Category Archives: Silicon Valley

The Domo S-1: Does the Emperor Have Clothes?

I preferred Silicon Valley [1] back in the day when companies raised modest amounts of capital (e.g., $30M) prior to an IPO that took 4-6 years from inception, where burn rates of $10M/year looked high, and where $100M raise was the IPO, not one or more rounds prior to it.  When cap tables had 1x, non-participating preferred and that all converted to a single class of common stock in the IPO. [2]

How quaint!

These days, companies increasingly raise $200M to $300M prior to an IPO that takes 10-12 years from inception, the burn might look more like $10M/quarter than $10M/year, the cap table loaded up with “structure” (e.g., ratcheting, multiple liquidation preferences).  And at IPO time you might end up with two classes common stock, one for the founder with super-voting rights, and one for everybody else.

I think these changes are in general bad:

  • Employees get more diluted, can end up alternative minimum tax (AMT) prisoners unable to leave jobs they may be unhappy doing, have options they are restricted from selling entirely or are sold into opaque secondary markets with high legal and transaction fees, and/or even face option expiration at 10 years. (I paid a $2,500 “administrative fee” plus thousands in legal fees to sell shares in one startup in a private transaction.)
  • John Q. Public is unable to buy technology companies at $30M in revenue and with a commission of $20/trade. Instead they either have to wait until $100 to $200M in revenue or buy in opaque secondary markets with limited information and high fees.
  • Governance can be weak, particularly in cases where a founder exercises directly (or via a nuclear option) total control over a company.

Moreover, the Silicon Valley game changes from “who’s smartest and does the best job serving customers” on relatively equivalent funding to “who can raise the most capital, generate the most hype, and buy the most customers.”  In the old game, the customers decide the winners; in the new one, Sand Hill Road tries to, picking them in a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Hype Factor
In terms of hype, one metric I use is what I call the hype ratio = VC / ARR.  On the theory that SaaS startups input venture capital (VC) and output two things — annual recurring revenue (ARR) and hype — by analogy, heat and light, this is a good way to measure how efficiently they generate ARR.

The higher the ratio, the more light and the less heat.  For example, Adaptive Insights raised $175M and did $106M in revenue [3] in the most recent fiscal year, for a ratio of 1.6.  Zuora raised $250M to get $138M in ARR, for a ratio of 1.8.  Avalara raised $340M to $213M in revenue, for a ratio of 1.6.

By comparison, Domo’s hype ratio is 6.4.  Put the other way, Domo converts VC into ARR at a 15% rate.  The other 85% is, per my theory, hype.  You give them $1 and you get $0.15 of heat, and $0.85 of light.  It’s one of the most hyped companies I’ve ever seen.

As I often say, behind every “marketing genius” is a giant budget, and Domo is no exception [4].

Sometimes things go awry despite the most blue-blooded of investors and the greenest of venture money.  Even with funding from the likes of NEA and Lightspeed, Tintri ended up a down-round IPO of last resort and now appears to be singing its swan song.  In the EPM space, Tidemark was the poster child for more light than heat and was sold in what was rumored to be fire sale [5] after raising over $100M in venture capital and having turned that into what was supposedly less than $10M in ARR, an implied hype ratio of over 10.

The Top-Level View on Domo
Let’s come back and look at the company.  Roughly speaking [6], Domo:

  • Has nearly $700M in VC invested (plus nearly $100M in long-term debt).
  • Created a circa $100M business, growing at 45% (and decelerating).
  • Burns about $150M per year in operating cash flow.
  • Will have a two-class common stock system where class A shares have 40x the voting rights of class B, with class A totally controlled by the founder. That is, weak governance.

Oh, and we’ve got a highly unprofitable, venture-backed startup using a private jet for a bit less than $1M year [7].  Did I mention that it’s leased back from the founder?  Or the $300K in catering from a company owned by the founder and his brother.  (Can’t you order lunch from a non-related party?)

As one friend put it, “the Domo S-1 is everything that’s wrong with Silicon Valley in one place:  huge losses, weak governance, and now modest growth.”

Personally, I view Domo as the Kardashians of business intelligence – famous for being famous.  While the S-1 says they have 85 issued patents (and 45 applications in process), does anyone know what they actually do or what their technology advantage is?  I’ve worked in and around BI for nearly two decades – and I have no idea.

Maybe this picture will help.

domosolutionupdated

Uh, not so much.

The company itself admits the current financial situation is unsustainable.

If other equity or debt financing is not available by August 2018, management will then begin to implement plans to significantly reduce operating expenses. These plans primarily consist of significant reductions to marketing costs, including reducing the size and scope of our annual user conference, lowering hiring goals and reducing or eliminating certain discretionary spending as necessary

A Top-to-Bottom Skim of the S-1
So, with that as an introduction, let’s do a quick dig through the S-1, starting with the income statement:

domo income

Of note:

  • 45% YoY revenue growth, slow for the burn rate.
  • 58% blended gross margins, 63% subscription gross margins, low.
  • S&M expense of 121% of revenue, massive.
  • R&D expense of 72% of revenue, huge.
  • G&A expense of 29% of revenue, not even efficient there.
  • Operating margin of -162%, huge.

Other highlights:

  • $803M accumulated deficit.  Stop, read that number again and then continue.
  • Decelerating revenue growth, 45% year over year, but only 32% Q1 over Q1.
  • Cashflow from operations around -$150M/year for the past two years.  Stunning.
  • 38% of customers did multi-year contracts during FY18.  Up from prior year.
  • Don’t see any classical SaaS unit economics, though they do a 2016 cohort analysis arguing contribution margin from that cohort of -196%, 52%, 56% over the past 3 years.  Seems to imply a CAC ratio of nearly 4, twice what is normally considered on the high side.
  • Cumulative R&D investment from inception of $333.9M in the platform.
  • 82% revenues from USA in FY18.
  • 1,500 customers, with 385 having revenues of $1B+.
  • Believe they are <4% penetrated into existing customers, based on Domo users / total headcount of top 20 penetrated customers.
  • 14% of revenue from top 20 customers.
  • Three-year retention rate of 186% in enterprise customers (see below).  Very good.
  • Three-year retention rate of 59% in non-enterprise customers.  Horrific.  Pay a huge CAC to buy a melting ice cube.  (Only the 1-year cohort is more than 100%.)

As of January 31, 2018, for the cohort of enterprise customers that licensed our product in the fiscal year ended January 31, 2015, the current ACV is 186% of the original license value, compared to 129% and 160% for the cohorts of enterprise customers that subscribed to our platform in the fiscal years ended January 31, 2016 and 2017, respectively. For the cohort of non-enterprise customers that licensed our product in the fiscal year ended January 31, 2015, the current ACV as of January 31, 2018 was 59% of the original license value, compared to 86% and 111% for the cohorts of non-enterprise customers that subscribed to our platform in the fiscal years ended January 31, 2016 and 2017, respectively.

  • $12.4M in churn ARR in FY18 which strikes me as quite high coming off subscription revenues of $58.6M in the prior year (21%).  See below.

Our gross subscription dollars churned is equal to the amount of subscription revenue we lost in the current period from the cohort of customers who generated subscription revenue in the prior year period. In the fiscal year ended January 31, 2018, we lost $12.4 million of subscription revenue generated by the cohort in the prior year period, $5.0 million of which was lost from our cohort of enterprise customers and $7.4 million of which was lost from our cohort of non-enterprise customers.

  • What appears to be reasonable revenue retention rates in the 105% to 110% range overall.  Doesn’t seem to foot to the churn figure about.  See below:

For our enterprise customers, our quarterly subscription net revenue retention rate was 108%, 122%, 116%, 122% and 115% for each of the quarters during the fiscal year ended January 31, 2018 and the three months ended April 30, 2018, respectively. For our non-enterprise customers, our quarterly subscription net revenue retention rate was 95%, 95%, 99%, 102% and 98% for each of the quarters during the fiscal year ended January 31, 2018 and the three months ended April 30, 2018, respectively. For all customers, our quarterly subscription net revenue retention rate was 101%, 107%, 107%, 111% and 105% for each of the quarters during the fiscal year ended January 31, 2018 and the three months ended April 30, 2018, respectively.

  • Another fun quote and, well, they did take about the cash it takes to build seven startups.

Historically, given building Domo was like building seven start-ups in one, we had to make significant investments in research and development to build a platform that powers a business and provides enterprises with features and functionality that they require.

  • Most customers invoiced on annual basis.
  • Quarterly income statements, below.

domo qtr

  • $72M in cash as of 4/30/18, about 6 months worth at current burn.
  • $71M in “backlog,” multi-year contractual commitments, not prepaid and ergo not in deferred revenue.  Of that $41M not expected to be invoiced in FY19.
  • Business description, below.  Everything a VC could want in one paragraph.

Domo is an operating system that powers a business, enabling all employees to access real-time data and insights and take action from their smartphone. We believe digitally connected companies will increasingly be best positioned to manage their business by leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning, correlations, alerts and indices. We bring massive amounts of data from all departments of a business together to empower employees with real-time data insights, accessible on any device, that invite action. Accordingly, Domo enables CEOs to manage their entire company from their phone, including one Fortune 50 CEO who logs into Domo almost every day and over 10 times on some days.

  • Let’s see if a computer could read it any better than I could.  Not really.

readability

  • They even have Mr. Roboto to help with data analysis.

Through Mr. Roboto, which leverages machine learning algorithms, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, Domo creates alerts, detects anomalies, optimizes queries, and suggests areas of interest to help people focus on what matters most. We are also developing additional artificial intelligence capabilities to enable users to develop benchmarks and indexes based on data in the Domo platform, as well as automatic write back to other systems.

  • 796 employees as of 4/30/18, of which 698 are in the USA.
  • Cash comp of $525K for CEO, $450K for CFO, and $800K for chief product officer
  • Pre-offering it looks like founder Josh James owns 48.9M shares of class A and 8.9M shares of class B, or about 30% of the shares.  With the 40x voting rights, he has 91.7% of the voting power.

Does the Emperor Have Any Clothes?
One thing is clear.  Domo is not “hot” because they have some huge business blossoming out from underneath them.  They are “hot” because they have raised and spent an enormous amount of money to get on your radar.

Will they pull off they IPO?  There’s a lot not to like:  the huge losses, the relatively slow growth, the non-enterprise retention rates, the presumably high CAC, the $12M in FY18 churn, and the 40x voting rights, just for starters.

However, on the flip side, they’ve got a proven charismatic entrepreneur / founder in Josh James, an argument about their enterprise customer success, growth, and penetration (which I’ve not had time to crunch the numbers on), and an overall story that has worked very well with investors thus far.

While the Emperor’s definitely not fully dressed, he’s not quite naked either.  I’d say the Domo Emperor’s donning a Speedo — and will somehow probably pull off the IPO parade.

###

Notes

[1] Yes, I know they’re in Utah, but this is still about Silicon Valley culture and investors.

[2] For definitions and frequency of use of various VC terms, go to the Fenwick and West VC survey.

[3] I’ll use revenue rather than trying to get implied ARR to keep the math simple.  In a more perfect world, I’d use ARR itself and/or impute it.  I’d also correct for debt and a cash, but I don’t have any MBAs working for me to do that, so we’ll keep it back of the envelope.

[4] You can argue that part of the “genius” is allocating the budget, and it probably is.  Sometimes that money is well spent cultivating a great image of a company people want to buy from and work at (e.g., Salesforce).  Sometimes, it all goes up in smoke.

[5] Always somewhat truth-challenged, Tidemark couldn’t admit they were sold.  Instead, they announced funding from a control-oriented private equity firm, Marlin Equity Partners, as a growth investment only a year later be merged into existing Marlin platform investment Longview Solutions.

[6] I am not a financial analyst, I do not give buy/sell guidance, and I do not have a staff working with me to ensure I don’t make transcription or other errors in quickly analyzing a long and complex document.  Readers are encouraged to go the S-1 directly.  Like my wife, I assume that my conclusions are not always correct; readers are encouraged to draw their own conclusions.  See my FAQ for complete disclaimer.

[7] $900K, $700K, and $800K run-rate for FY17, FY18, and 1Q19 respectively.

The Question that CEOs Too Often Don’t Discuss with the Board

Startup boards are complex.  While all board members own stock in the company their interests are not necessarily aligned.

  • Founders may be motivated by a vision to change the world, to hit a certain net worth target, to see their name in an S-1, to make the Forbes 500, or — and I’ve seen crazier things — to make more than their Stanford roommate.  First-time founders with little net worth can be open to selling at relatively low prices.  Conversely, serial successful founders may need a large exit simply to move the needle on their net worth.  Founders can also be religious zealots and take positions like “I wouldn’t sell to Microsoft or Oracle at any price.”
  • Independent board members typically have significant net worth (i.e., they’ve been successful at something which is why want them on your board) and relatively small stakes which, by default, financially incents them to seek large exits.  While they notionally represent the common stock, they are often aligned with either the founders or one of the investors in the company — they got on the board for a reason, often existing relationships —  and thus their views may be shaped by the real or perceived interest of those parties.  Or, they can simply drive an agenda that they believe is best for the company — whatever they happen to think “best” means.
  • Venture capitalists (VCs) are motivated by generating returns for their funds.  Simple, right?  Not so fast.  VC is increasingly a “hits business” where a few large outcomes can mean the difference between at 10% and 35% IRR over a fund’s ten-year life.  Thus, VCs have a general tendency to seek huge exits (“better to sell too late than too early”), but they are also motivated by other factors such as the expectations they set when they raised their fund, the performance of other investments in the fund (e.g., do they need a big hit to bail out a few bad bets), and their relationships with members of other funds represented on the company’s board.

In this light, it’s clearly simplistic to say that everyone is aligned around a single goal:  to maximize the value of the stock.  Yes, surely that is true at one level.  But it gets a bit more complicated than that.

That’s why it’s so important that CEOs ask the board one question that, somewhat amazingly, they all too often don’t:  what does success look like?  And it doesn’t hurt to re-ask it every few years as any given board member’s position may change over time.

I’m always shocked how the simplest of questions can generate the most debate.

Aside:  back in the day at Business Objects (~1998), I suggested bringing in the Chasm Group to help us with a three-day, strategic planning offsite.  I figured we’d spend a morning reviewing the key concepts in Crossing the Chasm, at most one afternoon generating consensus on where we sat on their technology adoption lifecycle curve, and then two days working on strategic goals and operational plans after that.

Tech-Adoption-Lifecycle-01

With about 12 people who had worked together closely for years, after three full days we never agreed where we sat on the curve.  We spent literally the entire time arguing, often intensely, and never even got to the rest of the agenda.  Fortunately, that didn’t end up impeding our success, but it was a big lesson for me.  End aside.

So be ready for that simple question to generate a long answer.  Most probably, several long answers.  In fact, in order to get the best answer, I’d suggest asking board members about it first individually (to avoid any group decision-making biases) and then discuss it as a group.

But before examining the answers you can expect to this question, let’s take a minute to consider why this conversation doesn’t occur more often and more naturally.  I think there are three generic reasons:

  • Conflict aversion.  Perhaps sensing real misalignment, like in a bad marriage the CEO and board tacitly agree to not discuss the problem until they must.  You may hear or make excuses like “let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,”  “let’s execute this year’s plan and then discuss that,” or “if there’s no offer on the table then there’s nothing to discuss.”  Or, in a more Machiavellian situation, a board member may be thinking, “let’s ride Joe like a rented mule to $5M and then shoot him,” continuallying defer the conversation on that logic.  Pleasant or unpleasant, it’s usually better to address conflicts early rather than letting them fester.
  • Rationalization of unrealistic expectations.  If some board members constantly refrain “this can be a billion-dollar company,” perhaps the CEO rationalizes it, thinking “they don’t really believe that; they’re just saying it because they think they’re supposed to.”  But what if they do believe it?
  • The gauche factor.  Some people seem to think it’s a gauche topic of conversation.  “Hey, our company vision statement says we’re making the world a better place through elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility, we shouldn’t be focusing on something so crass as the exit, we should be talking about making the world better.”  VCs invest money for a reason, they measure results by the IRR, and they can typically cite their IRRs (and those of their partners) from memory.  It’s not gauche to discuss expectations and exits.

When you ask your board members what success looks like these are the kinds of things you might hear:

  • Disrupting the leader in a given market.
  • Building a $1B revenue company.
  • Becoming a unicorn ($1B valuation).
  • Changing the way people work.
  • Getting a 10x in 5-7 years for an early stage fund, or getting a 3x in 3-5 years for a later stage fund.
  • Showing my Mother my name in an S-1 (a sub-case of “going public”).
  • Getting our software into the hands of over 1M people.
  • Realizing the potential of the company.
  • Selling the company for more than I think it’s worth.
  • Getting acquired by Google or Cisco for a price above a given threshold.
  • Building a true market leader.
  • Creating a Silicon Valley icon, a household name.
  • Selling the company for {a base-hit, double, triple, home-run, or grand-slam} outcome.

Given the possibility of a list as heterogeneous as this, doesn’t it make sense to get this question on the table as opposed to in the closet?

I learned my favorite definition of strategy from a Stanford professor who defined strategy as “the plan to win.”  The beauty of this definition is that it instantly begs the question “what is winning?”  Just as that conversation can be long, contentious, and colorful, so is the answer to the other, even more critical question:  what does success look like?

Kellblog Predictions for 2018

In continuing my tradition of offering predictions every year, let’s start with a review of my hits and misses on my 2017 predictions.

  1. The United States will see a level of divisiveness and social discord not seen since the 1960s.  HIT.
  2. Social media companies finally step up and do something about fake news. MISS, but ethical issues are starting to catch up with them.
  3. Gut feel makes a comeback. HIT, while I didn’t articulate it as such, I see this as the war on facts and expertise (e.g., it’s cold today ergo global warming isn’t real despite what “experts” say).
  4. Under a volatile leader, we can expect sharp reactions and knee-jerk decisions that rattle markets, drive a high rate of staff turnover in the Executive branch, and fuel an ongoing war with the media.  HIT.
  5. With the new administration’s promises of $1T in infrastructure spending, you can expect interest rates to raise and inflation to accelerate. MISS, turns out this program was never classical government investment in infrastructure, but a massive privatization plan that never happened.
  6. Huge emphasis on security and privacy. PARTIAL HIT, security remained a hot topic and despite numerous major breaches it’s still not really hit center stage.
  7. In 2017, we will see more bots for both good uses (e.g., customer service) and bad (e.g., trolling social media).  HIT.
  8. Artificial intelligence hits the peak of inflated expectations. HIT.
  9. The IPO market comes back. MISS, though according to some it “sucked less.”
  10. Megavendors mix up EPM and ERP or BI. PARTIAL HIT.  This prediction was really about Workday and was correct to the extent that they’ve seemingly not made much progress in EPM.

Kellblog’s Predictions for 2018

1.  We will again continue to see a level of divisiveness and social discord not seen since the 1960s. We have evolved from a state of having different opinions about policies based on common facts to a dangerous state based on different facts, even on easily disprovable claims, e.g., the White House nativity scene.  The media is advancing, not reducing, this divide.

2.  The war on facts and expertise will continue to escalate. Read The Death of Expertise for more.   This will extend to a war on college. While an attempted opening salvo on graduate student tuition waivers didn’t fire, in an environment where the President’s son says, “we’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange we’ll train your children to hate our country,” you can expect ongoing attacks on post-secondary education.  This spells trouble for Silicon Valley, where a large number of founders and entrepreneurs are former grad students as well as immigrants (which is a whole different area of potential trouble).

3.  Leading technology and social media companies finally step up to face ethical challenges. This means paying more attention to their own culture (e.g., sexual harassment, brogrammers).  This means taking responsibility for policing trolls, spreading fake news, building addictive content, and enabling foreign intelligence operations.  Thus far, they have tended to argue they are simply keepers of the town square, and not responsible for the content shared there.  This abdication of responsibility should start to stop in 2018, if only because people start to tune-out the services.  This leads to one of my favorite tweets of the year:

Capture

4.  AI will move from hype to action, meaning bigger budgets, more projects, and some high visibility failures. It will also mean more emphasis on voice and more conversational chatbots.  For finance departments, this means more of what Ventana’s Rob Kugel calls the age of robotic finance, which unites AI and machine learning, robotic process automation (RPA), natural language bots, and blockchain-based distributed ledgers.

5. AI will continue to generate lots of controversy about job displacement. While some remain optimistic, the consensus viewpoint seems to be that AI will suppress employment, most likely widening the wealth inequality gap.  A collapsing educational system combined with AI-driven pressure on low-skilled work seems a recipe for trouble.

6.  The bitcoin bubble bursts. As a reminder, at one point during the peak of tulip mania, the Dutch East India Company was worth more, on an inflated-adjusted basis, than twenty of today’s technology giants combined.

tulips

7.  The Internet of Things (IoT) will continue to build momentum.  IoT won’t hit in a massive horizontal way, instead B2B adoption will be lead by certain verticals such as healthcare, retail, and supply chain.

8.  The freelance / gig economy continues to gain momentum with freelance workers poised to pass traditional employees by 2027. While the gig economy brings advantages to high-skilled knowledge workers (e.g., freedom of location, freedom of work projects), this same trend threatens low-skilled workers via the continual decomposition of full-time jobs in a series of temp shifts.  This means someone working 60 hours a week across three 20-hour shifts wouldn’t be considered to be a full-time employee and thus not eligible for full-time benefits, further increasing wealth inequality.

freelancers

9.  M&A heats up due to repatriation of overseas cash. Apple alone, for example, has $252B in overseas cash.  With the new tax rate dropping from 35% to 15.5%, it will now be ~$50B less expensive for Apple to repatriate that cash.  Overall, US companies hold trillions of dollars overseas and making it cheaper for them to repatriate that cash suggests that they will be flush with dollars to invest in many areas, including M&A

10.  2018 will be a good year for cloud EPM vendors. The dynamic macro environment, the opportunities posed by cash repatriation, and the strong fundamentals in the economy will increase demand for EPM software that helps companies explore how to best exploit the right set of opportunities facing them.  Oracle will fail in pushing PBCS into the NetSuite base, creating a nice third-party opportunity.  SAP, Microsoft, and IBM will continue to put resources into other strategic investment areas (e.g., IBM and Watson, SAP and Hana) leaving fallow the EPM market adjacent to ERP.  And the greenfield opportunity to replace Excel for financial planning, budgeting, and even consolidations will continue drive strong growth.

Let me wish everyone, particularly the customers, partners, and employees of Host Analytics, a Happy New Year in 2018.

# # #

Disclaimer:  these predictions are offered in the spirit of fun.  See my FAQ for more on this and other usage terms.

The SaaS Rule of 40

After the SaaSacre of early 2016, investors generally backed off a growth-at-all-costs mindset and started to value SaaS companies using an “appropriate” balance of growth and profitability.  The question then became, what’s appropriate?  The answer was:  the rule of 40 [1].

What’s the rule of 40?  Growth rate + profit should be greater than or equal to 40%.

There are a number of options for deciding what to use to represent growth (e.g., ARR) and profit (e.g., EBITDA, operating margin). For public companies it usually translates to revenue growth rate and free cash flow margin.

It’s important to understand that such “rules” are not black and white.  As we’ll see in a minute, lots of companies deviate from the rule of 40.  The right way to think about these rules of thumb is as predictors.  Back in the day, what best predicted the value of a SaaS company?  Revenue growth — without regard for margin.  (In fact, often inversely correlated to margin.)  When that started to break down, people started looking for a better independent variable.  The answer to that search was the rule of 40 score.

Let’s examine a few charts courtesy of the folks at Pacific Crest and as presented at the recent, stellar Zuora CFO Forum, a CFO gathering run alongside their Subscribed conference.

rule-of-40

This scatter chart plots the two drivers of the rule of 40 score against each other, colors each dot with the company’s rule of 40 score, and adds a line that indicates the rule of 40 boundary.  42% of public SaaS companies, and 77% of public SaaS market cap, is above the rule of 40 line.

As a quick demonstration of the exception-to-every-rule principle, Tintri recently went public off 45% growth with -81% operating margins, [2] reflecting a rule of 40 score of -36%, and a placement that would be off the chart (in the underneath sense) even if corrected for non-cash expenses.

For those interested in company valuations, the more interesting chart is this one.

rule of 40 valuation.PNG

This chart plots rule of 40 score on the X axis, valuation multiple on the Y axis, and produces a pretty good regression line the shows the relationship between the two.  In short, the rule of 40 alone explains nearly 50% of SaaS company valuation.  I believe that outliers fall into one of two categories:

  • Companies in a strategic situation that explains the premium or discount relative to the model — e.g., the premium for Cloudera’s strong market position in the Hadoop space.
  • Companies whose valuations go non-linear at the high end due to scarcity — e.g., Veeva.

Executives and employees at startups should understand [3] the rule of 40 as it explains the general tendency of SaaS companies to focus on a balance of growth and profitability as opposed to a growth at all costs strategy that was more popular several years back.  Ignore the rule of 40 at your peril.

Notes

[1] While the Rule of 40 concept preceded the SaaSacre, I do believe that the SaaSacre was the wake-up call that made more investors and companies pay attention to.

[2] Using operating margin here somewhat lazily as I don’t want to go find unlevered free cash flow margin, but I don’t think it materially changes the point.

[3] Other good rule of 40 posts are available from:  Tomasz Tungaz, Sundeep Peechu, and Jeff Epstein and Josh Harder.

Detecting and Eliminating the Rolling Hairballs in your Sales Pipeline

Quick:  what’s the biggest deal in this quarter’s sales pipeline?  Was that the biggest deal in last quarter’s pipeline?  How about the quarter before?  Do you have deals in your pipeline older than your children?

If you’re answering yes to these questions, then you’re probably dealing with “rolling hairballs” in your pipeline.  Rolling hairballs are bad:

  • They exaggerate the size of the pipeline.
  • They distort coverage and conversion ratios.
  • They mess up expected-value forecasts, like a forecast-category or stage-weighted sales forecast.

Maybe they’re real deals; maybe they’re figments of a rep’s imagination.  But, if you’re not careful, they pollute your pipeline and your metrics.

Let’s define a rolling hairball

A rolling hairball is a typically large opportunity that sits in your current-quarter pipeline every quarter, with a close date that slips every quarter.  At 2 quarters it’s a suspected rolling hairball; at 3 or more quarters it’s a confirmed one.

Rolling Hairball Detection

The first thing you need to do is find rolling hairballs.  They’re tricky because salesreps always swear they’re real deals that are supposed to finally close this quarter.  What makes rolling hairballs obvious is their ever-sliding close dates.  What makes them dangerous is their size (including an accumulation of them that aggregate to a material fraction of the pipeline).

If you want to find rolling hairballs, look for opportunities in the current-quarter pipeline that were also in last-quarter’s pipeline.  That will find numerous bona fide slipped deals, but it will also light-up potential rolling hairballs.  To determine if an opportunity is  a rolling hairball, for sure, you can do one of two things:

  • See if it also appeared in the current-quarter pipeline in any quarters prior to the previous one.
  • Look at its stage or forecast category.  If either of those suggest it won’t be closing this quarter, it’s another big hairball indicator.

The more sophisticated way to find them is to examine “stuck opportunity” reports that light-up deals that are moving through pipeline stages too slowly compared to your norms.

But typically, the hairball is a big opportunity hiding in plain sight.  You know it was in last quarter’s pipeline and the quarter before that.  You’ve just been deluded into believing it’s not a hairball.

Fixing Rolling Hairballs

There are two ways to fix rolling hairballs:

  • Fix the close date.  Reps are subtly incented to put deals in the current quarter (e.g., to show they’re working on something, to show they might bring in some big sales this quarter). The manager needs to get on the phone with the customer and, after having verified it’s a real opportunity, get the real timeframe in which it might close.  Assigning a realistic close date to the opportunity makes your pipeline more real and reminds the rep that they need to be working on other shorter-term opportunities as well.  (There is no mid-term if you fail enough in the short term.)  The deal will still remain in the all-quarters pipeline, but it won’t always be in the current-quarter pipeline, ever-sliding, and distorting metrics and ratios.

 

  • Fix the size. While a realistic close date is the best solution, what makes rolling hairballs dangerous is their size.  So, if the salesrep really believes it’s a current-quarter opportunity, you can either reduce its size or split it into two opportunities (particularly if that’s a possible outcome), a small one in the current quarter along with an upsell in the future.  Note that this approach can be dangerous, with lots of little hairball-lets flying below radar, so you should only try if it you’re sure your salesops team can produce the reports to find them and if you believe it reflects real customer buying patterns.

Don’t let rolling hairballs pollute your pipeline metrics and ratios.  Admit they exist, find them, and fix them.  Your sales and sales forecasting will be more consistent as a result.

The Strategy Compiler: How To Avoid the “Great” Strategy You Couldn’t Execute

Few phrases bother me more than this one:

“I know it didn’t work, but it was a great strategy.  We just didn’t have the resources to execute it.”

Huh.  Wait minute.  If you didn’t have the resources to execute it, then it wasn’t a great strategy.  Maybe it was a great strategy for some other company that could have applied the appropriate resources.  But it wasn’t a great strategy for you.  Ergo, it wasn’t a great strategy.  QED.

I learned my favorite definition of strategy at a Stanford executive program I attended a few years back.  Per Professor Robert Burgelman, author of Strategy is Destiny, strategy is simply “the plan to win.”  Which begets an important conversation about the definition of winning.  In my experience, defining winning is more important than making the plan, because if everyone is focused on taking different hills, any resultant strategy will be a mishmash of plans to support different objectives.

But, regardless of your company’s definition of winning, I can say that any strategy you can’t execute definitionally won’t succeed and is ergo a bad strategy.

It sounds obvious, but nevertheless a lot of companies fall into this trap.  Why?

  • A lack of focus.
  • A failure to “compile” strategy before executing it.

Focus:  Think Small to Grow Big

Big companies that compete in lots of broad markets almost invariably didn’t start out that way.

BusinessObjects started out focused on the Oracle financials installed base.  Facebook started out on Harvard students, then Ivy league students.  Amazon, it’s almost hard to remember at this point, started out in books.  Salesforce started out in SMB salesforce automation.  ServiceNow on IT ticket management.  This list goes on and on.

Despite the evidence and despite the fame Geoffrey Moore earned with Crossing the Chasm, focus just doesn’t come naturally to people.  The “if I could get 1% share of a $10B market, I’d be a $100M company” thought pattern is just far too common. (And investors often accidentally reinforce this.)

The fact is you will be more dominant, harder to dislodge, and probably more profitable if, as a $100M company, you control 30% of a $300M target as opposed to 1% of a $10B target.

So the first reason startups make strategies they can’t execute is because they forget to focus.  They aim too broadly. They sign up for too much.  The forget that strategy should be sequence of actions over time.  Let’s start with Harvard. Then go Ivy League.  Then go Universities in general.  Then go everyone.

Former big company executives often compound the problem.  They’re not used to working with scarce resources and are more accustomed to making “laundry list” strategies that check all the boxes than making focused strategies that achieve victory step by step.

A Failure to Compile Strategy Before Execution

The second reason companies make strategies they can’t execute is that they forget a critical step in the planning process that I call the strategy compiler.  Here’s what I think a good strategic planning process looks like.

  • Strategy offsite. The executive team spends a week offsite focused on situation assessment and strategy.  The output of this meeting should be (1) a list of strategic goals for the company for the following year and (2) a high-level financial model that concretizes what the team is trying to accomplish over the next three years.  (With an eye, at a startup, towards cash.)

 

  • First round budgeting. Finance issues top-down financial targets.  Executives who own the various objectives make strategic plans for how to attain them.  The output of this phase is (1) first-draft consolidated financials, (2) a set of written strategies along with proposed organizational structures and budgets for attaining each of the company’s ten strategic objectives.

 

  • Strategy compilation, resources. The team meets for a day to review the consolidated plans and financials. Invariably there are too many objectives, too much operating expense, and too many new hires. The right answer here is to start cutting strategic goals.  The wrong answer is to keep the original set of goals and slash the budget 20% across the board.  It’s better to do 100% of 8 strategic initiatives than do 80% of 10.

 

  • Strategy compilation, skills. The more subtle assessment that must happen is a sanity check on skills and talent.  Do your organization have the competencies and do your people have the skills to execute the strategic plans?  If a new engineering project requires the skills of 5 founder-level, Stanford computer science PHDs who each would want 5% of a company, you are simply not going to be able to hire that kind of talent as regular employees. (This is one reason companies do “acquihires”).  The output of this phase is a presumably-reduced set of strategic goals.

 

  • Second round budgeting. Executives to build new or revised plans to support the now-reduced set of strategic goals.

 

  • Strategy compilation. You run the strategy compiler again on the revised plan — and iterate until the strategic goals match the resources and the skills of the proposed organization.

 

  • Board socialization. As you start converging via the strategy compiler you need to start working with the board to socialize and eventually sell the proposed operating plan.  (This process could easily be the subject of another post.)

 

If you view strategy as the plan to win, then successful strategies include only those strategies that your organization can realistically execute from both a resources and skills perspective.  Instead of doing a single-pass process that moves from strategic objectives to budgets, use an iterative approach with a strategy compiler to ensure your strategic code compiles before you try to execute it.

If you do this, you’ll increase your odds of success and decrease the odds ending up in the crowded section of the corporate graveyard where the epitaphs all read:

Here Lies a Company that Had a “Great” Strategy  It Had No Chance of Executing

How To Get Your Startup a Halo

How would you like your startup to win deals not only when you win a customer evaluation, but when you tie — and even sometimes when you lose?

That sounds great.  But is it even possible?  Amazingly, yes — but you need have a halo effect working to your advantage.  What is a halo effect?  Per Wikipedia,

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer’s overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties

There’s a great, must-read book (The Halo Effect) on the how this and eight other related effects apply in business.  The book is primarily about how the business community makes incorrect attributions about “best practices” in culture, leadership, values, and process that are subsequent to — but were not necessarily drivers of — past performance.

I know two great soundbites that summarize the phenomenon of pseudo-science in business:

  • All great companies have buildings.” Which comes from the (partly discredited) Good To Great that begins with the observation that in their study cohort of top-performing companies that all of them had buildings — and thus that simply looking for commonalities among top-performing companies was not enough; you’d have to look for distinguishing factors between top and average performers.
  • “If Marc Benioff carried a rabbit’s foot, would you?”  Which comes from a this Kellblog post where I make the point that blindly copying the habits of successful people will not replicate their outcome and, with a little help from Theodore Levitt, that while successful practitioners are intimately familiar with their own beliefs and behaviors, that they are almost definitionally ignorant of which ones helped, hindered, or were irrelevant to their own success.

Now that’s all good stuff and if you stop reading right here, you’ll hopefully avoid falling for pseudo-science in business.  That’s important.  But it misses an even bigger point.

Has your company ever won (or lost) a deal because of:

  • Perceived momentum?
  • Analyst placement on a quadrant or other market map?
  • Perceived market leadership?
  • Word of mouth as the “everyone’s using it” or “next thing” choice?
  • Perceived hotness?
  • Vibe at your events or online?
  • A certain feeling or je ne sais quoi that you were more (or less) preferred?
  • Perceived vision?

If yes, you’re seeing halo effects at work.

Halo effects are real.  Halo effects are human nature.  Halo effects are cognitive biases that tip the scales in your favor.  So the smart entrepreneur should be thinking:  how do I get one for my company?  (And the smart customer, how can I avoid being over-influenced by them?  See bottom of post.)

In Silicon Valley, a number of factors drive the creation of halo effects around a company.  Some of these are more controllable than others.  But overall, you should be thinking about how you can best combine these factors into an advantage.

  • Lineage, typically in the form of previous success at a hot company (e.g., Reid Hoffman of PayPal into LinkedIn, Dave Duffield of PeopleSoft into Workday).  The implication here (and a key part of halo effects) is that past success will lead to future success, as it sometimes does.  This one’s hard to control, but ceteris paribus, co-founding (even somewhat ex post facto) a company with an established entrepreneur will definitely help in many ways, including halo effects.
  • Investors, in one of many forms:  (1) VC’s with a strong brand name (e.g., Andreessen Horowitz), (2) specific well known venture capitalists (e.g., Doug Leone), (3) well known individual investors (e.g., Peter Thiel), and to a somewhat lesser extent (4) visible and/or famous angels (e.g., Ashton Kutcher). The implication here is obvious, that the investor’s past success is an indication of your future success.  There’s no doubt that strong investors help build halo effects indirectly through reputation; in cases they can do so directly as well via staff marketing partners designed to promote portfolio companies.
  • Investment.  In recent years, simply raising a huge amount of money has been enough to build a significant halo effect around a company, the implication being that “if they can raise that much money, then there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere.” Think Domo’s $690M or Palantir’s $2.1B.   The media loves these “go big or go home” stories and both media and customers seem to overlook the increased risk associated with staggering burn rates, the waste that having too much capital can lead to, the possibility that the investors represent “dumb money,” and the simple fact that “at scale” these businesses are supposed to be profitable.  Nevertheless, if you have the stomach, the story, and the connections to raise a dumbfounding amount of capital, it can definitely build a halo around your company.  For now, at least.
  • Valuation.  Even as the age of the unicorn starts to wane, it’s undeniable that in recent years, valuation has been a key tool to generate halos around a company.  In days of yore, valuation was a private matter, but as companies discovered they could generate hype around valuation, they started to disclose it, and thus the unicorn phenomenon was born.  As unicorn status became increasingly de rigeur, things got upside-down and companies started trading bad terms (e.g., multiple liquidation preferences, redemption rights) in order to get $1B+ (unicorn) post-money valuations.  That multiplying the price of a preferred share with superior rights by a share count that includes the number of lesser preferred and common shares is a fallacious way to arrive at a company valuation didn’t matter.  While I think valuation as a hype driver may lose some luster as many unicorns are revealed as horses in party hats (e.g., down-round IPOs), it can still be a useful tool.  Just be careful about what you trade to get it.  Don’t sell $100M worth of preferred with a ratcheted 2 moving to 3x liquidation preference — but what if someone would buy just $5M worth on those terms.  Yes, that’s a total hack, but so is the whole idea of multiplying a preferred share price times the number of common shares.  And it’s far less harmful to the company and the common stock.  Find your own middle ground / peace on this issue.
  • Growth and vision.  You’d think that industry watchers would look at a strategy and independently evaluate its merits in terms of driving future growth.  But that’s not how it works.  A key part of halo effects is misattribution of practices and performance.  So if you’ve performed poorly and have an awesome strategy, it will overlooked — and conversely.  Sadly, go-forward strategy is almost always viewed through the lens of past performance, even if that performance were driven by a different strategy or affected positively or negatively by execution issues unrelated to strategy.  A great story isn’t enough if you want to generate a vision halo effect.  You’re going to need to talk about growth numbers to prove it.  (That this leads to a pattern of private companies reporting inflated or misleading numbers is sadly no surprise.)  But don’t show up expecting to wow folks with vision. Ultimately, you’ll need to wow them with growth — which then provokes interest in vision.
  • Network.  Some companies do a nice and often quiet job of cultivating friends of the company who are thought leaders in their areas.  Many do this through inviting specific people to invest as angels.  Some do this simply through communications.  For example, one day I received an email update from Vik Singh clearly written for friends of Infer. I wasn’t sure how I got on the list, but found the company interesting and over time I got to know Vik (who is quite impressive) and ended up, well, a friend of Infer.  Some do this through advisory boards, both formal and informal.  For example, I did a little bit of advising for Tableau early on and later discovered a number of folks in my network who’d done the same thing.  The company benefitted by getting broad input on various topics and each of us felt like we were friends of Tableau.  While sort of thing doesn’t generate the same mainstream media buzz as a $1B valuation, it is a smart influencer strategy that can generate fans and buzz among the cognoscenti who, in theory at least, are opinion leaders in their chosen areas.

Before finishing the first part of this post, I need to provide a warning that halo effects are both powerful and addictive.  I seem to have a knack for competing against companies pursuing halo-driven strategies and the pattern I see typically runs like this.

  • Company starts getting some hype off good results.
  • Company starts saying increasingly aggressive things to build off the hype.
  • Analysts and press reward the hype with strong quadrant placements and great stories and blogs.
  • Company puts itself under increasing pressure to produce numbers that support the hype.

And then one of three things happens:

  1. The company continues delivering strong results and all is good, though the rhetoric and vision gets more unrelated to the business with each cycle.
  2. The company stops delivering results and is downgraded from hot-list to shit-list in the minds of the industry.
  3. The company cuts the cord with reality and starts inflating results in order to sustain the hype cycle and avoid outcome #2 above.  The vision inflates as aggressively as the numbers.

I have repeatedly had to compete against companies where claims/results were inflated to “prove” the value of bad/ordinary strategies to impress industry analysts to get strong quadrant positions to support broader claims of vision and leadership to drive more sales to inflate to even greater claimed results.  Surprisingly, I think this is usually done more in the name of ego than financial gain, but either way the story ends the same way — in terminations, lawsuits and, in one case, a jail sentence for the CEO.

Look, there are valid halo-driven strategies out there and I encourage you to try and use them to your company’s advantage — just be very careful you don’t end up addicted to halo heroin.  If you find yourself wanting to do almost anything to sustain the hype bubble, then you’ll know you’re addicted and headed for trouble.

The Customer View

Thus far, I’ve written this post entirely from the vendor viewpoint, but wanted to conclude by switching sides and offering customers some advice on how to think about halo effects in choosing vendors.   Customers should:

  • Be aware of halo effects.  The first step in dealing with any problem is understanding it exists. While supposedly technical, rational, and left-brained, technology can be as arbitrary as apparel when it comes to fashion.  If you’re evaluating vendors with halos, realize that they exist for a reason and then go understand why.  Are those drivers relevant — e.g., buying HR from Dave Duffield seems a reasonable idea.  Or are they spurious —  e.g., does it really matter that one board member invested in Facebook?  Or are they actually negative — e.g., if the company has raised $300M how crazy is their burn rate, what risk does that put on the business, and how focused will they stay on you as a customer and your problem as a market?
  •  Stay focused on your problem.  I encourage anyone buying technology to write down their business problems and high-level technology requirements before reaching out to vendors.  Hyped vendors are skilled at “changing the playing field” and trained to turn their vision into your (new) requirements.  While there certainly are cases where vendors can point out valid new requirements, you should periodically step back and do a sanity check:  are you still focused on your problem or have you been incrementally moved to a different, or greatly expanded one.  Vision is nice, but you won’t be around solve tomorrow’s problems if you can’t solve today’s.
  • Understand that industry analysts are often followers, not leaders.  If a vendor is showing you analyst support for their strategy, you need to figure out if the analyst is endorsing the strategy because of the strategy’s merits or because of the vendor’s claimed prior performance.  The latter is the definition of a halo effect and in a world full of private startups where high-quality analysts are in short supply, it’s easy to find “research” that effectively says nothing more than “this vendor is a leader because they say they’re performing really well and/or they’ve raised a lot of money.” That doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know already and isn’t actually an independent source of information.  They are often simply amplifiers of the hype you’re already hearing.
  • Enjoy the sizzle; buy the steak.  Hype king Domo paid Alec Baldwin to make some (pretty pathetic) would-be viral videos and had Billy Beane, Flo Rida, Ludacris, and Marshawn Lynch at their user conference.  As I often say, behind any “marketing genius” is an enormous marketing budget, and that’s all you’re seeing — venture capital being directly converted into hype.  Heck, let them buy you a ticket to the show and have a great time.  Just don’t buy the software because of it — or because of the ability to invest more money in hand-grooming a handful of big-name references.  Look to meet customers like you, who have spent what you want to spend, and see if they’re happy and successful.  Don’t get handled into meeting other customers only at pre-arranged meetings.  Walk the floor and talk to regular people.  Find out how many are there for the show, or because they’re actual successful users of the software.
  • Dive into detail on the proposed solution.  Hyped vendors will often try to gloss over solutions and sell you the hype (e.g., “of course we can solve your problem, we’ve got the most logos, Gartner says we’re the leader, there’s an app for that.”)  What you need is a vendor who will listen to your problem, discuss it with you intelligently, and provide realistic estimates on what it takes to solve it.  The more willing they are to do that, the better off you are.  The more they keep talking about the founder’s escape from communism, the pedigree of their investors, their recent press coverage, or the amount of capital they’ve raised, the more likely you are to end up high and dry.  People interested in solving your problem will want to talk about your problem.
  • Beware the second-worst outcome:  the backwater.  Because hyped vendors are actually serving Sand Hill Road and/or Wall Street more than their customers, they pitch broad visions and huge markets in order to sustain the halo.  For a customer, that can be disastrous because the vendor may view the customer’s problems as simply another lily pad to jump off on the path to success.  The second-worst outcome is when you buy a solution and then vendor takes your money and invests it in solving other problems.  As a customer, you don’t want to marry your vendor’s fling.  You want to marry their core.  For startups, the pattern is typically over-expansion into too many things, getting in trouble, and then retracting hard back into the core, abandoning customers of the new, broader initiatives.  The second-worst outcome is when you get this alignment wrong and end up in a backwater or formerly-strategic area of your supplier’s strategy.
  • Avoid the worst outcome:  no there there.  Once in awhile, there is no “there there” behind some very hyped companies despite great individual investors, great VCs, strategic alliances, and a previously experienced team.  Perhaps the technology vision doesn’t pan out, or the company switches strategies (“pivots”) too often.  Perhaps the company just got too focused on its hype and not on it customers.  But the worst outcome, while somewhat rare, is when a company doesn’t solve its advertised problem. They may have a great story, a sexy demo, and some smart people — but what they lack is a core of satisfied customers solving the problem the company talks about.  In EPM, with due respect and in my humble opinion, Tidemark fell into this category, prior to what it called a “growth investment” and what sure seemed to me like a (fire) sale, to Marlin Equity Partners.  Customers need to watch out for these no-there-there situations and the best way to do that is taking strong dose of caveat emptor with a nose for “if it sounds too good to be true, then it might well possibly be.”