Category Archives: Startups

We’re Not Buddies:  Thoughts on Managers Too Preoccupied with Being Liked

I always cringe when I hear a young parent say something like, “Hey Buddy, don’t forget your toy shovel.”  I feel the same way when I hear managers call subordinates “buddy” or when I see managers who are, in general, too preoccupied with being liked.

One day I wish the toddler would reply:

You are not, in fact, my buddy, but my father.  I will have many buddies over the course of my life and you will not be one of them.  I have but one father and you are it.  If you’ve not checked lately, the roles of ‘father’ and ‘buddy’ are quite different and as my father you have a number of responsibilities that I’m counting on you to fulfill, so let’s please stop muddying up the waters with this ‘buddy’ business before it does irreparable harm to our budding parent/child relationship.

I’d love to see a buddy-dad reply to that one.

Buddy-managers make the same basic mistake as buddy-parents.  They don’t understand their role.  While it might sound nice to be buddies with all your team members, it’s just not possible.

  • Either you are going to be buddies, just one of the guys/gals, and treated as such when it comes to work matters.
  • Or you are going to be an authority figure, someone up the hierarchy and with some power distance as a result.

Hierarchies exist for a reason and love them, curse them, or both – virtually every company today is organized on some variation of a hierarchy.  Buddy-managers abdicate their responsibility to be leader in charge in favor of trying to be everybody’s friend and risk losing their leadership positions as a result.

Just as in sports, your coach is your coach and not your buddy.  Your coach may like you.  Your coach may get to know you really well.  After you’ve left the team you may one day end up buddies with your coach.  But a good coach won’t try to be your buddy and your coach at the same time.  Why?

  • It’s favoritist and ergo divisive – “Joe gets to play infield not because he’s better than I am, but because he’s the coach’s buddy.” Divisiveness can kill the team, so the coach can’t tolerate it – let alone foster it.  Managers should never have favorites or protégés for this reason.  Who’s my favorite salesperson?  The one who sold the most last quarter.  I love that guy or gal.
  • It impedes feedback. You don’t give feedback to someone you see as “a player” and “a buddy” in the same way.  If you’re like most people, you temper the latter.  If a coach does have buddies on the team, this does them a disservice – they don’t get the same level of feedback that everyone else does.  Buddies don’t react the same way to feedback either.  (Think:  “who the heck are you to say …”)
  • It complicates matters of discipline. It’s harder to make your “buddies” run 20 liners than it is to make your “players” do it.  It’s also divisive as the coach will invariably be seen as softer on his buddies when it comes to discipline.
  • It eliminates the healthy bit of fear that exists in every coach/player (and every boss/subordinate) relationship. Am I going to start today?  Will I get to play mid-field or will I be stuck on defense?  Am I going to get picked to work on the exciting new project?

Now, if you are a buddy-manager (or a manager who anoints protégés or has favorites), you have probably managed to convince yourself of the truth of a line of absolute bullshit that goes something like this.

“Yes, I have a favorite, but I’m harder on him/her than everyone else.”

You might believe it.  You might want to believe it.  Believe away.  But I can assure you of one thing:  no one else does.

Don’t have protégés.  Don’t have favorites.  Don’t be buddies with your employees.  I once went so far as to suggest that managers should view employees as AWUs (asexual worker units) which was a bit over the top.  But the spirit wasn’t entirely wrong.  We’re here to do a job and my role is leader.

If you want a friend, as they say in Washington, get a dog.

Manager is simply a different role than buddy.  Don’t try to be both at once.  And don’t try to “switch hats.”  If you’re going to work for a friend (and I have) then during the entire employment period, that person is your boss, not your friend.  Once you stop working for them, you can be friends again.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be nice, shouldn’t get to know about our employees lives and families, what makes them tick, how to adapt your style to theirs, what motivates them, and their personal and professional goals.  Of course you should do these things.  But don’t confuse why you’re doing them – in order to be a good manager, not to try and make a new buddy.

The saddest part about buddy-managers is they typically fail as both managers and buddies.  I want my employees to like and respect me because I’m driving results that benefit the company, the stock price, and the team’s careers.  Not because I bought four rounds of beers and yacked it up with the team for three hours.  Buddy-managers often end up with dysfunctional teams that fail to drive results.  The lack of results can drive fights that then break up the buddy relationships.

Buddy-managers fail to see that the best way to be liked as a manager is to not try to be.  It’s to do a good job in leading the team and to be a reasonable person while so doing.   Managers who try too hard to be liked often end up not only disliked but not respected, and sometimes even fired.

Whose Team Is It Anyway? The 90 Day Rule.

Say you’re an experienced executive joining a new company.  When you start, you inherit a team of people.

The first thing you must realize is that over time, “the team” will silently transform into “your team.”  Warts and all, you’re going to fully own that team at some point in time.  In the beginning, you might boast about the stars you’ve inherited and gripe about the clowns.  But at some point they’re not your predecessor’s clowns any more. They’re your clowns.  You own them.

The second thing you must realize is how quickly that will occur.  Typically, I’d say it takes about 90 days before the organization — e.g., your boss, your peers — perceives “the team” as “your team.”

That’s not a long time, so you need to use it well.

A key part of any new executive’s job is not just to assess the business situation, but also to assess his or her team.  You may have inherited some great people and some weak ones.  You might have great people who are in the wrong roles.  You may have some great people who are beaten down and need to be uplifted.  You may even have some people who really need to go pursue that career in real estate that they’ve always wanted.

Whether you’ve inherited The Bad News BearsThe A Team (fool), or something in between, you don’t have a lot of time before that team becomes your team.

So, what should you do about it?

  • Invest a lot of your early time in understanding your team.  Their strengths and their weaknesses.  What their internal customers think of them.  What you think of their work.  What coworkers think.  Understand their backgrounds, interview them, and go review their LinkedIn profiles or CVs.
  • Remember that it’s not black and white.  It’s not as simple as “good person” vs. “bad person.”  Oftentimes, it’s about the role — is that person a great product manager who’s over his head in a director role?  Is that person a great customer success person, but she’s currently struggling with a direct sales job?
  • Remember that it’s about the climate.  Maybe the team is a bunch of great people who are just feeling down.  Or maybe they’re good people, on fire and already performing at 98% of their potential.  The climate can turn stars into dogs, and vice versa, so you need to figure out who’s sailing into a headwind and who’s benefiting from a tailwind.
  • Remember that it’s about direction.  If the team executed a bad strategy really well and failed, that’s quite different from executing a great strategy poorly.  To what extent was the team aimed well or aimed poorly in terms of direction?
  • Remember that it’s about personal wants and needs.  Where do your team members want to be in a few years?  Do they see a way to get there from here at your company?  Are they happy with short-term constraints or are they struggling to get out of meetings in time to hit childcare before those draconian fines kick in?

Once you’ve gathered that data, then sit down with your manager, deliver the assessment and make a proposal.  Because after about 90 days it’s not the team any more.  It’s your team.  So you better focus on having the right people sitting the right chairs on day 91.

Can the Media Please Stop Referring to Company Size by Valuation?

The following tweet is the umpteenth time I’ve seen the media size a company by valuation, not revenue, in the past few years:

mktcap

Call me old school, but I was taught to size companies by revenue, not market capitalization (aka, valuation).

Calling Palantir a $20B company suggests they are doing $20B in revenues, which is certainly not the case.  (They say they did $1B in 2015 and that’s bookings, not revenue.)  So we’re not talking a small difference here.  Depending on the hype factor surrounding a company, we might be talking 20x.

Domo is another company the media loves to size by its market cap.

domo

I’ve heard revenue estimates of $50M to $100M for Domo, so here again, we’re not talking about a small difference.  Maybe 20x.

When my friend Max Schireson stepped down from MongoDB to spend more time with his family, the media did it again (see the first line of text below the picture)

mongodb

I love Max.  I love MongoDB.  While I don’t know what their revenues were when he left (I’d guess $50M to $100M), they certainly were not a “billion-dollar database company.”  But, hey, the article got 4,000 shares.  Inflation-wise, I’m again guessing 10-20x.

So why does the media do this?  Why do they want to mislead readers by a factor of 20?

  • Because if makes the numbers bigger
  • And makes the headlines cooler
  • And increases drama

In the end, because it (metaphorically) sells more newspapers.  “Wow, some guy just quit as CEO of a billion-dollar company to actually spend more time with his family” just sounds a whole lot better than the same line with a comparatively paltry $50M instead.  Man Bites Dog beats Dog Bites Man every time.

But it’s wrong, and the media should stop doing it.  Why?

  • It’s misleading, and not just a little.  Up to 20x as the above examples demonstrate.
  • It’s not verifiable.  For private companies, you can’t really know or verify the valuation.  It’s not in any public filing.  (While private companies don’t disclose revenue either, it’s much more easily triangulated.)
  • Private company valuations are misleading because VCs buy preferred stock and employees/founders have common stock. So you take a preferred share price and multiply it by the total number of outstanding shares, both preferred and common.  (This ignores the fact that the common is definitionally worth less than the preferred and basically assumes an IPO scenario, which happens only for the fortunate few, where the preferred converts into common.)
  • In the past few years, companies are increasingly taking late-stage money that often comes with “structure” that makes it non-comparable in rights to both the regular preferred and the common.  So just compound the prior problem with a new class of essentially super-preferred stock.  The valuation gets even more misleading.
  • Finally, compound the prior problem with a hyped environment where everyone wants to be a unicorn so they might deliberately take unfavorable terms/structure in order get a higher valuation and hopefully cross into unicorn-dom.  The valuation gets even-more-misleading squared.  See the following Tweet as my favorite example of this phenom.  (OH means overheard.)

ego

When was the last time I saw the media consistently size companies by valuation instead of revenue?  1997 to 2001.  Bubble 1.0.

Maybe we’ll soon be talking about eyeballs again.  Or, if you like Stance, the company that has raised $116in VC and has “ignited a movement of art and self-expression,” in socks (yes, socks) then maybe we’ll be talking about feet.

# # #

(And while I’m not sure about the $116M, I do love the socks.)

 

Myths of the Headless Company

In the past year or so, two of our competitors have abruptly transitioned their CEOs and both have perpetuated a lot of mythology about what happens and/or will happen in such transitions.  As someone who’s run two startups as CEO for more than a combined ten years, been the “new guy” CEO twice after such transitions, sat on two startup boards as an independent director, and advised numerous startups, I thought I’d do a little myth-busting around some of the common things these companies say to employees and customers when these transitions happen.

“Everythings’s fine, there is no problem.”

If everything were fine, you would not have changed your CEO.  QED.

Houston, there is a problem.

“Uh, the actual problem is we’re doing too well, … so we need to change our the CEO for the next level of growth.”

This reminds me of the job interview response where you say your biggest weakness is perfectionism.

Look, while successful companies do periodically outgrow their executives, you can tell the difference between an organized scale-driven CEO swap out and something going wrong.  How?

Organized transitions are organized.  The CEO and the board agree that the company is scaling beyond the CEO’s abilities.  A search is started.  The new CEO is found.  The old CEO gracefully hands the reins over to the new CEO.  This can and does happen all the time in Silicon Valley because the problem is real and everyone — both the VCs and the outgoing CEO — are all big shareholders and want what’s best for the company, which is a smooth transition.

When a CEO is exited …

  • Abruptly, without notice, over a weekend, …
  • Without a replacement already identified
  • Without even a search firm hired
  • At an awkward time (e.g., a few days before the end of a quarter or a few weeks before the annual user conference)

You can be pretty sure that something went wrong.  What exactly went wrong you can never know.  But you can be sure of thing:  the conversation ended with either “I’m outta here” or “he’s (or she’s) outta here” depending on whether the person was “pushed’ or “jumped.”

“But we did need someone for the next level of growth.”

That’s quite possibly true and the board will undoubtedly use the transition as an attempt to find someone who’s done the next level of growth before.  But, don’t be confused, if the transition is abrupt and disorganized that’s not why the prior CEO was exited.  Something else is going on, and it typically falls into one of three areas:

  • Dispute with the board, including but not limited to disagreements about the executive team or company strategy.
  • Below-plan operating results.  Most CEOs are measured according to expectations set in fundraising and established in the operating plan.  At unicorns, I call this the curse of the megaround, because such rounds are often done on the back on unachievable expectations.
  • Improprieties — while hopefully rare — such as legal, accounting, or employment violations, can also result in abrupt transitions.

“Nothing’s going to change.”

This is a favorite myth perpetuated on customers.  Having been “the new guy” at both MarkLogic and Host Analytics, I can assure you that things did change and the precise reason I was hired was to change things.  I’ve seen dozens of CEO job specs and I’ve never a single one that said “we want to hire a new CEO but you are not supposed to change anything.”  Doesn’t happen.

But companies tell customers this — and maybe they convince themselves it’s true because they want to believe it — but it’s a myth.  You hire a new CEO precisely and exactly to change certain things.

When I joined MarkLogic I focused the company almost exclusively on media and government verticals.  When I joined Host, I focused us up-market (relative to Adaptive) and on core EPM (as opposed to BI).

Since most companies get in trouble due to lack of focus, one of the basic job descriptions of the new-person CEO is to identify the core areas on which to focus — and the ones to cut.  Particularly, as is the case at Anaplan where the board is on record saying that the burn rate is too high — that means cut things.  Will he or she cut the area or geography that most concerns customer X?  Nobody knows.

Nobody.  And that’s important.  The only person who knows will be the new CEO and he/she will only know after 30-90 days of assessment.  So if anyone tells you “they know” that nothing’s going to change, they are either lying or clueless.  Either way, they are flat wrong.  No one knows, by definition.

“But the founder says nothing’s going to change.”

Now that would be an interesting statement if the founder were CEO.  But, in these cases, the founder isn’t CEO and there is a reason for that — typically a lack of sufficient business experience.

So when the founder tells you “nothing is going to change” it’s simply the guy who lacks enough business experience to actually run the business telling you his/her opinion.

The reality is new CEOs are hired for a reason, they are hired to change things, that change typically involves a change in focus, and CEO changes are always risky.  Sometimes they work out great.  Sometimes the new person craters the company.  You can never know.

 

 

 

Marketing is Too Important to be Left to the Marketing Department

It was HP co-founder, David Packard, of all people, who came up with one of my all-time favorite quotes on marketing, specifically that “marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.”

This quote is often mentioned in the same breath as these famous Peter Drucker quotes:

  • “Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation.”
  • “Marketing is not only much broader than selling, it is not a specialized activity at all.  It encompasses the entire business.  It is the whole business seen from the point of view of its final result, that is, from the customer’s point of view.”

I’ve always been a big believer in the last statement — that marketing is the whole business seen from the point of view of the customer — and that statement often guided me during my marketing career, including many years as a CMO.  Marketing isn’t just tactical — it’s also quite strategic — and the strategic part is why it’s too important to be left to the marketing department (alone).  The CEO can’t confuse delegation with abdication and move all strategy over the marketing department.

On the flip side, too many marketing departments “go tactical” and ignore their strategic obligations and opportunities.

If you burn a SaaS business down to two things, Drucker’s quote is pretty dead on:

  • We acquire customers
  • We deliver them a service

Marketing has both a strategic and tactical role in both.

  • Strategically, marketing can help define the target market, the buyer persona (i.e., the person who we are selling to), what problem we are solving for them, and why they might want to buy from us.  Marketing can also play an important role in definition of service, not just looking out for customers (as sales and product management tend to by default) but also by keeping an eye on competitors and market trends.
  • Tactically, over the past 20 years, marketing has been given more and more ownership for creating the sales pipeline.  (See Predictable Revenue or From Impossible to Inevitable.)  While CMOs of the past were largely strategic product marketers with some demandgen chops, CMOs of the future better be ambidextrous when it comes to skills and equally passionate about pipeline generation as they are about product positioning.

Great marketers strive for and hit a balance between tactical and strategic contribution.  Tactical is table stakes — if you can’t fill the pipeline, the salespeople will come for you with dogs and torches like the villagers in Frankenstein.

pitchforks

Sales preparing to give marketing feedback about insufficient pipeline coverage

But preventing that isn’t the point.  The point is to keep the villagers happy wile making a strategic contribution to building a great company.  Which is the part of marketing that’s too important to be left to the marketing department — but which is the part that marketing itself shouldn’t abdicate.

 

Introducing a New SaaS Metric: The Hype Factor

I said in yesterday’s post, entitled Too Much Money Makes You Stupid, that while I don’t have much of a beef with Domo, that I did want to observe in today’s fund-to-excess environment that any idea — including making a series of Alec Baldwin would-be viral videos — can sound like a good one.

While I credited Domo with creating a huge hype bubble through secrecy and mystery, big events, and raising tremendous amounts of money (yet again today) at unicorn valuations — I also questioned how much (as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland) “there there” Domo has when it comes to the company and its products.

Specifically, I began to wonder how to quantify the hype around a company.  Let’s say that, as organisms, SaaS companies convert venture capital into two things:  annual recurring revenue (ARR) and hype.  ARR has direct value as every year it turns into GAAP revenue.  Hype has value to the extent it creates halo effects that drive interest in the company that ultimately increase ARR. [1]

Hype Factor = Capital Raised / Annual Recurring Revenue

Now, unlike some bloggers, I don’t have any freshly minted MBAs doing my legwork, so I’m going to need to do some very back of the envelop analysis here.

  • Looking at some recent JMP research, I can see that the average SaaS company goes public at around $25M/quarter in revenue, a $100M annual run-rate, and which also suggests an ARR base of around $100M.
  • Looking at this post by Tomasz Tunguz, I can see that the average SaaS company has raised about $100M if you include everyone or $68M if you exclude companies that I don’t really consider enterprise software.

So, back of the envelope, this suggests that 1.5 (=100/68) is a typical capital-to-ARR ratio on the eve of an IPO.  Let’s look at some specific companies for more (all figures are approx as I’m eye-balling off charts in some cases and looking at S-1s in others) [2]:

  • NetSuite:  raised $125M, run-rate at IPO $92M  –> 1.3
  • Cornerstone:  raised $41M, run-rate $44M –> 1.0
  • Box:  raised $430M, run-rate $228M –> 1.8
  • Xactly:  raised $83M, run-rate $50M –> 1.7
  • Workday:  raised $200M, run-rate $168M –> 1.2

There are numerous limitations to this analysis.

  • I do not make any effort to take into account either how much VC was left over on the eve of the IPO or how much debt the company had raised.
  • Capital consumption per category may vary as a function of the category as a CFO friend of mine reminded me today.
  • Some companies don’t break out subscription and services revenue and the ARR run-rate calculations should only apply to subscription.

Since private companies raise capital and burn it down until an IPO, you should expect that the above values represent minima from a lifecycle perspective. (In theory, you’d arrive on IPO day broke, having raised no more cash than you needed to get there.)

So I’m going to rather subjectively assign some buckets based on this data and my own estimates about earlier stages.

  • A hype factor of 1-2 is target
  • A hype factor of 2-3 is good, particularly well before an IPO
  • A hype factor of 3-5 is not good, too much hype and too little ARR
  • A hype factor of 5+ suggests there is very little “there there” at all.

I know of at least one analytics company where I suspect the hype factor is around 10.   If I had to take a swag at Domo’s hype factor based on the comments in this interview:

  • Quote from the article:  “contracted revenue is $100M.”  Hopefully this means ARR and not TCV.
  • Capital raised:  $613M per Crunchbase, including today’s round.

This suggests Domo’s hype factor is 6.1 including today’s capital and 4.8 excluding it.  So if you’ve heard of Domo, think they are cool, are wowed by the speakers and rappers at Domopalooza, you should be.  As I like to say:  behind every marketing genius, there is usually a massive budget. [3]

Domo’s spending heavily, that’s for sure.  How efficient they are at converting that spending to ARR remains to be seen.  My instinct, and this rough math, says they are more efficient at generating hype than revenue. [4]

Time will tell.  Gosh, life was simpler (if less interesting) when companies went public at $30M.

# # #

Notes

[1] In a sense, I’m arguing that hype takes two forms:  good hype that drives ARR and wasted hype that simply makes the company, like the Kardashiansfamous for being famous.

[2] And having some trouble making the different data sources foot.  For example, the SFSF S-1 indicates $45M in convertible preferred stock, but the Tunguz post suggests $70M.  Where’s my freshly minted MBA to help?

[3] You can argue that the first step in marketing genius is committing to spend large amounts of money and I won’t debate you.  But I do think many people completely overlook the massive spend behind many marketing geniuses and, from a hype factor perspective, forget that the purpose of all that genius is not to impress TechCrunch and turn B2B brands into household words, but to win customers and drive ARR.

[4] Note that Domo says they have $200M in the bank unspent which, if true, both skews this analysis and prompts the question:  why raise more money at a flat valuation in smaller quantity when you don’t need it?  While my formula deliberately does not take cash or debt into account (because it’s hard enough to just triangulate on ARR at private companies), if you want to factor that claim into the math, I think you’d end up with a hype factor of 3-4.  (You can’t exclude all the cash because every startup keeps cash on hand to fund them through to their next round.)

CAC Payback Period:  The Most Misunderstood SaaS Metric

The single most misunderstood software-as-a-service (SaaS) metric I’ve encountered is the CAC Payback Period (CPP), a compound metric that is generally defined as the months of contribution margin to pay back the cost of acquiring a customer.   Bessemer defines the CPP as:

bess cac

I quibble with some of the Bessemerisms in the definition.  For example, (1) most enterprise SaaS companies should use annual recurring revenue (ARR), not monthly recurring revenue (MRR), because most enterprise companies are doing annual, not monthly, contracts, (2) the “committed” MRR concept is an overreach because it includes “anticipated” churn which is basically impossible to measure and often unknown, and (3) I don’t know why they use the prior period for both S&M costs and new ARR – almost everybody else uses prior-period S&M divided by current-period ARR in customer acquisition cost (CAC) calculations on the theory that last quarter’s S&M generated this quarter’s new ARR.

Switching to ARR nomenclature, and with a quick sleight of mathematical hand for simplification, I define the CAC Payback Period (CPP) as follows:

kell cac

Let’s run some numbers.

  • If your company has a CAC ratio of 1.5 and subscription gross margins of 75%, then your CPP = 24 months.
  • If your company has a CAC ratio of 1.2 and subscription gross margins of 80%, then your CPP = 18 months.
  • If you company has a CAC ratio of 0.8 and subscription gross margins of 80%, then your CPP = 12 months.

All seems pretty simple, right?  Not so fast.  There are two things that constantly confound people when looking at CAC Payback Period (CPP).

  • They forget payback metrics are risk metrics, not return metrics
  • They fail to correctly interpret the impact of annual or multi-year contracts

Payback Metrics are for Risk, Not Return

Quick, basic MBA question:  you have two projects, both require an investment of 100 units, and you have only 100 units to invest.  Which do you pick?

  • Project A: which has a payback period of 12 months
  • Project B: which has a payback period of 6 months

Quick, which do you pick?  Well, project B.  Duh.  But wait — now I tell you this:

  • Project A has a net present value (NPV) of 500 units
  • Project B has an NPV of 110 units

Well, don’t you feel silly for picking project B?

Payback is all about how long your money is committed (so it can’t be used for other projects) and at risk (meaning you might not get it back).  Payback doesn’t tell you anything about return.  In capital budgeting, NPV tells you about return.  In a SaaS business, customer lifetime value (LTV) tells you about return.

There are situations where it makes a lot of sense to look at CPP.  For example, if you’re running a monthly SaaS service with a high churn rate then you need to look closely how long you’re putting your money at risk because there is a very real chance you won’t recoup your CAC investment, let alone get any return on it.  Consider a monthly SaaS company with a $3500 customer acquisition cost, subscription gross margin of 70%, a monthly fee of $150, and 3% monthly churn.  I’ll calculate the ratios and examine the CAC recovery of a 100 customer cohort.

saas fail

While the CPP formula outputs a long 33.3 month CAC Payback Period, reality is far, far worse.  One problem with the CPP formula is that it does not factor in churn and how exposed a cohort is to it — the more chances customers have to not renew during the payback period, the more you need to consider the possibility of non-renewal in your math [1].  In this example, when you properly account for churn, you still have $6 worth of CAC to recover after 30 years!  You literally never get back your CAC.

Soapbox:  this is another case where using a model is infinitely preferable to back-of-the-envelope (BOTE) analysis using SaaS metrics.  If you want to understand the financials of a SaaS company, then build a driver-based model and vary the drivers.  In this case and many others, BOTE analysis fails due to subtle complexity, whereas a well-built model will always produce correct answers, even if they are counter-intuitive.

Such cases aside, the real problem with being too focused on CAC Payback Period is that CPP is a risk metric that tells you nothing about returns.  Companies are in business to get returns, not simply to minimize risk, so to properly analyze a SaaS business we need to look at both.

The Impact of Annual and Multi-Year Prepaid Contracts on CAC Payback Period

The CPP formula outputs a payback period in months, but most enterprise SaaS businesses today run on an annual rhythm.  Despite pricing that is sometimes still stated per-user, per-month, SaaS companies realized years ago that enterprise customers preferred annual contracts and actually disliked monthly invoicing.  Just as MRR is a bit of a relic from the old SaaS days, so is a CAC Payback Period stated in months.

In a one-hundred-percent annual prepaid contract world, the CPP formula should output in multiples of 12, rounding up for all values greater than 12.  For example, if a company’s CAC Payback Period is notionally 13 months, in reality it is 24 months because the leftover 1/13 of the cost isn’t collected until the a customer’s second payment at month 24.  (And that’s only if the customer chooses to renew — see above discussion of churn.)

In an annual prepaid world, if your CAC Payback Period is less than or equal to 12 months, then it should be rounded down to one day because you are invoicing the entire year up-front and at-once.  Even if the formula says the CPP is notionally 12.0 months, in an annual prepaid world your CAC investment money is at risk for just one day.

So, wait a minute.  What is the actual CAC Payback Period in this case?  12.0 months or 1 day?  It’s 1 day.

Anyone who argues 12.0 months is forgetting the point of the metric.  Payback periods are risk metrics and measured by the amount of time it takes to get your investment back [2].  If you want to look at S&M efficiency, look at the CAC ratio.  If you want to know about the efficiency of running the SaaS service, look at subscription gross margins.  If you want to talk about lifetime value, then look at LTV/CAC.  CAC Payback Period is a risk metric that measures how long your CAC investment is “on the table” before getting paid back.  In this instance the 12 months generated by the standard formula is incorrect because the formula misses the prepayment and the correct answer is 1 day.

A lot of very smart people get stuck here.  They say, “yes, sure, it’s 1 day – but really, it’s not.  It’s 12 months.”  No.  It’s 1 day.

If you want to look at something other than payback, then pick another metric.  But the CPP is 1 day.  You asked how long it takes for the company to recoup the money it spends to acquire a customer.  For CPPs less than or equal to 12 in a one-hundred percent annual prepaid world, the answer is one day.

It gets harder.  Imagine a company that sells in a sticky category (e.g., where typical lifetimes may be 10 years) and thus is a high-consideration purchase where prospective customers do deep evaluations before making a decision (e.g., ERP).  As a result of all that homework, customers are happy to sign long contracts and thus the company does only 3-year prepaid contracts.  Now, let’s look at CAC Payback Period.  Adapting our rules above, any output from the formula greater than 36 months should be rounded up in multiples of 36 months and, similarly, any output less than or equal to 36 months should be rounded down to 1 day.

Here we go again.  Say the CAC Payback Period formula outputs 33 months.  Is the real CPP 33 months or 1 day?  Same argument.  It’s 1 day.  But the formula outputs 33 months.  Yes, but the CAC recovery time is 1 day.  If you want to look at something else, then pick another metric.

It gets even harder.  Now imagine a company that does half 1-year deals and half 3-year deals (on an ARR-weighted basis).  Let’s assume it has a CAC ratio of 1.5, 75% subscription gross margins, and thus a notional CAC Payback Period of 24 months.  Let’s see what really happens using a model:

50-50

Using this model, you can see that the actual CAC Payback Period is 1 day. Why?  We need to recoup $1.5M in CAC.  On day 1 we invoice $2.0M, resulting in $1.5M in contribution margin, and thus leaving $0 in CAC that needs to be recovered.

While I have not yet devised general rounding rules for this situation, the model again demonstrates the key point – that the mix of 1-year and 3-year payment structure confounds the CPP formula resulting in a notional CPP of 24 months, when in reality it is again 1 day.  If you want to make rounding rules beware the temptation to treat the average contract duration (ACD) as a rounding multiple because it’s incorrect — while the ACD is 2 years in the above example, not a single customer is paying you at two-year intervals:  half are paying you every year while half are paying you every three.  That complexity, combined with the reality that the mix is pretty unlikely to be 50/50, suggests it’s just easier to use a model than devise a generalized rounding formula.

But pulling back up, let’s make sure we drive the key point home.  The CAC Payback Period is the single most often misunderstood SaaS metric because people forget that payback metrics are about risk, not return, and because the basic formulas – like those for many SaaS metrics – assume a monthly model that simply does not apply in today’s enterprise SaaS world, and fail to handle common cases like annual or multi-year prepaid contracts.

# # #

Notes

[1] This is a huge omission for a metric that was defined in terms of MRR and which thus assumes a monthly business model.  As the example shows, the formula (which fails to account for churn) outputs a CAC payback of 33 months, but in reality it’s never.  Quite a difference!

[2] If I wanted to be even more rigorous, I would argue that you should not include subscription gross margin in the calculation of CAC Payback Period.  If your CAC ratio is 1.0 and you do annual prepaid contracts, then you immediately recoup 100% of your CAC investment on day 1.  Yes, a new customer comes with a future liability attached (you need to bear the costs of running the service for them for one year), but if you’re looking at a payback metric that shouldn’t matter.  You got your money back.  Yes, going forward, you need to spend about 30% (a typical subscription COGS figure) of that money over the next year to pay for operating the service, but you got your money back in one day.  Payback is 1 day, not 1/0.7 = 17 months as the formula calculates.