Metrics that Matter in SaaS

Today, software entrepreneurs are very fortunate to have a wealth of information available on the indicators and metrics to focus on when running a SaaS business. There is so much out there that it can be a bit overwhelming to absorb. With that in mind, I’ve put together a one page summary of the core areas every SaaS founder should focus on when first starting and running a SaaS business.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of every KPI but rather an 80/20 “boil-it-down-to-what-matters-most” view of the qualitative and quantitative indicators of the overall health of a SaaS business. This also doubles as a checklist when going out to raise an institutional round of capital (most VCs will ask for these metrics as part of their diligence process.)

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The way to think about it is in 4 categories.

  • (1) Qualitative: Indicators in this category, while not as quantitative as the rest on this list, are likely to be the most important for early stage companies. They include a sharp focus on the team and the founder(s). The product/ service itself and early customer feedback are likewise very important.
  • (2) Market Metrics: Venture investors care a lot about the market in which a business is focused on (and entrepreneurs should as well to ensure they are solving a worthy problem!) Key metrics here include the overall TAM and growth (or stagnation/decline) of the industry. In addition the competitive landscape, both the number of competitors and share of each competitor, is key.
  • (3) Financial Metrics: Metrics in this category tend to be a bit more objective – but even here much is dependent on the idiosyncrasies of a particular business, what stage it is in and the market opportunity ahead of it. Here, most financial metrics boil down to 3 things:
    • Top-line revenue and growth: CMRR/CARR is the most accurate predictor here
    • Margin profile: some combination of gross and operating margin
    • Cash position:both burn rate and runway
  • (4) Operating Metrics: Operating metrics tend to be a bit more unique in SaaS than in other business models. A good way to think about operating metrics is through three sub-categories:
    • Customer willingness to pay: a combination of ACV, NPS, expansion revenue, etc. combined with the pricing model employed can help determine overall WTP
    • Sales efficiency: magic number (developed by Scale Venture Partners) is a great metric as are payback period and sales cycle length
    • Churn: gross revenue churn is closely tied to growth but cohort analysis and the quick ratio (developed by Social Capital) are also good metrics to track

As mentioned earlier, there is a wealth of information on all of 4 of these areas as well as best-in-class metrics based on revenue, stage, etc. Some of the best material out there for further reading includes: Byron Deeter’s State of the Cloud report, David Skok’s For Entrepreneurs blog and Jason Lemkin’s content on SaaStr.

Bookings vs. Revenue in Early / Growth stage SaaS Companies

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:

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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.

Venture Debt: An Alternative form of Financing

In the tech ecosystem, we often associate entrepreneurial financing almost exclusively with venture capital. As a result, most of the fundraising resources for entrepreneurs are geared around venture capital. Likewise much of the media attention in the startup financing world is focused on venture capital investments.

The reality, however, is that there are many different forms of financing beyond traditional venture capital financing. And the type of fundraising instrument used is as important as the quantity being raised and who it is raised from. There is quite a bit of information out there about raising from friends and family, angel investors, crowd funding platforms and several of the other more common sources of financing outside of venture capital. But there is very little information about financing a startup through debt.

As such, Brian Feinstein of Bessemer Venture Partners, Craig Netterfield of Columbia Lake Partners and I put together a white paper on venture debt, which was released last week. It’s meant to be a fairly comprehensive guide for entrepreneurs who are interested in exploring venture debt as a viable option. Feel free to check it out here and send us any questions as they arise.