Seems like there was no agreement from the panel about what stage of investment was the most popular given the downturn. There were several Series A and Seed investments that were mentioned including Crowd Factory and Zuberance. One bright spot for investors was the fact that OpenTable has filed for an IPO, which would be a good step in the right direction given 2008’s anemic IPO performance.
Zombie Venture Capitalists
Most of the panelists had done some investments in the past six months but it is clear that SaaS entrepreneurs need to be on the look out for Zombie VC’s, who are still operating but are no longer making investments. These walking dead have their lights on, they have websites, and cash to support existing investments but no longer have enough cash to add new portfolio companies. In writing this post I even discovered that peHUB publishes a list of these Zombie VC’s. If they haven’t made any new investments during 2008, then I would be careful about wasting any time with these firms.
Flat is the New Up
One phrase that was uttered more than once is that ‘Flat is the New Up’. Although when it comes to Software as a Service… it appears that ‘Up is still Up’. Even in 2008, most publicly traded SaaS companies have bounced back from their lows by an aggregate of 20%, which is much better than the S&P 500. Apparently Wall Street likes SaaS companies and now are valuing them at 3 to 3.5 times their recurring revenues, unfortunately at the beginning of 2008 that number was closer to 8x. Keep in mind that this is better than a lot of public firms that are currently trading at their cash values. Other Wall Street analysts are valuing SaaS firms at 12x their cash flow but it is difficult to understand if there is a consistent valuation metric that firms or investors should be using.
Another interesting development is that Venture firms are now forced to value their private portfolio the same way they would value a portfolio of publicly traded stocks due to new accounting regulations (FASB 157). Based on the discussion this new regulation, it will only create more company valuation compression on top an already tough market for portfolio companies.
What Does a Good Investment Look Like?
So what are the VC’s looking for in an attractive investment in this market? Apparently the same things they were looking for in the past; a game changing idea, the team, the product and a big market. If you are a software company you better be offering a real SaaS solution or be leveraging the Cloud Computing to even be considered.
They are also looking for new portfolio companies to be more conservative about spending their precious cash. There is now an overt trade-off between the rapid growth rates of the last five years and capital efficiency to provide a longer runway for portfolio companies. The panelists indicated that they would like to see their new Series A companies, for example those who might raise $4 million, to survive at least for 18-24 months before going out for their next round! With the difficult market dynamics it is important for SaaS firms to form a strong syndicate when raising capital because your next round will be an insider round.
The panel indicated that they are looking for operating executives who know how to manage cash and scrub expenses. Another observation was that many of the early stage companies that they are seeing now are much more mature and well run than they were just a few years ago.
For public SaaS companies you are going to see a slow down in the rapid growth rates we were seeing from companies like Salesforce.com (NYSE: CRM) and SuccessFactors (NASDAQ: SFSF). Public markets want to see profitability first and growth now comes second. Momentum stocks, those with high growth rates were trading at 8-9 times revenues, like Salesforce and SuccessFactors, are giving way to slower growth companies that are profitable and are given a multiple on cash flows.
Customer Acquisition Costs
When building your SaaS business model, it is important to assume that for every dollar of recurring revenue you will probably need to invest $.50 to $1.00 in your Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC). It is important than ever to have an active program of testing various CAC channels and tactics to maximize your investments. Then you need to have a smart statistical framework that you can explain to your investors.
Smart firms like EchoSign and YouSendIt are creating leads virally by infecting their customers and they are finding that they are finding 1/3 to 1/2 of all of their leads are generated organically. It is also important to leverage distribution channels, especially companies that have access to large customer bases like Salesforce.com, Google, and Intuit. Take more of a focused approach to your customer acquisition efforts by targeting a vertical market and use the power of your customer referrals because ‘word of mouth’ is the least expensive and most effective lead generation engine. Keep in mind that your sales process needs to be as easy as possible, in other words it needs to be ‘friction-less’. When your prospects sign up for a trial, it only takes a few minutes and weeks and they can do it without any involvement from your company. Give them a free trial, a sandbox a free version.
So I came away from this panel discussion with the following advice for companies looking for funding in this environment:
- You need to still need to have a great idea, product and team but you might need to have reduced risk for your potential investors.
- Demonstrate your company knows how to stretch a dollar as far as possible. Fewer employees is better… think Craigslist.
- Show traction. Number of transactions, members, customers, revenues, profits.
- Shop carefully for your potential investors and don’t waste time with Zombies.