Category Archives: Planning

How to Present an Operating Plan to your Board

I’ve been CEO of two startups and on the board of about ten.  That means I’ve presented a lot of operating plans to boards.  It also means I’ve had a lot of operating plans presented to me.  Frankly, most of the time, I don’t love how they’re presented.  Common problems include:

  • Lack of strategic context: management shows up with a budget more than a plan, and without explaining the strategic thinking (one wonders, if any) behind it.  For a primer, see here.
  • Lack of organizational design: management fails to show the proposed high-level organizational structure and how it supports the strategy.  They fail to show the alternative designs considered and why they settled on the one they’re proposing.
  • A laundry list of goals. OKRs are great.  But you should have a fairly small set – no more than 5 to 7 – and, again, management needs to show how they’re linked to the strategy.

Finance types on the board might view these as simple canapes served before the meal.  I view them as critical strategic context.  But, either way, the one thing on which everyone can agree is that the numbers are always the main course. Thus, in this post, I’m going to focus on how to best present the numbers in an annual operating plan.

Context is King
Strategic context isn’t the only context that’s typically missing.  A good operating plan should present financial context as well.  Your typical VC board member might sit on 8-10 boards, a typical independent on 2 (if they’re still in an operating role), and a professional independent might sit on 3-5.  While these people are generally pretty quantitative, that’s nevertheless a lot of numbers to memorize.  So, present context.  Specifically:

  • One year of history. This year that’s 2021.
  • One year of forecast. This year that’s your 2022 forecast, which is your first through third quarter actuals combined with your fourth-quarter forecast.
  • The proposed operating plan (2023).
  • The trajectory on which the proposed operating plan puts you for the next two years after that (i.e., 2024 and 2025).

The last point is critical for several reasons:

  • The oldest trick in the book is to hit 2023 financial goals (e.g., burn) by failing to invest in the second half of 2023 for growth in 2024.
  • The best way to prevent that is to show the 2024 model teed up by the proposed 2023 plan. That model doesn’t need to be made at the same granularity (e.g., months vs. quarters) or detail (e.g., mapping to GL accounts) as the proposed plan – but it can’t be pure fiction either.  Building this basically requires dovetailing a driver-based model to your proposed operating plan.
  • Showing the model for the out years helps generate board consensus on trajectory. While technically the board is only approving the proposed 2023 operating plan, that plan has a 2024 and 2025 model attached to it.  Thus, it’s pretty hard for the board to say they’re shocked when you begin the 2024 planning discussion using the 2024 model (that’s been shown for two years) as the starting point.

Presenting the Plan in Two Slides
To steal a line from Name That Tune, I think I can present an operating plan in two slides.  Well, as they say on the show:  “Dave, then present that plan!”

  • The first slide is focused on the ARR leaky bucket, metrics derived from ARR, and ARR-related product.ivity measures
  • The second slide is focused on the P&L and related measures.

There are subjective distinctions in play here.  For example, CAC ratio (the S&M cost of a dollar of new ARR) is certainly ARR-related, but it’s also P&L-driven because the S&M cost comes from the P&L.  I did my best to split things in a way that I think is logical and, more importantly, between the two slides I include all of the major things I want to see in an operating plan presentation and, even more importantly, none of the things that I don’t.

Slide 1: The Leaky Bucket of ARR and Related Metrics

Let’s review the lines, starting with the first block, the leaky bucket itself:

  • Starting ARR is the ARR level at the start of a period. The starting water level of the bucket.
  • New ARR is the sum of new logo (aka, new customer) ARR and expansion ARR (i.e., new ARR from existing customers). That amount of “water” the company poured into the bucket.
  • Churn ARR is the sum of ARR lost due to shrinking customers (aka, downsell) and lost customers. The amount of water that leaked out of the bucket.
  • Ending ARR is starting ARR + new ARR – churn ARR. (It’s + churn ARR if you assign a negative sign to churn, which I usually do.)  The ending water level of the bucket.
  • YoY growth % is the year-over-year growth of ending ARR. How fast the water level is changing in the bucket.  If I had to value a SaaS company with only two numbers, they would be ARR and YoY ARR growth rate.  Monthly SaaS companies often have a strong focus on sequential (QoQ) growth, so you can add a row for that too, if desired.

The next block has two rows focused on change in the ARR bucket:

  • Net new ARR = new ARR – churn ARR. The change in water level of the bucket.  Note that some people use “net new” to mean “net new customer” (i.e., new logo) which I find confusing.
  • Burn ratio = cashflow from operations / net new ARR. How much cash you consume to increase the water level of the bucket by $1.  Not to be confused with cash conversion score which is defined as an inception-to-date metric, not a period metric.  This ratio is similar to the CAC ratio, but done on a net-new ARR basis and for all cash consumption, not just S&M expense.

The next block looks at new vs. churn ARR growth as well as the mix within new ARR:

  • YoY growth in new ARR. The rate of growth in water added to the bucket.
  • YoY growth in churn ARR. The rate of growth in water leaking from the bucket.  I like putting them next to each other to see if one is growing faster than the other.
  • Expansion ARR as % of new ARR. Percent of new ARR that comes from existing customers.  The simplest metric to determine if you’re putting correct focus on the existing customer base.  Too low (e.g., 10%) and you’re likely ignoring them.  Too high (e.g., 40%) and people start to wonder why you’re not acquiring more new customers. (In a small-initial-land and big-expand model, this may run much higher than 30-40%, but that also depends on the definition of land – i.e., is the “land” just the first order or the total value of subscriptions acquired in the first 6 or 12 months.)

The next block focuses on retention rates:

  • Net dollar retention = current ARR from year-ago cohort / year-ago ARR from year-ago cohort. As I predicted a few years back, NRR has largely replaced LTV/CAC, because of the flaws with lifetime value (LTV) discussed in my SaaStr 2020 talk, Churn is Dead, Long Live Net Dollar Retention.
  • Gross dollar retention = current ARR from year-ago cohort excluding expansion / year-ago ARR from year-ago cohort. Excluding the offsetting effects of expansion, how much do customer cohorts shrink over a year?
  • Churn rate (ATR-based) = churn ARR/available-to-renew ARR. Percent of ARR that churns measured against only that eligible for renewal and not the entire ARR base.  An important metric for companies that do multi-year deals as putting effectively auto-renewing customers in the denominator damps out

The next block focuses on headcount:

  • Total employees, at end of period.
  • Quota-carrying reps (QCRs) = number of quota-carrying sellers at end of period. Includes those ramping, though I’ve argued that enterprise SaaS could also use a same-store sales metric.  In deeper presentations, you should also look at QCR density.
  • Customer success managers (CSMs) = the number of account managers in customer success. These organizations can explode so I’m always watching ARR/CSM and looking out for stealth CSM-like resources (e.g., customer success architects, technical account managers) that should arguably be included here or tracked in an additional row in deeper reports.
  • Code-committing developers (CCDs) = the number of developers in the company who, as Elon Musk might say, “actually write software.” Like sales, you should watch developer density to ensure organizations don’t get an imbalanced helper/doer ratio.

The final block looks at ARR-based productivity measures:

  • New ARR/ramped rep = new ARR from ramped reps / number of ramped reps. This is roughly “same-store sales [link].”  Almost no one tracks this, but it is one of several sales productivity metrics that I like which circle terminal productivity.  The rep ramp chart’s 4Q+ productivity is another way of getting at it.
  • ARR/CSM = starting ARR/number of CSMs, which measures how much ARR each CSM is managing.  Potentially include stealth CSMs in the form of support roles like technical account manager (TAM) or customer success architects (CSAs).
  • ARR/employee = ending ARR/ending employees, a gross overall measure of employee productivity.

Slide 2: The P&L and Related Metrics

This is a pretty standard, abbreviated SaaS P&L.

The first block is revenue, optionally split by subscription vs. services.

The second block is cost of goods sold.

The third block is gross margin.  It’s important to see both subscription and overall (aka, blended) gross margin for benchmarking purposes.  Subscription gross is margin, by the way, is probably the most overlooked-yet-important SaaS metric.  Bad subscription margins can kill an investment deal faster than a high churn rate.

The fourth block is operating expense (opex) by major category, which is useful for benchmarking.  It’s also useful for what I call glideslope planning, which you can use to agree with the board on a longer-term financial model and the path to get there.

The penultimate block shows a few more SaaS metrics.

  • CAC ratio = S&M cost of a $1 in new ARR
  • CAC payback period  = months of subscription gross profit to repay customer acquisition cost
  • Rule of 40 score = revenue growth rate + free cashflow margin

The last block is just one row:  ending cash.  The oxygen level for any business.  You should let this go negative (in your financial models only!) to indicate the need for future fundraising.

Scenario Comparisons
Finally, part of the planning process is discussing multiple options, often called scenarios.

While scenarios in the strategy sense are usually driven by strategic planning assumptions (e.g., “cheap oil”), in software they are often just different version of a plan optimized for different things:

  • Baseline: the default proposal that management usually thinks best meets all of the various goals and constraints.
  • Growth: an option that optimizes growth typically at the expense or hitting cash, CAC, or S&M expense goals.
  • Profit: an option that optimizes for cash runway, often at the expense of growth, innovation, or customer satisfaction.

Whatever scenarios you pick, and your reasons for picking them, are up to you.  But I want to help you present them in a way that is easy to grasp and compare.

Here’s one way to do that:

I like this hybrid format because it’s pulling only a handful of the most important rows, but laying them out with some historical context and, for each of the three proposed scenarios, showing not only the proposed 2023 plan also the 2024 model associated with it.  This is the kind of slide I want to look at while having a discussion about the relative merits of each scenario.

What’s Missing Here?
You can’t put everything on two slides.  The most important things I’m worried about missing in this format are:

  • Segment analysis: sometimes your business is a blended average of multiple different businesses (e.g., self-serve motion, enterprise motion) and thus it’s less meaningful to analyze the average than to look at its underlying components.  You’ll need to add probably one section per segment in order to address this.
  • Strategic challenges. For example, suppose that you’ve always struggled with enterprise customer CAC.  You may need to add one section focused solely on that.  “Yes, that’s the overall plan, but it’s contingent on getting cost/oppty to $X and the win rate to Y% and here’s the plan to do that.”
  • Zero-based budgeting. In tough times, this is a valuable approach to help CEOs and CFOs squeeze cost out of the business.  It takes more time, but it properly puts focus on overall spend and not simply on year-over-year increments.  In a perfect world, the board wouldn’t need to see any artifacts from the process, but only know that the expense models are tight because every expense was scrutinized using a zero-based budgeting process.

Conclusion
Hopefully this post has given you some ideas on how to better present your next operating plan to your board.  If you have questions or feedback let me know.  And I wish everyone a happy and successful completion of planning season.

You can download the spreadsheet used in this post, here.

Next-Generation Planning and Finance, A Broader and Slightly Deeper Look

This post was prompted by feedback to the last prediction in my 2021 annual predictions post, The Rebirth of Planning and Enterprise Performance Management.  Excerpt:

EPM 1.0 was Hyperion, Arbor, and TM1. EPM 2.0 was Adaptive Insights, Anaplan, and Planful (nee Host Analytics).  EPM 3.0 is being born today.  If you’ve not been tracking this, here a list of next-generation planning startups …

Since that post, I’ve received feedback with several more startups to add to the list and a request for a little more color on each one.  That’s what I’ll cover in this post.  I can say right now this got bigger, and took way longer, than I thought it would at the outset.  That means two things:  there may be more mistakes and omissions than usual and wow if I thought the space was being reborn before, I really think it now.  Look at how many of these firms were founded in the past two years!

Order is alphabetical.  Links are to sources.  All numbers are best I could find as of publication date (and I have no intent to update).  I have added and/or removed companies from the prior post based on feedback and my subjective perception as to whether I think they qualify as “next generation” planning.  Note that I have several and varied relationships with some of these companies (see prior post and disclaimers).  List is surely not inclusive of all relevant companies.

  • Allocadia.  Founded in Vancouver in 2010 by friends from Business Objects / Crystal Reports, this is a marketing performance management company that has raised $24M in capital and has 125 employees.  Marketing planning is a real problem and they’re taking, last I checked, the enterprise approach to it.  They have 93 reviews and 4.1 stars on G2.
  • Causal.  Founded in 2019 in London.  I can’t find them in Crunchbase, but their site shows they have seed capital from Coatue and Passion Capital.  They promise, among other things, to “make finance beautiful” and the whole thing strikes me as a product-led growth strategy for a new tool to build financial models outside of traditional spreadsheets.
  • Decipad.  Co-founded in late 2020 in the UK by friend, former MarkLogic consultant, and serial entrepreneur Nuno Job, Decipad is a seed-stage, currently fewer than 10 employee, startup that, last I checked, was working on a low-code product for planning and modeling for early-stage companies.
  • Finmark.  Raleigh-based, and founded in 2020, this company has raised $5M in seed capital from a bevy of investors including Y Combinator, IDEA Fund, Draper, and Bessemer.  The company has about 50 employees, a product in early access mode, and is a product built “by founders, for founders” to provide integrated finance for startups.
  • Grid.  This company offers a web-based tool that appears to layer atop spreadsheets, using them as a data source to build reports, dashboards and apps.  The company was founded in 2018, has around 20 people, and is based in Reykjavik.  The founder/CEO previously served as head of product management at Qlik and is a “proud data nerd.”  Love it.
  • LiveFlow was founded in 2021, based in Redwood City, has raised about $500K in pre-seed capital from Y Combinator and Seedcamp.  The company offers a spreadsheet that connects to your real-time data, supporting the creation of timely reports and dashboards.  Connectivity appears to be the special sauce here, and it’s definitely a problem that needs to be solved better.
  • OnPlan.  Founded in 2106 in San Francisco by serial entrepreneur and new friend, David Greenbaum, OnPlan is a financial modeling, scenario analysis, and forecasting tool.  The company has raised an undisclosed amount of angel financing and has over 30 employees.  Notably, they are building atop Google Sheets which allows them “stand on the shoulders of giants” and provide a rare option that is, I think, Google-first as opposed to Excel-first or Excel-replacement.
  • PlaceCPM.  Founded in 2018 in Austin, this company takes a focused approach, offering forecasting and planning for SaaS and professional services businesses, built on the Salesforce platform, and with pricing suggestive of an SMB/MM focus. The company has raised $4M in pre- and seed financing.  The product gets 4.9 stars on G2 across 13 reviews.
  • Plannuh.  Pronounced with a wicked Southie accent, Plannuh is Boston for Planner, and a marketing planning package that helps marketers create and manage plans and budgets.  Founded by (a fellow) former $1B company CMO, Peter Mahoney, the company has raised $4M and has over 30 employees.  As mentioned, I think marketing planning is a real problem and these guys are taking a velocity approach to it.  They have 5.0 stars on G2 across five reviews.  I’m an advisor and wrote the foreword to their The Next CMO book.
  • Pry.  Founded in San Francisco in 2019 by two startup-experienced Cal grads (Go Bears!), with investment from pre-seed fund Nomo Ventures, Pry has fewer than 10 employees, and a vision to make it simple for early-stage companies to manage their budget, hiring plan, financial models, and cash.
  • Runway.  This company is backed with a $4.5M seed round from the big guns at A16Z.  I can’t find them on Crunchbase and their website has the expected “big thinking but no detail” for a company that’s still in stealth.  Currently at about 10 people.
  • Stratify.  Founded in 2020 in Seattle, this company has raised $5.0M to pursue real-time and collaborative budgeting and forecasting to support “continuous planning” (which is reminiscent of Planful’s messaging).  Both the founder and the lead investor have enterprise roots (with SAP / Concur) and plenty of startup experience.  The company has fewer than 10 employees today.
  • TruePlan.  Founded in 2020, with three employees, and seemingly bootstrapped I may have found these guys on the early side.  While the product appears still in development, the vision looks clear:  dynamic headcount management, that ties together the departmental (budget owner) manager, finance, recruiting, and people ops.  Workforce planning is a real problem, let’s see what they do with it.
  • VaretoFounded in 2020 in Mountain View, with fewer than 10 employees and some pretty well pedigreed founders, the company seeks to help with strategic finance, reporting, and planning.  The website is pretty tight-lipped beyond that and I can’t find any public financing information.

Thanks to Ron Baden, Nuno Job, and Bill Rausch for helping me track down so many companies.

(Added Valsight 2/10/21.)

Kellblog 2021 Predictions

I admit that I’ve been more than a little slow to put out this post, but at least I’ve missed the late December (and early January) predictions rush.  2020 was the kind of year that would make anyone in the predictions business more than a little gun shy.  I certainly didn’t have “global pandemic” on my 2020 bingo card and, even if I somehow did, I would never have coupled that with “booming stock market” and median SaaS price/revenue multiples in the 15x range.

That said, I’m back on the proverbial horse, so let’s dig in with a review of our 2020 predictions.  Remember my disclaimers, terms of use, and that this exercise is done in the spirit of fun and as a way to tee-up discussion of interesting trends, and nothing more.

2020 Predictions Review

Here a review of my 2020 predictions along with a self-graded and for this year, pretty charitable, hit/miss score.

  1. Ongoing social unrest. No explanation necessary.  HIT.
  2. A desire for re-unification. We’ll score that one a whopping, if optimistic, MISS.  Hopefully it becomes real in 2021.
  3. Climate change becomes new moonshot. Swing and a MISS.  I still believe that we will collectively rally behind slowing climate change but feel like I was early on this prediction, particularly because we got distracted with, shall we say, more urgent priorities.  (Chamath, a little help here please.)
  4. The strategic chief data officer (CDO). CDO’s are indeed becoming more strategic and they are increasingly worried about playing not only defense but also offense with data, so much so that the title is increasingly morphing into chief data & analytics officer (CDAO).  HIT.
  5. The ongoing rise of devops. In an era where we (vendors) increasingly run our own software, running it is increasingly as important as building it.  Sometimes, moreHIT.
  6. Database proliferation slows. While the text of this prediction talks about consolidation in the DBMS market, happily the prediction itself speaks of proliferation slowing and that inconsistency gives me enough wiggle room to declare HITDB-Engines ranking shows approximately the same number of DBMSs today (335) as one year ago (334).  While proliferation seems to be slowing, the list is most definitely not shrinking.
  7. A new, data-layer approach to data loss prevention. This prediction was inspired by meeting Cyral founder Manav Mital (I think first in 2018) after having a shared experience at Aster Data.  I loved Manav’s vision for securing the set of cloud-based data services that we can collectively call the “data cloud.”  In 2020, Cyral raised an $11M series A, led by Redpoint and I announced that I was advising them in March.  It’s going well.  HIT.
  8. AI/ML success in focused applications. The keyword here was focus.  There’s sometimes a tendency in tech to confuse technologies with categories.  To me, AI/ML is very much the former; powerful stuff to build into now-smart applications that were formerly only automation.  While data scientists may want an AI/ML workbench, there is no one enterprise AI/ML application – more a series of applications focused on specific problems, whether that be C3.AI in a public market context or Symphony.AI in private equity one.  HIT.
  9. Series A remains hard. Well, “hard” is an interesting term.  The point of the prediction was the Series A is the new chokepoint – i.e., founders can be misled by easily raising $1-2M in seed, or nowadays even pre-seed money, and then be in for a shock when it comes time to raise an A.  My general almost-oxymoronic sense is that money is available in ever-growing, bigger-than-ever bundles, but such bundles are harder to come by.  There’s some “it factor” whereby if you have “it” then you can (and should) raise tons of money at great valuations, whereas, despite the flood of money out there, if you don’t have “it,” then tapping into that flood can be hard to impossible.  Numbers wise, the average Series A was up 16% in size over 2019 at around $15M, but early-stage venture investment was down 11% over 2019.  Since I’m being charitable today, HIT.
  10. Autonomy CEO extradited. I mentioned this because proposed extraditions of tech billionaires are, well, rare and because I’ve kept an eye on Autonomy and Mike Lynch, ever since I competed with them back in the day at MarkLogic.  Turns out Lynch did not get extradited in 2020, so MISS, but the good news (from a predictions viewpoint) is that his extradition hearing is currently slated for next month so it’s at least possible that it happens in 2021.  Here’s Lynch’s website (now seemingly somewhat out of date) to hear his side of this story.

So, with that charitable scoring, I’m 7 and 3 on the year.  We do this for fun anyway, not the score.

 Kellblog’s Ten Prediction for 2021

1. US divisiveness decreases but unity remains elusive. Leadership matters. With a President now focused on unifying America, divisiveness will decrease.  Unity will be difficult as some will argue that “moving on” will best promote healing while others argue that healing is not possible without first holding those to account accountable.  If nothing else, the past four years have provided a clear demonstration of the power of propaganda, the perils of journalistic bothsidesism, and the power of “big tech” platforms that, if unchecked, can effectively be used for long-tail aggregation towards propagandist and conspiratorial ends.

The big tech argument leads to one of two paths: (1) they are private companies that can do what they want with their terms of service and face market consequences for such, or (2) they are monopolies (and/or, more tenuously, the Internet is a public resource) that must be regulated along the lines of the FCC Fairness Doctrine of 1949, but with a modern twist that speaks not only to the content itself but to the algorithms for amplifying and propagating it.

2. COVID-19 goes to brushfire mode. After raging like a uncontained wildfire in 2020, COVID should move to brushfire mode in 2021, slowing down in the spring and perhaps reaching pre-COVID “normal” in the fall, according to these predictions in UCSF Magazine. New variants are a wildcard and scientists are still trying to determine the extent to which existing vaccines slow or stop the B117 and 501.V2 variants.

According to this McKinsey report, the “transition towards normalcy is likely during the second quarter in the US,” though, depending on a number of factors, it’s possible that, “there may be a smaller fall wave of disease in third to fourth quarter 2021.”  In my estimation, the wildfire gets contained in 2Q21, with brush fires popping up with decreasing frequency throughout the year.

(Bear in mind, I went to the same school of armchair epidemiology as Dougall Merton, famous for his quote about spelling epidemiologist:  “there are three i’s in there and I swear they’re moving all the time.”)

3. The new normal isn’t. Do you think we’ll ever go into the office sick again? Heck, do you think we’ll ever go into the office again, period?  Will there even be an office?  (Did they renew that lease?)  Will shaking hands be an ongoing ritual? Or, in France, la bise?  How about those redeyes to close that big deal?  Will there still be 12-legged sales calls?  Live conferences?  Company kickoffs?  Live three-day quarterly business reviews (QBRs)?  Business dinners?  And, by the way, do you think everyone – finally – understands the importance of digital transformation?

I won’t do detailed predictions on each of these questions, and I have as much Zoom fatigue as the next person, but I think it’s important to realize the question is not “when we are we going back to the pre-COVID way of doing things?” and instead “what is the new way of doing things that we should move towards?”   COVID has challenged our assumptions and taught us a lot about how we do business. Those lessons will not be forgotten simply because they can be.

4.We start to value resilience, not just efficiency. For the past several decades we have worshipped efficiency in operations: just-in-time manufacturing, inventory reduction, real-time value chains, and heavy automation.  That efficiency often came at a cost in terms of resilience and flexibility and as this Bain report discusses, nowhere was that felt more than in supply chain.  From hand sanitizer to furniture to freezers to barbells – let alone toilet paper and N95 masks — we saw a huge number of businesses that couldn’t deal with demand spikes, forcing stock-outs for consumers, gray markets on eBay, and countless opportunities lost.  It’s as if we forget the lessons of the beer game developed by MIT.  The lesson:  efficiency can have a cost in terms of resilience and agility and I believe,  in an increasingly uncertain world, that businesses will seek both.

5. Work from home (WFH) sticks. Of the many changes COVID drove in the workplace, distributed organizations and WFH are the biggest. I was used to remote work for individual creative positions such as writer or software developer.  And tools from Slack to Zoom were already helping us with collaboration.  But some things were previously unimaginable to me, e.g., hiring someone who you’d never met in the flesh, running a purely digital user conference, or doing a QBR which I’d been trained (by the school of hard knocks) was a big, long, three-day meeting with a grueling agenda, with drinks and dinners thereafter.  I’d note that we were collectively smart enough to avoid paving cow paths, instead reinventing such meetings with the same goals, but radically different agendas that reflected the new constraints.  And we – or at least I in this case – learned that such reinvention was not only possible but, in many ways, produced a better, tighter meeting.

Such reinvention will be good for business in what’s now called The Future of Work software category such as my friends at boutique Future-of-Work-focused VCs like Acadian Ventures — who have even created a Bessemer-like Future of Work Global Index to track the performance of public companies in this space.

6. Tech flight happens, but with a positive effect. Much has been written about the flight from Silicon Valley because of the cost of living, California’s business-unfriendly policies, the mismanagement of San Francisco, and COVID. Many people now realize that if they can work from home, then why not do so from Park City, Atlanta, Raleigh, Madison, or Bend?  Better yet, why not work from home in a place with no state income taxes at all — like Las Vegas, Austin, or Miami?

Remember, at the end of the OB (original bubble), B2C meant “back to Cleveland” – though, at the time, the implication was that your job didn’t go with you.  This time it does.

The good news for those who leave:

  • Home affordability, for those who want the classic American dream (which now has a median price of $2.5M in Palo Alto).
  • Lower cost of living. I’ve had dinners in Myrtle Beach that cost less than breakfasts at the Rosewood.
  • Burgeoning tech scenes, so you don’t have go cold turkey from full immersion in the Bay Area. You can “step down,” into a burgeoning scene in a place like Miami, where Founder’s Fund partner Keith Rabois, joined by mayor Francis Suarez, is leading a crusade to turn Miami into the next hot tech hub.

But there also good news for those who stay:  house prices should flatten, commutes should improve, things will get a little bit less crazy — and you’ll get to keep the diversity of great employment options that leavers may find lacking.

Having grown up in the New York City suburbs, been educated on Michael Porter, and worked both inside and outside of the industry hub in Silicon Valley, I feel like the answer here is kind of obvious:  yes, there will be flight from the high cost hub, but the brain of system will remain in the hub.  So it went with New York and financial services, it will go with Silicon Valley and tech.  Yes, it will disperse.  Yes, certainly, lower cost and/or more staffy functions will be moved out (to the benefit of both employers and employees).  Yes, secondary hubs will emerge, particularly around great universities.  But most of the VCs, the capital, the entrepreneurs, the executive staff, will still orbit around Silicon Valley for a long time.

7. Tech bubble relents. As an investor, I try to never bet against bubbles via shorts or puts because “being right long term” is too often a synonym for “being dead short term.” Seeing manias isn’t hard, but timing them is nearly impossible.  Sometimes change is structural – e.g., you can easily convince me that if perpetual-license-based software companies were worth 3-5x revenues that SaaS companies, due to their recurring nature, should be worth twice that.  The nature of the business changed, so why shouldn’t the multiple change with it?

Sometimes, it’s actually true that This Time is Different.   However, a lot of the time it’s not.  In this market, I smell tulips.  But I started smelling them over six months ago, and BVP Emerging Cloud Index is up over 30% in the meantime.  See my prior point about the difficultly of timing.

But I also believe in reversion to the mean.  See this chart by Jamin Ball, author of Clouded Judgement, that shows the median SaaS enterprise value (EV) to revenue ratio for the past six years.  The median has more than tripled, from around 5x to around 18x.  (And when I grew up 18x looked more like a price/earnings ratio than a price/revenue ratio.)

What accounts for this multiple expansion?  In my opinion, these are several of the factors:

  • Some is structural: recurring businesses are worth more than non-recurring businesses so that should expand software multiples, as discussed above.
  • Some is the quality of companies: in the past few years some truly exceptional businesses have gone public (e.g., Zoom).  If you argue that those high-quality businesses deserve higher multiples, having more of them in the basket will pull up the median.  (And the IPO bar is as high as it’s ever been.)
  • Some is future expectations, and the argument that the market for these companies is far bigger than we used to think. SaaS and product-led growth (PLG) are not only better operating models, but they actually increase TAM in the category.
  • Some is a hot market: multiples expand in frothy markets and/or bubbles.

My issue:  if you assume structure, quality, and expectations should rationally cause SaaS multiples to double (to 10), we are still trading at 80% above that level.  Ergo, there is 44% downside to an adjusted median-reversion of 10.  Who knows what’s going to happen and with what timing but, to quote Newton, what goes up (usually) must come down.  I’m not being bear-ish; just mean reversion-ish.

(Remember, this is spitballing.  I am not a financial advisor and don’t give financial advice.  See disclaimers and terms of use.)

8. Net dollar retention (NDR) becomes the top SaaS metric, driving companies towards consumption-based pricing and expansion-oriented contracts. While “it’s the annuity, stupid” has always been the core valuation driver for SaaS businesses, in recent years we’ve realized that there’s only one thing better than a stream of equal payments – a stream of increasing payments.  Hence NDR has been replacing churn and CAC as the headline SaaS metric on the logic of, “who cares how much it cost (CAC) and who cares how much leaks out (churn) if the overall bucket level is increasing 20% anyway?”  While that’s not bad shorthand for an investor, good operators should still watch CAC and gross churn carefully to understand the dynamics of the underlying business.

This is driving two changes in SaaS business, the first more obvious than the second:

  • Consumption-based pricing. As was passed down to me by the software elders, “always hook pricing to something that goes up.”  In the days of Moore’s Law, that was MIPS.  In the early days of SaaS, that was users (e.g., at Salesforce, number of salespeople).  Today, that’s consumption pricing a la Twilio or Snowflake.   The only catch in a pure consumption-based model is that consumption better go up, but smart salespeople can build in floors to protect against usage downturns.
  • Built-in expansion. SaaS companies who have historically executed with annual, fixed-fee contracts are increasingly building expansion into the initial contract.  After all, if NDR is becoming a headline metric and what gets measured gets managed, then it shouldn’t be surprising that companies are increasingly signing multi-year contracts of size 100 in year 1, 120 in year 2, and 140 in year 3.  (They need to be careful that usage rights are expanding accordingly, otherwise the auditors will flatten it back out to 120/year.)  Measuring this is a new challenge.  While it should get captured in remaining performance obligation (RPO), so do a lot of other things, so I’d personally break it out.  One company I work with calls it “pre-sold expansion,” which is tracked in aggregate and broken out as a line item in the annual budget.

See my SaaStr 2020 talk, Churn is Dead, Long Live Net Dollar Retention, for more information on NDR and a primer on other SaaS metrics.  Video here.

9. Data intelligence happens. I spent a lot of time with Alation in 2020, interim gigging as CMO for a few quarters. During that time, I not only had a lot of fun and worked with great customers and teammates, I also learned a lot about the evolving market space.

I’d been historically wary of all things metadata; my joke back in the day was that “meta-data presented the opportunity to make meta-money.”  In the old days just getting the data was the problem — you didn’t have 10 sources to choose from, who cared where it came from or what happened to it along the way, and what rules (and there weren’t many back then) applied to it.  Those days are no more.

I also confess I’ve always found the space confusing.  Think:

Wait, does “MDM” stand for master data management or metadata management, and how does that relate to data lineage and data integration?  Is master data management domain-specific or infrastructure, is it real-time or post hoc?  What is data privacy again?  Data quality?  Data profiling?  Data stewardship?  Data preparation, and didn’t ETL already do that?  And when did ETL become ELT?  What’s data ops?  And if that’s not all confusing enough, why do I hear like 5 different definitions of data governance and how does that relate to compliance and privacy?”

To quote Edward R. Murrow, “anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.”

After angel investing in data catalog pioneer Alation in 2013, joining their board in 2016, and joining the board of master data management leader Profisee in 2019, I was determined to finally understand the space.  In so doing, I’ve come to the conclusion that the vision of what IDC calls data intelligence is going to happen.

Conceptually, you can think of DI as the necessary underpinning for both business intelligence (BI) and artificial intelligence (AI).  In fact, AI increases the need for DI.  Why?  Because BI is human-operated.  An analyst using a reporting or visualization tool who sees bad or anomalous data is likely going to notice.  An algorithm won’t.  As we used to say with BI, “garbage in, garbage out.”  That’s true with AI as well, even more so.  Worse yet, AI also suffers from “bias in, bias out” but that’s a different conversation.

I think data intelligence will increasingly coalesce around platforms to bring some needed order to the space.  I think data catalogs, while originally designed for search and discovery, serve as excellent user-first platforms for bringing together a wide variety of data intelligence use cases including data search and discovery, data literacy, and data governance.  I look forward to watching Alation pursue, with a hat tip to Marshall McLuhan, their strategy of “the catalog is the platform.”

Independent of that transformation, I look forward to seeing Profisee continue to drive their multi-domain master data management strategy that ultimately results in cleaner upstream data in the first place for both operational and analytical systems.

It should be a great year for data.

10. Rebirth of Planning and Enterprise Performance Management (EPM). EPM 1.0 was Hyperion, Arbor, and TM1. EPM 2.0 was Adaptive Insights, Anaplan, and Planful (nee Host Analytics).  EPM 3.0 is being born today.  If you’ve not been tracking this, here a list of next-generation planning startups that I know (and for transparency my relationship with them, if any.)

Planning is literally being reborn before our eyes, in most cases using modern infrastructure, product-led growth strategies, stronger end-user focus and design-orientation, and often with a functional, vertical, or departmental twist.  2021 will be a great year for this space as these companies grow and put down roots.  (Also, see the follow-up post I did on this prediction.)

Well, that’s it for this year’s list.  Thanks for reading this far and have a healthy, safe, and Rule-of-40-compliant 2021.

Why Every Startup Needs an Inverted Demand Generation Funnel, Part III

In part I of this three-part series I introduced the idea of an inverted funnel whereby marketing can derive a required demand generation budget using the sales target and historical conversion rates.  In order to focus on the funnel itself, I made the simplifying assumption that the company’s new ARR target was constant each quarter. 

In part II, I made things more realistic both by quarterizing the model (with increasing quarterly targets) and accounting for the phase lag between opportunity generation and closing that’s more commonly known as “the sales cycle.”  We modeled that phase lag using the average sales cycle length.  For example, if your average sales cycle is 90 days, then opportunities generated in 1Q19 will be modeled  as closing in 2Q19 [1].

There are two things I dislike about this approach:

  • Using the average sales cycle loses information contained in the underlying distribution.  While deals on average may close in 90 days, some deals close in 30 while others may close in 180. 
  • Focusing only on the average often leads marketing to a sense of helplessness. I can’t count the number of times I have heard, “well, it’s week 2 and the pipeline’s light but with a 90-day sales cycle there is nothing we can do to help.”  That’s wrong.  Some deals close more quickly than others (e.g., upsell) so what can we do to find more of them, fast [2].

As a reminder, time-based close rates come from doing a cohort analysis where we take opportunities created in a given quarter and then track not only what percentage of them eventually close, but when they close, by quarter after their creation. 

This allows us to calculate average close rates for opportunities in different periods (e.g., in-quarter, in 2 quarters, or cumulative within 3 quarters) as well an overall (in this case, six-quarter) close rate, i.e., the cumulative sum.  In this example, you can see an overall close rate of 18.7% meaning that, on average, within 6 quarters we close 18.7% of the opportunities that sales accepts.  This is well within what I consider the standard range of 15 to 22%.

Previously, I argued this technique can be quite useful for forecasting; it can also be quite useful in planning.  At the risk of over-engineering, let’s use the concept of time-based close rates  to build an inverted funnel for our 2020 marketing demand generation plan.

To walk through the model, we start with our sales targets and average sales price (ASP) assumptions in order to calculate how many closed opportunities we will need per quarter.  We then drop to the opportunity sourcing section where we use historical opportunity generation and historical time-based close rates to estimate how many closed opportunities we can expect from the existing (and aging) pipeline that we have already generated.  Then we can plug our opportunity generation targets from our demand generation plan into the model (i.e., the orange cells).  The model then calculates a surplus or (gap) between the number of closed opportunities we need and those the model predicts. 

I didn’t do it in the spreadsheet, but to turn that opportunity creation gap into ARR dollars just multiply by the ASP.  For example, in 2Q20 this model says we are 1.1 opportunities short, and thus we’d forecast coming in $137.5K (1.1 * $125K) short of the new ARR plan number.  This helps you figure out if you have the right opportunity generation plan, not just overall, but with respect to timing and historical close rates.

When you discover a gap there are lots of ways to fix it.  For example, in the above model, while we are generating enough opportunities in the early part of the year to largely achieve those targets, we are not generating enough opportunities to support the big uptick in 4Q20.  The model shows us coming in 10.8 opportunities short in 4Q20 – i.e., anticipating a new ARR shortfall of more than $1.3M.  That’s not good enough.  In order to achieve the 4Q20 target we are going to need to generate more opportunities earlier in the year.

I played with the drivers above to do just that, generating an extra 275 opportunities across the year generating surpluses in 1Q20 and 3Q20 that more than offset the small gaps in 2Q20 and 4Q20.  If everything happened exactly according to the model we’d get ahead of plan and 1Q20 and 3Q20 and then fall back to it in 2Q20 and 4Q20 though, in reality, the company would likely backlog deals in some way [3] if it found itself ahead of plan nearing the end of one quarter with a slightly light pipeline the next. 

In concluding this three-part series, I should be clear that while I often refer to “the funnel” as if it’s the only one in the company, most companies don’t have just one inverted funnel.   The VP of Americas marketing will be building and managing one funnel that may look quite different from the VP of EMEA marketing.  Within the Americas, the VP may need to break sales into two funnels:  one for inside/corporate sales (with faster cycles and smaller ASPs) and one for field sales with slower sales cycles, higher ASPS, and often higher close rates.  In large companies, General Managers of product lines (e.g., the Service Cloud GM at Salesforce) will need to manage their own product-specific inverted funnel that cuts across geographies and channels. There’s a funnel for every key sales target in a company and they need to manage them all.

You can download the spreadsheet used in this post, here.

Notes

[1] Most would argue there are two phase lags: the one from new lead to opportunity and the one from opportunity (SQL) creation to close. The latter is the sales cycle.

[2] As another example, inside sales deals tend to close faster than field sales deals.

[3] Doing this could range from taking (e.g., co-signing) the deal one day late to, if policy allows, refusing to accept the order to, if policy enables, taking payment terms that require pushing the deal one quarter back.  The only thing you don’t want to is to have the customer fail to sign the contract because you never know if your sponsor quits (or gets fired) on the first day of the next quarter.  If a deal is on the table, take it.  Work with sales and finance management to figure out how to book it.

The Board View: Slides From My Presentation at Host Perform 2019

The folks at Host Analytics kindly asked me to speak at their annual conference, Host Perform 2019, today in Las Vegas and I had a wonderful time speaking about one of my favorite topics:  the board view of enterprise performance management (EPM) and, to some extent, companies and management teams in general.

Embedded below are the slides from the presentation.