Sunday, April 02, 2017

Why startups should hire an HR person sooner rather than later

At the excellent SaaStr Annual 2016 conference about a year ago, a very experienced SaaS CEO said on stage that an internal recruiter can be a startup CEO’s secret superpower. I couldn’t agree more, and I think startups should make that hire sooner rather than later.

If you can hire only one or two handful of people with your seed round, hiring anybody who doesn’t either code or sell is hard to justify. Being willing to invest in an internal recruiter or talent manager (or more broadly, an HR person) early on requires pretty big balls a lot of confidence. The right time for making that hire obviously depends on a variety of factors, but I would argue that most startups should hire an HR person sooner than they think.

Here’s why.

1) A great HR person can free up a lot of your time

Anybody who ever hired people knows that it’s extremely time-consuming. Let’s say you want to hire 10 people in the next 12 months. That means that you’ll have to:

  • screen around 500-1000 CVs
  • interview around 100 people
  • do 2nd and 3rd interviews with around 20-50 people
  • do a few dozen reference calls
  • negotiate compensation and an employment contract with 10 people

The numbers can obviously vary greatly, but you get the idea. It’s a lot of work, and if you have only developers and sales/marketing people in your company you’ll have to do the bulk of it yourself. An HR person can take over a significant chunk of that work for you.

2) A great HR person can help you make better hires

An experienced HR person will help you get more candidates, better candidates, and will help you get better at picking the right ones. As a result, he or she will increase the quality of your hires – which is obviously hugely valuable – and reduce the number of costly mis-hires. A great HR person will also help you to build a network of high-quality candidates early on – people who might not be a fit at the current stage but could become a great fit at a later stage.

3) A great HR person will run the process and help you build an employer brand

A great HR person will not only make sure that you have a great shot at hiring your favorite candidates, he or she will also run the entire hiring process for you and will ensure that you leave a great impression with the many candidates that you will not hire – which is important for your reputation. He or she will also help you to start building an employer brand and to become known as a great place to work.

4) A great HR person will save you money

Having an inhouse recruiter lets you save on fees for external recruiters. Since external recruiters usually charge 25-33% of the candidate’s annual salary for a successful placement, it’s well possible that your internal HR person will pay for him or herself by reducing the need to work with external search firms.

5) A great HR person will make your employees more effective

Guess what, adding 10 new people to your team not only means 100s of interviews, it also means setting up payroll for 10 people, onboarding 10 people, providing continuous training and support to 10 more people, and much more. All of this costs a lot of time which you probably don’t have. An internal HR person can greatly help you to take much better care of your team, thereby making your employees both happier and more productive.

Because of all of these factors, an HR person is one of the highest-leverage hires that you can make. Nevertheless, unless you’ve raised a lot of capital, bringing on an HR person instead of, say, another engineer, is still a difficult trade-off. So when is the right time? I don’t have a scientific answer, but I’d say that by the time you plan to hire 10 people in the next 12 months you should hire an HR person. This point in time will usually coincide with having found a decent level of Product/Market Fit and having raised a larger seed round.

As another rule of thumb, your HR person should probably come in somewhere between employee #10 and #20 at the latest. As an example, Front hired an internal recruiter as employee #19 – and it sounds like it was not a minute too soon!

Thanks to Jenny – our very own HR lady! - for reviewing an earlier version of this post and providing valuable feedback.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

5 ways, 100 million dollars, 100 free posters

I'm a big fan of ;)
If you're a reader of this blog, chances are that you've already come across my post about "five ways to build a $100 million business". Given that the post (and the infographic that we created recently) has for some reason resonated so well with lots of people, we thought it would be cool to turn the concept into a beautiful poster that you can put on the wall. The idea is that (besides being decorative), the poster can serve as a little cheatsheet to remind people of some important aspects of building a large business.

Below is the result that we created together with an excellent illustrator from Barcelona, Denise Turu. I hope you like it!

If you're interested in getting a physical copy of the poster please complete this short Typeform. The first 100 people will get a FREE poster. Afterwards we'll probably give it away for a nominal amount (to cover printing and shipping costs).

[Update: The 100 free posters sold out quickly. If you'd like to order the poster for a nominal fee please leave your email address here.]

Click for larger version

Monday, January 16, 2017

Impressions from the 5th annual PNC SaaS Founder Meetup (AKA PNC SaaS Camp)

We have a tradition here at Point Nine that once a year, we organize a meetup for the founders of our SaaS portfolio companies. The first meetup took place in SF back in 2012 and gave the founders in our (at that time still rather small) portfolio a unique opportunity to learn about what works and what doesn't work in SaaS, compare notes and share war stories.

About two months ago, the 5th annual PNC SaaS Founder Meetup took place in a small lake town a little bit outside of Berlin. To celebrate the 5th anniversary, we turned the meetup into a 48-hour long "camp" and invited about 150 founders and key people from our SaaS portfolio companies, along with a handful of external SaaS experts, to a nice resort close to Potsdam.

Here's a short video that we recorded at the meetup:

Spending two full days and two full nights together not only allowed us to put together an amazing agenda with more than 60 presentations and workshops; it also led to countless great conversations, connections, and friendships. We're truly thankful to all the amazing speakers and attendees who made this possible.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

SaaS Funding Napkin, the 2017 edition

Today is January 10, 2017. That means that in ten days, this jerk will become the leader of the free world. Ugh. It still feels surreal to me. In less earth shattering news, the fact that it's 2017 also means that my "SaaS Funding in 2016" napkin needs an update.

As a reminder, in the original post I tried to give a "back of a napkin" answer to this question: What does it take to raise capital, in SaaS, in 2016? Today I'd like to take a stab at the (early) 2017 answer to that question.

Like in the 2016 version, the assumption is that the founding team is relatively "unproven". Founders with significant previous exits can raise large seed rounds at high valuations early on, so the "rules" are different for them. On another note, when I say "what does it take to raise capital" I mean "what does it take to have an easy time raising capital from great investors". If your company doesn't meet the (very high) bar pictured on the napkin it doesn't mean that you won't be able to raise money at all. It just means that it probably won't be easy, that you will likely have to talk to a large number of investors and that you may not be able to raise from a well-known firm.

So, what does it take to raise capital, in SaaS, in early 2017? I don't think a huge amount has changed since I created the first version of the napkin about nine months ago, but here are a few observations:

1) The bar keeps getting higher and higher

I already wrote about the rising table stakes in SaaS two years ago, and since then the bar has kept increasing. The SaaS companies included in Tomasz Tunguz' benchmarking analysis of exceptional Series A companies grew on average from $10k to more than $90k in MRR in their first year of commercialization and then to over $400k of ending MRR in their second:

Twilio, Workday, and Zendesk have shown that the best SaaS companies can get to $100M in ARR in 6-7 years and continue to grow at around 50-70% year-over-year after hitting that milestone. Slack, unbelievably, reached $100M in ARR just 2.5 years after launch. Slack is an outlier even among the outliers, but getting to $100M in about seven years and hitting $300M 2-3 years later is the type growth which the best investors in the Valley are looking for in 2017.

I didn't have to make a lot of changes to the napkin to reflect this since the growth rates that I had put into the 2016 version were already in line with the "T2D3 path". I've increased the Series B amount, valuation and MRR range, though, and because the expectations of later-stage investors trickle down to the earlier stages I've changed the ARR potential number in the "Seed" column from "$100M+ ARR" to "$100-300M+ ARR".

2) Being a workflow tool is no longer enough

Investors are increasingly questioning if you can build a large and long-term sustainable SaaS business by being primarily a workflow tool. The thinking is that every successful software product will eventually be commoditized because it attracts lots of people who will copy the product and offer it for a lower price. That concern isn't new, of course, but given how crowded most SaaS categories have become by now, investors are increasingly looking for additional ways to build moat around a business.

So if you want to raise capital for your SaaS startup in 2017, investors will wonder if you can become a true system of record, build a real platform/ecosystem/marketplace or build a unique data asset over time. The latter option will get particular attention this year, so I highlighted that in the "Defensibility" row of the napkin. The ability to gather large amounts of data from the entire user base, and use that data along with AI/ML to make your software smarter, is one of the big themes at the moment. For what it's worth, I know AI and Machine Learning are a hyped topic but I think the hype is justified.

You might think that some of the things that I've written here – getting to $100M ARR within a few years, thinking about $300M ARR at the seed stage – are just crazy. I won't argue with that. The vast majority of SaaS companies will never get to this level of growth or scale, and yet they can be successful and profitable companies that generate life-changing wealth for the founders and great returns for early investors. VCs need outliers to make their business model work, but that's not your problem. If you think you don't have strong potential to become one of these crazy outliers, maybe VC isn't right for you.

OK. Enough words. Here's the 2017 SaaS Funding Napkin!

(click here for a larger version)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What we're looking for in SaaS in 2017

As the year is coming to an end I’d like to share a few thoughts on what we’ll be looking for in the SaaS world in 2017. This is not meant to be an exhaustive enumeration but rather a brief outline of a few big themes that I feel particularly strongly about.

1) Viral growth and/or negative churn

In the last couple of years I’ve come to the opinion that in order to build a SaaS unicorn you need to have either (a) a highly viral customer acquisition engine or (b) significant negative net churn (that is, a dollar retention rate significantly above 100%). The rationale behind this statement, which might seem odd at first sight, is actually simple math. If you don’t have negative net churn you’re losing an increasing amount of MRR every month to churn, simply because your churn rate is applied to an ever-increasing base. That means that as long as you have positive net churn, you’ll have to add an increasing amount of new MRR from new customers every month just to offset churn. As you’re getting bigger and bigger it will become extremely difficult to maintain a high growth rate if you have to replace an ever-increasing amount of churn – unless you have an inherently viral product.

At a somewhat theoretical level, what I’m saying is that since net churn MRR grows as a function of your MRR base, you better have a mechanism that lets you add new MRR as a function of your existing base as well. I know this is a somewhat simplified way of looking at it and I’m sure there are a few exceptions to this rule, but I’m convinced that almost all SaaS startups that want to become big should strive for viral growth, negative churn, or both.

Related posts (from this blog):

2) Obsessive focus on user experience

Companies like Slack or Zendesk have shown that a superior user experience can provide a decisive competitive advantage and can become a critical success factor for SaaS businesses. Pundits might object that you don’t win enterprise customers by having a prettier interface. I think that’s shortsighted for at least two reasons.

First, user experience is not only about making the UI more beautiful. As legendary UX expert Jakob Nielsen defines it, “user experience encompasses all aspects of the end user's interaction with a company, its services and its products”. An excellent user experience requires an elegant product that meets the needs of the customer and is a joy to use, but it goes beyond that. The design of your marketing website, the tone of voice of your marketing emails, interactions with customer service – all of this is part of the experience that you offer.

Second, today more and more buying decisions are made by the actual users of the software (e.g. someone in marketing looking for a marketing automation solution) as opposed to the IT department. When the buyer is also the user, usability becomes one of the key decision criteria.

This decentralization of software buying, which has led to the consumerization of enterprise software both from a product as well as a go-to-market perspective, is maybe the most important driver of change in the software industry that we’ve seen in the last 5-10 years. But it’s far from over. Millennials arguably have even less tolerance for slow, bloated, ugly enterprise software. If you grew up with UBER and Spotify, if you’ve never ordered a cab by phone and never went to a store to order a CD, chances are you expect your work software to work flawlessly as well. :-) As millennials continue to rise up the ranks, a focus on great design and a delightful user experience will become even more important for software companies.

Two of our most successful SaaS investments to date, Zendesk and Typeform, owe a large part of their success to what I like to call a “10x” improvement in user experience over the status quo. It will be extremely interesting to see which companies can accomplish a similar quantum leap in 2017 and how it will look like. Will it be a SaaS solution with voice as the primary form of input? A mobile-first SaaS app that truly leverages the smartphone’s camera, sensors and other applications to provide a 10x better user experience? Or a software with a conversational interface, powered by a bot? I don’t have the answer, but I’m pretty sure that new ways to input data – methods that are more natural than dropdown menus or smartphone keyboards – will be a part of it.

Further reading:

3) Smarter software and more automation

Up until recently, the main job of software was to make people more efficient by digitizing paper-based processes, doing calculations and enabling more efficient communication inside and between companies. This has led to huge efficiency gains, and I honestly have no idea how companies used to be operated without computers until 40-50 years ago.

And yet, the biggest disruption is still ahead of us. I am, of course, talking about artificial intelligence (AI). How long it will take until AI will reach human intelligence – or if that’s never going to happen – is an extremely interesting topic that goes far beyond the scope of this post (and of course one that I’m not an expert in). It’s safe to assume, though, that software is getting better and better at more and more tasks which were previously thought to be impossible for computers to learn. Watson’s victory against two “Jeopardy” champions a few years ago and AlphaGo’s win against one of the best Go players are two legendary examples, but there are lots of other, less publicized cases, of computers winning against humans.

If close to 50% of jobs will be done by computers in the not too distant future, as an Oxford University study suggests, this will of course have unprecedented consequences for our society. How those consequences will look like, and if the net impact will be positive or negative for most people, is another extremely interesting topic that I’m not going to delve into here. What’s clear is that this disruptive force will create enormous opportunities for SaaS companies.

With today’s software it can sometimes be hard for a SaaS startup to prove the ROI of its product to prospective customers. Putting a dollar sign on the efficiency gains that a customer can realize by using your software can be difficult, and your product may provide lots of pretty intangible benefits that are hard to quantify. Now imagine that your SaaS solution allows your customers to get work done with significantly less people or maybe no people at all. In that case, the ROI will be pretty obvious.

What if future versions of sales automation software will not make your sales force more efficient but become your sales force? I can’t imagine how bots could take over sales calls … or wine and dine with a client. :) But think about jobs like web-based prospecting, lead qualification or email campaigns and the idea starts to sound a lot less far-fetched.

Although we developed a strong interest in AI in the last few years we have not yet seen a large number of “AI startups” that we fell in love with (one notable exception is our portfolio company Candis, which is automating accounting work). This could be because the industry is still at a nascent stage or because it’s still early days for us in terms of learning and developing an investment thesis around AI, or both. In any case, we’re excited to spend more time on this topic in the coming year!

Further reading:

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

3 (free) tools to help SaaS founders with their 2017 planning

(As you can see, I really like :) )
In case you haven't started to think about your plan for 2017 yet, now's the time. To help you a little bit with your planning, here are three little tools that you might find useful. If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you may have seen them before.

1. Growth Calculator

This little tool allows you to enter your MRR as of the end of 2016 and a target growth factor for 2017. It then calculates your MRR target for the end of 2017 and shows you three different growth paths that lead to that goal. One is based on linear growth, one on exponential growth and the third one shows a trajectory between the linear and the exponential path.

Please note that although this Google Sheet may look a bit like a financial plan, it's not meant to be your plan. :) To create a credible and realistic plan, you need to have a "bottom-up" projection of your growth drivers (e.g. your conversion funnel, distribution channels and sales team quotas).  What this little calculator can do is quickly give you a sense for how much MRR you have to add each month in 2017 in order to reach your growth targets, so you can use it to play around with different scenarios and assumptions.

2. Sales Team Hiring Plan

This tool helps you find out how many sales people you need to hire in 2017 based on your growth targets and other import inputs such as your MRR churn rate,  your sales team's quota, ramp-up times, etc.

The model is based on an exponential growth path (i.e. #2 from the Growth Calculator above), i.e. it works with a constant m/m growth rate, which you can set in cell D11 and D12 for 2017 and 2018, respectively. You can easily adjust this to a different growth path by changing row 22 accordingly.

One of the things which the model doesn't take into account is employee turnover. In sales teams, employee churn can be significant, both because not every sales person that you hire will work out and because the average tenure of an AE might be only, say, two years. When I tried to add this to the model it became too complex for what I think should stay a pretty simple template. I might give it another go later. In the meantime, I'd recommend that when you build your own hiring plan, assume that if you need x AEs you'll have to hire n*x AEs, and that n is probably something between 1.1 and 2, depending on how good you are at hiring salespeople.

3. Financial Plan

This template helps you create a full financial plan that includes everything from revenue modeling to costs projections and headcount planning. If you look at it for the first time, it might look a little terrifying. I did try to keep it as simple as possible, but if you prefer a simpler version I also have an older, less sophisticated alternative.

I hope you find some of this useful. Happy planning!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Should you take small checks from deep pockets?

So you’ve recently started a company, you’ve started to talk to angel investors and seed funds about your seed round, and suddenly a large VC appears on the scene and wants to invest. What should you do?

First of all, congrats. If a large fund wants to invest in your startup, that’s a great validation. Second, if you can get the brand, credibility, network and support of a Tier 1 VC into your startup early on, that can be extremely beneficial. So you should definitely consider it. It’s a complicated question, though, and you have to carefully consider the pros as well as the cons.

In this post I’ll try to shed some light on this question. As a disclosure and caveat, being a seed VC I’m not a disinterested observer, since we occasionally compete with bigger funds on seed deals. I’ll try to be as unbiased as possible, and if you disagree with my views you’re more than welcome to chime in, e.g. in the comments section.

Further below is a simple matrix that might be helpful to founders as they consider having a large fund participate in their seed round. But first, in case you’re not familiar with the issue, here’s a quick primer. If you know what the “signaling risk” debate is about, you can skip the next fext few paragraphs.

Some years ago, many large VCs – $200-400M+ funds that typically invest anything from $5M to $20M or more in Series A/B/C rounds – started to make seed investments, placing a sometimes large number of oftentimes tiny bets in very early-stage companies. The intention behind these investments is not to make a great return on these initial bets. Consider a $400M fund that invests, say, $250k in a startup. Even if that investment yields a rare and spectacular 100x return, it means only $25M in exit proceeds for the fund. That’s a lot of money for you and me, but not a lot of money for a $400M fund that needs around $1.2-1.5B of exit proceeds to deliver a good return to its LPs. If a large fund writes a tiny check (i.e. tiny relative to the size of the fund), there’s almost zero chance that the investment will move the needle for the fund.

So what is the intention behind these investments? The answer is access to Series A rounds. The idea is that one invests, say, $250k in 50 companies, watch them carefully and then try to lead (and maybe pre-empt) the Series A rounds of the ones that do best. Even if most of these seed bets don’t work out – as long as the VC gained access to a handful of great Series A deals, it’s money well spent. At least superficially it makes a lot of sense for large VCs to employ such a strategy. Whether it’s also a good strategy in the long run, or if it leads to brand dilution and eventually adverse selection, is a different question and beyond the scope of this post.

For entrepreneurs, more VCs investing into seed rounds means easier access to capital. And as mentioned before, founders who raise a seed round from a large VC also get the benefit of getting a brand name VC on board early on and potentially they can tap into the firm’s support network. So far, so good - sounds like a win/win.

The downside of taking a small check from a large investor is what’s called “signaling risk”. What this refers to is the situation that arises when you want to raise your Series A round and your VC doesn’t want to lead. In that case, any outside investor who you’re talking to will wonder why your existing investor – who as an insider has or could have a great understanding of the business – doesn’t want to invest. Everybody in the market knows that if a large VC invests small amounts the purpose is optionality, so if the VC then doesn’t try to seize the option, people will wonder why.

There might be good reasons why your VC doesn’t want to invest despite the fact that your company is doing well, and you might still be able to convince other investors to take the lead. But as you can imagine, it won’t be easy: Investors see large numbers of potential investments and have to decide quickly and based on incomplete information which ones they take a closer look at. That’s why they are highly receptive to any kind of signal. If they hear that the large VC who did the seed round doesn’t want to do the Series A, they might not even want to take the time to dig in deeper and might pass right away. As Chris Dixon wrote in a post some years ago, “If Sequoia gave you seed money before but now doesn’t want to follow on, you’re probably dead.”

Long story short, raising a seed round from a large VC has clear upside but also big risks. How should founders decide?

Let’s look at the data. CBInsights has some very interesting data which shows that statistically, startups that raised a seed round from a large VC have a higher chance of raising a Series A later on. What the data doesn’t tell us is whether that is (A) because these startups benefitted from having a large VC on board early on or (B) because they were better companies than the average seed startup in the first place. Since the analysis was based on ca. twenty Tier 1 VCs – Benchmark, Sequoia, Union Square etc. – I believe there’s no question that the subset of startups that received seed funding from one of these firms is of much higher quality than the overall average. These firms all have massive deal-flow and are the best firms in the industry. They know how to pick well. I’m sure both (A) and (B) play a role, but since we don’t know the relative impact of the two factors, the statistics don’t answer the question.

Another, maybe more helpful way of looking at it is this:

1) Does the VC act with conviction or does he/she just want a cheap option, as Fred Destin put it.

2) How confident are you that you’ll have strong traction by the time you want to raise your Series A?

Putting these two factors together gives you a simple matrix:

Here’s how to read the matrix:
  • Top left: If the level of conviction of BigVC (at the time of the seed investment) is high and your traction (by the time you want to raise your next round) is extremely poor, there’s a chance that BigVC will put in some more money (to give you a chance to figure it out, turn things around, pivot,...). It’s not very likely, but since it’s easier for a large VC than for small investors to finance your company for another six months or so, having a large VC on board might be advantageous if you end up in this cell of the matrix. Based on this logic, my verdict for this scenario is slightly positive (that is, if you expect to end up in this cell, take money from BigVC).
  • Bottom left:  If the level of conviction of BigVC is low and your traction is extremely poor, BigVC will most likely not give you more money and probably nobody else wants to invest neither. In this case, the fact that you’ve raised money from a large VC probably doesn’t matter, but it further reduces the chances of raising from other investors. My verdict: Slightly negative.
  • Top middle: In the high-conviction / OK-ish traction scenario there’s a decent chance that BigVC will finance the company through a few iterations or pivots, something that is harder to do without a big investor on board. On the flip side, if BigVC does not invest in this scenario, that will create a very bad signal (as explained above) and greatly reduce your chances to raise from other investors. My verdict: Hard to predict, it can go both ways, so let’s say neutral.
  • Bottom middle: If BigVC invested with little conviction and your traction is OK but not great, it’s very likely that BigVC will not invest further. This is extremely problematic as it creates a bad signal (as explained above) and greatly reduces your chances to raise from other investors. My verdict: Strongly negative.
  • Top right and bottom right: If you have excellent traction, everything else doesn’t matter that much. If BigVC wants to lead or pre-empt your round, you might save a lot of time (but you might not get the best valuation). If BigVC doesn’t want to invest for some reason, you’ll find other investors, but it will be harder. My verdict: Slightly positive for high-conviction, slightly negative for low-conviction.

If you’ve read until here and you’re more confused than when you started to read, here’s the take-away of the analysis:

If the big VC who wants to invest in your seed round acts with little conviction, i.e. he/she really just wants a cheap option, you’re better off saying no regardless of what kind of traction you expect to have by the time you raise the next round. There’s very little upside but very strong downside. So if you have the opportunity to raise a small amount from a large VC and you know that the fund places dozens or maybe even hundreds of these bets, my advice is to say no.

If the big VC acts with strong conviction, there’s strong upside but also significant risk. In this case I don’t have a general advice, and the right decision depends on the level of conviction of the VC and on the value-add that he/she delivers. There are a few things you can do to to find out more about the strategy and value-add of the investor. First, ask the investor how many seed deals the firm has done in the last years and in how many of these cases they led or strongly participated in the A-round. Second, talk to a number of founders who have received a seed investment from the firm and ask them how it's like to work with the firm. Keep in mind that however you decide, it's an extremely important and irreversible decision - so think through it carefully and do your due diligence.