Category Archives: SaaS

SaaStr 2019 Presentation Preview: Five Questions SaaS CEO Wrestle With

I’m super excited for the upcoming SaaStr Annual 2019 conference in San Jose from February 5th through the 7th at the San Jose Convention Center.  I hope to see you there — particularly for my session from 10:00 AM to 10:30 AM on Tuesday, February 5th.  Last year they ended up repeating my session but that won’t be possible this year as I’m flying to Europe for a board meeting later in the week — so if you want to see it live, please come by at 10:00 AM on Tuesday!

saastr 2019

I’d quibble with the subtitle, “Lessons from Host Analytics,” because it’s actually more, “Lessons From a Lifetime of Doing This Stuff,” and examples will certainly include but also span well beyond Host Analytics.  In fact, I think one thing that’s reasonably unique about my background is that I have 10+ years’ tenure in two different, key roles within an enterprise software company:

  • CEO of two startups, combined for over ten years (MarkLogic, Host Analytics).
  • CMO of two startups, combined for over ten years (BusinessObjects, Versant).

I’ve also been an independent director on the board of 4 enterprise software startups, two of which have already had outstanding exits.  And I just sold a SaaS startup in an interesting process during which I learned a ton.  So we’ve got a lot of experience to draw upon.

SaaS startup CEO is hard job.  It’s a lonely job, something people don’t typically understand until they do it.  It’s an odd job — for what might be the first time in your career you have no boss, per se, just a committee.  You’re responsible for the life and death of the company.  Scores or hundreds of people depend on you to make payroll.  You need to raise capital, likely in the tens of millions of dollars — but these days increasingly in the hundreds — to build your business.

You’re driving your company into an uncertain future and, if you’re good, you’re trying to define that future your way in the mind of the market.  You’re trying to build an executive team that not only will get the job done today, but that can also scale with you for the next few years.  You’re trying to systematize the realization of a vision, breaking it down into the right parts in the right order to ensure market victory.  And, while you’re trying to do all that, you need to keep a board happy that may have interests divergent from your own and those of the company.  Finally, it’s an accelerating treadmill of a job – the better you do, the more is expected of you.

Wait!  Why do we do this again?  Because it’s also a fantastic job.  You get to:

  • Define and realize a vision for a market space.
  • Evangelize new and better ways of doing things.
  • Compete to win key customers, channels, and partners.
  • Work alongside incredibly talented and accomplished people.
  • Serve the most leading and progressive customers in the market.
  • Manage a growing organization, building ideally not just a company but a culture that reflects your core values.
  • Leverage that growth internationally, exploring and learning about the planet and the business cultures across it.

Basically, you get to play strategic N-dimensional wizard chess against some of the finest minds in the business.  Let’s face it.  It’s cool.  Despite the weight that comes with the job, any SaaS startup CEO should feel privileged every day about the job that they “get to” do.

But there are certain nagging questions that hound any SaaS startup CEO.  Questions that never quite get answered and put to bed.  Ones that need to asked and re-asked.  Those are the 5 questions we’ll discuss in my talk.  And here they are:

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

Each one is a question that can cost you the company, the market, or your job.  They’re all hard.  In my estimation, number 4 is the trickiest and most subtle.  There’s even a bonus question 6 – “are we winning?” — that is perhaps the most important of them all.

I look forward to speaking with you and hope you can attend the session.  If you have any advance questions to stimulate my thinking while preparing for the session, please do send them along via email, DM, or comment.

You don’t need to be a CEO to benefit from this session.  There are lots of lessons for everyone involving in creating and running a startup.  (If nothing else, you might get some insight to how your CEO might think about you and your team.)

I hope to see you there.

An Update on the SaaS Rule of 40

Thanks to the folks at Piper Jaffray and their recently published 2018 Software Market Review, we can take a look at a recent chart that plots public software company enterprise value (EV) vs. Rule of 40 (R40) score = free cash-flow margin + revenue growth rate.

As a reminder, the Rule of 40 is an industry rule of thumb that says a high-growth SaaS company can burn as much cash as it likes in order to drive growth — as long as its growth rate is 40 percentage points higher than its free cashflow margin.  It’s an attempt at devising a simple rule to help software companies with the complex question of how to balance growth and profitability.

One past study showed that while Rule of 40 compliant software companies made up a little more than half of all public software companies that they captured more than 80% of all public market cap.

Let’s take a look at Piper’s chart which plots R40 score on the X axis and enterprise value (EV) divided by revenue on the Y axis.  It also plots a presumably least squares fit line through the data points.

newer rule of 40

Source: PJC Analysis and SAP Capital IQ as of 12/31/2018

Of note:

  • Less than half of all companies in this set are Rule of 40 compliant; the median R40 score was 31.7%.
  • The median multiple for companies in the set was 6.6x.
  • The slope of the line is 12, meaning that for each 10 percentage points of R40 score improvement, a company’s revenue multiple increases by 1.2x.
  • R^2 is 0.42 which, if I recall correctly, means that the R40 score explains 42% of the variability of the data.  So, while there’s lots it doesn’t explain, it’s still a useful indicator.

A few nerdier things of note:

  • Remember that the line is only valid in the data range presented; since no companies had a negative R40 score, it would be invalid extrapolation to simply continue the line down and to the left.
  • Early-stage startup executives often misapply these charts forgetting the selection bias within them. Every company on the chart did well enough at some point in terms of size and growth to become a public SaaS company.  Just because LivePerson (LPSN) has a 4x multiple with an R40 score of 10% doesn’t mean your $20M startup with the sames score is also worth 4x.   LPSN is a much bigger company (roughly $250M) and and already cleared many hurdles to get there.

The big question around the Rule of 40 is:  when should companies start to target it?   A superstar like Elastic had 76% growth and 8% FCF margin so a R40 score of 84% at its spectacular IPO.  However, Avalara had 26% growth and -28% FCF margin for an R40 score of -2% and its IPO went fine.  Ditto Anaplan.

I’ll be doing some work in the next few months to try and get better data on R40 trajectory into an IPO.  My instinct at this point is that many companies target R40 compliance too early, sacrifice growth in the process, and hurt their valuations because they fail to deliver high growth and don’t get the assumed customer acquisition cost efficiencies built in the financial models, which end up, as one friend called them, spreadsheet-induced hallucinations.

The Next Chapter

This morning we announced that Vector Capital has closed the acquisition of Host Analytics.  As part of that transaction I have stepped down from my position of CEO at Host Analytics.  To borrow a line from The Lone Ranger, “my work is done here.”  I’ll consult a bit to help with the transition and will remain a friend of and investor in the company.

A Word of Thanks
Before talking about what’s next, let me again thank the folks who made it possible for us to quintuple Host during my tenure all while cutting customer acquisition costs in half, driving a significant increase in dollar retention rates, and making a dramatic increase in net promoter score (NPS).  Thanks to:

  • Our employees, who drove major productivity improvements in virtually all areas and were always committed to our core values of customer success, trust, and teamwork.
  • Our customers, who placed their faith in us, who entrusted us with their overall success and the secure handling of their enormously important data and who, in many cases, helped us develop the business through references and testimonials.
  • Our partners, who worked alongside us to develop the market and make customers successful – and often the most challenging ones at that.
  • Our board of directors, who consistently worked positively and constructively with the team, regardless of whether we were sailing in fair or foul weather.

We Laid the Groundwork for a Bright Future
When Vector’s very talented PR guy did his edits on the closing press release, he decided to conclude it with the following quote:

Mr. Kellogg added, “Host Analytics is a terrific company and it has been an honor lead this dynamic organization.  I firmly believe the company’s best days are ahead.”

When I first read it I thought, “what an odd thing for a departing CEO to say!”  But before jumping to change it, I thought for a bit.  In reality, I do believe it’s true.  Why do Host’s best days lie ahead?  Two reasons.

First, we did an enormous amount of groundwork during my tenure at Host.  The biggest slug of that was on product and specifically on non-functional requirements.  As a fan of Greek mythology, the technical debt I inherited felt like the fifth labor of Hercules, cleaning the Augean stables.  But, like Hercules, we got it done, and in so doing shored up the internals of a functionally excellent product and transformed our Hyderabad operation into a world-class product development center.  The rest of the groundwork was in areas like focusing the organization on the right metrics, building an amazing demand generation machine, creating our Customers for Life organization, running a world-class analyst relations program, creating a culture based on learning and development, and building a team of strong players, all curious about and focused on solving problems for customers.

Second, the market has moved in Host’s direction.  Since I have an affinity for numbers, I’ll explain the market with one single number:  three.  Anaplan’s average sales price is three times Host’s.  Host’s is three times Adaptive’s.  Despite considerable vendor marketing, posturing, positioning, haze, and confusion to the contrary, there are three clear segments in today’s EPM market.

  • Anaplan is expensive, up-market, and focused primarily on operational planning.
  • Adaptive is cheap, down-market, and focused primarily on financial planning.
  • Host is reasonably priced, mid-market, focused primarily on financial planning, with some operational modeling capabilities.

Host serves the vast middle where people don’t want (1) to pay $250K/year in subscription and build a $500K/year center of excellence to support the system or (2) to pay $25K/year only to be nickeled and dimed on downstream services and end up with a tool they outgrow in a few years.

Now, some people don’t like mid-layer strategies and would argue that Host risks getting caught in a squeeze between the other two competitors.  That never bothered me – I can name a dozen other successful SaaS vendors who grew off a mid-market base, including within the finance department where NetSuite created a hugely successful business that eventually sold for $9.3B.

But all that’s about the past.  What’s making things even better going forward?  Two things.

  • Host has significantly improved access to capital under Vector, including the ability to better fund both organic and inorganic growth. Funding?  Check.
  • If Workday is to succeed with its goals in acquiring Adaptive, all rhetoric notwithstanding, Adaptive will have to become a vendor able to deliver high-end, financial-focused EPM for Workday customers.  I believe Workday will succeed at that.  But you can’t be all things to all people; or, to paraphrase SNL, you can’t be a dessert topping and a floor wax.  Similarly, Adaptive can’t be what it will become and what it once was at the same time – the gap is too wide.  As Adaptive undergoes its Workday transformation, the market will switch from three to two layers, leaving both a fertile opening for Host in mid-market and a dramatically reduced risk of any squeeze play.  Relatively uncontested market space?  Check.

Don’t underestimate these developments.  Both these changes are huge.  I have a lot of respect for Vector in seeing them.  They say that Michelangelo could see the statue within the block of marble and unleash it.  I think Vector has clearly seen the potential within Host and will unleash it in the years to come.

What’s Next?
I don’t have any specific plans at this time.  I’m happily working on two fantastic boards already – data catalog pioneer Alation and next-generation content services platform Nuxeo.   I’ll finally have time to write literally scores of blog posts currently stalled on my to-do list.  Over the next few quarters I expect to meet a lot of interesting people, do some consulting, do some angel investing, and perhaps join another board or two.  I’ll surely do another CEO gig at some point.  But I’m not in a rush.

So, if you want to have a coffee at Coupa, a beer at the Old Pro, or – dare I date myself – breakfast at Buck’s, let me know.

Top Kellblog Posts of 2018

Here’s a quick retrospective on the top Kellblog posts (as measured by views) of 2018.

  • Career Development:  What It Really Means to be a Manager, Director, or VP.  The number two post of 2018 was actually written in 2015!  That says a lot about this very special post which appears to have simply nailed it in capturing the hard-to-describe but incredibly important differences between operating at the manager, director, or VP level.  I must admit I love this post, too, because it was literally twenty years in the making.  I’d been asked so many times “what does it really mean to operate at the director level” that it was cathartic when I finally found the words to express the answer.
  • The SaaS Rule of 40.  No surprise here.  Love it or not, understanding the rule of 40 is critical when running a SaaS business.  Plenty of companies don’t obey the rule of 40 — it’s a very high bar.  And it’s not appropriate in all circumstances.  But something like 80% of public company SaaS market capitalization is captured by the companies that adhere to it.  It’s the PEG ratio of modern SaaS.
  • The Role of Professional Services in a SaaS Company.  I was surprised and happy to see that this post made the top five.  In short, the mission of services in a SaaS company is “to maximize ARR while not losing money.”  SaaS companies don’t need the 25-35% services margins of their on-premises counterparts.   They need happy, renewing customers.  Far better to forgo modest profits on services in favor of subsidizing ARR both in new customer acquisition and in existing customer success to drive renewals.  Services are critical in a SaaS company, but you shouldn’t measure them by services margins.
  • The Customer Acquisition Cost Ratio:  Another Subtle SaaS Metric.  The number five post of 2018 actually dates back to 2013!  The post covers all the basics of measuring your cost to acquire a customer or a $1 of ARR.  In 2019 I intend to update my fundamentals posts on CAC and churn, but until then, this post stands strong in providing a comprehensive view of the CAC ratio and how to calculate it.  Most SaaS companies lose money on customer acquisition (i.e., “sell dollars for 80 cents”) which in turn begs two critical questions:  how much do they lose and how quickly do they get it back?  I’m happy to see a “fun with fundamentals” type post still running in the top five.

Notes

[1]  See disclaimer that I’m not a financial analyst and I don’t make buy/sell recommendations.

[2] Broadly defined.  I know they’re in Utah.

How To Present a Quarterly Sales Forecast to Your SaaS Company Board

While most companies put real thought into how they present numbers in their post-quarter board decks and other management reports, one area in which you’ll find a lack of discipline is in how they present quarterly sales forecasts to the board.

They’re typically done as a quick update email to the board.  They’ll usually mention the forecast number this quarter (but only usually) and only sometimes include the plan and almost never include the prior-sequential or year-over-year quarter.  Sometimes, they’ll be long, rambling updates about deals with no quarterly number at all — only ARR per deal on an list of deals with no idea which permutations are likely to close.  Sometimes, they’ll confuse “commit” (a forecast category status) with “booked QTD” — a major confusion as “commit” is only “done” in the eyes of an optimistic sales VP — I have little interest in the former (unless it’s part of a general, proven stage-weighted expected value) and a lot of interest in the latter (what actually has been sold thus far).  They’ll often use terms like “forecast,” “commit,” “upside,” “worst case,” and “best case” without defining them (and questions about their definitions are too often met with blank stares or squishy replies).

In this post, I’ll discuss how to present these forecasts better.  If you follow this advice, your board will love you.  Well, they’ll love your communication at least.  (They’ll only love you if the numbers you’re presenting are great to boot.)

The Driving Principles
I think CEOs write these hastily dashed-off forecast emails because they forget some basics.  So always remember:

  • Your board members have day jobs.  They’re not necessarily going to remember your plan number, let alone what you did last year or last quarter.  So help them — provide this context.  (And do the percent math for them.)
  • Your board members care about deals, but only at a summary level and only after they’ve been given the numbers.  They typically care about deals for two reasons:  because they might be able to help if they know an executive at the target company and because they like to see if the deals that close are the same ones management said were “key deals” all quarter.
  • Communication with your board members will be more effective if you have standard definitions for “forecast” or “best case.”  I like to define “forecast” (at the VP of sales level) to be 90% confidence in beating and “best case” to mean 20% confidence in beating.  This means you get to miss your forecast once every 2.5 years and you should beat your best case once every 5 quarters.  See How to Train Your VP of Sales to Think About the Forecast for more.
  • After hearing a forecast the next question most board members will have is about pipeline coverage.  Ergo, why not answer that up front and provide them with the current quarterly pipeline and a to-go coverage ratio to get to plan.  To-go coverage = (current quarterly pipeline) / (new ARR bookings needed to get to plan).

How to Present a SaaS Company Quarterly Forecast
So, now that we’ve covered the logic behind this, let’s show you the spreadsheet that I’d embed or attach in a short email to the board about the current quarter forecast.

how to present forecast 2

The Three Types of Customer Success Manager

Since we’re now officially in 2019 planning season, I’ve been thinking about — among other things — our Customer Success model for next year and talking with friends in my network about that.  Since Customer Success is (sadly, perhaps) still a relatively new discipline in enterprise software companies, I’d say the whole field is evolving quickly, so it’s important to keep up with the changes.

In this post, I won’t approach things from a Customer Success Model perspective and how Customer Success interfaces to Sales (e.g., hunter/farmer, hunter-in-zoo, farmer-with-shotgun, account manager) [1].  Instead, I’m going to look bottom-up at the three basic types of customer success manager (CSM).  While they may share a common job title, CSMs are often cut from very different cloth.  Regardless of which model you implement, I believe you’ll be working with individuals who fall into one of three basic types to staff it.

  • Product-oriented
  • Process-oriented
  • Sales-oriented

In order to characterize the three types clearly and concretely, I’m going to use a template — first, I’ll show how each type introduces themselves to a customer, then I’ll present fragments of typical conversations they like to have with customers.

Note here that I’m talking about people, not roles.  In defining Customer Success Models you map people to roles and roles to duties [3].  In this post I’m really writing about the nature of the CSMs themselves because — all other complexity aside — I think the people pretty naturally drift to one of three types.

The art of setting up the right Customer Success Model is to clearly map out the sales and CSM roles (who does what), define the appropriate frequencies (how often do they do it), and then put the right people in the right roles — both to maximize job satisfaction as well as performance [4] [5].

The Product-Oriented CSM
Introduction: “Hi, I’m Jane, and my job is to ensure you get best use of our products. I’ll be here to keep an eye on your implementation process and to answer any technical questions that go beyond normal technical support. I’ll also perform periodic, proactive ‘health checks’ to ensure that you are using the system properly and making best use of new features.  I’m an expert in our products and previously worked at a consulting shop helping people implement it.  I’m here if you need me.”

Conversations they like to have:

  • “How’s that report working that I helped you build?”
  • “Yes, there are two ways of solving that problem in the product, let me help you pick the right one.”
  • “So you’re having some issues with performance, let me get in a take a look.”

The Process-Oriented CSM
Introduction: “Hi, I’m Joe, and my job is to make sure you are happy with our service and renewing your contract every year.  I’ll drive the renewal process (which, you should note, starts about 4-6 months before the subscription end date), monitor your adoption of the service, ask you to complete our ongoing customer satisfaction surveys, inform you about local user community events, and proactively call you about once a month to check-in.  Should we hit a rough patch, I’ll also serve as your escalation manager and pull together the right resources across the company to get you successfully through it.  I’m a very organized person — I was a project manager in my prior job — and I can manage 10,000 things at once, so don’t hesitate to call — I’m here if you need me.”

Conversations they like to have:

  • “Have you guys budgeted for next year’s renewal — and by the way don’t forget to leave room for the annual price increase?”
  • “I see you hired a new CFO, do you think that’s going to have an impact on our renewal process and can we setup a time to meet her?”
  • “We’re having a training class on new features in the November release and wanted to make sure you knew about it.”
  • “You’ve got two tickets stuck in technical support?  Let me swing over there and find out what’s going on.”

The Sales-Oriented CSM
Introduction: “Hi, I’m Kelly, and my job is to make sure your company gets maximum benefit from, and makes maximum use of, our software.  I’ll be managing your account from here forward, taking care of the renewal, and working to find other areas of your company that can benefit from our solutions [6].  Of course, I know you won’t be expanding usage if you’re not successful, so a big part of my job is to keep you happy as well — towards that end I’ll be keeping an eye on your implementation and your ongoing satisfaction surveys, and setting up periodic health checks with our ace technical team.  For routine technical or services questions, you should call those departments, but if you find yourself getting stuck do not hesitate to call me.  And, well, not to get ahead of myself, but I was wondering if you could introduce me to the CFO of the XYZ division, because I’d love to see if we could get in there and help them experience the same benefits that you’re going to be getting.  In my prior job, I worked as as sales development rep (SDR) and was promoted into this position 2 years ago.’

Conversations they like to have:

  • “Do you see any reason why you wouldn’t be renewing the subscription in February?”
  • “I’d love to come in next week and demonstrate our new Modeling product; I think it could help you with the inventory problem your CFO told me about.”
  • “I see you hired a new finance VP; can the three of us get together next week to discuss her goals for the team and our history working with you as a supplier?

Conclusion
I’ve exaggerated the types to make them clear.  What kind of CSM are you?  What other types have you seen? I’d love to hear.

In the end, it’s all about getting the right Sales and Customer Success Models working side by side, with the duties clearly mapped, and with the right people in the right roles.  I think the best way to do that is a mix of top-down planning and bottom-up assessment.  How do we want to break up these duties?  And who do we have on our team.

# # #

Notes

[1] The way to define your Customer Success model is to define which duties (e.g., adoption, upsell, renewal) are mapped to which Customer Success and Sales roles in your company.  I won’t dive into Customer Success models in this post (because I can think of 3-5 pretty quickly) and each of those models will have a different duty mapping; so the post would get long fast.  Instead, I’m focusing on people because in many ways it’s simpler — I think CSMs come with different, built-in orientations and its important that you put the right CSM into the right role.

[2] I *love* characterizing jobs in this way.  It’s so much more concrete than long job descriptions or formal mission statements.  Think:  if a customer asks you what your job is, what do you say?

[3] As well as map duties to frequencies — e.g., a tier-one CSM may perform monthly outreach calls and setup quarterly health checks, whereas a tier-three CSM may perform quarterly outreach calls and setup annual health checks.

[4] You can make a product-oriented CSM responsible for renewals, but they probably won’t like it.  You could even make them responsible for upsell — but you won’t get much.

[5] To keep things simple here, I’m omitting the Customer Success Architect (CSA) role from the discussion.  Many companies, particularly as they grow, break product-oriented CSMs out of the CSM team, and move them into more of an advanced technical support and consulting role (CSA).  While I think this is generally a good idea, once broken out, they are no longer technically CSMs and out of scope for this post.

[6] One of my favorite quotes from a sales VP I know:  “I always put ‘sales’ on my business card — and not account executive or such — because I don’t want anyone to be surprised when I ask for money.”  This introduction preserves that spirit.

Video of my SaaStr 2018 Presentation: Ten Non-Obvious Things About Scaling SaaS

While I’ve blogged about this presentation before, I only recently stumbled into this full-length video of this very popular session — a 30-minute blaze through some subtle SaaS basics.  Enjoy!

I look forward to seeing everyone again at SaaStr Annual 2019.