Category Archives: Startups

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.

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.