Complexity of Building a SaaS Software Channel Program

Complexity of SaaS Pricing

Complexity of SaaS PricingIn my previous blog entry, I discussed about the complexity of channel development and channel alignment. I recommended for SaaS software vendors to use Business Model Canvas to compare the business model with the assumed business model of its prospective channel partner.

During the past few months I have spent time building a SaaS channel development educational program, a program that I wanted to be not only actionable, but providing information of all of the needed drivers that SaaS software vendors should be thinking about when building its channel strategy.  Call me old fashioned, but my  philosophy is to educate people of things that I have personal experience in. There are lots of consultants that “help” their clients doing things such as channel development, consultants that have never sold anything, but have read about it in books.  My strategy is to build something that is concrete and actionable (not academic) that my audience can use when thinking about their SaaS channels.

The way I initiated the development of the channel development alignment educational program in was to reflect on my own channel development experience (both as channel builder as well as reseller) and list the main things that I felt were crucial in getting channel partners to become excited. The way I started working on it was not from a traditional channel perspective. I asked myself a simple question: how is the channel partner going to make money? Once we identify this, we can worry about the software vendor (ISV) as without a profitable business model for the channel partner, there is no need to invest time and energy to plan something that will not work anyway.

If the financial success of the channel partner should be the foundation for the software vendor to evaluate the channel strategy, it is easy to assume that it is important for both the software vendor and the channel partner to understand how SaaS financial will change the business model and what kind of drivers each party needs to be thinking about. Therefore, I believe that every person working in the SaaS world needs to have a good and solid understanding in how the financial and operational model will change when running a SaaS business. I am sure that the CFO of the ISV and channel partner appreciates this.

I spent considerable time in reviewing the topics that both ISVs and channel partners should be thinking about. Besides having a solid understanding in SaaS financials, any vendor in today’s world has to be thinking about business model innovation and topics around that. How do we stay relevant today, tomorrow and next year? What is happening in our marketplace and what kind of actions do I have to take to ensure that my services or solutions are also appealing in the future? You would not believe how many organizations ignore this….it is amazing.

Another important factor to think about is to understand the expectations from the channel and ISV perspective. What can the ISV expect from the channel and what should the channel expect from the ISV? This is a also something that has changed in the last couple of years as channel partners have a tough time to adjust to the recurring revenue model from the traditional “one big lump sum model”. Besides this, traditional channel partners are not very good at account management and this is a huge issue for SaaS vendors as upselling and ensuring retention is a top priority to any SaaS vendor. The ones that have negative churn can say that they have been successful at least in the upsell to existing clients.

Channel roles and responsibilities is a topic that seems to be very unclear to both software vendors and channel partners. Basic questions such as “who is going to provision the cloud instance” is not clear and questions such as billing is also a question that many struggle with. Should the software vendor manage the billing or should it be the channel partner? What if the end customer does not pay the bills, should the software vendor still bill the channel partner and even take them to court for unpaid balances? In the traditional channel world we can argue that most of these types of questions could be easily sorted out due to known practices, but the SaaS/app world is still a bit unclear who does what.

Part of the channel profitability discussion should be a discussion of channel margins. In my course, I will give examples of a typical channel partner scenario where we will model one sales rep and his/her targets and what it means to the channel partner. This type of exercise is extremely health for any software vendor to see the reality of a channel partner and their desire to build a solid business. If you are a software vendor, have you modeled the channel partner business and how your solution might play in that space?

And finally, any software vendor will either become successful or fail and it is going to be based on the channel program that the organization is going to build and maintain. During my SaaS channel development course, I will also address the main drivers of channel management and key issues that an ISV need to be thinking about.

It was fun to create this course as everything is based on experience either from my own work or the teams that I have worked with for more than 20 years. As said, I do not believe in education of best practices if the person does not have any personal experience. This type of experience comes with blood, sweat and tears.





photo by: Sean MacEntee

Cloud ISV: Are you managing your Customer Churn and what tools are you using to control it?

How do you make sure that your SaaS application is relevant and the end users are happy with the solution? In the past, you were able to charge for the solution in one big payment, but with the new subscription-based licensing model, you will have to retain the customer happy throughout the contract period and if the person is not happy, they will not continue using the software.

I have stated before in my blog posts that a net new client and the associated Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC) will have to be absorbed in a year or less, but the reality is something else. Therefore, if the customer quits using the solution after the first contract term (typically one year), the ISV will not even recoup the costs that were accumulated to get it in the first place.  If you look at the included picture from Joel York (2010), you will see that the ISV will cover the overall customer acquisition costs by signing up new customer and eventually the ISV will make a profit as it will cover the CAC costs when the Churn is also considered.  I explained this in more detail in my blog entry “ISV transitioning to the Cloud, Cloud Financials and Operational Metrics”

Churn and CMRRAs developers and engineers, we typically fall in love with what we do and we expect the end users to do the same thing. Wrong. Won’t happen and have been there, done that. What we need to be doing is to building employee software as the Bessemer Top 10 Cloud Computing Law states (#Law5) and I described this in my previous blog entries. If we do not use the software ourselves within the company and act as real customers, why would we expect customers be the ones where we test the usability. You would be surprised how many times we have seen solutions entering the market without any testing. The question now becomes how the solution can be tested prior of delivery and also in scenarios where the SaaS ISV enables a trial version of the software. How can the ISV make sure that most of these trials are converted to real customers? How can we monitor the application usage and also identify possible use cases that lead to an unsatisfied customer/user?

Luckily, there are some innovative companies thinking about this and one of these is Totango that has recently announced a beta version of a solution that helps SaaS vendors to be more effective in retaining customers and also converting trials and freemium licenses to fully paid clients. According to article, many SaaS vendors have adopted a freemium pricing model, which is an evolution of the traditional 30/day free trial model according to The freemium model enables users to use the software in perpetuity, but the freemium model is usually missing some key components/elements that the user organization needs and will there want to upgrade to.

Totango  provides an “instrumentation layer” that tracks relevant business events that enables the ISV to really understand the application usage. The funny thing is that I used to build this kind of functionality into business intelligence solutions, specifically executive briefing books so we could evaluate if a report/graph was necessary and what had to go away. Back then, we wanted to make sure that the decision support group did not build charts/reports that were useless as this would be waste of time and money. Today a SaaS application that does not appeal a user will lead to churn and churn and low growth means slow death to the SaaS ISV. It is as simple as that.

ISV transitioning to the Cloud, Cloud Financials and Operational Metrics

I divided in my previous blog post how a cloud transition will impact an ISV. The first blog entry was about the change in business model and this blog entry is about the impact in financial model. However, it is important to recognize that the financial side has lots of different drivers and I will only portray a few of these in this entry, and deal with some others such as sales related metrics later.

Independent software vendors (ISVs) have the concern of profitability when running a cloud business. Mature software vendors with ongoing annual maintenance and support revenue are wondering how to make a transition to avoid future cash flow issues. The most typical question that I get from ISV management team members is: “how do we transition to the cloud without jeopardizing our current business?” Unfortunately there is not one and simple answer to this and what nobody wants to hear as an answer is: “it depends”. There are many different variables to consider and some of them are ISV specific and cannot be generalized. It is like comparing two different cars that have a different purpose: one that is used for racing and the other for transportation of heavy equipment. How does one compare these two and what is the comparison metrics?

I can still remember my early career when we did a bunch of comparisons between publicly traded companies in my business school using metrics that was regarded as “industry norm”. We had to learn in our accounting class each ratio that could be calculated concerning income statement and balance sheet. When we added cash flow statement to the equation, we were sometimes completely lost… me included. Once I understood the connection between income statement and balance sheet, life become so much easier. I would argue that ISV management has to do the same thing to really get to understand where a cloud business is taking them. I am sure that the ISV CFO and controller are on the right page, but I am not that convinced that the management team members all understand the impact of the change. That is just my observation from both research and talking to a bunch of entrepreneurs.

It is obvious that accounting metrics has not changed but was has changed is how we measure our operational activities that eventually leads into the financial accounting metrics that we track and our auditors are interested of.  If we change our model from classic perpetual software licensing model to subscription-based model and keep our operational metrics in the prior, I will guarantee that the company will run into a wall pretty soon and one of the things that would be recognizable is that there is no cash in the coffers.  Do we really know how to recognize revenue in a way that tax authorities are OK with it? Do we know how to recognize service revenue with a software sale from revenue recognition perspective? You do not want to find this out later on when an audit is taking place or when you are during due diligence when selling your company.

The ISV management has many questions to answer. Is your current business and software solution built in such way that it is easy for the current client to move to pure SaaS environment? What is the current complexity of your solution and does it require lots of human interaction to get delivered? Does your solution have lots of integration points to other operational applications? Does your current software solution support a migration to a pure SaaS environment? If it does not, what is the alternative? I am sure you are getting my point here. Running a solution from the cloud is not just to “port” the solution, but it is to have it run natively and I do recognize that this is not easy for many legacy ISVs.

What about the financials? The number one term that you need to familiarize yourself with is CMRR (Contracted or Committed Monthly Recurring Revenue), Churn and Cash. Other key metrics are Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC), Customer LifeTime Value (CLTV) and there is a bunch of others that are related to different operational functions such as sales, marketing etc.

Fortunately there are lots of good resources in the Internet that I have found very helpful in doing my own research. Many of these examples come with lots of use cases and practical advice so my recommendation to any ISV is not to try to figure these out on their own, but to really learn from what is already known.

Some of these resources such as David Skolp that maintains a blog for entrepreneurs with a specific focus on SaaS business as well as Joel York that brings lots of financial mathematics to the game. He also addresses something that I have not seen anybody else do which is the concept of Net Present Value (NPV) in the calculations.

What many ISVs forget is to keep their Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC) down as much as possible as many ISVs are still used to the old model where the prospect/lead needs lots of human interaction before the deal is closed. This is no longer possible in scenarios where the price is on a level that the ISV can never achieve break-even with providing too much support in the deal closing. If you look at the Customer LifeTime Value (LTV) and Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) figure below, the trend needs to be according to the following picture.

LTV and CACIf the ISV did not control the CAC, it would very soon run into a situation where LTV and CAC are getting closer to each other and the ISV would be bleeding money.

Following picture from Joel York gives an even more interesting view how Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC) combined with Churn will impact an ISV and how each customer adds to the accumulated CMRR until it covers the accumulated CAC cost. In the picture the sixth client creates a situation where company becomes profitable. The picture also shows how churn will impact the overall MRR with time.

Churn and CMRRThe picture gives us an idea how CAC and Churn plays a central role in SaaS financials, but there are many other financial measures that an ISV should think of and also measure. Skok provides an interesting breakdown in how key SaaS goals can be divided into different components: Profitability, Cash, Growth, Other (like Market Share) and each one of these components can be divided into smaller components.

If we further divide the profitability into components, this is how it can be seen:

Profitablity in ComponentsWhen you view the picture in more detail, you can see how Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC) and LifeTime Value (LTV) drives the customer profitability, Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) and Services Revenue drives the overall revenue and when you add expenses and COGS to the formula, you will have the regular accounting related profitability. Measuring your employees can be done from many perspectives and I will address sales measurement separately in a later blog entry.

As we can see, there foundation for an ISV is still the same, to generate ROI for the investment and dividends for the shareholders. What has to change is how and ISV measures the operational activities when running a SaaS business. ISVs that have not made the move towards the Cloud might really have issues with their competitiveness going forward. My recommendation to mature ISVs is to start looking what can be done in the cloud world and get the development team focused on the changes that a pure Cloud solution will require to be truly multi-tenant so the ISV can achieve the scalability benefits of a PaaS platform such as Windows Azure. Stay tuned for more about metrics and changes in operational models for an ISV.


An Independent Software Vendor (ISV) moving to the cloud – what are the financial implications of this?

I have to say that I am living in a nirvana from a researcher perspective (even if I am an entrepreneur on daily basis working with practical execution). Nobody of us will have the chance to experience too many profound transformations in our lifetime. I was asked to write a report on ISV transformation from traditional software business to cloud business from financial perspective and I loved the nights and weekends that I spent on the Internet doing research. Coffee, music in the background, two large screens side-by-side and the feel of really learning and assembling pieces of information together is a feel that is hard to explain. No wonder I like to write books, dissertations, and reports…

My personal background is that I came from school when minicomputers such as HP3000, VAX/VMS and later UNIX computers where the ones that software was built to. The next era was the move towards client/server architectures where I really made my personal career in product development. Then we all remember the short period of web-enabling solutions and the huge investments in hosting facilities which many have now disappeared. This new cloud/SaaS era is much more than just making your solution web-enabled. It will change not only the way you build software, but it will change the way you run your business. Let me explain how by reviewing the picture:

The Cloud ImpactI will start with the business model in this blog entry and continue with the others in later blog entries. The change from perpetual software license model to subscription-based model will change the way the ISV sells its solution and it will change the way the ISV structures its partner channel. It will also change the way the ISV markets its solution. The main driver for this is that the ISV will not be able to sustain its cash flow with a traditional sales model as the sales team needs to keep much higher pace in sales when moving to the cloud environment. The sales model for an ISV has to be either fully automated with customer self-service or it can be highly transactional where you can have some human elements but the amount of transactions will cover the cost of maintaining people to close the deal. The ISV has to be able to control the Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC) as that is one of the key drivers to be able to achieve break-even point and start generating pure profit. This does not typically happen in less than a year, whereby the ISV has to maintain a happy client so they sign up for a new contract period assuming that the contract period is 12 months. I will analyze the metrics in my later blog entries. This just gave you an example of the operational changes that an ISV will experience.

How does an ISV manage to plan appropriate scenarios that it can take when moving to the cloud? Obviously, the assumption is that the Board of Directors have made a decision that the ISV has to make the move to survive in the new global competition where anybody from anywhere in the world can enter the competitive field. There are no geographical borders that will keep the ISV from competition. If you are an ISV from Italy, you can expect to get somebody to enter your territory from France, Germany, Brazil or Bolivia. Once the strategy has been set, you will have to use a model to operationalize your strategy and I am used and thrilled about Dr. Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas that provides all of the needed elements to analyze and “paint the picture” on a high level. I have witnessed several experienced senior management team members to become enlightened of the power of the canvas and it really has become our number one tool when working with ISVs. The Business Model Canvas consists of nine building blocks: Value Proposition, Customer Segmentation, Revenue Streams, Cost Structure Key Resources, Key Activities, Channels, Customer Relationships and Key Partnerships.

Business Model CanvasThe power of a business model framework such as Business Model Canvas is that the management is compelled to take a position on each of the nine building blocks on a Business Model Canvas. Each building block can also have its own key metrics and these can become the foundation for a dashboard that the management team tracks on the monthly basis.

Besides the question whether the ISV has the right core competence to move towards a cloud business, the key question that any ISV has is how this change is going to impact the financial model and the canvas above shows how the Revenue Stream building block has to be in balance with the Cost Structure block. In the perpetual software business model the metrics on the cost structure and Revenue Streams are completely different.

To summarize, the ISV and its management has many different questions to answer in its journey to the cloud. The first is to make sure that the owners, the management team and the Board of Directors have a common understanding where to go with the strategy. The role of the Business Model Canvas is to help the ISV to lay out a few possible operational scenarios that it can take in its cloud transformation. In my next blog entries I will explain in more detail the financial impact on an ISV when moving from traditional perpetual software license business to subscription-based business model. Stay tuned for more.