Over the weekend, Mark Suster and Fred Wilson each put up awesome posts discussing the idea of profitability in startups. Mark’s is a master class about how to look at the financial characteristics of a startup and Fred’s discusses what he’s been working on with some of his more mature companies.
They are both worth reading right now. I’ll be here when you get back.
Between the spring of 2000 and the end of 2001, I had the worst, most stressful, and most painful business period of my life. While I’m sure the financial crisis of 2008 was worse for many people, for me it paled in comparison to the misery of this 21-month stretch.
A very simple thing happened that year in my world. The market shifted from rewarding (and funding) growth to rewarding (and funding) profitability. It happened over a few quarters, but with the perspective of time and age, it feels like it happened overnight. I remember the trigger point being a 3/20/2000 article in Barron’s titled Burning Up: Warning: Internet companies are running out of cash — fast. I was on the board of several companies on their list of 100 public companies that would be out of money by the end of 2000 and remember that my reaction to the article was anger, frustration with being maligned, and incredulity that Barron’s would write such an irresponsible article.
My reaction was stupid and immature. Instead, I should have paid attention to the message, thought about it, and taken appropriate action. Instead, I, like many of my colleagues (investors, board members, founders, and CEOs), operated in a state of blissful denial until everything blew up.
I learned that the markets reward growth until they don’t. Then they reward profitability. The trick is to be in a position to make the switch when you need to. Lots of CEOs and boards fantasize about this, but don’t actually have a plan in place to do this as they expect the future – where the switch from growth to profitability – will never come. Or, they hope the exit will happen before this moment.
I was too inexperienced in 2000 to understand this. Given the exuberance, many of my mentors, who had been through other financial cycles, chose to ignore this. The phrase “it’s different this time” echoed broadly throughout the land. I succumbed to the siren song of growth at any cost and paid the price – both literally and figuratively.
Now, I have zero prediction for when the markets will shift from rewarding growth to profitability. Instead, I operate under the assumption that this can happen at any time, and the best companies can grow quickly and either be profitable or be able to become profitable by making manageable modifications to the cost structure within whatever cash constraints they currently have.
Some version of this was on my mind when I wrote the post titled The Rule of 40% For a Healthy SaaS Company in 2015 and the post titled Is 2017 The Year Of Flat Headcount? earlier this year. While I think about this regularly, Mark and Fred’s posts prompted me to pile on to their point and write about it.
There’s a special bonus in Mark’s post, which is in the section titled Revenue is Not Revenue is Not Revenue. He does a nice job of discussing the importance of understanding gross margin and has a line that made me smile.
If you’re shaking your head and thinking, “duh” I promise you that even some of the most sophisticated people I know get off track on this issue of “gross revenue” versus “net revenue.”
I’d add that this includes getting confused about GMV and MRR when talking about revenue and amazingly occasionally confusing revenue with income. It keeps going, when one asks the question “does profitability mean being EBITDA positive, cash flow positive, or net income positive? Or something else?”
If you are a CEO of a company and any of this makes you nervous in any way, I encourage you to grab a few of your investors who have been investing in startups for at least 20 years, take them out to lunch, and talk through these issues with them to understand them better and figure out whether or not to care about this in the context of your company.
I’m seeing an endless stream of hardware-related companies these days. In our world, we are focused on software wrapped in plastic, a line I think I first used some time in 2012. If you understand our themes, it fits squarely within human computer interaction for us.
There was a point in time – probably less than six years ago – where very few VC firms would even consider an investment in a hardware related company that was aimed at consumers. Every financing for every company we’ve invested in this area has been extremely difficult. We were not the first, nor are we the only, but in 2010 it was a very large, very dusty, and very dry desert landscape.
Suddenly, hardware related startups are all the rage.
While there has been more clarity on the core long-term economics of a hardware business, I continue to be baffled about the lack of understanding – by both VCs and entrepreneurs – of the core economics of a business like this at scale. A few folks, like our friends over at Bolt, have written great blog posts on this, but I fear that they are being overlooked, unlike the 3,671 blog posts on SaaS software, especially around SaaS metrics.
I was listening to a panel recently where several hardware entrepreneurs were discussing their businesses. I asked a simple question: “How do you think about your gross margin?”
The answer was all over the place. There was a lot of focus on current gross margin %, vagueness about how to compute gross margin, and discussion on subsets of cost inputs. There was no consistency in definition or view, especially at different scale points of the business. I could tell the panelists were uncomfortable with the discussion and the audience seemed to want to just move on and talk about something else.
I expect over the next year there will be 174 VC-based content marketing posts about how to build a successful hardware business. If they emulate the 3,671 posts about SaaS-based businesses, there will be plenty that discuss gross margin and how to think about it. Hopefully they’ll include a bunch of derivative metrics around pricing, BOM, shipping, and channel mix. Maybe they’ll even include information at different scale points of the business and tie the metrics to marketing and sales expense.
For now, if you are a founder building a hardware-based business, I encourage you to get to know other founders who have built successful hardware-based businesses at scale and go deep on the financials of their journey. You might be surprised how little equity is actually required to build a marketing-leading, cash flow positive, high growth, hardware related company.
There are lots of blogs and anecdotes on (a) how to build a successful SaaS company and (b) what a successful SaaS company looks like. Yesterday’s post by Neeraj Agrawal from Battery Ventures titled The SaaS Adventure is another great one as he describes his (and presumably Battery’s) T2D3 approach.
I was at a board meeting recently and heard something I’ve not heard before from a late stage investor. He described what his firm called the 40% rule for a healthy software company, including business SaaS companies. These are for SaaS companies at scale – assume at least $50 million in revenue – but my Illusion of Product/Market Fit for SaaS Companies correlates nicely with it once you hit about $1m of MRR.
The 40% rule is that your growth rate + your profit should add up to 40%. So, if you are growing at 20%, you should be generating a profit of 20%. If you are growing at 40%, you should be generating a 0% profit. If you are growing at 50%, you can lose 10%. If you are doing better than the 40% rule, that’s awesome.
Now, growth rate is easy in a SaaS-based business. Just do year-over-year growth rate of monthly MRR. You can do total revenue, but make sure you do MRR also to make sure you don’t have weird things going on in your GAAP accounting, especially if you have one time services revenue in the mix. It’s always worth backtesting this with YoY growth of gross margin just to make sure your COGS are scaling appropriately with your revenue growth, regardless of whether you are on AWS, another cloud provider, or running bare metal in data centers.
Profit is harder to define. Are we talking about EBITDA, Operating Income, Net Income, Free Cash Flow, Cash Flow or something else. I prefer to use EBITDA here as the baseline and then back test with the other percentages. If you are running on AWS or the cloud, this should be pretty simple and consistent. However, if you are running your own infrastructure, your EBITDA, Operating Income and Free Cash Flow will diverge from your Net Income and Cash Flow because of equipment purchases, debt to finance them, or lease expense. So you have to be precise here with which number you are using and “it’ll depend” based on how your SaaS infrastructure works.
While the punch line is that you can lose money if you are growing faster, the minimum point of happiness is 40% annual growth rate. Now, some people will focus on MRR growth rate, others ARR growth rate, and yet others on weird permutations of year of year growth rate by month. Others will focus on the same strange permutations for GAAP revenue to justify growth rate. Regardless, you need a baseline, and I’ve always found simply doing year-over-year MRR growth rate to be the easiest / cleanest, but I always make sure I know what is going on underneath this number by using the other calculations.
I often hear – from sub-scale SaaS companies, “we can get profitable right away if we slow down our growth rate.” And – that’s often a true statement, but you will end up being sub-scale for a much longer time when you end up with a 20% growth rate and a 20% profit. So – if you are going to raise VC money, get focused on the T2D3 approach to get to scale, then start focusing on the 40% rule.
Last night I got an email with a Q3 sales update from a company I’m an investor in for a while. They consistently meet or beat their plan and are an extremely well managed business. Their plan for Q3 was aggressive in my book (and they’ve managed their costs to a lower outcome) had an expectation for what they would come in at based on data from as recently as last week. I knew what they thought the upside case was and didn’t believe it so my brain had locked in on a number slightly below or around plan.
I’ve found that the Q3 number is often the hardest to make when you budget on an annual basis – Q1 is easy since you have a lot of visibility, Q2 is harder, but doesn’t have as much growth built in as Q3, then you have a heavier growth quarter with the summer doldrums (Q3) followed by the insanity that is Q4 in the annual cycle. So I usually view Q3 as “hard to beat; challenging to make.”
This company destroyed their number. They beat plan and came in at the upside case. They ran the table on new business. It was awesome to see. And it blew my mind, in a pleasant way, as this is a humble company that doesn’t overstate where it’s going.
As we enter Q4, I systematically look at the performance of every company I’m involved in for two reasons. First, I want to make sure I understand the real trajectory as they exit the year as Q4 is often an outlier, usually to the upside, as a result of end of year purchasing. I also rarely pay much attention anymore to Q4 plans as they are almost always obsolete and instead focus on the cost / burn dynamic in Q4.
It’s harder to calibrate in cases like this when a company far exceeds their Q3 plan. It’s equally hard in the other direction when a company misses their Q3 plan. And it’s really challenging when there is a big step up for Q4’s plan when you start going into the 2013 planning cycle.
I’m curious how y’all approach this, both entrepreneurs when they are thinking about their own planning as well as investors / board members when they are reacting to the early data from Q3 and thinking about Q4 and 2013.