at it!”

“No, I won’t,” thinks the highly self-aware introvert CEO, imaging a nightmare that goes something like this:

CEO:  “Hey, Bro-dy!” [Struggling to choose between Bro and Buddy.]
Employee:  “Did you just call me grody?  What the –“
CEO:  “No, Buddy, no,  I called you Bro, Pal.”
CEO:  “So, how’s my Buddy doing?”  [Slaps his back.]
Employee:  “Ow!  I just had shoulder surgery.”
CEO:  “Whoops, sorry about that.”
Employee:  “No problem.”
CEO:  [Notices wedding picture on desk.]  “Hey, how’s that lovely wife?”
Employee:  “We split up three months ago.”
CEO:  [Thinking: “I bet this never happens to Jackie Speier, I bet this never happens to … “]

Sure, the CEO thinks, let’s try some more MBWA.  Or maybe not.

Find Your Way
The problem here is simple — it’s a classic, in this case “reverse,” delegation mistake.  The well-intentioned feedback-giver isn’t just telling you what needs to be done (i.e., help people get to know you better through more individualized interaction),  they’re telling you how to do it (i.e., management by walking around).  So the solution is simple:  listen to the what and find your own way of how.  If you’re not a natural grip-and-grin type, them MBWA isn’t going to work for you.  What might?  Here are some ideas:

  • Every Friday morning do three, half-hour 1-1s with employees across the organization.  This will play to your introvert strength in 1-1 meetings and and your desire to have substantial, not superficial, interactions with people.  If you’re disciplined, you’ll get to know 156 people/year this year.
  • Management by sitting in the way (MBSITW).  Pick a busy spot — e.g., the coffee room or the cafeteria — and camp out there for a few hours every week.  Work on your laptop when no one’s around but when someone walks in, say hi, and engage in a 1-1 chat.
  • Small-group town hall Q&A sessions.  Attend one department’s group meeting and do a one-hour town hall Q&A.  It’s not quite 1-1, but it’s definitionally a smaller forum which will provide more intimacy.
  • Thursday lunches.  Every Thursday have lunch with 3-4 people chosen at semi-random so as to help you build relationships across the organisation.

So, the next time someone tells you that you need to do more MBWA, thank them for input, and then go find your way of solving the underlying problem.

Are You Counting Payments as Renewals?

Enterprise SaaS has drifted to a model where many, if not most, companies do multi-year contracts on annual payment terms.  How did we get here?

  • Most enterprise SaaS products are high-consideration purchases. Buyers typically perform a thorough evaluation process before purchasing and are quite sure that the software will meet their needs when they deploy.  These are not try-and-buy or wing-it purchases.
  • Most SaaS vendors will jump at the opportunity to lock in a longer subscription term. For example, with an 85% gross retention rate you can offer a 5% discount for a two-year contract and end up mathematically ahead [1].  Moreover, with a default annual increase of 5 to 10% built into your standard contact, you can offer a “price lock” without any discount at all (i.e., the customer locks in the price for two years in exchange for a two-year commitment).

When you combine the vendor’s desire to lock in the longer term with the customer’s belief that the solution is going work, you find a fertile ground for doing two- or three-year contracts.  But these multi-year deals are almost always done on annual payment terms.

Most SaaS vendors don’t want to take the next step and ask for a multi-year prepayment.  The upside for the vendor would be to eliminate the need for collections in years 2 and 3, and eliminate the chance that the customer — even if unhappy — won’t make the out-year payments.  But most vendors refrain from this because:

  • It’s seen as an unusual practice that’s frowned upon by investors
  • Most investors believe you could better maximize ARR by simply raising more capital and sticking with annual payments
  • It can lead to lumpy renewals and cash flows that are both hard to manage and understand
  • It can lead to large long-term deferred revenues which can hinder certain M&A discussions.  (Think:  large balance of cashless revenue from suitor’s perspective.)
  • It complicates the calculation of SaaS metrics, sometimes confusing investors into believing that good metrics are bad ones. (I think I am literally the only person in Silicon Valley who is quick to point out that a 75% three-year retention rate is better than a 90% one-year one [2].)

Thus, we end up in a situation where the norm has become a two- or three-year contract with annual payments.  This begs a seemingly simple “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make any noise” kind of question:

Quick, what’s the difference between a one-year contract that’s renewing for the first time and a three-year contract that’s coming up for its first downstream annual payment?

I’ve often quipped that they’re both “renewals,” but in the former case they’re handled Customer Success and in the latter they’re handled by Legal. [3]

But let’s be clear, regardless of the process you use to manage them [4], they are not the same, and should not automatically be treated as such for the purposes of calculating SaaS metrics. One is the voluntary renewal of a subscription contract; the other is the payment of a contractual commitment.

If you don’t want to renew your subscription, there’s nothing I can do to force you.  If you don’t want to make a contractually committed payment I can sue you.

Let’s consider an example.  We have six customers, Alpha through Foxtrot.  The first three did one-year deals, the second three did three-years deals.  The simple question is:  what’s your gross dollar retention?  A merely acceptable 83% or a very healthy 95%?

payment renewal

If you calculate on an available-to-renew (ATR) basis, the rate is 83%.  There were 300 units up for renewal and you renewed 250 of them.  If you include the payments, the rate is 95%.  1,050 units were up for renewal or payment, and you invoiced 1,000.

This is a case that feels a little bit wrong both ways.  Including the payments uplifts the rate by mixing involuntary payments with voluntary renewals; to the extent you want to use the rate as a satisfaction indicator, it will be over-stated [5].  However, excluding the payments seems to fail to credit the company with the auto-renewing nature of multi-year deals.

One thing is clear:  payments certainly cannot be included in any ATR-based rate.  You cannot view making a contractually required payment as the same thing as voluntarily renewing a contract. 

Because of prepaid multi-year deals, I have always calculated retention rates two ways:  ATR-based and ARR-based.  The former is supposed to give you an idea of how often, given the chance, people want to renew their contacts.  The latter is supposed to show you, mathematically, what’s happening to your ARR pool [6].

I have an issue, which is highly subjective, when it comes to out-payments on non-prepaid, multi-year deals:

  • On one hand, I can argue they are contractual commitments that the vast majority of customers will honor and thus are effectively – save for a few rare cases – identical to prepaid multi-year deals. Think:  the money’s good as in the bank.
  • On the other hand, I can argue that a dissatisfied customer – particularly one who blames the vendor and/or the software for their failure – will not want to pay, even if the contract says they’re supposed to. Think:  it’s a toothless contract that the vendor will not likely not enforce against an angry customer.

Philosophically, I can argue that these out-year payments are either “good as in the bank” or I can argue that they’re “basically renewals that will ‘churn’ if the customer is not happy.”  The first argument says to treat them like prepaid multi-year deals and put them in ARR-based retention rates.  The second argument says they’re effectively voluntary renewals and should be counted as such.

In reality, you need to know what happens at your business.

I believe for the vast majority of businesses, customers honor the contracts and we should treat them like prepaid, multi-year deals in ARR-based rates — and you should always publish in parallel ATR-based rates, so people can see both.  However, if your company is an outlier and 10% of those payments are never collected, you’re going to need to look at them differently – perhaps like renewals because that’s how they’re behaving.  Or get better lawyers.  Or stop doing non-prepaid, multi-year deals because, for whatever reason, your customers are not honoring the commitment they made in exchange for you to give them a price lock.

# # #

Notes

[1] Over 2 years you get 190 units versus an expected 185.  (Not counting any expansion.)

[2] 0.75 > 0.9^3 = 0.73 – you need to compound annual rates to compare them to multi-year ones.

[3] Or, really, Accounts Receivable but that doesn’t sound as funny.

[4] I’d argue that when you define your customer success process that you should treat these two customers identically.  Whether it’s a payment or a renewal, in a good customer success process you should constantly monitor customer progress with the hope that the renewal (or the payment) is not some big decision, but merely incidental.  (“Yes, of course, we want to keep using the software – is it just a payment year or do we need to renew the contract?”)  This might increase your cost to renew a bit – because you’ll be paying CSMs or renewals reps to do collection work that could theoretically have been done by Accounts Receivable – but it’s still the right answer if you want to maximize ARR.

[5] While payment does not necessarily indicate satisfaction, it probably does indicate the absence of intense dissatisfaction.

[6] e.g., I’d use the the churn rate (1 minus the retention rate) as the discount rate in a present value calculation.

What It Takes to Make a Great SaaS Company

I’ve been making a few presentations lately, so I thought I’d share the slides to this deck which I presented earlier this week at the All Hands meeting of a high-growth SaaS company as part of their external speaker series.

This one’s kind of a romp — it starts with some background on Kellblog (in response to some specific up-front questions they had), takes a brief look back at the “good old days” of on-premises software, introduces my leaky bucket concept of a SaaS company, and then discusses why I need to know only two things to value your SaaS company:  the water level of your bucket and how fast it’s increasing.

It kind of runs backwards building into the conclusion that a great SaaS company needs four things.

  1. An efficient sales model.  SaaS companies effectively buy customers, so you need to figure out how to do it efficiently.
  2. A customer-centric culture.  Once you’ve acquired a customer your whole culture should be focused on keeping them.  (It’s usually far cheaper than finding a new one to back-fill.)
  3. A product that gets the job done.  I like Clayton Christensen’s notion that customers “hire products to do jobs for them.”  Do yours?  How can you do it better?
  4. A vision that leaves the competition one step behind.  Done correctly, the competition is chasing your current reality while you’re out marketing the next level of vision.

Here are the slides:

The Three Marketing Books All Founder/CEOs Should Read

Few founder/CEOs come from a marketing background; most come from product, many from engineering, and some from sales, service, or consulting.  But few — ironically even in martech companies — grew up in the marketing department and consider marketing home.

When you combine this lack of experience with the the tendency that some marketing leaders and agencies have to deliberately obfuscate marketing, it’s no wonder that most founder/CEOs are somewhat uncomfortable with it.

But what’s a founder/CEO to do about this critical blind spot?  Do you let your CMO and his/her hench-agencies box you out of the marketing department?  No, you can’t.  “Marketing,” as David Packard once famously said, “is too important to be left to the marketing department.”

I recommend solving this problem in two ways:

  • One part hiring:  only hire marketing leaders who are transparent and educational, not those who try to hide behind a dark curtain of agencies, wizardry, and obfuscation.  Remember the Einstein quote:  “if you truly understand something you can explain it to a six-year old.”
  • One part self-education.  Don’t fear marketing, learn about it.  A little bit of fundamental knowledge will take you a long way and build your confidence in marketing conversations.

The problem is where to begin?  Marketing is a broad discipline and there are tens of thousands of books — most of them crap — written about it.  In this post, I’m going to list the three books that every founder/CEO should read about marketing.

I have a bias for classics here because I think founder/CEO types want foundational knowledge on which to build.  Here they are:

  • Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout.  Marketers frequently use the word “positioning” and after reading this classic, you’ll know exactly what they mean [1]. While it was originally published in 1981, it still reads well today.  This is all about the battle for the mind, which is the book’s subtitle.
  • Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy.  Ogilvy was the founder of marketing powerhouse agency Ogilvy and Mather and was the king of Madison Avenue back in the era of Mad Men.  Published in 1963, this book definitely shows signs of age, but the core content is timeless.  It covers everything from research to copy-writing and is probably, all in, my single favorite book on marketing. [2]
  • Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore.  The textbook classic Silicon Valley book on strategy.  Many people refer to the chasm without evidently having even read the book, so please don’t be one of them.  Published in 1991, it’s the newest of the books on my list, and happily Moore has revised it to keep the examples fresh along the way.

If I had to pick only one book, rather than suggesting original classics I’d revert to a summary, Kotler on Marketing, an overview written by Philip Kotler [3], author of one of the most popular marketing college textbooks, Marketing Management. [4]

If reading any of the above three books leaves you hungry for more (and if I were permitted to recommend just a few follow-up books), I’d offer:

  • As a follow-up to Positioning, I’d recommend The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing also by Al Ries and Jack Trout and also written in the same accessible style.  This book would place second in the “if I only had one book to recommend” category and while less comprehensive than Kotler it is certainly far more accessible.
  • As a follow-up to Ogilvy on Advertising, and for those who want to get closer to marketing execution (e.g., reviewing content), I’d recommend The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert Bly.  Most founder/CEOs are clear and logical writers who can get somewhat bamboozled by their marketing teams into approving gibberish copy.  This book will give you a firmer footing in having conversations about web copy, press releases, and marketing campaigns.
  • As a follow-up to Crossing the Chasm, I’d recommend Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, an excellent primer on strategy with case studies of great successes and failures and Blue Ocean Strategy, a great book on how to create uncontested market space and not simply compete in endless slug-fests against numerous competitors — which is particularly relevant in the current era of over-populated and over-funded startups. [5]

As founder/CEO you run the whole company.  But, for good reason, you might sometimes be hesitant to dive into marketing.  Moreover, some marketeers like it that way and may try to box you out of the marketing department.  Read these three books and you’ll have the tools you need to confidently engage in, and add value to, important marketing conversations at your company.

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Notes

[1]  The Wikipedia entry on positioning isn’t a bad start for those in a hurry.

[2] Right from the second sentence, Ogilvy gets to the point:  “When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’   I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”  Love that guy.

[3] Of 4 P’s fame.  Kotler’s 4 P’s defined the marketing mix:  product, place, price, and promotion.

[4] Kotler on Marketing is deliberately not a summarized version of his classic, 700-page textbook, but alas it’s still written by someone who has produced numerous textbooks and nevertheless has a textbook feel.  It’s comprehensive but dry — especially by comparison to the others on this list.

[5] I can’t conclude any post on marketing thoughts and thinkers without a reference to one of the great marketing essays of all time, Marketing Myopia, by Theodore Levitt.  It’s old (published in 1963) and somewhat academic, but very well written and contains many pithy nuggets expressed as only Levitt could.

Video of my SaaStr 2019 Presentation: The Five Questions Startup CEOs Worry About

A few days ago, Jason Lemkin from SaaStr sent me a link to the video of my SaaStr Annual 2019 conference presentation, The Five Questions Startup CEOs Worry About. Those questions, by the way, are:

  1. When do I next raise money?
  2. Do I have the right team?
  3. How can I better manage the board?
  4. To what extent should I worry about competition?
  5. Are we focused enough?

Below is the video of the thirty-minute presentation.  The slides are available on Slideshare.

As mentioned in the presentation, I love to know what’s resonating out there, so if you ever have a moment where you think –“Hey, I just used something from Dave’s presentation!” — please let me know via Twitter or email.