Category Archives: Startups

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?

How to Walk From a Deal

Like it or not, once in a while it’s appropriate for a vendor to walk away from a prospective deal.  Why might you want to do that?

  • You think your product is a poor fit with the customer’s needs.
  • You believe there is insufficient budget to achieve success on the project.
  • You feel like the deal is wired for another vendor, i.e., you think you are column fodder in the evaluation process.
  • You (and all your fellow reps) are fully booked with other more qualified opportunities.

One day I should probably write a post on how to make the critical stay vs. walk decision.  But today, I want to focus on something downstream of that — I want to focus on how to successfully walk from a deal once you’ve decided that it’s necessary to do so.

A good walk-away process should pass three tests in the mind of the customer.

  1. The customer should feel like they were treated respectfully.
  2. In the future, the customer should remain interested in buying from both you individually and your company, should circumstances be different.  (Ideally, they will be more interested in buying from you because you walked.)
  3. The customer should feel like the decision was not unilateral.

Given these three tests, here a few ways NOT to walk away from an opportunity.

  • Calling five minutes before a meeting to say you’re too busy to work on the opportunity because you don’t think it’s qualified anyway.
  • Leaving a voicemail in the middle of the night saying that you’ve decided to stop pursuing the opportunity.
  • Telling the customer their problem is too simple and/or their people are not sufficiently sophisticated to use your software.
  • Emailing to say that they are running a rigged process in which you can no longer, in good conscience, compete.

And there are lots more.  In short, there are a lot of WRONG ways to walk from an opportunity.  The right way involves doing the following things:

  • Bring it up quickly.  Once you realize there’s good reason to walk, you immediately get in touch with the customer.
  • Get the key contact on the phone and saying you’re considering dropping out and would welcome the chance to explain why.
  • Have a meeting or call to discuss the reasons you believe you should no longer participate in the sales cycle.
  • Ask for their feedback on those reasons.
  • Unless you hear otherwise in their feedback, thank them for their time.
  • Check back in later (e.g., in a few months) to ask how things turned out.

Amazingly, a lot of salespeople are afraid to walk away correctly.  So they procrastinate and then, suddenly, at the 11th hour, burst out saying “we’re not coming.”  This leaves a terrible impression on the customer and denies them the chance to correct potential misunderstandings in the logic that led to the walk-away decision.

My company has won deals by walking away in the right fashion.  To be clear, I am not advocating bluffing; when you say you’re walking you need to be prepared to do so.  But I have seen cases where the walk-away attempt revealed either a misunderstanding of the problem or the fact that no other vendor was willing to tell the customer what they didn’t want to hear.

I’ve seen cases where we get invited back six to eighteen months later and then win the deal.

I’ve also seen cases where the rep mangles the walk-away process, the customer goes ballistic and I, as CEO, need to jump in, eat a large piece of humble pie, figure out what’s going on, and assign a new rep to the deal.  We’ve won a few of these as well.

A fair number of salespeople like to brag about walking from deals, yet relatively few are mindful in how they do it.  Those who are mindful, and who follow the rules and steps above, will sell more in both the short- and long-term than those who are not.

My SaaStr Talk Abstract: 10 Non-Obvious Things About Scaling SaaS

In an effort to promote my upcoming presentation at SaaStr 2018, which is currently on the agenda for Wednesday, February 7th at 9:00 AM in Studio C, I thought I’d do a quick post sharing what I’ll be covering in the presentation, officially titled, “The Best of Kellblog:  10 Non-Obvious Things About Scaling SaaS.”

Before jumping in, let me say that I had a wonderful time at SaaStr 2017, including participating on a great panel with Greg Schott of MuleSoft and Kathryn Minshew of The Muse hosted by Stacey Epstein of Zinc that discussed the CEO’s role in marketing.  There is a video and transcript of that great panel here.

saastr

For SaaStr 2018, I’m getting my own session and I love the title that the folks at SaaStr came up with because I love the non-obvious.  So here they are …

The 10 Non-Obvious Things About Scaling a SaaS Business

1. You must run your company around ARR.  Which this may sound obvious, you’d be surprised by how many people either still don’t or, worse yet, think they do and don’t.  Learn my one-question test to tell the difference.

2.  SaaS metrics are way more subtle than meets the eye.  Too many people sling around words without knowing what they mean or thinking about the underlying definitions.  I’ll provide a few examples of how fast things can unravel when you do this and how to approach SaaS metrics in general.

3.  Former public company SaaS CFOs may not get private company SaaS metrics.  One day I met with the CFO of a public company whose firm had just been taken private and he had dozens of questions about SaaS metrics.  It had never occurred to me before, but when your job is to talk with public investors who only see a limited set of outside-in metrics, you may not develop fluency in the internal SaaS metrics that so obsess VC and PE investors.

4.  Multi-year deals make sense in certain situations.  While many purists would fight me to the death on this, there are pros and cons to multi-year deals and circumstances where they make good sense.  I’ll explain how I think about this and the one equation I use to make the call.

5.  Bookings is not a four-letter word.  While you need to be careful where and when you use the B-word in polite SaaS company, there is a time and place to measure and discuss bookings.  I’ll explain when that is and how to define bookings the right way.

6.  Renewals and satisfaction are more loosely correlated than you might think.  If you think your customers are all delighted because they’re renewing, then think again.  Unhappy customer sometimes renew and happy ones don’t.  We’ll discuss why that happens and while renewal rates are often a reasonable proxy for customer satisfaction, why you should also measure customer satisfaction using NPS, and present a smart way to do so.

7.  You can’t analyze churn by analyzing churn.  To understand why customers churn, too many companies grab a list of all the folks who churned in the past year and start doing research and interviews.  There’s a big fallacy in this approach.  We’ll discuss the right way to think about and analyze this problem.

8.  Finding your own hunter/farmer metaphor is hard.  Boards hate double compensation and love splitting renewals from new business.  But what about upsell?  Which model is right for you?  Should you have hunters and farmers?   Hunters in a zoo?  Farmers with shotguns?  An autonomous collective?  We’ll discuss which models and metaphors work, when.

9.  You don’t have to lose money on services.  Subsidizing ARR via free or low-cost services seems a good idea and many SaaS companies do it.  But it’s hell on blended gross margins, burns cash, and can destroy your budding partner ecosystem.  We’ll discuss where and when it makes sense to lose money on services — and when it doesn’t.

10.  No matter what your board says, you don’t have to sacrifice early team members on the altar of experienced talent.  While rapidly growing a business will push people out of their comfort zones and require you to build a team that’s a mix of veterans and up-and-comers, with a bit creativity and caring you don’t have to lose the latter to gain the former.

I hope this provides you with a nice and enticing sample of what we’ll be covering — and I look forward to seeing you there.

Using Time-Based Close Rates to Align Marketing Budgets with Sales Targets

This post builds on my prior post, Win Rates, Close Rates, and Milestone vs. Flow Analysis.  In it, I will take the ideas in that post, expand on them a bit, and then apply them to difficult problem of ensuring you have enough marketing demand generation budget to hit your sales targets.

Let’s pretend it’s 4Q17 and that we need to model 2018 sales based solely on marketing-generated SALs (sales accepted leads).  To do that, we need to decompose our close rate over time because knowing we eventually close 40% of SALs is less useful than knowing the typical timing in how they close over time.

decompose closed

In a perfect world, we’d have 6-8 cohorts, not two.  The goal is to produce the last line, the average of the in-quarter, first-quarter, second-quarter, and so on close rates for a SAL.

Using these time-based average close rates, we can build a waterfall that takes historical, forecast (for the current quarter), and planned 2018 SALs and converts them into deals.

waterfall

This analysis suggests that with the currently planned SALs you can support an ARR number of $16.35M.  If sales needs more than that, you either need to assume an improvement in close rates or an increase in SAL generation.

Once you’ve established the required number of SALs, you can then back into a total demand-generation budget by knowing your cost/SAL, and then building out a marketing mix of programs (each with their own cost/SAL) that generates the requisite SALs at the targeted overall cost.

Win Rates, Close Rates and Milestone vs. Flow Analysis

Hey, what’s your win rate?

It’s another seemingly simple question.  But, like most SaaS metrics, when you dig deeper you find it’s not.  In this post we’ll take a look at how to calculate win rates and use win rates to introduce the broader concept of milestone vs. flow analysis that applies to conversion rates across the entire sales funnel.

Let’s start with some assumptions.  Once an opportunity is accepted by sales (known as a sales-accepted opportunity, or SAL), it eventually will end up in one of three terminal states:

  • Won
  • Lost
  • Other (derailed, no decision)

Some people don’t like “other” and insist that opportunities should be exclusively either won or lost and that other is an unnecessary form of lost which should be tracked with a lost reason code as opposed to its own state.  I prefer to keep other, and call it derailed, because a competitive loss is conceptually different from a project cancellation, major delay, loss of sponsor, or a company acquisition that halts the project.  Whether you want to call it other, no decision, or derailed, I think having a third terminal state is warranted from first principles.  However, it can make things complicated.

For example, you’ll need to calculate win rates two ways:

  • Win rate, narrow = wins / (wins + losses)
  • Win rate, broad = wins / (wins + losses + derails)

Your narrow win rate tells you how good you are at beating the competition.  Your broad rates tells you how good you are at closing deals (that come to a terminal state).

Narrow win rate alone can be misleading.  If I told you a company had a 66% win rate, you might be tempted to say “time to add more salespeople and scale this thing up.”  If I told you they got the 66% win rate by derailing 94 out of every 100 opportunities it generated, won 4, and lost the other 2, then you’d say “not so fast.”  This, of course, would show up in the broad win rate of 4%.

This brings up the important question of timing.  Both these win rate calculations ignore deals that push out of a quarter.  So another degenerate case is a situation where you win 4, lose 2, derail 4, and push 90 opportunities.  In this case, narrow win rate = 66% and broad win rate = 40%.  Neither is shining a light on the problem (which, if it happens continuously, I call a rolling hairball problem.)

The issue here is thus far we’ve been performing what I call a milestone analysis.  In effect, we put observers by the side of the road at various milestones (created, won, lost, derailed) and ask them to count the number opportunities that pass by each quarter.  The issue, especially with companies that have long sales cycles, is that you have no idea of progression.  You don’t know if the opportunities that passed “win” this quarter came from the opportunities that passed “created” this quarter, or if they came from last quarter, the quarter before that, or even earlier.

Milestone analysis has two key advantages

  • It’s easy — you just need to count opportunities passing milestones
  • It’s instant — you don’t have to wait to see how things play out to generate answers

The big disadvantage is it can be misleading, because the opportunities hitting a terminal state this quarter were generated in many different time periods.  For a company with an average 9 month sales cycle, the opportunities hitting a terminal state in quarter N, were generated primarily in quarter N-3, but with some coming in quarters N-2 and N-1 and some coming in quarters N-4 and N-5.  Across that period very little was constant, for example, marketing programs and messages changed.  So a marketing effectiveness analysis would be very difficult when approached this way.

For those sorts of questions, I think it’s far better to do a cohort-based analysis, which I call a flow analysis.  Instead of looking at all the opportunities that hit a terminal state in a given time period, you go back in time, grab a cohort of opportunities (e.g., all those generated in 4Q16) and then see how they play out over time.  You go with the flow.

For marketing programs effectiveness, this is the only way to do it.  Instead of a time-based cohort, you’d take a programs-based cohort (e.g., all the opportunities generated by marketing program X), see how they play out, and then compare various programs in terms of effectiveness.

The big downside of flow analysis is you end up analyzing ancient history.  For example, if you have a 9 month average sales cycle with a wide distribution around the mean, you may need to wait 15-18 months before the vast majority of the opportunities hit a terminal state.  If you analyze too early, too many opportunities are still open.  But if you put off analysis then you may get important information, but too late.

You can compress the time window by analyzing programs effectiveness not to sales outcomes but to important steps along the funnel.  That way you could compare two programs on the basis of their ability to generate MQLs or SALs, but you still wouldn’t know whether and at what relative rate they generate actual customers.  So you could end up doubling down on a program that generates a lot of interest, but not a lot of deals.

Back to our original topic, the same concept comes up in analyzing win rates.  Regardless of which win rate you’re calculating, at most companies you’re calculating it on a milestone basis.  I find milestone-based win rates more volatile and less accurate that a flow-based SAL-to-close rate.  For example, if I were building a marketing funnel to determine how many deals I need to hit next year’s number, I’d want to use a SAL-to-close rate, not a win rate, to do so.  Why?  SAL-to-close rates:

  • Are less volatile because they’re damped by using long periods of time.
  • Are more accurate because they actually tracking what you care about — if I get 100 opportunities, how many close within a given time period.
  • Automatically factor in derails and slips (the former are ignored in the narrow win rate and the latter ignored in both the narrow and broad win rates).

Let’s look at an example.  Here’s a chart that tracks 20 opportunities, 10 generated in 1Q17 and 10 generated in 2Q17, through their entire lifetime to a terminal stage.

oppty tracking

In reality things are a lot more complicated than this picture because you have opportunities still being generated in 3Q17 through 4Q18 and you’ll have opportunities that are still in play generated in numerous quarters before 1Q17.  But to keep things simple, let’s just analyze this little slice of the world.  Let’s do a milestone-based win/loss analysis.

win-loss

First, you can see the milestone-based win/loss rates bounce around a lot.  Here it’s due in part due to law of small numbers, but I do see similar volatility in real life — in my experience win rates bounce within a fairly broad zone — so I think it’s a real issue.  Regardless of that, what’s indisputable is that in this example, this is how things will look to the milestone-based win/loss analyzer.  Not a very clear picture — and a lot to panic about in 4Q17.

Let’s look at what a flow-based cohort analysis produces.

cohort1

In this case, we analyze the cohort of opportunities generated in the year-ago quarter.  Since we only generate opportunities in two quarters, 1Q17 and 2Q17, we only have two cohorts to analyze, and we get only two sets of numbers.  The thin blue box shows in opportunity tracking chart shows the data summarized in the 1Q18 column and the thin orange box shows the data for the 2Q18 column.  Both boxes depict how 3 opportunities in each cohort are still open at the end of the analysis period (imagine you did the 1Q18 analysis in 1Q18) and haven’t come to final resolution.  The cohorts both produce a 50% narrow win rate, a 43% vs. 29% broad win rate, and a 30% vs. 20% close rate.  How good are these numbers?

Well, in our example, we have the luxury of finding the true rates by letting the six open opportunities close out over time.  By doing a flow-based analysis in 4Q18 of the 1H17 cohort, we can see that our true narrow win rate is 57%, our true broad win rate is 40%, and our close rate is also 40% (which, once everything has arrived at a terminal state, is definitionally identical to the broad win rate).

cohort7

Hopefully this post has helped you think about your funnel differently by introducing the concept of milestone- vs. flow-based analysis and by demonstrating how the same business situation results in a very different rates depending on both the choice of win rate and analysis type.

Please note that the math in this example backed me into a 40% close rate which is about double what I believe is the benchmark in enterprise software — I think 20 to 25% is a more normal range. 

 

Don’t Let Product Management Turn Into “The Roadmap Guys”

At many enterprise software companies product management (PM) ends up defaulting into a role that I can’t stand:  The Roadmap Guys*.

Like a restaurant with one item on the menu, the company defaults into ordering one thing from product management:  a roadmap pitch.

  • “The VP of PM is in Boston and Providence this week, can she visit some customers and do a few roadmap presentations?”
  • “Hey, there’s a local user group in NY this week; can PM do a roadmap pitch?”
  • “There’s a big customer in the executive briefing center today; can the PM do a roadmap?”
  • “As part of our sales cycle with prospect X, we’d love to get PM in to discuss the roadmap.”
  • “We’ve got a SAS day with Gartner next week, can PM come in a present the roadmap?”

You hear it all the time.  And I hate it.  Why?

From a sales perspective, roadmap presentations are the anti-sales pitch:  a well organized presentation of all the things your products don’t do.  Great, let’s spend lots of time talking about that.

From a competitive perspective, you’re broadcasting your plans.  If you’re presenting roadmap to every prospect who comes through the briefing center and at every local user group meeting, your competition is going to learn your roadmap, and fast.  Then they can copy it and/or blunt it.

But what irks me the most is what happens from a product management perspective:  you turn PM into “the talking guys” instead of “the listening guys.”  Given enough time, PM starts to view itself as the folks who show up and pitch roadmaps.

But that’s not their job.

PM should be the listening folks, not the talking folks.  Just like sales, PM should remember the adage:  we have two ears and one mouth; use them in proportion.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we changed the five previous bullets as follows?

  • “The VP of PM is in Boston and Providence this week, can she visit some customers and observe how people actually use the product?”
  • “Hey, there’s a local user group in NY this week; can PM break off a small focus group to ask customers about how they use the product?”
  • “There’s a big customer in the executive briefing center today; can PM come in and interview them about their impressions on evaluating the product?”
  • “As part of our sales cycle with prospect X, we’d love to get PM in to discuss what specifically they are trying to accomplish and how the product can do that?”
  • “We’ve got a SAS day with Gartner next week, can PM come in and hear from Gartner about what they’re seeing in the market and in their interactions with customers?”

So every time you hear the word “roadmap” in the same sentence as “product management,” stop, pause, and think of a better way to use the PM team.  Sure, there are certainly times when a roadmap presentation is in order.  But don’t default to it.  Keep your PM team listening instead of talking.

# # #

* I’m using “guys” here in a gender-neutral sense like “folks.”

Kellblog (Dave Kellogg) Featured on the Official SaaStr Podcast

Just a quick post to highlight the fact that last week I was the featured guest on Episode 142 of the Official SaaStr  podcast produced by the SaaStr organization run by Jason Lemkin and interviewed by a delightful young Englishman named Harry Stebbings (who also runs his own podcast entitled The Twenty Minute VC).

In the 31-minute episode — which Harry very nicely says was “probably one of his favorite interviews to record” — we cover a wide range of my favorite topics, including:

    • How I got introduced to SaaS, including my experience as an early customer of Salesforce in about 2003.
    • Challenges in scaling a software business, learned at BusinessObjects as we scaled from $30M to $1B in revenues, as well as at MarkLogic and Host Analytics.
    • My favorite SaaS metric.  If you had to pick one, I’d pick LTV/CAC.
    • Why simple churn is the best way to value the annuity of a SaaS business.
    • The loose coupling of customer satisfaction and renewal rates.
    • Why SaaS companies need to “chew gum and walk at the same time” when it comes to driving the mix of new and renewal business.
    • User-based vs. usage-based pricing in SaaS and how the latter can backfire in disincenting usage of the application.
    • My thoughts on bookings vs. ARR as a SaaS metric.  (Bookings is generally seen as a four-letter word!)
    • Why SaaS companies should make “the leaky bucket” the first four lines of their financial presentation.
    • Why I think it’s a win/win when a SaaS company gives a multi-year prepaid discount that’s less than its churn rate.
    • Why I view non-prepaid, multi-year deals as basically equivalent to renewals (just collected by finance/legal instead of customer success.)
    • Why it’s OK to “double compensate” sales and customer success on renewals and incidental upsells, and why it’s OK to pay sales on non-incidental upsells to existing customers (don’t put your farmer against someone else’s hunter).
    • Why you can’t analyze churn by analyzing churn and why you should have a rigorous taxonomy of churn.
    • My responses to Harry’s “quick fire” round questions.

You can listen to the podcast via iTunes, here.  Enjoy!