Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The growing dissonance between two business models (SaaS and VC)

In our weekly investment team call earlier this week we decided to pass on two early-stage SaaS startups that were both on track to grow from zero to $100k in MRR in their first 12 months of going live. Both companies clearly had impressive traction, but in both cases we weren’t convinced of the market size and the opportunity to build a large, sustainable company. (We of course might be wrong, and maybe we’ll have to add both companies to our growing anti-portfolio list in a couple of years. I’ll keep you posted.)

Had I seen a SaaS startup with this growth curve in my first 2-3 years of SaaS investing (in 2008-2010) I probably would have asked “where do I have to sign?”. And chances are that it would have been a good investment. The reason is that at that time, growing from zero to $100k in MRR within 12 months was extremely rare and an indication of not only a great product and excellent execution but also a great market opportunity.

One could argue that I saw much fewer deals in general at that time and that, being an angel investor, I had lower ambitions than a VC. That’s true. But it’s only part of the picture. The other part is that even as recently as 6-24 months ago, we’d consider a SaaS startup with this growth pattern exceptional. Passing on fast-growing SaaS companies that are clearly successful and on to something is a pretty new and somewhat scary experience for us.

The driver behind this development is what my colleague Clément Vouillon has described as “The Rise of Non ‘VC compatible’ SaaS Companies”, that is the fact that compared to some years ago there are now many more SaaS companies that get to $1M, $5M, maybe even $10M in ARR. Arguably, there’s never been a better time to start a SaaS company. A much larger and more educated market, combined with vastly lower costs to create software, means that your chances of building a viable SaaS company have never been higher. 

For VCs, the question is how many of these companies can become large enough to make the (admittedly somewhat weird) business model of venture capitalists work. Large VCs need multiple unicorns just to survive. In SaaS, that means companies that get to $100M in ARR and keep growing fast beyond that mark. With a ~$60M fund, we at Point Nine may not need unicorns to survive, but we won’t generate a great return if we don’t have exits north of $100M either. And as much as I agree with this post on TechCrunch today when it says that starting and selling a company for $100 million dollars is an outlier event in terms of pure entrepreneurial probability, a big part of my daily motivation is to find some of these truly iconic companies that become much larger. I guess once you’ve seen it once (in my case with Zendesk) you get addicted and want to do it again. :-)

We've come too far
To give up who we are
So let's raise the bar
And our cups to the stars

(I’m not sure if I understand the meaning of these lines in the context of the song, but I love the song and had to think of these lines while writing this post.)

Coming back to our observation regarding the rise of bootstrapped SaaS companies, assuming our theory is right, it means two things:

1) We’ll have to raise the bar even further
There will be more and more SaaS companies that, based on the “pattern recognition” that we’ve developed in the last years, we’d like to invest in but will have to pass on. We can only make 10-15 new investments per year and we’re obviously trying to find the very best ones - the outliers among the outliers, if you will.

2) Picking might become even harder
If it’s true that there are indeed more SaaS companies that quickly grow to $1-2M in ARR but that increase is not matched by a similar increase of companies that become very large, picking the right investments will become even harder. To keep up with that challenge we’ll have to constantly ask ourselves if we’re still asking the right questions when we assess a potential investment.

What does it mean for SaaS founders? First of all, as mentioned above, we might live in the best time to start a new SaaS company that ever existed. Second, founders should ask themselves what kind of company they aspire to build and should only try to raise venture capital if they are convinced that they want to build what Clément called the “VC compatible” startup (check out his post for a little checklist). As Clément said, this is not about good or bad. The VC path is not better than the bootstrapping path. In fact, for the majority of SaaS startups it’s probably not the right one.

Not yet convinced that you shouldn’t raise venture capital? :) Let us know!

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