If we experience a cash flow trough for one customer, then what will happen if we start to do really well and acquire many customers at the same time? The model shows that the P&L/cash flow trough gets deeper if we increase the growth rate for the bookings.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, as eventually there is enough profit/cash from the installed base to cover the investment needed for new customers. At that point the business would turn profitable/cash flow positive – assuming you don’t decide to increase spending on sales and marketing. And, as expected, the faster the growth in customer acquisition, the better the curve looks when it becomes positive.
Ron Gill, NetSuite:
If plans go well, you may decide it is time to hit the accelerator (increasing spending on lead generation, hiring additional sales reps, adding data center capacity, etc.) in order to pick-up the pace of customer acquisition. The thing that surprises many investors and boards of directors about the SaaS model is that, even with perfect execution, an acceleration of growth will often be accompanied by a squeeze on profitability and cash flow.
As soon as the product starts to see some significant uptake, investors expect that the losses / cash drain should narrow, right? Instead, this is the perfect time to increase investment in the business. which will cause losses to deepen again. The graph below illustrates the problem:
Notice in the example graph that the five customer per month model ultimately yields a much steeper rate of growth, but you have to go through another deep trough to get there. It is the concept of needing to re-enter that type of trough after just having gotten the curve to turn positive that many managers and investors struggle with.
Of course this a special challenge early-on as you need to explain to investors why you’ll require additional cash to fund that next round of acceleration. But it isn’t just a startup problem. At NetSuite, even as a public company our revenue growth rate has accelerated in each of the last three years. That means that each annual plan involves a stepping-up of investment in lead generation and sales capacity that will increase spending and cash flow out for some time before it starts yielding incremental revenue and cash flow in. As long as you’re accelerating the rate of revenue growth, managing and messaging around this phenomenon is a permanent part of the landscape for any SaaS company.
Why is growth important?
We have suggested that as soon as the business has shown that it can succeed, it should invest aggressively to increase the growth rate. You might ask question: Why?
SaaS is usually a “winner-takes-all” game, and it is therefore important to grab market share as fast as possible to make sure you are the winner in your space. Provided you can tell a story that shows that eventually that growth will lead to profitability, Wall Street, acquiring companies, and venture investors all reward higher growth with higher valuations. There’s also a premium for the market leader in a particular space.
However not all investments make sense. In the next section we will look at a tool to help you ensure that your growth initiatives/investments will pay back: Unit Economics.
A Powerful Tool: Unit Economics
Because of the losses in the early days, which get bigger the more successful the company is at acquiring customers, it is much harder for management and investors to figure out whether a SaaS business is financially viable. We need some tools to help us figure this out.
A great way to understand any business model is to answer the following simple question:
Can I make more profit from my customers than it costs me to acquire them?
This is effectively a study of the unit economics of each customer. To answer the question, we need two metrics:
- LTV – the Lifetime Value of a typical customer
- CAC – the Cost to Acquire a typical Customer
(For more on how to calculate LTV and CAC, click here.)
Entrepreneurs are usually overoptimistic about how much it costs to acquire a customer. This probably comes from a belief that customers will be so excited about what they have built, that they will beat a path to their doors to buy the product. The reality is often very different! (I have written more on this topic here: Startup Killer: The Cost of Customer Acquisition, and here: How Sales Complexity impacts CAC.)
Is your SaaS business viable?
In the first version of this article, I introduced two guidelines that could be used to judge quickly whether your SaaS business is viable. The first is a good way to figure out if you will be profitable in the long run, and the second is about measuring the time to profitability (which also greatly impacts capital efficiency).
Over the last two years, I have had the chance to validate these guidelines with many SaaS businesses, and it turns out that these early guesses have held up well. The best SaaS businesses have a LTV to CAC ratio that is higher than 3, sometimes as high as 7 or 8. And many of the best SaaS businesses are able to recover their CAC in 5-7 months. However many healthy SaaS businesses don’t meet the guidelines in the early days, but can see how they can improve the business over time to get there.
The second guideline (Months to Recover CAC) is all about time to profitability and cash flow. Larger businesses, such as wireless carriers and credit card companies, can afford to have a longer time to recover CAC, as they have access to tons of cheap capital. Startups, on the other hand, typically find that capital is expensive in the early days. However even if capital is cheap, it turns out that Months to recover CAC is a very good predictor of how well a SaaS business will perform. Take a look at the graph below, which comes from the same model used earlier. It shows how the profitability is anemic if the time to recover CAC extends beyond 12 months.
I should stress that these are only guidelines, there are always situations where it makes sense to break them.
Three uses for the SaaS Guidelines
- One of the key jobs of the CEO is to decide when to hit the accelerator pedal. The value of these two guidelines is that they help you understand when you have a SaaS business that is in good shape, where it makes sense to hit the accelerator pedal. Alternatively if your business doesn’t meet the guidelines, it is a good indicator that there is more tweaking needed to fix the business before you should expand.
- Another way to use the two guidelines is for evaluating different lead sources. Different lead sources (e.g. Google AdWords, TV, Radio, etc.) have different costs associated with them. The guidelines help you understand if some of the more expensive lead generation options make financial sense. If they meet these guidelines, it makes sense to hit the accelerator on those sources (assuming you have the cash).Using the second guideline, and working backwards, we can tell that if we are getting paid $500 per month, we can afford to spend up to 12x that amount (i.e. $6,000) on acquiring the customer. If we’re spending less than that, you can afford to be more aggressive and spend more in marketing or sales.
- There is another important way to use this type of guideline: segmentation. Early-stage companies are often testing their offering with several different uses/types of customers / pricingmodels / industry verticals. It is very useful to examine which segments show the quickest return or highest LTV to CAC in order to understand which will be the most profitable to pursue.
Unit Economics in Action: HubSpot Example
HubSpot’s unit economics were published in an article in Forbes:
You can see from the second row in this table how they have dramatically improved their unit economics (LTV:CAC ratio) over the five quarters shown. The big driver for this was lowering the MRR Churn rate from 3.5% to 1.5%. This drove up the lifetime value of the customer considerably. They were also able to drive up their AVG MRR per customer.
Brad Coffey, HubSpot:
In 2011 and early 2012 we used this chart to guide many of our business decisions at HubSpot. By breaking LTV:CAC down into its components we could examine each metric and understand what levers we could pull to drive overall improvement.
It turned out that the levers we could pull varied by segment. In the SMB market for instance we had the right sales process in place – but had an opportunity to improve LTV by improving the product to lower churn and increasing our average price in the segment. In the VSB (Very Small Business) segment, by contrast, there wasn’t as much upside left on the LTV (VSB customers have less money and naturally higher churn) so we focused on lowering CAC by removing friction from our sales process and moving more of our sales to the channel.