Tag Archives: Rule of 40

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 software company can burn as much cash as it wants to grow — 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.