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.
I’m stunned by the lack of financial literacy of so many people in so many contexts. The commentary by politicians, economists, and the media on the European debt crisis and the US debt ceiling dynamics is appalling. The general media and blogosphere commentary on the financials of high growth companies, especially those who have either recently gone public or filed their S-1’s, range from perplexing to just plain incorrect. And more and more entrepreneurs who I’m exposed to who are presenting their companies for financing have a complete lack of understanding of their financials – both current and projected. Of course, some of my fellow board members don’t understand how to read financial statements either, which doesn’t help matters much.
In my experience there are four specific things that people struggle with.
- An inability to read the Balance Sheet, P&L, and Cash Flow statements.
- A lack of understanding of how the Balance Sheet, P&L, and Cash Flow statements fit together.
- A lack of understanding how non-accounting metrics (e.g. bookings) impact the financial statements.
- A lack of understanding of GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) and how to use the financial statements to help normalize out all the weird things GAAP makes you do.
I used to think it was all a GAAP problem. GAAP is complicated, continuously evolving and changing, and often creates more ambiguity that it resolves. But unless you actually understand how to read a financial statement, GAAP doesn’t even come into play. And by financial statement, I don’t just mean the income statement (or P&L) – I mean the income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement, along with understanding how they interact with each other.
If you understand how to read the financial statements, then you can start to solve for the GAAP challenges. You’ll be able to understand things like the implications of deferred revenue on cash flow, stock option expense on net income, and the actual equity dynamics of the balance sheet.
While there are so many things about this that I fantasize about (e.g. “the media would actually learn this stuff” and “accountants would make GAAP simpler and clearer vs. more complex”) the only thing that really matters in my world is that entrepreneurs understand how to think about this stuff. So, in the spirit of Fred’s MBA Mondays series, I’m going to write a series of posts that describe how my brain processes the financial statements of a typical high growth company with a goal of adding on to the great base that Fred has created.
I’m open for suggestions as to whether I should take on one that is newly public (e.g. the S-1 and historical financials are available), or a private company (I’m open to volunteers, although it’ll mean you are publishing your financials – at least at this moment in time.) If you’ve got suggestions or want to volunteer, just leave a comment.