Tag Archives: Rule of 40

Is Another SaaSacre In The Offing?

I’m not a financial analyst and I don’t make stock recommendations [1], but as a participant and observer in the software investing ecosystem, I do keep an eye on macro market parameters and I read a fair bit of financial analyst research.  Once in an while, I comment on what I’m seeing.

In February 2016, I wrote two posts (SaaS Stocks:  How Much Punishment is in Store and The SaaSacre Part II:  Time for the Rebound?).  To remind you how depressed SaaS stocks were back then:

  • Workday was $49/share, now at $192
  • Zendesk was $15/share, now at $85
  • ServiceNow was $47/share, now at $247
  • Salesforce was $56/share, now at $160

Those four stocks are up 342% over the past 3 years and two months.  More broadly, the Bessemer Emerging Cloud Index is up 385% over the same period.  Given the increase, a seemingly frothy market for stocks (P/E of the S&P 500 at ~21), and plenty of global geopolitical and economic uncertainty, the question is whether there is another SaaSacre (rhymes with massacre) in the not-too-distant future?

Based just on gut feel, I would say yes.  (Hence my Kellblog prediction that markets would be choppy in 2019.)  But this morning, I saw a chart in a Cowen report that helped bring some data to the question:

cowen

I wish we had a longer time period to look at, but the data is still interesting.  The chart plots enterprise value (EV) divided by next twelve month (NTM) sales.  As a forward multiple, it’s already more aggressive than a trailing twelve month (TTM) multiple because revenue is growing (let’s guess 25% to 30% across the coverage universe), thus the multiple gets deflated when looking forward as opposed to back.

That said, let’s look at the shape of the curve.  When I draw a line through 7x, it appears to me that about half the chart is above the line and half below, so let’s guesstimate that median multiple during the period is 7x.  If you believe in regression to the mean, you should theoretically be a bearish when stocks are trading above the median and bullish when they’re below.

Because the average multiple line is pretty thick, it’s hard to see where exactly it ends, but it looks like 8.25x to me.  That means today’s multiples are “only” 18% above the median [2].  That’s good news, in one sense, as my gut was that it would be higher.  The bad news is:  (1) when things correct they often don’t simply drop to the line but well through it and (2) if anything happens to hurt the anticipated sales growth, the EV/NTM-sales multiple goes up at constant EV because  NTM-sales goes down.  Thus there’s kind of a double whammy effect because lower future anticipated growth increases multiples at a time when the multiples themselves want to be decreasing.

This is a long way of saying, in my opinion, as a chartist [3] using this chart, I would conclude that multiples are somewhat frothy, about 20% above the median, with a lot predicated on future growth.

This exercise shows that looking only at price appreciation presents a more dangerous-looking picture than looking at prices as related to revenues:  looking across the whole chart, prices are up a lot since April 2014 but so are forward-looking revenues, and the multiple is roughly the same at the start as at the end:  8x. [4]  Looking at things differently, of the ~350% gain since April 2016, half is due to multiple expansion (from a way-below-median ~4x to an above-median ~8x), and half is to stock revenue growth.

For me, when I look at overall markets (e.g., PE of the S&P), geopolitical uncertainty, price appreciation, and SaaS multiples, I still feel like taking a conservative position.  But somewhat less than so than before I saw this chart.  While it’s totally subjective:  SaaS is less frothy than I thought when looking only at price appreciation.

Switching gears, the same Cowen report had a nice rule of 40 chart that I thought I’d share as well:

r40 cowen

Since the R^2 is only 0.32, I continue to wonder if you’d get a higher R^2 using only revenue growth as opposed to rule of 40 score on the X axis.  For more on this topic, see my other Rule of 40 posts here.

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Notes
[1] See disclaimers in my FAQ and terms of use in the blog license agreement.

[2] Nevertheless, 18% is a lot to lose if multiples instantly reset to the median.  (And they often don’t just drop to the median, but break well through it — e.g., in Jan 2016, they were as low as 4x.)

[3] And chartism doesn’t work.

[4] If you ignore most of the first month where it appeared to be falling from 10x to 8x.

Rule of 40 Glideslope Planning

Enterprise SaaS companies need a lot of money to grow. The median company spends $1.32 to acquire $1.00 in annual recurring revenue (ARR) [1].  They need to make that investment for 14 years before getting to an IPO.  It all adds up to a median of $300M in capital raised prior to an IPO.

With such vast amounts of money in play, some say “it’s a growth at all costs” game.  But others hold to the Rule of 40 which attempts to balance growth and profitability with a simple rule:  grow as fast as you want as long as your revenue growth rate + your free cashflow margin >= 40%.

The Rule of 40 gets a lot of attention, but I think that companies are not asking the right question about it.  The right question is not “when should my growing startup be Rule of 40 compliant?” [2]

For more than half of all public SaaS companies, the answer to that question, by the way, is “not yet.”  Per multiple studies I’ve read the median Rule of 40 score for public SaaS companies is ~31%, meaning that more than half of public SaaS companies are not Rule of 40 compliant [3].

So, unless you’re an absolutely amazing company like Elastic (which had a Rule of 40 score of 87% at its IPO), you probably shouldn’t be unrealistically planning to become Rule of 40 compliant three years before your IPO [4].  If you do, especially if you’re well funded and don’t need additional expense constraints, you might well compromise growth with a premature focus on the Rule of 40, which could shoot off your corporate foot in terms of your eventual valuation.

If “when should we be Rule of 40 compliant” is the wrong question, then what’s the right one?

What should my company’s Rule of 40 glideslope be?

That is, over the next several years what is your eventual Rule of 40 score target and how do you want to evolve to it?  The big advantage of this question is that the answer isn’t “a year” and it doesn’t assume Rule of 40 compliance.  But it does get you to start thinking about and tracking your Rule of 40 score.

I built a little model to help do some what-if analysis around this question.  You can download it here.

r40-1

In our example, we’ve got a 5 year-old, $30M ARR SaaS company planning the next five years of its evolution, hopefully with an IPO in year 8 or 9.  The driver cells (orange) define how fast you want to grow and what you want your Rule of 40 glideslope to be.  Everything else is calculated.  At the bottom we have an overall efficiency analysis:  in each year how much more are we spending than the previous year, how much more revenue do we expect to get, and what’s the ratio between the two (i.e., which works like kind of an incremental revenue CAC).  As we improve the Rule of 40 score you can see that we need to improve efficiency by spending less for each incremental dollar of revenue.  You can use this as a sanity check on your results as we’ll see in a minute.

Let me demonstrate why I predict that 9 out 10 ten CFOs will love this modeling approach.  Let’s look at every CFO’s nightmare scenario.  Think:  “we can’t really control revenues but we can control expenses so my wake up in the middle of the night sweating outcome is that we build expenses per the plan and miss the revenues.”

r40-2

In the above (CFO nightmare) scenario, we hold expenses constant with the original plan and come in considerably lighter on revenue.  The drives us miles off our desired Rule of 40 glideslope (see red cells).  We end up needing to fund $42.4M more in operating losses than the original plan, all to generate a company that’s $30.5M smaller in revenue and generating much larger losses.  It’s no wonder why CFOs worry about this.  They should.

What would the CFO really like?  A Rule-of-40-driven autopilot.

As in, let’s agree to a Rule of 40 glideslope and then if revenues come up short, we have all pre-agreed to adjust expenses to fall in line with the new, reduced revenues and the desired Rule of 40 score.

r40-3

That’s what the third block shows above.  We hold to the reduced revenues of the middle scenario but reduce expenses to hold to the planned Rule of 40 glideslope.  Here’s the bad news:  in this scenario (and probably most real-life ones resembling it) you can’t actually do it — the required revenue-gathering efficiency more than doubles (see red cells).  You were spending $1.38 to get an incremental $1 of revenue and, to hold to the glideslope, you need to instantly jump to spending only $0.49.  That’s not going to happen.  While it’s probably impossible to hold to the original {-10%, 0%, 5%} glideslope, if you at least try (and, e.g., don’t build expenses fully to plan when other indicators don’t support it), then you will certainly do a lot better than the {-10%, -32%, -42%} glideslope in the second scenario.

In this post, we’ve talked about the Rule of 40 and why startups should think about it as a glideslope rather than a short- or mid-term destination.  We’ve provided you with a downloadable model where you can play with your Rule of 40 glideslope.  And we’ve shown why CFOs will inherently be drawn to the Rule of 40 as a long-term planning constraint, because in many ways it will help your company act like a self-righting ship.

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Notes

[1] The 75th percentile spends $1.92.  And 25% spend more than that.  Per KeyBanc.

[2] Rule of 40 compliant means a company has an rule of 40 score >= 40%.  See next note.

[3] Rule of 40 score is generally defined as revenue growth rate + free cashflow (FCF) margin.  Sometimes operating margin or EBITDA margin is used instead because FCF margin can be somewhat harder to find.

[4] I’m trying to find data a good data set of Rule of 40 scores at IPO time but thus far haven’t found one.  Anecdotally, I can say that lots of successful high-growth SaaS IPOs (e.g., MongoDB, Anaplan, and Blackline) were not Rule of 40 compliant at IPO time — nor were they well after, e.g., as of Oct 2018 per JMP’s quarterly software review.  It seems that if growth is sufficiently there, that the profitability constraint can be somewhat deferred in the mind of the market.

An Update on the SaaS Rule of 40

Thanks to the folks at Piper Jaffray and their recently published 2018 Software Market Review, we can take a look at a recent chart that plots public software company enterprise value (EV) vs. Rule of 40 (R40) score = free cash-flow margin + revenue growth rate.

As a reminder, the Rule of 40 is an industry rule of thumb that says a high-growth SaaS company can burn as much cash as it likes in order to drive growth — as long as its growth rate is 40 percentage points higher than its free cashflow margin.  It’s an attempt at devising a simple rule to help software companies with the complex question of how to balance growth and profitability.

One past study showed that while Rule of 40 compliant software companies made up a little more than half of all public software companies that they captured more than 80% of all public market cap.

Let’s take a look at Piper’s chart which plots R40 score on the X axis and enterprise value (EV) divided by revenue on the Y axis.  It also plots a presumably least squares fit line through the data points.

newer rule of 40

Source: PJC Analysis and SAP Capital IQ as of 12/31/2018

Of note:

  • Less than half of all companies in this set are Rule of 40 compliant; the median R40 score was 31.7%.
  • The median multiple for companies in the set was 6.6x.
  • The slope of the line is 12, meaning that for each 10 percentage points of R40 score improvement, a company’s revenue multiple increases by 1.2x.
  • R^2 is 0.42 which, if I recall correctly, means that the R40 score explains 42% of the variability of the data.  So, while there’s lots it doesn’t explain, it’s still a useful indicator.

A few nerdier things of note:

  • Remember that the line is only valid in the data range presented; since no companies had a negative R40 score, it would be invalid extrapolation to simply continue the line down and to the left.
  • Early-stage startup executives often misapply these charts forgetting the selection bias within them. Every company on the chart did well enough at some point in terms of size and growth to become a public SaaS company.  Just because LivePerson (LPSN) has a 4x multiple with an R40 score of 10% doesn’t mean your $20M startup with the sames score is also worth 4x.   LPSN is a much bigger company (roughly $250M) and and already cleared many hurdles to get there.

The big question around the Rule of 40 is:  when should companies start to target it?   A superstar like Elastic had 76% growth and 8% FCF margin so a R40 score of 84% at its spectacular IPO.  However, Avalara had 26% growth and -28% FCF margin for an R40 score of -2% and its IPO went fine.  Ditto Anaplan.

I’ll be doing some work in the next few months to try and get better data on R40 trajectory into an IPO.  My instinct at this point is that many companies target R40 compliance too early, sacrifice growth in the process, and hurt their valuations because they fail to deliver high growth and don’t get the assumed customer acquisition cost efficiencies built in the financial models, which end up, as one friend called them, spreadsheet-induced hallucinations.

The SaaS Rule of 40

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

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

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

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

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

rule-of-40

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

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

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

rule of 40 valuation.PNG

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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