Tag Archives: Wall Steet

SaaS 101: 7 Simple Lessons From Inside HubSpot

A nice quick and very interesting read for those interested in the Software as a Service (SaaS) business model either as a buyers or investors…


SaaS 101: 7 Simple Lessons From Inside HubSpot

// It’s been a little over 4 years since I officially launched my internet marketing software company, HubSpot.  (The “official” date is June 9th, 2006 — for those that are curious about such things).  So, I’ve had about 4 years on the “inside” of a fast-growing, venture-backed B2B SaaS startup.  Quick stats:  ~2,900 customers, ~170 employees and $33 million in capital raised.  But, this is not an article about HubSpot, it’s an article about things I’ve learned in the process of being a part of one of the fastest growing SaaS startups ever. (I looked at data for a bunch of publicly traded SaaS companies, and the only one that grew revenues faster than HubSpot was Salesforce.com). onstartups saas blackboard

In any case, let’s jump right in.

7 Non-Obvious SaaS Startup Lessons From HubSpot

1.  You are financing your customers. Most SaaS businesses are subscription-based (there’s usually no big upfront payment when you signup a customer).  As a result, sales and marketing costs are front-loaded, but revenue comes in over time.  This can create cash-flow issues.  The higher your sales growth, the larger the gap in cash-flows.  This is why SaaS companies often raise large amounts of capital.

Quick Example: Lets say it costs you about $1,000 to acquire a customer (this covers marketing programs, marketing staff, sales staff, etc.).  If customers pay you $100/month for your product and stay (on average) for 30 months, you make $3,000 per customer over their lifetime.  That’s a 3:1 ratio of life-time-value to acquisition cost.  Not bad.  But, here’s the problem.  If you sign up 100 customers this month, you will have incurred $100,000 in acquisition costs ($1,000 x 100).  You’re going to make $300,000 over the next 30 months on those customers by way of subscriptions.  The problem is that you pay the $100,000 today whereas the $300,000 payback will come over time.  So, from a cash perspective, you’re down $100,000.  If you have the cash to support it, not a big deal.  If you don’t, it’s a VERY BIG DEAL.  Take that same example, and say you grew your new sales by 100% in 6 months (woo hoo!).  Now, you’re depleting your cash at $200,000/month.  Basically, in a subscription business, the faster you are growing, the more cash you’re going to need.

2 Retaining customers is critical. In the old enterprise software days, a common model was to have some sort of upfront license fee — and then some ongoing maintenance revenue (15–20%) which covered things like support and upgrades.  Sure, the recurring revenue was important (because it added up) but much of the mojo was in those big upfront fees.  The holy grail as an enterprise software startup was when you could get these recurring maintenance fees to exceed your operating costs (which meant that in theory, you didn’t have to make a single sale to still keep the lights on).   In the SaaS world, everything is usually some sort of recurring revenue.  This, in the long-term is a mostly good thing.  But, in the short-term, it means you really need to keep those customers that you sell or things are going to get really painful, very quickly.  Looking at our example from #1, if you spent $1,000 to acquire a customer, and they quit in 6 months, you lost $400.  Also, in the installed-software world, your customers were somewhat likely to have invested in getting your product up and running and customizing it to their needs.  As such, switching costs were reasonably high.  In SaaS, things are simple by design — and contracts are shorter.  The net result is that it is easier for customers to leave.

Quick math: Figure out your total acquisition cost (lets say it’s $1,000) and your monthly subscription revenue (let’s say again say it’s $100).  This means that you need a customer to stay at least 10 months in order to “recover” your acquisition cost — otherwise, you’re losing money.

It’s Software — But There Are Hard Costs. In the enterprise-installed software business, you shipped disks/CDs/DVDs (or made the software available to download).  There were very few infrastructure costs.  To deliver software as a service, you need to invest in infrastructure — including people to keep things running.  Services like Amazon’s EC2 help a lot (in terms of having flexible scalability and very low up-front costs), but it still doesn’t obviate the need to have people that will manage the infrastructure.  And, people still cost money.  Oh, and by that way, Amazon’s EC2 is great in terms of low capital expense (i.e. you’re not out of pocket lots of money to buy servers and stuff), but it’s not free.  By the time you get a couple of production instances, a QA instance, some S3 storage, perhaps some software load-balancing, and maybe 50% of someone’s time to manage it all (because any one of those things will degrade/fail), you’re talking about real money.  Too many non-technical founders hand-wave the infrastructure costs because they think “hey we have cloud computing now, we can scale as we need it.”  That’s true, you can scale as you need it, but there are some real dollars just getting the basics up and running.

Quick exercise: Talk to other SaaS companies in your peer group (at your stage), that are willing to share data.  Try and figure out what monthly hosting costs you can expect as you grow (and what percentage that is of revenue).

It Pays To Know Your Funnel. One of the central drivers in the business will be understanding the shape of your marketing/sales funnel.  What channels are driving prospects into your funnel?  What’s the conversion rate of a random web visitor to trial?  Trial to purchase?  Purchase to delighted customer?  The better you know your funnel the better decisions you will make as to where to invest your limited resources.  If you have a “top of the funnel” problem (i.e. your website is only getting 10 visitors a week), then creating the world’s best landing page and trying to optimize your conversions is unlikely to move the dial much.  On the other hand, if only 1 in 10,000 people that visit your website ultimately convert to a lead (or user), growing your web traffic to 100,000 visitors is not going to move the dial either.  Understand your funnel, so you can optimize it.  The bottleneck (and opportunity for improvement) is always somewhere.  Find it, and optimize it — until the bottleneck moves somewhere else.  It’s a lot like optimzing your software product.  Grab the low-hanging fruit first.

Quick tip: Make sure you have a way to generate the data for your funnel as early in your startup’s history as possible.  At a minimum, you need numbers on web visitors, leads/trials generated and customer sign-ups (so you know the percentage conversion at each step).

You Need Knobs and Dials In The Business. One of the great things about the SaaS business is you have lots of aspects of the business you can tweak (examples include pricing, packaging/features and trial duration).  It’s often tempting to tweak and optimize the business too early.  In the early days, the key is to install the knobs and dials and build gauges to measure as much as you can (without driving yourself crazy).  Get really good at efficient experimentation (i.e. I can turn this knob and see it have this effect).  But, be careful that you don’t make too many changes too quickly (because often, there’s a lag-time before the impact of a change shows up).  Also, try not to make several big changes at once — otherwise you won’t know which of the changes actually had the impact.  As you grow, you should be spending a fair amount of your time understanding the metrics in your business and how those metrics are moving over time.

Quick advice: If you do experiment with pricing, try hard to take care of your early customers with some sort of “grandparenting” clause.  It’s good karma.

Visibility and Brakes Let You Go Faster. One of the big benefits of SaaS businesses is that they often operate on a shorter cycle.  You’re dealing in days/weeks/months not in quarters/years.  What this means is that when bad things start to happen (as many experienced during the start of the economic downturn), you’ll notice it sooner.  This is a very good thing.  It’s like driving a fast car.  Good breaks allow you to go faster (because you can slow down if conditions require).  But, great visibility helps too — you can better see what’s happening around you, and what’s coming.  The net result is that the risk of going faster is mitigated.

Quick question: If something really big happened in your industry, do you have internal “alarms” that would go off in your business?  How long would it take for you to find out?

7 User Interface and Experience Counts: If you’re used to selling client-server enterprise software that was installed on premises, there’s a chance that you didn’t think that much about UI and UX. You were focused on other things (like customization, rules engines and remote troubleshooting).  That was mostly OK, because on average, the UI/UX of most of the other applications that were running on user desktops at the enterprise sucked too.  So, when you got compared against the other Windows client-server apps, you didn’t fare too badly.  In the SaaS world, everything is running in a browser.  Now, the applications you are getting compared to are ones where someone likely spent some time thinking about UI/UX.  Including those slick consumer apps.  You’re going to need to step it up.  In this world, design matters much more.  Further, as noted in #2 above, success in SaaS is not just about selling customers, it’s also about retaining them.  If your user experience makes people want to pull their hair out and run out of the room screaming, there’s a decent chance that your cancellation rate is going to be higher than you want.  High cancellation rates kill SaaS startups.

Quick tip: Start recruiting great design and user experience talent now.  They’re in-demand and hard to find, so it might take a while.

—-

So, what do you think?  Are you running a SaaS startup now?  What have you learned?  Would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

You can follow me on twitter @dharmesh.
//

via SaaS 101: 7 Simple Lessons From Inside HubSpot.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Jul 19, 2010

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China grew >10% in 2009; about to surpass Japan

While getting gas (petrol for our international readers) this morning, I heard on NPR (National Public Radio) that China released it’s numbers this morning. Their economy grew by over 10%! There was a discussion about whether China would beat-out Japan in 2010 to be the #2 economy in the world; the US being #1. Well, I have to say: not bad for a bunch of communists. Oh, did we all forget? One consistent thing that I hear about China is that things happen gradually. So I’m wondering when their form of government will catch-up to their economy.

Now you may ask yourself: how did the Chinese do that in 2009—the year of pain and intense pucker-factor? Well, their Government pumped $1.44 Trillion (with a capital “T”) into their banks which in turn pushed it into the hands of the consumer and small business. Hey, didn’t we do that in the US? Why yes; yes we did. Except that the US banks horded the cash and kept a tight lid on credit. So, small businesses (which really fuel the economy and have the greatest affect on unemployment) still can’t get any credit, which means that they have diminished working capital and are stuck in survival mode. Also, this morning on the TV I saw a snippet with my idol Warren Buffet . He said that the current US “Stimulus Package” was like “taking 1/2 a Viagara” and that now we need to do the rest. Man, I love this guy!

In the interest of full disclosure; I have owned Berkshire-Hathaway for over 15 years.

Banks Hording Cash as of July 2009

PE Fundraising Hits Brakes

PE Fundraising Hits Brakes

Podcast: Listen to this article.

on 07 January 2010, 13:55

by Red Herring Staff

Private equity fundraising declined precipitously in 2009, according to a report, its worst year since 2004.

Industry researcher Preqin on Thursday reported that 482 funds worldwide raised $246 billion in 2009, down 61 percent from the $636 billion raised in 2008.

“Although investors are in a much clearer position now than at the start of 2009, the chances of a return to the fundraising levels seen in 2007 and 2008 are very slim, Preqin representative Tim Friedman said in a statement.

Particularly dismal, fourth-quarter 2009 saw only $35 billion raised, the lowest level since third-quarter 2003.

The biggest category of funding went to buyouts, raising $102 billion by 84 funds in 2009. The largest regional deployment went to North America, where 228 funds focused there raised $145 billion. That compares with 136 Europe-focused funds that raised $74 billion and 118 Asia and other world regions raising $27 billion.

LPs have seen lower investment returns and have less money to commit to funds, according to the Preqin report, and that isn’t expected to change anytime soon unless the exit market improves.

via PE Fundraising Hits Brakes.

Just finished reading “Too Big to Fail”: highly recommend

A little on the thick side (624 pages) but a terrific read.  I enjoyed seeing what happened behind the scenes and how these CEOs operate and interact.  Eye-opening…not just about financial & capital markets but on executive leadership.  Highly recommend reading this book even if you don’t care about Wall Street.

Most revealing was the significant impact of ex-US regulators.  UK stopped Lehman from being saved which then caused the domino effect.  Also, US regulators didn’t realize that UK, Japanese, and other ex-US regulations would shut down Lehman immediately and make the entire system collapse overnight …

Joe has read this book
Recommended

The Real Reason Brian Roberts Is Buying NBC

I was wondering why Comcast made a play for NBC-Universal.  This article explains the thought process.  I’m a big fan of HULU and online video services such as NetFlix, etc…  Not until reading this article, did I see the threat to the cable industry.  It’s at least a decade away but I can see how the current model will die.  Even then, it will take time; just like how it took a couple of decades for cable to usurp broadcast…but, its coming.

See Also: How Brian Roberts Is Selling The NBC Deal To Wall Street

The Real Reason Brian Roberts Is Buying NBC

Say what you will about how media moguls will never learn: Comcast CEO Brian Roberts isn’t an idiot.

So what is he thinking?

BRIAN’S $15 BILLION BET

First, let’s review the terms of the bet:

  • Comcast is wagering about $15 billion (approximately half in cash and half in equity shares in its cable networks) in exchange for half of the New NBC Universal.
  • If Comcast gets more than $15 billion back from the New NBC Universal in a reasonable timeframe, the bet will have paid off.

Comcast gets to keep half of the cash flow of the new NBC Universal each year, less interest costs.  In 2009, a crappy year, New NBC Universal will generate about $3 billion of cash flow.  Subtract, say, $1 billion of interest payments (on $9 billion of debt), and you’re left with net cash flow of about $2 billion a year.  Comcast’s share of that, therefore, will be about $1 billion a year.

Some scenarios:

  • Let’s assume the New NBC continues to grow. Comcast will get its money back in 10 years.  Any more cash or remaining value in NBC from then on will be upside.
  • Let’s assume that the new NBC Universal never grows again. Comcast will get its money back in 15 years.
  • Let’s assume that the New NBC Universal starts shrinking but doesn’t completely fall apart. Comcast will get its money back in 20 years.
  • Let’s assume that the New NBC Universal completely collapses. Brian Roberts will be proven to have been an idiot.

So that’s the bet.

Now, what is Brian Roberts really thinking?

He’s thinking: I’ve got cash coming out of my ears, I know the world is changing, and I’ve decided to buy myself a hedge.

A hedge against what?

A hedge against two things:

  • Further extortionist increases in cable content carriage fees
  • The gradual conversion of cable into dumb pipes that just deliver Internet access and IP-video

THE HEDGE AGAINST CABLE PROGRAMMING FEE INCREASES

Specifically, Brian Roberts is thinking that he’s sick to death of that bastard Bob Iger at Disney holding him up for higher carriage fees on ESPN, et al, every few years.  And, before he bought NBC, Brian was sick to death of that bastard Jeff Zucker holding him up for higher fees on CNBC, et al.  Etc.

Now, in the future, if anyone does any holding up, Brian Roberts is:

1) going to cash in, too (because now he owns a lot of cable programming), and

2) going to have more leverage in telling Bob Iger, et al, to take a hike. Until now, if Brian Roberts wanted to tell Bob Iger to take his ESPN and stuff it, he would risk losing a significant percentage of cable subs who are sports addicts.  Now, Brian Roberts will be able to say to Bob Iger, “Actually, we’ve decided to make ESPN a premium channel, because most of our subs are happy with the many offerings of NBC Sports, including our new NBC Sports ESPN-killer.  So if you want to jack up your fees, that’s fine, we’ll ask our subs to pay you for ESPN directly.”  At which time, Bob Iger, no fool, might say, “I think we’ll stick with our current fees.”

Either way, Brian Roberts is okay.

Those two hedges, by the way, may well help either the New NBC or the Old Comcast drive more dollars to the bottom line.  If this happens, Brian Roberts will get his money back even faster.

THE HEDGE AGAINST CABLE BECOMING A DUMB PIPE AND PROGRAMMING GOING A LA CARTE

Eventually, the current cable TV business is toast.  There is NO WAY today’s teenagers are going to be shelling out $150 a month to get 500 channels they don’t watch when what they do watch is available for free over the Internet.  Eventually, therefore, this whole “carriage fee” game is done–or at least radically changed.

But it’s going to take a while.  At least 10 years.

And all those future adults who are going to be watching TV for free over the Internet in 10 years are still going to need Internet access (or else how are they going to watch?).  And Comcast is in a great position to keep providing it.

So, regardless of what happens, Comcast won’t go to zero.  But if programming goes a la carte, providers like Comcast won’t get to mark up channels by buying them at wholesale prices, bundling them together, and selling them at retail anymore.  Instead, they’ll have to settle for getting, say, $50 a month for providing your Internet access and phone and just letting all the video providers sell to you directly.

Now, providing a fat dumb pipe is not a bad business.  And Internet access might be so important at that point that Comcast might be able to jack up prices to, say, $75, with no programming fees (which would be less than you pay for your internet access and phone now).

But it might be a worse business than the one cable has today.  In which case, Brian will have hedged his bets by taking a big chunk of cash and buying something else with it.

OF COURSE, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A GUARANTEE

How can Brian Roberts lose?

A couple of ways.

First, he can blow the execution, like AOL Time Warner did.  But this is a business that Brian already knows, and it won’t involve smashing two completely different cultures that hate each other together.  So the execution risk is less.

Second, cable can become a dumb pipe AND the TV programming business can blow up like the newspaper business–causing Brian Roberts to lose on both sides.

If that happens, Brian Roberts would have been better off selling the whole thing and buying a fertilizer company.

But Brian Roberts is a media mogul.  And there isn’t a media mogul on earth who would give up being a media mogul to run a fertilizer company.

via The Real Reason Brian Roberts Is Buying NBC.

Comparing Rallies – The Road to Recovery

I love this fella’s charts–especially now that they are showing a path towards recovery (and hopefully some employment in the very near future)

The Road to Recovery?

November 24, 2009 updated each market day

…this chart… It shifts the point of alignment from the pre-bear highs to the bear bottom in the Oil Crisis and Tech Crash, the first major low in the 1929 Dow, and the March 9th closing low for our current Financial Crisis.

As the chart illustrates, the S&P 500 lows in 1974 and 2002 marked the beginnings of sustained recoveries. The Dow low in 1929 failed 11 months later.

via dshort.com: Comparing Rallies – The Road to Recovery.

dshort.com Bear Turns to Bull?
November 24, 2009 updated each market day

The S&P 500 finished flat today (-0.05%). The index is 63.4% above the March 9th close, which is 29.4% below the peak in October 2007. Here is a StockCharts.com snapshot showing the relationship of the S&P 500 to its 50- and 200-day simple moving averages.

A Sad Truth re last year’s financial crisis

Interesting perspective…it’s not your Daddy’s stockbroker anymore…


A Sad Truth re last year’s financial crisis
October 14, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor
Wall Street Smarts
By CALVIN TRILLIN

“IF you really want to know why the financial system nearly collapsed in the
fall of 2008, I can tell you in one simple sentence.”

The statement came from a man sitting three or four stools away from me in a
sparsely populated Midtown bar, where I was waiting for a friend. “But I
have to buy you a drink to hear it?” I asked.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I can buy my own drinks. My 401(k) is intact. I
got out of the market 8 or 10 years ago, when I saw what was happening.”

He did indeed look capable of buying his own drinks – one of which, a dry
martini, straight up, was on the bar in front of him. He was a
well-preserved, gray-haired man of about retirement age, dressed in the same
sort of clothes he must have worn on some Ivy League campus in the late ’50s
or early ’60s – a tweed jacket, gray pants, a blue button-down shirt and a
club tie that, seen from a distance, seemed adorned with tiny brussels
sprouts.

“O.K.,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”

“The financial system nearly collapsed,” he said, “because smart guys had
started working on Wall Street.” He took a sip of his martini, and stared
straight at the row of bottles behind the bar, as if the conversation was
now over.

“But weren’t there smart guys on Wall Street in the first place?” I asked.

He looked at me the way a mathematics teacher might look at a child who,
despite heroic efforts by the teacher, seemed incapable of learning the most
rudimentary principles of long division. “You are either a lot younger than
you look or you don’t have much of a memory,” he said. “One of the speakers
at my 25th reunion said that, according to a survey he had done of those
attending, income was now precisely in inverse proportion to academic
standing in the class, and that was partly because everyone in the lower
third of the class had become a Wall Street millionaire.”

I reflected on my own college class, of roughly the same era. The top
student had been appointed a federal appeals court judge – earning, by Wall
Street standards, tip money. A lot of the people with similarly impressive
academic records became professors. I could picture the future titans of
Wall Street dozing in the back rows of some gut course like Geology 101,
popularly known as Rocks for Jocks.

“That actually sounds more or less accurate,” I said.

“Of course it’s accurate,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong: the guys from the
lower third of the class who went to Wall Street had a lot of nice
qualities. Most of them were pleasant enough. They made a good impression.
And now we realize that by the standards that came later, they weren’t
really greedy. They just wanted a nice house in Greenwich and maybe a
sailboat. A lot of them were from families that had always been on Wall
Street, so they were accustomed to nice houses in Greenwich. They didn’t
feel the need to leverage the entire business so they could make the sort of
money that easily supports the second oceangoing yacht.”

“So what happened?”

“I told you what happened. Smart guys started going to Wall Street.”

“Why?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” he said, making a practiced gesture with his
eyebrows that caused the bartender to get started mixing another martini.

“Two things happened. One is that the amount of money that could be made on
Wall Street with hedge fund and private equity operations became just
mind-blowing. At the same time, college was getting so expensive that people
from reasonably prosperous families were graduating with huge debts. So even
the smart guys went to Wall Street, maybe telling themselves that in a few
years they’d have so much money they could then become professors or
legal-services lawyers or whatever they’d wanted to be in the first place.
That’s when you started reading stories about the percentage of the
graduating class of Harvard College who planned to go into the financial
industry or go to business school so they could then go into the financial
industry. That’s when you started reading about these geniuses from M.I.T.
and Caltech who instead of going to graduate school in physics went to Wall
Street to calculate arbitrage odds.”

“But you still haven’t told me how that brought on the financial crisis.”

“Did you ever hear the word ‘derivatives’?” he said. “Do you think our guys
could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They
couldn’t have done the math.”

“Why do I get the feeling that there’s one more step in this scenario?” I
said.

“Because there is,” he said. “When the smart guys started this business of
securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place, who was
running the firms they worked for? Our guys! The lower third of the class!
Guys who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what a credit default swap was.
All our guys knew was that they were getting disgustingly rich, and they had
gotten to like that. All of that easy money had eaten away at their sense of
enoughness.”

“So having smart guys there almost caused Wall Street to collapse.”

“You got it,” he said. “It took you awhile, but you got it.”

The theory sounded too simple to be true, but right offhand I couldn’t find
any flaws in it. I found myself contemplating the sort of havoc a horde of
smart guys could wreak in other industries. I saw those industries falling
one by one, done in by superior intelligence. “I think I need a drink,” I
said.

He nodded at my glass and made another one of those eyebrow gestures to the
bartender. “Please,” he said. “Allow me.”

Calvin Trillin is the author, most recently, of “Deciding the Next Decider:
The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme.” This piece appeared in the NY Times.