Category Archives: SaaS

Kellblog’s Greatest Hits 2016-2019 per the Appealie SaaS Awards

I’ll be speaking at the APPEALIE 2019 SaaS Conference and Awards in San Francisco on September 25th and I noticed that in their promotions the folks at APPEALIE had assembled their own Kellblog’s Greatest Hits album from 2016 to 2019, complete with its own cover art.

appealie

When I looked at the posts they picked, I thought they did a good job of identifying the best material, so I thought I’d share their list here.  They also called me “a GOAT software blogger” and after playing around with acronyms for about half an hour — maybe Groove, OpenView, AngelVC, Tunguz? — my younger son swung by and said, “they called you a GOAT?  Cool.  It means greatest of all time.”  Cool, indeed.  Thanks.

Here’s the APPEALIE Kellblog’s Greatest Hits 2016-2019 list:

 

Kellblog's Greatest Hits 2016-2019 per the Appealie SaaS Awards

I’ll be speaking at the APPEALIE 2019 SaaS Conference and Awards in San Francisco on September 25th and I noticed that in their promotions the folks at APPEALIE had assembled their own Kellblog’s Greatest Hits album from 2016 to 2019, complete with its own cover art.
appealie
When I looked at the posts they picked, I thought they did a good job of identifying the best material, so I thought I’d share their list here.  They also called me “a GOAT software blogger” and after playing around with acronyms for about half an hour — maybe Groove, OpenView, AngelVC, Tunguz? — my younger son swung by and said, “they called you a GOAT?  Cool.  It means greatest of all time.”  Cool, indeed.  Thanks.
Here’s the APPEALIE Kellblog’s Greatest Hits 2016-2019 list:

 

New ARR and CAC in Price-Ramped vs. Auto-Expanding Deals

In this post we’re going to look at the management accounting side of multi-year SaaS deals that grow in value over time.  I’ve been asked about this a few times lately, less because people value my accounting knowledge [1] but rather because people are curious about the CAC impact of such deals and how to compensate sales on them.

Say you sign a three-year deal with a customer that ramps in payment structure:  year 1 costs $1M, year 2 costs $2M, and year 3 costs $3M.  Let’s say in this example the customer is getting the exact same value in all 3 years (e.g., the right for 1,000 people to use a SaaS service) – so the payment structure is purely financial in nature and not related to customer value.

Equal Value:  The Price-Ramped Deal
The question on my mind is how do I look at this from a new ARR bookings, ending ARR, CAC, and sales compensation perspective?

GAAP rules define precisely how to take this from a GAAP revenue perspective – and with the adoption of ASC 606 even those rules are changing.  Let’s take an example from this KPMG data sheet on ASC 606 and SaaS.

(Price-Ramped) Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Payment structure $1M $2M $3M
GAAP revenue $1M $2M $3M
GAAP unbilled deferred revenue $5M $3M $0M
ASC 606 revenue $2M $2M $2M
ASC 606 unbilled accounts receivable $1M $1M $0M
ASC 606 revenue backlog $4M $2M $0M

When I look at this is I see:

  • GAAP is being conservative and saying “no cash, no revenue.” For an early stage startup with no history of actually making these deals come true, that is not a bad position.  I like the concept of GAAP unbilled deferred revenue, but I don’t actually know anyone who tracks it, let alone discloses it.  Folks might release backlog in some sort of unbilled total contract value (TCV) metric which I suspect is similar [2].
  • ASC 606 is being aggressive and mathematical – “hey, if it’s a 3-year, $6M deal, then that’s $2M/year, let’s just smooth it all out [3]”. While “unbilled A/R” strikes me as (another) oxymoron I see why they need it and I do like the idea of ASC 606 revenue backlog [4].  I think the ASC 606 approach makes a lot of sense for more mature companies, which have a history of making these deals work [5].

Now, from an internal, management accounting perspective, what do you want to do with this deal in terms of new ARR bookings, ending ARR balance, CAC ratio, and sales comp?  We could say:

  • It’s $2M in new ARR today
  • Ergo calculate this quarter’s CAC with it counted as $2M
  • Add $2M in ending ARR
  • Pay the salesrep on a $2M ARR deal – and let our intelligently designed compensation plan protect us in terms of the delayed cash collections [6] [6A]

And I’d be OK with that treatment.  Moreover, it jibes with my definition of ARR which is:

End-of-quarter ARR / 4 = next-quarter subscription revenue, if nothing changes [7]

That’s because ASC 606 also flattens out the uneven cash flows into a flat revenue stream.

Now, personally, I don’t want to be financing my customers when I’m at a high-burn startup, so I’m going to try and avoid deals like this.  But if I have to do one, and we’re a mature enough business to be quite sure that years 2 and 3 are really coming, then I’m OK to treat it this way.  If I’m not sure we’ll get paid in years 2 and 3 – say it’s for a brand-new product that has never been used at this scale – then I might revert to the more GAAP-oriented, 1-2-3 approach, effectively treating the deal not as a price ramp, but as an auto-expander.

Increasing Value:  The Auto-Expanding Deal
Let’s say we have a different use-case.  We sell a SaaS platform and year 1 will be exclusively focused on developing a custom SaaS app, we will roll it to 500 users day 1 of year 2, and we will roll it to 500 more users on day 1 of year 3.  Further assume that the customer gets the same value from each of these phases and each phase continues until the end of the contract [8].  Also assume the customer expects that going forward, they will be paying $3M/year plus annual inflation adjustments.

Oy veh.  Now it’s much harder.  The ramped shape of the curve is not about financing at all.  It’s about the value received by the customer and the ramped shape of the payments perfectly reflects the ramped shape of the value received.  Moreover, not all application development projects succeed and if they fall behind on building the customized application they will likely delay the planned roll-outs and try to delay the payments along with them.  Moreover, since we’re an early-stage startup we don’t have enough history to know if they’ll succeed at all.

This needs to be seen as an auto-expanding deal:  $1M of new-business ARR in year 1, $1M of pre-sold upsell ARR in year 2, and another $1M of pre-sold upsell ARR in year 3.

When you celebrate it at the company kickoff you can say the customer has made a $6M commitment (total contract value, or TCV [9]) to the company and when you tier your customers for customer support/success purposes you might do so by TCV as opposed to ARR [10].  When you talk to investors you can say that $1M of next year’s and $1M of the subsequent year’s upsell is already under contract, ergo increasing your confidence in your three-year plan.  Or you could roll it all together into a statement about backlog or RPO [11].  That part’s relatively easy.

The hard part is figuring out sales compensation and CAC.  While your rep will surely argue this is a $2M ARR deal (if not a $3M ARR deal) and that he/she should be paid accordingly, hopefully you have an ARR-driven (and not a total bookings-driven) compensation plan and we’ve already established that we can’t see this as $2M or $3M ARR deal.  Not yet, at least.

This deal is a layer cake:  it’s a three-year $1M ARR deal [12] that has a one-year-delayed, two-year $1M ARR deal layered atop it, and a two-year-delayed, one-year $1M ARR deal atop that.  And that, in my opinion, is how you should pay it out [13].  Think:  “hey, if you wanted to get paid on a three-year $3M ARR deal, then you should have brought me one of those [14].”

Finally, what to do about the CAC?  One might argue that the full cost of sale for the eventual $3M in ARR was born up-front.  Another might argue that, no, plenty of account management will be required to ensure we actually get the pre-sold upsell.  The easiest and most consistent thing to do is to treat the ARR as we mentioned (1+1+1) and calculate the CAC, as you normally would, using the ARR that we put in the pool.

If you do a lot of these deals, then you would see a high new-business CAC ratio that is easily explained by stellar net-dollar expansion rates (173% if these were all you did).  Think:  “yes, we spend a lot up-front to get a customer, but after we hook them, they triple by year three.”

Personally, I think any investor would quickly understand (and fall in love with) those numbers.  If you disagree, then you could always calculate some supplemental CAC ratio designed to better amortize the cost of sale across the total ARR [14].  Since you can’t have your cake and eat it too, this will make the initial CAC look better but your upsell CAC and net-dollar expansion rates worse.

As always, I think the right answer is to stick with the fundamental metrics and let them tell the story, rather than invent new metrics or worse yet, new definitions for standard metrics, which can sow the seeds of complexity and potential distrust.

# # #

Notes

For more information on ASC 606 adoption, I suggest this podcast and this web page which outlines the five core principles.

[1] I am not an accountant.  I’m a former CEO and strategic marketer who’s pretty good at finance.

[2] And which I like better as “unbilled deferred revenue” is somewhat oxymoronical to me.  (Deferred revenue is revenue that you’ve billed, but you have not yet earned.)

[3] I know in some cases, e.g., prepaid, flat multi-year deals, ASC 606 can actually decide there is a material financing event and kind of separate that from the core deal.  While pure in spirit, it strikes me as complex and the last time I looked closely at it, it actually inflated revenue as opposed to deflating it.

[4] Which I define as all the future revenue over time if every contract played out until its end.

[5] Ergo, you have high empirical confidence that you are going to get all the revenue in the contract over time.

[6] Good comp plans pay only a portion of large commissions on receipt of the order and defer the balance until the collection of cash.  If you call this a $2M ARR deal, you do the comp math as if it’s $2M, but pay out the cash as dictated by the terms in your comp plan.  (That is, make it equivalent to a $2M ARR deal with crazy-delayed payment terms.)  You also retire $2M of quota, in terms of triggering accelerators and qualifying for club.

[6A] This then begs the question of how to comp the $1M in pre-sold upsell in Year 3.  As with any of the cases of pre-sold upsell in this post, my inclination is to pay the rep on it when we get the cash but not on the terms/rates of the Year 1 comp plan, but to “build it in” into their comp plan in year 3, either directly into the structure (which I don’t like because I want reps primarily focused on new ARR) or as a bonus on top of a normal OTE.  You get a reward for pre-sold upsell, but you need to stay here to get it and you don’t year 1 comp plan rates.

[7] That is, if all your contracts are signed on the last day of the quarter, and you don’t sign any new ones, or churn any existing ones until the last day of the quarter, and no one does a mid-quarter expansion, and you don’t have to worry about any effects due to delayed start dates, then the ARR balance on the last day of the quarter / 4 = next quarter’s subscription revenue.

[8] Development is not “over” and that value released – assume they continue to fully exploit all the development environments as they continue to build out their app.

[9] Note that TCV can be seen as an “evil” metric in SaaS and rightfully so when you try to pretend that TCV is ARR (e.g., calling a three-year $100K deal “a $300K deal,” kind of implying the $300K is ARR when it’s not).  In this usage, where you’re trying to express total commitment made to the company to emphasize the importance of the customer, I think it’s fine to talk about TCV – particularly because it also indirectly highlights the built-in upsell yet to come.

[10] Or perhaps some intelligent mix thereof.  In this case, I’d want to weight towards TCV because if they are not successful in year 1, then I fail to collect 5/6th of the deal.  While I’d never tell an investor this was a $6M ARR deal (because it’s not true), I’d happily tell my Customer Success team that this a $6M TCV customer who we better take care of.  (And yes, you should probably give equal care to a $2M ARR customer who buys on one-year contracts – in reality, either way, they’d both end up “Tier 1” and that should be all that matters.)

[11] Or you could of the ASC 606 revenue backlog and/or Remaining Performance Obligation (RPO) – and frankly, I’d have trouble distinguishing between the two at this point.  I think RPO includes deferred revenue whereas ASC 606 revenue backlog doesn’t.

[12] In the event your compensation plan offers a kicker for multi-year contracts.

[13] And while you should factor in the pre-committed upsell in setting the reps targets in years 2 and 3, you shouldn’t go so far as to give them a normal upsell target with the committed upsell atop it.  There is surely middle ground to be had.  My inclination is to give the rep a “normal” comp plan and build in collecting the $1M as a bonus on top — but, not of course at regular new ARR rates.  The alternative is to build (all or some of) it into the quota which will possibly demotivate the rep by raising targets and reducing rates, especially if you just pile $1M on top of a $1M quota.

[14] This ain’t one – e.g., it has $6M of TCV as opposed to $9M.

Ten Ways to Get the Most out of Conferences

I can’t tell you the number of times, as we were tearing down our booth after having had an epic show, that we overheard the guy next door calling back to corporate saying that the show was a “total waste of time” and that the company shouldn’t do it again next year.  Of course, he didn’t say that he:

  • Staffed the booth only during scheduled breaks and went into the hallway to take calls at other times.
  • Sat inside the booth, safely protected from conference attendees by a desk.
  • Spent most of his time looking down at his phone, even during the breaks when attendees were out and about.
  • Didn’t use his pass to attend a single session.
  • Measured the show solely by qualified leads for his territory, discounting company visibility and leads for other territories to zero.

slack boothDoes this actually happen, you think?  Absolutely

All the time.  (And it makes you think twice when you’re on the other end of that phone call – was the show bad or did we execute it poorly?) 

I’m a huge believer in live events and an even bigger believer that you get back what you put into them.  The difference between a great show and a bad show is often, in a word, execution.  In this post, I’ll offer up 10 tips to ensure you get the best out of the conferences you attend.

Ten Ways to Get the Most out of Conferences and Tradeshows

1. Send the right people.  Send folks who can answer questions at the audience’s level or one level above.  Send folks who are impressive.  Send folks who are either naturally extroverts or who can “game face” it for the duration of the show.  Send folks who want to be there either because they’re true believers who want to evangelize the product or because they believe in karma [1].  Send senior people (e.g., founders, C-level) [2] so they can both continue to refine the message and interact with potential customers discussing it.

2. Speak.  Build your baseline credibility in the space by blogging and speaking at lesser conferences.  Then, do your homework on the target event and what the organizers are looking for, and submit a great speaking proposal.  Then push for it to be accepted.  Once it’s accepted, study the audience hard and then give the speech of your life to ensure you get invited back next year.  There’s nothing like being on the program (or possibly even a keynote) to build credibility for you and your company.  And the best part is that speaking a conference is, unlike most everything else, free.

3. If you can afford a booth/stand, get one.  Don’t get fancy here.  Get the cheapest one and then push hard for good placement [3].  While I included a picture of Slack’s Dreamforce booth, which is very fancy for most early-stage startup situations, imagine what Slack could have spent if they wanted to.  For Slack, at Dreamforce, that’s a pretty barebones booth.  (And that’s good — you’re going to get leads and engage with people in your market, not win a design competition.)

4. Stand in front of your booth, not in it.  Expand like an alfresco restaurant onto the sidewalk in spring.  This effectively doubles your booth space.

5. Think guerilla marketing.  What can make the biggest impact at the lowest cost?  I love stickers for this because a clever sticker can get attention and end up on the outside of someone’s laptop generating ongoing visibility.  At Host Analytics, we had great success with many stickers, including this one, which finance people (our audience) simply loved [4].

I LOVE EBITDA

While I love guerilla marketing, remember my definition:  things that get maximum impact at minimum cost.  Staging fake protests or flying airplanes with banners over the show may impress others in the industry, but they’re both expensive and I don’t think they impress customers who are primarily interested not in vendor politics, but in solving business problems.

6. Work the speakers.  Don’t just work the booth (during and outside of scheduled breaks), go to sessions.  Ask questions that highlight your issues (but not specifically your company).  Talk to speakers after their sessions to tee-up a subsequent follow-up call.  Talk to consultant speakers to try and build partnerships and/or fish to referrals.  Perhaps try to convince the speakers to include parts of your message into their speech [5].

7. Avoid “Free Beer Here” Stunts.  If you give away free beer in your booth you’ll get a huge list of leads from the show.  However, this is dumb marketing because you not only buy free beer for lots of unqualified people but worse yet generate a giant haystack of leads that you need to dig through to find the qualified ones — so you end up paying twice for your mistake.  While it’s tempting to want to leave the show with the most card swipes, always remember you’re there to generate visibility, have great conversations, and leave with the most qualified leads — not, not, not the longest list of names.

8. Host a Birds of a Feather (BoF).  Many conferences use BoFs (or equivalents) as a way for people with common interests to meet informally.  Set up via either an online or old-fashioned cork message board, anyone can organize a BoF by posting a note that says “Attention:  All People Interested in Deploying Kubernetes at Large Scale — Let’s Meet in Room 27 at 3PM.”  If your conference doesn’t have BoFs either ask the organizers to start them, or call a BoF anyway if they have any general messaging facility.

9. Everybody works. If you’re big enough to have an events person or contractor, make sure you define their role properly.  They don’t just set up the booth and go back to their room all day.  Everybody works.  If your events person self-limits him/herself by saying “I don’t do content,” then I’d suggest finding another events person.

10.  No whining.  Whenever two anglers pass along a river and one says “how’s the fishing?” the universal response is “good.”  Not so good that they’re going to ask where you’ve been fishing, and not so bad that they’re going to ask what you’ve been using.  Just good.  Be the same way with conferences.  If asked, how it’s going, say “good.”  Ban all discussion and/or whining about the conference until after the conference.  If it’s not going well, whining about isn’t going to help.  If it is going well, you should be out executing, not talking about how great the conference is.  From curtain-up until curtain-down all you should care about is execution.  Once the curtain’s down, then you can debrief — and do so more intelligently having complete information.

Notes

[1] In the sense that, “if I spend time developing leads that might land in other reps’ territories today, that what goes around comes around tomorrow.”

[2] In order to avoid title intimidation or questions about “why is your CEO working the booth” you can have a technical cofounder say “I’m one of the architects of the system” or your CEO say “I’m on the leadership team.”

[3] Build a relationship with the organizers.  Do favors for them and help them if they need you.  Politely ask if anyone has moved, upgraded, or canceled their space.

[4] Again note where execution matters — if the Host Analytics logo were much larger on the sticker, I doubt it would have been so successful.  It’s the sticker’s payload, so the logo has to be there.  Too small and it’s illegible, but too big and no one puts the sticker on their laptop because it feels like a vendor ad and not a clever sticker.

[5] Not in the sense of a free ad, but as genuine content.  Imagine you work at Splunk back in the day and a speaker just gave a talk on using log files for debugging.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could convince her next time to say, “and while there is clearly a lot of value in using log files for debugging, I should mention there is also a potential goldmine of information in log files for general analytics that basically no one is exploiting, and that certain startups, like Splunk, are starting to explore that new and exciting use case.”

Appearance on the Twenty Minute VC: Financing Thoughts, The Private Equity Sales Process, and More

Today famed venture capital podcaster and now venture capitalist at StrideVC, Harry Stebbings, released a new episode of the Twenty Minute VC podcast with me as his guest.  (iTunes version here.)

dk harry 500

Harry’s interview was broad-ranging, covering a number of topics including:

  • Financing lessons I’ve learned during prior bubble periods and, perhaps more importantly, bubble bursts.
  • The three basic types of exits available today:  strategic acquirer, old-school private equity (PE) squeeze play, and new-school PE growth and/or platform play.
  • A process view of exiting a company via a PE-led sales process, including discussion of the confidential information memorandum (CIM), indications of interest (IOIs), management meetings, overlaying strategic acquirers into the process, and the somewhat non-obvious final selection criteria.

The Soundcloud version, available via any browser is here.  The iTunes version is here.  Regardless of whether you are interested in the topics featured in this episode, I highly recommend Harry’s podcast and listen to it myself during my walking and/or driving time.

Oh, and if you like the content in this episode, don’t miss my first appearance on the show.

 

The Rule of 40 — Down, But Not Out!

Neeraj Agrawal and Logan Bartlett of Battery Ventures recently published the 2019 version of its outstanding annual software round-up report.  I highly recommend this report — it’s 78-pages chock full of great data about topics like:

  • Why Battery is long software overall
  • The four eras of software evolution
  • The five forces driving software’s accelerating growth
  • Key trends in 2018, including setting records in three areas:  (1) public company revenue multiples, (2) IPO volume (by over 2x), and (3) M&A volume (by over 2x).
  • Key trends from their 2017 report that are still alive, well, and driving software businesses.

But, most of all, it has some great charts on the Rule of 40 [1] that I want to present and discuss here.  Before doing that, I must note that I drank today’s morning coffee reading Alex Clayton’s CloudStrike IPO breakdown, a great post about a cloud security company with absolutely stunning growth at scale — 121% growth to $312M in Ending ARR in FY19.  And, despite my headline, well in compliance with the Rule of 40.  110% revenue growth + -26% free cashflow margin = 84%, one of the highest Rule of 40 scores that I’ve ever seen [2].  Keep an eye on this company, I expect it should have a strong IPO [3].

However, finding one superstar neither proves nor disproves the rule.  Let’s turn to the Battery data to do that.

When discussing the Rule of 40, most financial analysts make one of two plots.

  • They do a scatter plot with revenue growth on the X-axis and FCF margin on the Y-axis.  The Rule of 40 then becomes a line that separates the chart into two zones (compliant and non-compliant).  Note that a minority of public companies actually comply suggesting the rule of 40 is a pretty high bar [4].
  • Or, more interestingly, they do a linear regression of Rule of 40 score vs. enterprise-value/revenue (EV) multiple.  This puts focus on the question:  what’s the relationship between Rule of 40 score and company value? [5]

But that thing has always bugged me is that nobody does the linear regression against both the Rule of 40 score and revenue growth.  Nobody, until Battery.  Here’s what it shows.

First, let’s look at the classic Rule of 40 regression.  Recall that R-squared is a statistical measure that explains the dependence of the dependent variable (in this case, EV multiple) on the independent variable (Rule of 40 score).  Here you can see that about 58% of the variation in enterprise value multiple is explained by Rule of 40 score.  You can intuit that by looking at the dots relative to the line — while there is clearly some linear correlation between the data, it’s a long way from perfect (i.e., lots of dots are pretty far from the line).  [6]

rule of 40-4

Now, the fun part.  Let’s see the same regression against revenue growth alone.  R-squared here is 51%.  So the explanatory power of the Rule of 40 is only 7% higher than revenue growth alone.  Probably still worth looking at, but it sure gets a lot of PR for explaining only an incremental 7%.  It could be worse, I suppose.  Rule of 40 could have a lower R-squared than revenue growth alone — in fact, it did back in 2008 and in 2012.

rule of 40-3

In the vein, for some real fun let’s look at how this relationship has changed over time.  The first thing you’ll notice is that pre-2012 both last twelve month (LTM) revenue growth and the Rule of 40 had far weaker explanatory power, I suspect because profitability played a more important role in the equation.  In 2012, the explanatory power of both metrics doubled.  In 2015 and 2016 the Rule of 40 explained nearly 20% more than revenue growth alone.  In 2017 and 2018, however, that’s dropped to 7 to 8%.

rule of 40-2

I still think the Rule of 40 is a nice way to think about balancing growth vs. profit and Rule of 40 compliant companies still command a disproportionate share of market value.  But remember, its explanatory power has dropped in recent years and, if you’re running an early or mid-stage startup, there is very little comparative data available on the Rule of 40 scores of today’s giants when they were at early- or mid-stage scale.  That’s why I think early- and mid-stage startups need to think about the Rule of 40 in terms of glideslope planning.

Thanks to the folks at Battery for producing and sharing this great report. [7]

# # #

Notes
[1] Rule of 40 score = typically calculated as revenue growth + free cashflow (FCF) margin.  When FCF margin is not available, I typically use operating margin.   Using GAAP operating margin here would result in 110% + -55% = 55%, much lower, but still in rule of 40 compliance.

[2] If calculated using subscription revenue growth, it’s 137% + -26% = 111%, even more amazing.  One thing I don’t like about the fluidity of Rule of 40 calculations, as you can see here, is that depending what might seem small nuances in calculations, you can produce a very broad range of scores.   Here, from 55% to 137%.

[3] To me, this means ending day 1 with a strong valuation.  The degree to which that is up or down from the opening price is really about how the bankers priced the offer.  I am not a financial analyst and do not make buy or sell recommendations.  See my disclaimers, here.

[4] In fact, it’s actually a double bar — first you need to have been successful enough to go public, and second you need to clear the Rule of 40.  Despite a minority of public companies actually clearing this bar, financial analysts are quick to point out the minority who do command a disproportionate share of market cap.

[5] And via the resultant R-squared score, to what extent does the Rule of 40 score explain (or drive) the EV/R multiple?

[6] If R-squared were 1.0 all the dots would fall on the least-squares fit line.

[7] Which continues with further analysis, breaking the Rule of 40 into 4 zones.

What's the "Cause of Death" in Your Churn Reporting?

In looking at this issue across several companies, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend / missed opportunity in how many SaaS companies classify the reason for customer churn.  Roughly speaking, if companies were hospitals, they’d too frequently be reporting the cause of death as “stopped breathing.”
Yes, the patient who died stopped breathing; the question is why did they stop breathing.  In churn-speak, “yes, the customer who churned issued a churn notice and chose not to renew.”  The question is why did they choose not to renew?
Many people have written great posts on reasons customers churn and how to prevent them.  These reasons often look like hierarchies:
Uncontrollable:

  • Got acquired
  • Went bankrupt
  • Corporate edict
  • New sponsor

Controllable:

  • Failed implementation
  • Product functionality
  • Product ease of use
  • Oversold  / poor fit

These hierarchies aren’t a bad start, but they aren’t good enough, either.  A new sponsor isn’t an automatic death sentence for a SaaS product.  He or she might be, however, if the team using it had a rough implementation and was only half-satisfied with the product.  Similarly, a failed implementation will certainly reduce the odds of renewal, but sometimes people do have the will to start over — and why did the implementation fail in the first place?
Physicians have been in the “churn” business much longer than SaaS companies and I think they’ve arrived at a superior system.  Here’s an excerpt from the CDC’s Physicians’ Handbook on Medical Certification of Death — not a publication, I’d add, linked to by most SaaS bloggers:
chain of death
For example, when my dear father passed away from a stroke several years ago, I remember the form said:
example cod
(And, at the time, literally observing that it was a better way to classify churn.)
The rule above spells it out quite clearly  — “DO NOT enter terminal events such as respiratory arrest […] without showing the etiology.”  That is, “stopped breathing” by itself isn’t good enough.  Just like “sent churn notice” or “decided not to renew.”
I have not built out a full taxonomy here; classifying churn in this way remained a future item on my to-do list at the time we sold my last company.  Nevertheless, while I know it’s not easy, I believe that companies should start trying to find a way to richly encode churn reasons using this “chain” concept so as to not lose critical information in encoding their data.  Otherwise, we risk believing that all our customers churned because they sent us a churn notice (or some easily blamed “uncontrollable” event).
As one example:

  • Churned, due to
  • New sponsor, due to
  • Failed implementation, due to
  • Partner problem, due to
  • Partner training

Or, another:

  • Churned, due to
  • Corporate edict, due to
  • M&A, due to
  • Product dissatisfaction, due to
  • Oversold, due to
  • Sales training

These aren’t perfect, but I’m trying quickly demonstrate the real complexity behind why customers churn.  For example, happy customers might challenge a corporate edict issued after an acquisition — so you can’t just blame the edict.  You have to look more deeply.  If you knew that the customer fought the edict and failed, you might stop the chain there.  But if you knew they were never terribly happy with the system because they were overpromised capabilities at the start, then you should code that into the chain, too.

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For more information on the warning signs and symptoms of a stroke, go here.