There is an important difference between revenue and bookings that comes into play for early stage SaaS businesses that are growing rapidly. This difference has implications on both the revenue and cost side of the equation and can also affect important decisions such as how much to raise when speaking with the investor community.
Before we get to growth SaaS businesses, however, let’s first talk about legacy software pricing. In the traditional software world, software was typically sold as a perpetual license. Customers would make a one-time payment for perpetual use of software and pay for annual support and upgrades each year. In this world, bookings = revenue and revenue was generally recognized at the time the contract was signed and the software provided to the customer. The benefit of this model was immediate revenue recognition; the downside was lumpy and unpredictable revenue.
In the SaaS world, software is provided on a recurring (often monthly) basis. The software, support and upgrades are all included in the subscription. This allows for stable and predictable revenues that are smoothed out over the life cycle of the contract. The down side, however, is that there is often a discrepancy between bookings and revenue that must be understood and accounted for appropriately.
This issue is best understood with an example. Assume for a moment that a SaaS business is selling software in 3 year contracts and that churn is 0% (for simplicity.) In a flat revenue business, where growth is 0% YoY, there are no major accounting issues or business implications because revenues = bookings. For example, if bookings are flat at $100M, the business would recognize $100M of revenue each year. $33M from 2 years ago, $33M from last year and $33M from this year.
The challenge that comes into play is when a SaaS business is in growth mode. For example, a SaaS business that books $25M in Y1, $50M in Y2 and $100M in Y3, would have the following revenue numbers:
As seen in the table above, for a growth stage company that is doubling in bookings YoY, revenues do not equal bookings. There is a lag effect between bookings and revenue and it becomes necessary to take a haircut on bookings to get to revenue. This haircut will of course decrease over time as growth slows, but it does create an important accounting dynamic that has real business implications
One of the largest implications for early stage companies is in the amount of money a SaaS business must raise when going out to the VC market for financing. The underlying cost structure (COGS, sales expense, marketing expense, R&D, etc.) must be looked at as derived from bookings not revenue. This is a result of the fact that the SaaS business is incurring these expenses as a proportion of bookings not the revenue actually being recognized. Because expenses are incurred in line with bookings (and bookings > revenue), the result is that EBITDA is low (and generally negative for most early / growth stage SaaS companies). EBITDA ultimately ties to cash flow, burn rate and the required investment. Thus, it is key to make sure the raise is in line with what the business needs from a cash flow, and ultimately booking / expenses, perspective.