Category Archives: Startups

Important Subtleties in Calculating Quarterly, Annual, and ATR-based Churn Rates

This post won’t save your life, or your company.  But it might save you a few precious hours at 2:00 AM if you’re working on your company’s SaaS metrics and can’t foot your quarterly and annual churn rates while preparing a board or investor deck.

The generic issue is a lot of SaaS metrics gurus define metrics in a generic way using “periods” without paying attention to some subtleties that can arise in calculating these metrics for a quarter vs. a year.  The specific issue is, if you do what many people do, that your quarterly and annual churn rates won’t foot — i.e., the sum of your quarterly churn rates won’t equal your annual churn rate.

Here’s an example to show why.

saas churn subtle

If I asked you to calculate the annual churn rate in the above example, virtually everyone would get it correct.  You’d look at the rightmost column, see that 2018 started with 10,000 in ARR, see that there were 1,250 dollars of churn on the year, divide 1,250 by 10,000 and get 12.5%.  Simple, huh?

However, if I hid the last column, and then asked you to calculate quarterly churn rates, you might come up with churn rate 1, thinking churn rate = period churn / starting period ARR.  You might then multiply by 4 to annualize the quarterly rates and make them more meaningful.  Then, if I asked you to add an annual column, you’d sum the quarterly (non-annualized) rates for the annual churn and either average the annualized quarterly rates or simply gray-out the box as I did because it’s redundant [1].

You’d then pause, swear, and double-check the sheet for errors because the sum of your quarterly rates (10.2%) doesn’t equal your annual rate (12.5%).

What’s going on?  The trap is thinking churn rate = period churn / starting period ARR.

That works in a world of one-year contracts when you look at churn on an annual basis (every contract in the starting ARR base of 10,000 faces renewal at some point during the year), but it breaks on a quarterly basis.  Why?  Because starting ARR is increasing every quarter due to new sales that aren’t in the renewal base for the year.  This depresses your churn rates relative to churn rate 2, which defines quarterly churn as churn in the quarter divided by starting-year ARR.  When you use churn rate 2, the sum of the quarterly rates equals the annual rate, so you can mail out that board deck and go back to bed [2].

Available to Renew (ATR-based) Churn Rates

While we’re warmed up, let’s have some more fun.  If you’ve worked in enterprise software for more than a year, you’ll know that the 10,000 dollars of starting ARR is most certainly not distributed evenly across quarters:  enterprise software sales are almost always backloaded, ergo enterprise software renewals follow the same pattern.

So if we want more accurate [3] quarterly churn rates, shouldn’t we do the extra work, figure out how much ARR we have available to renew (ATR) in each quarter, and then measure churn rates on an ATR basis?  Why not!

Let’s first look at an example, that shows available to renew (ATR) split in a realistic, backloaded way across quarters [4].

ATR churn 1

In some sense, ATR churn rates are cleaner because you’re making fewer implicit assumptions:  here’s what was up for renewal and here’s what we got (or lost).  While ATR rates get complicated fast in a world of multi-year deals, for today, we’ll stay in a world of purely one-year contracts.

Even in that world, however, a potential footing issue emerges.  If I calculate annual ATR churn by looking at annual churn vs. starting ARR, I get the correct answer of 12.5%.  However, if I try to average my quarterly rates, I get a different answer of 13.7%, which I put in red because it’s incorrect.

Quiz:  what’s going on?

Hint:  let me show the ATR distributed in a crazy way to demonstrate the problem more clearly.

atr churn 2

The issue is you can’t get the annual rate by averaging the quarterly ATR rates because the ATR is not evenly distributed.  By using the crazy distribution above, you can see this more clearly because the (unweighted) average of the four quarterly rates is 53.6%, pulled way up by the two quarters with 100% churn rates.  The correct way to foot this is to instead use a weighted average, weighting on an ATR basis.  When you do that (supporting calculations in grey), the average then foots to the correct annual number.

# # #

Notes:

[1] The sum of the quarterly rates (A, B, C, D) will always equal the average of the annualized quarterly rates because (4A+4B+4C+4D)/4 = A+B+C+D.

[2] I won’t go so far as to say that churn rate 1 is “incorrect” while churn rate 2 is “correct.”  Churn rate 1 is simple and gives you what you asked for “period churn / starting period ARR.”  (You just need to realize that the your quarterly rates will only sum to your annual rate if you have zero new sales and ergo you should calculate the annual rate off the yearly churn and starting ARR.)  Churn rate 2 is somewhat more complicated.  If you live in a world of purely one-year contracts, I’d recommend churn rate 2.  But in a world of mixed one- and multi-year contracts, then lots of contracts are in starting period ARR aren’t in the renewal base for the year, so why would I exclude only some of them (i.e,. those signed in the year) as opposed to others.

[3] Dividing by the whole ARR base basically assumes that the base renews evenly across quarters.  Showing churn rates based on available-to-renew (ATR) is more accurate but becomes complicated quickly in a world of mixed, multi-year contracts of different duration (where you will need to annualize the rates on multi-year contracts and then blend the average to get a single, meaningful, annualized rate).  In this post, we’ll assume a world of exclusively one-year contracts, which sidesteps that issue.

[4] ATR is normally backloaded because enterprise sales are normally backloaded.  Here the linearity is 15%, 17.5%, 25%, 42.5% or a 32.5/67.5 split across the first vs. second half of the year (which is pretty backloaded even for enterprise software).

[5] The spreadsheet I used is available here if you want to play with it.

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.

Bookings vs. Billings in a SaaS Company

Financial analysts speak a lot about “billings” in a public SaaS companies, but in private VC-backed SaaS companies, you rarely hear discussion of this metric.  In this post, we’ll use a model of a private SaaS company (where we know all the internal metrics), to show how financial analysts use rules of thumb to estimate and/or impute internal SaaS metrics using external ones – and to see what can go wrong in that process.

For reference, here’s an example of sell-side financial analyst research on a public SaaS company that talks about billings [1].

saas1-zen

Let’s start with a quick model that builds up a SaaS company from scratch [1].  To simplify the model we assume all deals (both new and renewal) are for one year only and are booked on the last day of the quarter (so zero revenue is ever recognized in-quarter from a deal).  This also means next-quarter’s revenue is this-quarter’s ending annual recurring revenue (ARR) divided by 4.

saas13

Available to renew (ATR) is total subscription bookings (new and renewal) from four quarters prior.  Renew bookings are ATR * (1 – churn rate).  The trickiest part of this model is the deferred revenue (DR) waterfall where we need to remember that the total deferred revenue balance is the sum of DR leftover from the current and the prior three quarters.

If you’re not convinced the model is working and/or want to play with it, you can download it, then see how things work by setting some drivers to boundary conditions (e.g., churn to 0%, QoQ sales growth to 0, or setting starting ARR to some fixed number [2]).

 The Fun Part:  Imputing Internal Metrics from External Ones

Now that we know what’s going on the inside, let’s look in from the outside [3]:

  • All public SaaS companies release subscription revenues [4]
  • All public SaaS companies release deferred revenues (i.e., on the balance sheet)
  • Few SaaS companies directly release ARR
  • Few SaaS companies release ATR churn rates, favoring cohort retention rates where upsell both masks and typically exceeds churn [5]

It wasn’t that long ago when a key reason for moving towards the SaaS business model was that SaaS smoothed revenues relative to the all-up-front, lumpy on-premises model.  If we could smooth out some of that volatility then we could present better software companies to Wall Street.  So the industry did [6], and the result?  Wall Street immediately sought a way to look through the smoothing and see what’s really going on in the inherently lumpy, backloaded world of enterprise software sales.

Enter billings, the best answer they could find to do this.  Billings is defined as revenue plus change in deferred revenue for a period.  Conceptually, when a SaaS order with a one-year prepayment term is signed, 100% of it goes to deferred revenue and is burned down 1/12th every month after that.  To make it simple, imagine a SaaS company sells nothing in a quarter:  revenue will burn down by 1/4th of starting deferred revenue [7] and the change in deferred revenue will equal revenue – thus revenue plus change in deferred revenue equals zero.  Now imagine the company took an order for $50K on the last day of the quarter.  Revenue from that order will be $0, change in deferred will be +$50K, implying new sales of $50K [8].

Eureka!  We can see inside the SaaS machine.  But we can’t.

Limitations of Billings as a SaaS Metric

If you want to know what investors really care about when it comes to SaaS metrics, ask the VC and PE folks who get to see everything and don’t have to impute outside-in.  They care about

Of those, public company investors only get a clear look at subscription gross margins and the customer acquisition cost (CAC) ratio.  So, looking outside-in, you can figure out how efficiency a company runs its SaaS service and how efficiently it acquires customers [9].

But you typically can’t get a handle on churn, so you can’t calculate LTV/CAC or CAC Payback Period.  Published cohort growth, however, can give you comfort around potential churn issues.

But you can’t get a precise handle on sales growth – and that’s a huge issue as sales growth is the number one driver of SaaS company valuation [10].  That’s where billings comes into play.  Billings isn’t perfect because it shows what I call “total subscription bookings” (new ARR bookings plus renewal bookings) [11], so we can’t tell the difference between a good sales and weak renewals quarter and a bad sales and a good renewals quarter.

Moreover, billings has two other key weaknesses as a metric:

  • Billings is dependent on prepaid contract duration
  • Companies can defer processing orders (e.g., during crunch time at quarter’s end, particularly if they are already at plan) thus making them invisible even from a billings perspective [12]

Let’s examine how billings depends on contract duration.  Imagine it’s the last day of new SaaS company’s first quarter.  The customer offers to pay the company:

  • 100 units for a prepaid one-year subscription
  • 200 units for a prepaid two-year subscription
  • 300 units for a prepaid three-year subscription

From an ARR perspective, each of the three possible structures represents 100 units of ARR [13].  However, from a deferred revenue perspective, they look like 100, 200, 300 units, respectively.  Worse yet, looking solely at deferred revenue at the end of the quarter, you can’t know if 300 units represents three 100-unit one-year prepay customers or a single 100-unit ARR customer who’s done a three-year prepay.

In fact, when I was at Salesforce we had the opposite thing happen.  Small and medium businesses were having a tough time in 2012 and many customers who’d historically renewed on one-year payment cycles started asking for bi-annual payments.  Lacking enough controls around a rarely-used payment option, a small wave of customers asked for and got these terms.  They were happy customers.  They were renewing their contracts, but from a deferred revenue perspective, suddenly someone who looked like 100 units of deferred revenue for an end-of-quarter renewal suddenly looked 50.  When Wall St. saw the resultant less-than-expected deferred revenue (and ergo less-than-expected billings), they assumed it meant slower new sales.  In fact, it meant easier payment terms on renewals – a misread on the business situation made possible by the limitations of the metric.

This issue only gets more complex when a company is enabling some varying mix of one through five year deals combined with partial up-front payments (e.g., a five-year contract with years 1-3 paid up front, but years 4 and 5 paid annually).  This starts to make it really hard to know what’s in deferred revenue and to try and use billings as a metric.

Let’s close with an excerpt from the Zuora S-1 on billings that echoes many of the points I’ve made above.

saas3

Notes

[1] Source:  William Blair, Inc., Zendesk Strong Start to 2018 by Bhavan Suri.

[2] Even though it’s not labelled as a driver and will break the renewals calculations, implicitly assuming all of it renews one year later (and is not spread over quarters in anyway).

[3] I’m not a financial analyst so I’m not the best person to declare which metrics are most typically released by public companies, so my data is somewhat anecdotal.  Since I do try to read interesting S-1s as they go by, I’m probably biased towards companies that have recently filed to go public.

[4] As distinct from services revenues.

[5] Sometimes, however, those rates are survivor biased.

[6] And it worked to the extent that from a valuation perspective, a dollar of SaaS revenue is equivalent to $2 to $4 of on-premises revenue.  Because it’s less volatile, SaaS revenue is more valuable than on-premises revenue.

[7] Provided no customers expire before the last day of the quarter

[8] Now imagine that order happens on some day other than the last day of the quarter.  Some piece, X, will be taken as revenue during the quarter and 50 – X will show up in deferred revenue.  So revenue plus change in deferred revenue = it’s baseline + X + 50 – X = baseline + 50.

[9] Though not with the same clarity VCs can see it — VCs can see composition of new ARR (upsell vs. new business) and sales customers (new customer acquisition vs. customer success) and thus can create more precise metrics.  For example, a company that has a solid overall CAC ratio may be revealed to have expensive new business acquisition costs offset by high, low-cost upsell.

[10] You can see subscription revenue growth, but that is smoothed/damped, and we want a faster way to get the equivalent of New ARR growth – what has sales done for us lately?

[11] It is useful from a cash forecasting perspective because all those subscription billings should be collectible within 30-60 days.

[12] Moving the deferred revenue impact of one or more orders from Q(n) to Q(n+1) in what we might have called “backlogging” back in the day.  While revenue is unaffected in the SaaS case, the DR picture looks different as a backlogged order won’t appear in DR until the end of Q(n+1) and then at 75, not 100, units.

[13] Normally, in real life, they would ask a small discount in return for the prepay, e.g., offer 190 for two years or 270 for three years.  I’ll ignore that for now to keep it simple.

The Leaky Bucket, Net New ARR, and the SaaS Growth Efficiency Index

My ears always perk up when I hear someone say “net new ARR” — because I’m trying to figure out which, of typically two, ways they are using the term:

  • To mean ARR from net new customers, in which case, I don’t know why they need the word “net” in there.  I call this new business ARR (sometimes abbreviated to newbiz ARR), and we’ll discuss this more down below.
  • To mean net change in ARR during a period, meaning for example, if you sold $2,000K of new ARR and churned $400K during a given quarter, that net new ARR would be $1,600K.  This is the correct way to use this term.

Let’s do a quick review of what I call leaky bucket analysis.  Think of a SaaS company as a leaky bucket full of ARR.

  • Every quarter, sales dumps new ARR into the bucket.
  • Every quarter, customer success does its best to keep water from leaking out.

Net new ARR is the change in the water level of the bucket.  Is it a useful metric?  Yes and no.  On the yes side:

  • Sometimes it’s all you get.  For public companies that either release (or where analysts impute) ARR, it’s all you get.  You can’t see the full leaky bucket analysis.
  • It’s useful for measuring overall growth efficiency with metrics like cash burn per dollar of net new ARR or S&M expense per dollar of net new ARR.  Recall that customer acquisition cost (CAC) focuses only on sales efficiency and won’t detect the situation where it’s cheap to add new ARR only to have it immediately leak out.

If I were to define an overall SaaS growth efficiency index (GEI), I wouldn’t do it the way Zuora does (which is effectively an extra-loaded CAC), I would define it as:

Growth efficiency index = -1 * (cashflow from operations) / (net new ARR)

In English, how much cash are you burning to generate a dollar of net new ARR.  I like this because it’s very macro.  I don’t care if you’re burning cash as a result of inefficient sales, high churn, big professional services losses, or high R&D investment.  I just want to know how much cash you’re burning to make the water level move up by one dollar.

So we can see already that net new ARR is already a useful metric, if a sometimes confused term.  However, on the no side, here’s what I don’t like about it.

  • Like any compound metric, as they say at French railroad crossings, un train peut en cacher un autre (one train can hide another).  This means that while net new ARR can highlight a problem you won’t immediately know where to go fix it — is weak net new ARR driven by a sales problem (poor new ARR), a product-driven churn problem, a customer-success-driven churn problem, or all three?

Finally, let’s end this post by taking a look and then a deeper look at the SaaS leaky bucket and how I think it’s best presented.

leaky1

For example, above, you can quickly see that a massive 167% year-over-year increase in churn ARR was the cause for weak 1Q17 net new ARR.  While this format is clear and simple, one disadvantage of this simpler format is that it hides the difference between new ARR from new customers (newbiz ARR) and new ARR from existing customers (upsell ARR).  Since that can be an important distinction (as struggling sales teams often over-rely on sales to existing customers), this slightly more complex form breaks that out as well.

leaky2

In addition to breaking out new ARR into its two sub-types, this format adds three rows of percentages, the most important of which is upsell % of new ARR, which shows to what extent your new ARR is coming from existing versus new customers.  While the “correct” value will vary as a function of your market, your business model, and your evolutionary phase, I generally believe that figures below 20% indicate that you may be failing to adequately monetize your installed base and figures above 40% indicate that you are not getting enough new business and the sales force may be too huddled around existing customers.

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.