Category Archives: SaaS

CAC Payback Period:  The Most Misunderstood SaaS Metric

The single most misunderstood software-as-a-service (SaaS) metric I’ve encountered is the CAC Payback Period (CPP), a compound metric that is generally defined as the months of contribution margin to pay back the cost of acquiring a customer.   Bessemer defines the CPP as:

bess cac

I quibble with some of the Bessemerisms in the definition.  For example, (1) most enterprise SaaS companies should use annual recurring revenue (ARR), not monthly recurring revenue (MRR), because most enterprise companies are doing annual, not monthly, contracts, (2) the “committed” MRR concept is an overreach because it includes “anticipated” churn which is basically impossible to measure and often unknown, and (3) I don’t know why they use the prior period for both S&M costs and new ARR – almost everybody else uses prior-period S&M divided by current-period ARR in customer acquisition cost (CAC) calculations on the theory that last quarter’s S&M generated this quarter’s new ARR.

Switching to ARR nomenclature, and with a quick sleight of mathematical hand for simplification, I define the CAC Payback Period (CPP) as follows:

kell cac

Let’s run some numbers.

  • If your company has a CAC ratio of 1.5 and subscription gross margins of 75%, then your CPP = 24 months.
  • If your company has a CAC ratio of 1.2 and subscription gross margins of 80%, then your CPP = 18 months.
  • If you company has a CAC ratio of 0.8 and subscription gross margins of 80%, then your CPP = 12 months.

All seems pretty simple, right?  Not so fast.  There are two things that constantly confound people when looking at CAC Payback Period (CPP).

  • They forget payback metrics are risk metrics, not return metrics
  • They fail to correctly interpret the impact of annual or multi-year contracts

Payback Metrics are for Risk, Not Return

Quick, basic MBA question:  you have two projects, both require an investment of 100 units, and you have only 100 units to invest.  Which do you pick?

  • Project A: which has a payback period of 12 months
  • Project B: which has a payback period of 6 months

Quick, which do you pick?  Well, project B.  Duh.  But wait — now I tell you this:

  • Project A has a net present value (NPV) of 500 units
  • Project B has an NPV of 110 units

Well, don’t you feel silly for picking project B?

Payback is all about how long your money is committed (so it can’t be used for other projects) and at risk (meaning you might not get it back).  Payback doesn’t tell you anything about return.  In capital budgeting, NPV tells you about return.  In a SaaS business, customer lifetime value (LTV) tells you about return.

There are situations where it makes a lot of sense to look at CPP.  For example, if you’re running a monthly SaaS service with a high churn rate then you need to look closely how long you’re putting your money at risk because there is a very real chance you won’t recoup your CAC investment, let alone get any return on it.  Consider a monthly SaaS company with a $3500 customer acquisition cost, subscription gross margin of 70%, a monthly fee of $150, and 3% monthly churn.  I’ll calculate the ratios and examine the CAC recovery of a 100 customer cohort.

saas fail

While the CPP formula outputs a long 33.3 month CAC Payback Period, reality is far, far worse.  One problem with the CPP formula is that it does not factor in churn and how exposed a cohort is to it — the more chances customers have to not renew during the payback period, the more you need to consider the possibility of non-renewal in your math [1].  In this example, when you properly account for churn, you still have $6 worth of CAC to recover after 30 years!  You literally never get back your CAC.

Soapbox:  this is another case where using a model is infinitely preferable to back-of-the-envelope (BOTE) analysis using SaaS metrics.  If you want to understand the financials of a SaaS company, then build a driver-based model and vary the drivers.  In this case and many others, BOTE analysis fails due to subtle complexity, whereas a well-built model will always produce correct answers, even if they are counter-intuitive.

Such cases aside, the real problem with being too focused on CAC Payback Period is that CPP is a risk metric that tells you nothing about returns.  Companies are in business to get returns, not simply to minimize risk, so to properly analyze a SaaS business we need to look at both.

The Impact of Annual and Multi-Year Prepaid Contracts on CAC Payback Period

The CPP formula outputs a payback period in months, but most enterprise SaaS businesses today run on an annual rhythm.  Despite pricing that is sometimes still stated per-user, per-month, SaaS companies realized years ago that enterprise customers preferred annual contracts and actually disliked monthly invoicing.  Just as MRR is a bit of a relic from the old SaaS days, so is a CAC Payback Period stated in months.

In a one-hundred-percent annual prepaid contract world, the CPP formula should output in multiples of 12, rounding up for all values greater than 12.  For example, if a company’s CAC Payback Period is notionally 13 months, in reality it is 24 months because the leftover 1/13 of the cost isn’t collected until the a customer’s second payment at month 24.  (And that’s only if the customer chooses to renew — see above discussion of churn.)

In an annual prepaid world, if your CAC Payback Period is less than or equal to 12 months, then it should be rounded down to one day because you are invoicing the entire year up-front and at-once.  Even if the formula says the CPP is notionally 12.0 months, in an annual prepaid world your CAC investment money is at risk for just one day.

So, wait a minute.  What is the actual CAC Payback Period in this case?  12.0 months or 1 day?  It’s 1 day.

Anyone who argues 12.0 months is forgetting the point of the metric.  Payback periods are risk metrics and measured by the amount of time it takes to get your investment back [2].  If you want to look at S&M efficiency, look at the CAC ratio.  If you want to know about the efficiency of running the SaaS service, look at subscription gross margins.  If you want to talk about lifetime value, then look at LTV/CAC.  CAC Payback Period is a risk metric that measures how long your CAC investment is “on the table” before getting paid back.  In this instance the 12 months generated by the standard formula is incorrect because the formula misses the prepayment and the correct answer is 1 day.

A lot of very smart people get stuck here.  They say, “yes, sure, it’s 1 day – but really, it’s not.  It’s 12 months.”  No.  It’s 1 day.

If you want to look at something other than payback, then pick another metric.  But the CPP is 1 day.  You asked how long it takes for the company to recoup the money it spends to acquire a customer.  For CPPs less than or equal to 12 in a one-hundred percent annual prepaid world, the answer is one day.

It gets harder.  Imagine a company that sells in a sticky category (e.g., where typical lifetimes may be 10 years) and thus is a high-consideration purchase where prospective customers do deep evaluations before making a decision (e.g., ERP).  As a result of all that homework, customers are happy to sign long contracts and thus the company does only 3-year prepaid contracts.  Now, let’s look at CAC Payback Period.  Adapting our rules above, any output from the formula greater than 36 months should be rounded up in multiples of 36 months and, similarly, any output less than or equal to 36 months should be rounded down to 1 day.

Here we go again.  Say the CAC Payback Period formula outputs 33 months.  Is the real CPP 33 months or 1 day?  Same argument.  It’s 1 day.  But the formula outputs 33 months.  Yes, but the CAC recovery time is 1 day.  If you want to look at something else, then pick another metric.

It gets even harder.  Now imagine a company that does half 1-year deals and half 3-year deals (on an ARR-weighted basis).  Let’s assume it has a CAC ratio of 1.5, 75% subscription gross margins, and thus a notional CAC Payback Period of 24 months.  Let’s see what really happens using a model:

50-50

Using this model, you can see that the actual CAC Payback Period is 1 day. Why?  We need to recoup $1.5M in CAC.  On day 1 we invoice $2.0M, resulting in $1.5M in contribution margin, and thus leaving $0 in CAC that needs to be recovered.

While I have not yet devised general rounding rules for this situation, the model again demonstrates the key point – that the mix of 1-year and 3-year payment structure confounds the CPP formula resulting in a notional CPP of 24 months, when in reality it is again 1 day.  If you want to make rounding rules beware the temptation to treat the average contract duration (ACD) as a rounding multiple because it’s incorrect — while the ACD is 2 years in the above example, not a single customer is paying you at two-year intervals:  half are paying you every year while half are paying you every three.  That complexity, combined with the reality that the mix is pretty unlikely to be 50/50, suggests it’s just easier to use a model than devise a generalized rounding formula.

But pulling back up, let’s make sure we drive the key point home.  The CAC Payback Period is the single most often misunderstood SaaS metric because people forget that payback metrics are about risk, not return, and because the basic formulas – like those for many SaaS metrics – assume a monthly model that simply does not apply in today’s enterprise SaaS world, and fail to handle common cases like annual or multi-year prepaid contracts.

# # #

Notes

[1] This is a huge omission for a metric that was defined in terms of MRR and which thus assumes a monthly business model.  As the example shows, the formula (which fails to account for churn) outputs a CAC payback of 33 months, but in reality it’s never.  Quite a difference!

[2] If I wanted to be even more rigorous, I would argue that you should not include subscription gross margin in the calculation of CAC Payback Period.  If your CAC ratio is 1.0 and you do annual prepaid contracts, then you immediately recoup 100% of your CAC investment on day 1.  Yes, a new customer comes with a future liability attached (you need to bear the costs of running the service for them for one year), but if you’re looking at a payback metric that shouldn’t matter.  You got your money back.  Yes, going forward, you need to spend about 30% (a typical subscription COGS figure) of that money over the next year to pay for operating the service, but you got your money back in one day.  Payback is 1 day, not 1/0.7 = 17 months as the formula calculates.

Book Review:  From Impossible to Inevitable

This post reviews Aaron Ross and Jason Lemkin’s new book, From Impossible to Inevitable, which is being launched at the SaaStr Conference this week.  The book is a sequel of sorts to Ross’s first book, Predictable Revenue, published in 2011, and which was loaded with great ideas about how to build out your sales machine.

From Impossible to Inevitable is built around what they call The Seven Ingredients of Hypergrowth:

  1. Nail a niche, which is about defining your focus and ensuring you are ready to grow. (Or, as some say “nail it, then scale it.)  Far too many companies try to scale it without first nailing it, and that typically results in frustration and wasted capital.
  2. Create predictable pipeline, which about “seeds” (using existing successful customers), “nets” (classical inbound marketing programs), and “spears” (targeted outbound prospecting) campaigns to create the opportunities sales needs to drive growth.
  3. Make sales scalable, which argues convincingly that specialization is the key to scalable sales. Separate these four functions into discrete jobs:  inbound lead handing, outbound prospecting, selling (i.e., closing new business), and post-sales roles (e.g., customer success manager).  In this section they include a nice headcount analysis of a typical 100-person SaaS company.
  4. Double your deal size, which discusses your customer mix and how to build a balanced business built off a run-rate business of average deals topped up with a lumpier enterprise business of larger deals, along with specific tactics for increasing deal sizes.
  5. Do the time, which provides a nice reality check on just how long it takes to create a $100M ARR SaaS company (e.g., in a great case, 8 years, and often longer), along with the wise expectations management that somewhere along the way you’ll encounter a “Year of Hell.”
  6. Embrace employee ownership, which reminds founders and executives that employees are “renting, not owning, their jobs” and how to treat them accordingly so they can act more like owners than renters.
  7. Define your destiny, which concludes the book with thoughts for employees on how to take responsibility for managing their careers and maximizing the opportunities in front of them.

The book is chock full of practice advice and real-world stories.  What it’s not is theoretical.  If Crossing the Chasm offered a new way of thinking about product lifecycle strategy that earned it a place on the top shelf of the strategy bookcase, From Impossible to Inevitable is a cookbook that you keep in the middle of the kitchen prep table, with Post-It’s sticking out the pages and oil stains on the cover.  This is not a book that offers one big idea with a handful of chapters on how to apply it.  It’s a book full of recipes and tactics for how to improve each piece of your go-to-market machine.

This book — like Predictable Revenue, The Lean Startup, Zero to One, and SalesHood — belongs on your startup executive’s bookshelf.  Read it!  And keep up with Jason’s and Aaron’s great tweetstreams and the awesome SaaStr blog.

The SaaSacre Part II: Time for the Rebound?

In response to my post, SaaS Stocks:  How Much Punishment is in Store, a few of my banker friends have sent me over some charts and data which shine more light on the points I was trying to make about SaaS forward twelve month (FTM) enterprise value (EV) revenue multiples, normal trading ranges, and the apparent “floor” value for this metric.

This chart comes from the folks at Pacific Crest:

paccrest saas multiples

In English, it says that SaaS stocks are trading at an EV/FTM revenue multiple of 3.2, 35% below the average since 2005, and down 66% since the peak in Jan 2014.  It also shows the apparent floor at around 2.0x, which they dipped below only once in the past decade during the crisis of 2008.

This is not to say that Wall Street doesn’t over-correct, that a new floor value could not be established, or that cuts in revenue forecasts due to macroeconomics couldn’t cause significant valuation drops at a constant, in-range EV/FTM ratio.

It is to say that, given historical norms, if you believe in reversion to the mean and that FTM revenue forecasts will not be materially reduced, that we are in “buying opportunity” territory.   The question is then which sentiment will win out in the market.

  • Fear of a potential 30% drop before hitting the floor value, breaking through the floor value, or cuts in FTM revenue forecasts.
  • Greed and the opportunity to get a nearly 50% return in a simple reversion to the mean.

My quick guess is more fear short-term, followed by some healthy greed winning out after that.

Might we see a temporary dead cat bounce before a further sell-off?  Maybe.  Should we remember the Wall Street maxim about catching falling knives?  Yes.

But at the same time remember that mixed in among the inflated, private, unicorn wreckage, that we have some high-quality, public, recurring-revenue companies trading at what’s starting to approach decades-low multiples.  At some point, that will become a real opportunity.

Disclaimers
See my FAQ for disclaimers and more background information.  I am not a financial analyst and I do not make stock recommendations.  I am simply a CEO sharing his experience and opinion which, as my wife will happily attest, is often incorrect.

SaaS Stocks: How Much Punishment is in Store?

The stock market feels like Nordstrom Rack these days:

  • Salesforce at $56/share
  • Tableau at $38/share
  • ServiceNow at $47/share
  • Zendesk at $15/share
  • Workday at $49/share
  • NetSuite at $54/share

Redpoint’s Tomasz Tunguz points out that SaaS forward revenue multiples have been more than cut in half, dropping from 7.7 in January 2014 to 3.3 today.

So where’s it all going to end?  Much as the P/E  of the S&P 500 tends to converge to around 15 over time, I have always felt that quality on-premises enterprise software companies converged to a valuation of 2.0 to 3.0x revenues and there was a floor around 1.0x revenues.  That’s not to say that Wall St doesn’t over-correct and you’d never see on-premises valuations less than 1.0x revenues — but that should be rare and anything less 2.0x could indicate a good buying opportunity and anything near 1.0x — for a healthy company — could mean a real bottom-fishing opportunity.

The question is what are the equivalent numbers for SaaS companies?  I think the norm range is 3.0 to 5.0x revenues and I think the floor is around 2.0x.  That would suggest that in a bad case — despite all the recent carnage — there’s still 30% downside potential in SaaS stocks.  And that’s not including the case where you think we’re in a macroeconomic situation such that the forward four-quarter revenue estimates drop, which would mean more downside potential on top of that.

But I do think at 3.3x, we are now near the bottom-end of the norm range so the question is which sentiment is going to win out in the market:

  • Fear of the 30%+ remaining downside potential in SaaS stocks
  • Greed to capture the potential 50%+ return of a SaaS bounce back to the mid/high-end of the range.

I’d speculate on more fear in the short-term followed by some nice greed in the mid-term.

See my subsequent post, the SaaSacre part II for more in this vein.

# # #

See my disclaimers:  I am not a financial analyst and I do not make recommendations on specific stocks.  The purpose of this post was to share my non-scientific rule of thumb for SaaS trading ranges and do some analysis based on that.

Theoretical TCV: A Necessary New SaaS Metric?

The more I hear about SaaS companies talking up big total contract value (TCV) figures, the more I worry about The Tightening, and the more I think we should create a new SaaS metric:  TTCV = theoretical total contract value.

TTCV = PCV + NPCV

Prepaid contract value (PCV) is the prepaid portion and NPCV is the non-prepaid portion of the subscription in multi-year SaaS agreements.  We could then calculate your corporate hype ratio (CHR) with TTCV/ARR, the amount by which you overstate ARR by talking about TTCV.

I make the suggestion tongue-in-cheek, but do so to make real point.

I am not against multi-year SaaS contracts.  I am not against prepaid SaaS contracts.  In high-consideration enterprise SaaS categories (e.g., EPM), buyers have spent months in thorough evaluations validating that the software can do the job.  Thus, it can make good sense for both buyer and seller to enter into a multi-year agreement.  The seller can shield contracts from annual churn risk and the buyer can get a modest discount for the contractual commitment to renew (e.g., shielding from annual prices increases) or a bigger discount for that plus a prepayment.

But it’s all about degree.  A three-year  prepaid contract often makes sense.  But, for example, an eight-year agreement with two-years prepaid (8/2) often doesn’t.  Particularly if the seller is a startup and not well established.  Why?

Let’s pretend the 8/2 deal was written by an established leader like Salesforce.  In that case:

  • There is a very high likelihood the software will work.
  • If there are problems, Salesforce has major resources to put behind making it work.
  • If the customer is nevertheless unhappy, Salesforce will presumably not be a legal lightweight and enforce the payment provisions of the contract.

Now, let’s pretend that 8/2 deal was written by a wannacorn, a SaaS vendor who raised a lot of money, made big promises in so doing, and is way out over its skis in terms of commitments.

  • There is a lower likelihood the software will work, particularly if working means building a custom application, as opposed to simply customizing an off-the-shelf app.
  • If there are problems, the wannacorn has far fewer available resources to help drive success — particularly if they are spread thin already.
  • If the customer is unhappy they are much less likely to pay because they will be far more willing to say “sue me” to a high-burn startup than to an established leader.

So while that 8/2 deal might be a reasonable piece of business for an established leader, it looks quite different from the perspective of the startup:  three-fourths of its value may well end up noncollectable — and ergo theoretical.  That’s why startups should neither make those deals (because they are offering something for an effectively fictitious commitment) nor talk them up (because large portions of the value may never be realized).

Yet many do.  And somehow — at least before The Tightening — some investors seem to buy the hype.  Remember the corporate hype ratio:  TTCV / ARR.

 

What Marketing Costs Should be Included in CAC Calculations?

Dear Kellblog:

I’m working on my CAC calculations and I’m trying to determine if I should include all marketing costs or just my direct demand generation costs?  I’ve talked to many of my CMO peers and can’t get a consistent answer to the question?

Thanks / Bewildered CMO

Dear Bewildered CMO:

My gut reaction is that you should include all marketing costs.  Don’t try to argue that PR and product marketing don’t work on customer acquisition.  Don’t try to argue that people aren’t programs and try to exclude the cost of your demandgen team.

Why?  Three reasons:

  • Demandgen people and programs dollars should be fungible.  PR and product marketing better be doing things that help acquire customers., even if indirectly.
  • Playing counting games can hurt your credibility.  VCs aren’t just trying to compare metrics, they’re trying to get to know you by seeing how you think about and/or calculate them.  I’d think you were a weasel if I found you excluding these costs without really good reason.
  • To the extent that people try to compare these things between private and public companies, remember that there is no way to split marketing apart (or split customer success from sales) with public companies which should suggest that by default you include things.

Best / Kellblog

For fun, let’s go quickly look at some sources for CAC definitions and see what we find regarding this issue:

Kellblog defines the CAC as:

dk-cac-pic3

S&M, by default, needs to include all S&M costs, so you can’t cut anything out.

(Side note:  to the extent you amortize commissions, I would prefer to say cash sales expense as opposed to GAAP sales expense, because the latter will hide some costs — but that has nothing to do with marketing.)

The 2015 Pacific Crest Private SaaS Company Survey defines the CAC as:

How much do you spend on a fully-loaded sales & marketing cost basis to acquire $1 of new ACV from a new customer.

This seems to close one door (i.e., you better include IT and facilities allocations to your sales costs — as GAAP would require anyway), but open another because it defines the CAC not in terms of total new ACV, but new ACV from new customers.  So if, for example, you had installed base upsell marketing programs, then I would not count those costs in the CAC calculation because they are not marketing costs spent to win new ARR from new customers.  Is PR?  Is product marketing?  It’s a slippery slope.  I’m not in love with this definition for that reason.  You could never do it for public companies.

David Skok defines the CAC as:

Note that while Skok is calculating a cost to acquire a new customer as opposed to $1 of new ARR, his definition is clear when it comes to splitting marketing costs:  include all S&M costs.

Bessemer prefers talking about a CAC payback period and defines it as:

bess cac

Again, this definition is clear — include all S&M costs.

The Perils of Measuring a SaaS Business on Total Contract Value (TCV)

It’s a frothy time and during such times people can develop a tendency to get sloppy about their numbers.  The first sign of froth is when people routinely discuss company size using market capitalization instead of revenue.  This happened constantly during Bubble 1.0 and started again several years ago – e.g., all the talk of unicorns, private companies with $1B+ valuations.

Oneupsmanship becomes the name of the game in frothy times.  If your competitor’s site had 1M pageviews to your own site’s 750K, marketing quickly came up with a new metric on which you could win:  “we had 1.5M eyeballs.”  This kind of gaming, pardon the pun, is seen through rather easily.

The more disturbing distortions are those intended to impress industry influencers to validate strategy.  Analysts – whose job is supposedly to analyze – have a troubling tendency to not judge strategies on their logical merits but on their results.  So if vendor has a silly, unfocused, or simply bad strategy, the vendor doesn’t need to argue that it actually makes sense, they just need find a way to show that it is producing results – and the ensuing Halo Effects will serve as validation.

Public companies try to demonstrate results through revenue allocation games, robbing from non-strategic SKUs to pump up strategic ones (e.g., “cloudwashing” as the megavendors are now often accused).   Private companies have free reign and can either point to unverifiable lofty financing valuations as supposed proof that their strategy is working, or to unverifiable sales growth figures where sales is typically defined as the metric that looked best last quarter.

Most people would quickly agree that at a SaaS business, the best metric for measuring sales is growth in new annual recurring revenue (ARR).  They’d also agree that the best metric for valuing the business is ending ARR and its growth.  (LTV/CAC would come in right behind.)  Using my leaky bucket analogy, the best way to measure sales is by how fast they pour water in the bucket.  The best way to measure the value of the business is the water level of the bucket and how fast it is going up.

But it’s a frothy time, and sometimes the numbers produced using the correct SaaS measures don’t produces numbers that, well, sufficiently impress.  So what’s a poor CEO to do?  Embellish.  The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece that compared company claims about size/growth made while the company was still private to those later revealed in the S-1.  The results were disappointing, if not perhaps surprising.

Put differently, what’s the SaaS equivalent of “eyeballs”?

The answer is simple:  bookings or, more precisely, total contract value (TCV) bookings.  To show this, we’ll need to define some terms.

  • ARR = annual recurring revenue, the annual subscription fee
  • NSB = new subscription bookings, the prepaid (and – no gaming — quickly collectible) portion of the contract. Since enterprise SaaS contracts are often multi-year and can be fully, partially, or only first-year prepaid, we need a metric to understand the cash implications of the deal.
  • TCV = total contract value, including both prepaid and non-prepaid subscription as well as services. TCV is the largest metric because it includes everything.  Some people exclude services but, to me, total means total.

Now, let’s look at several ways to transform a simple $100K ARR deal in the following spreadsheet:

peril1

Note that in each case, the ARR is $100K.  But by varying deal terms the TCV can vary from $150K to $750K.  Now in the real world if someone was going to pay you $100K for one-year deal, they are unlikely to pay $300K for a three-year prepay or contractual commitment.  They will want something in return; typically a discount.

Let’s combine these ideas in one more example.  Say you run a SaaS company and want to impress everyone that you’re doing really well.  The trouble is you’re not.  You sold $10M in new ARR in 2014 (all one-year, prepaid) and think you can sell $10M again in 2015 on those same terms.   If you measure yourself on new ARR growth, that’s 0% and no one is going to think you are cool or write you up on the tech blogs.  But if you switch to TCV and increase your contract duration, you get a lot more flexibility:

peril2

If you switch to TCV, the good news is you can grow literally as fast as you want just by playing with contract terms.  Want to grow at 60%?  Switch to 2-year prepaids and give a 20% discount.  That’s not fast enough and you want to grow at 101%?  Move to 3-year prepaids by effectively doing a year-long “buy 2 get 1 free” promotion.   That’s not good enough?  Move to 5-year non-prepaids and you can grow at a dazzling 235% and get nice TechCrunch articles about your strategic vision, your hypergrowth, and your unique culture (that is, most probably, just like everyone else’s unique culture).

This is great.  Why doesn’t everybody do it?  Because you’re mortgaging the future:

  • The discounts you’re giving to get multi-year deals are crushing ARR; new ARR growth is shrinking in all cases.
  • You are therefore crushing both revenue and cash collections over the time period(s)
  • The prepaid deals create a drug addiction problem because you’re not collecting cash in the out years. So you build a dependency either on lots of capital or lots more prepaid deals.
  • Worse yet, on the non-prepaid deals you may not ever collect the money at all.

Wait, what did he say?

In my opinion, non-prepaid multi-year deals are often not worth the paper they are written on.  Why?  Just look at it from the customer’s perspective.  Say you sign a $100K five-year deal with only the first year paid up-front.  And say the software’s not delivering.  It took more work to implement than you thought.  You’ve fallen short on the requirements.  It’s not performing very well.  You’ve called for help but the company can’t fix it because they’re too busy doing other 5-year non-prepaid deals with other customers.

What do you do?  Simple:  you don’t pay the invoice when it comes.  Technically,  yes, you are very much breaking the contract that you signed — but if the software really isn’t delivering, when the vendor calls you say:  “sue me.”

Since software companies generally don’t like suing customers, the vendor – especially if they know the implementation failed – will generally walk away and write it your receivable as bad debt.   If they are particularly devious (and incorrect) they might not even take it as churn until the end of the five-year period when the contract is supposed to renew.   I wouldn’t be shocked if you could find a company that did it this way.

Most sophisticated SaaS people know that SaaS companies shouldn’t be run on TCV or bookings and are well aware of the problems doing so creates with ARR, revenue, and cash.

However, I have never heard anyone make the simple additional point I’m making here:  in a frothy environment dubious companies can create a fictitious bubble around themselves using TCV.  However, because non-prepaid multi-year deals only work when the customers are happy, if the company is out over its skis on promises and implementations, then many of the customers will not end up happy, and the company will never collect much of that TCV.  Meaning, that it was never really “value” in the first place.

Beware Greeks bearing gifts and SaaS vendors talking TCV.