Thoughts on SaaS in 2017

When we started boldstart in 2010, a core thesis of ours was to invest in next-gen SaaS which we called SaaS 2.0 at the time and best highlighted in our end of 2015 review:

SaaS 2.0, reinventing for the mobile first workforce will continue to remain robust. We also see older school SaaS companies being rebuilt with more flexible back-end technologies like microservices and reimagined with a more responsive and beautiful UI.

While we continue to be excited about opportunities in SaaS startups, it is clear that the game has changed substantially since 2010. Despite the amazing productivity gains from open source, AWS, microservices and other new technologies, we have seen the time to launch extending and the cost of getting a minimally viable product (MVP) out the door increasing. So why is this the case?

  1. Most SaaS categories have multiple players and to build a transformative SaaS app means the bar to what a “minimally viable product” is much higher than it was 5 years ago. In other words, a MVP of 5–6 core features may now need 8–10 core. This takes more time, money, and resources. Founders need to make tough decisions on what their definition of feature parity is and what that one unique product angle will be to rise above the noise (more to come in a follow up post).
  2. The competition for talent has and continues to be fierce so as tech costs go down, human capital costs continue to increase.
  3. Cost of getting message to market has increased due to the noise from the many competitors in a particular space.

So what can a founder and investor do in this changing world?

  1. Go niche — pick a vertical, say old archaic tech and SaaS-ify it — my friends at appfolio have done a great job of this rearchitecting property management software, secure documents, and legal case management and they are growing nicely.
  2. Go big — you can’t be afraid to go after incumbents in the large markets because as they grow they can lose focus and underinvest in their technology and platforms. Salesforce is 15 years old and Workday is already 11 years old. We’ve taken this approach by investing in experienced founders with unique takes on old school large markets in certain categories like email, CRM, BI, or BPM and going after the big players from the bottom up. Many of these companies start with a simple wedge
  3. New category killers — make bets on the next potential category killers and SORs (systems of records) like collaborative data science, enterprise PII, or SaaS for professional services.

With respect to #2 above, we have always been believers in the idea that technology moves in waves and cycles. The larger an incumbent gets, the more it is tied to the short term public markets which moving upstream to larger customers and losing focus on product. Key to this is going bottom up, having an amazing product experience, and growing from there. Neal Conlon who used and loved salesforce at 8 different companies sums it up nicely in a recent post:

So a few months ago when I needed to invest in a CRM for my latest business it only made sense that as the CEO I #eatwhatIsell and reach out and get SalesForce. Like I love, love, love SalesForce. The easiest deal to close ever.

And yet the process for onboarding, the regurgitating of mundane process when I’ve asked for help, and the fact that the sales team knows nothing about me even with all the above mentioned data points are available just makes this customer journey painful. Nobody even looked up my social profiles during the buying process to get some insights.

This is happening across the board at these incumbents — small accounts don’t matter, they need to extract more money from their customers, and they need to get larger customers. This is all great news for startups.

Our approach at boldstart has been to go after 2 and 3, but we know many other investors that have done quite well going after 1. Whatever happens over the next few years, be prepared to spend more money and to take more time to get a product out the door.  The bar is substanitally higher to deliver a MVP and also for raising funds.

Be prepared for a shifting landscape on the feature parity front again in 2017 as we see an intelligent layer weaved across existing platforms, SaaS 3.0:

SaaS 3.0, many of leading SaaS companies are 8–10 years old on archaic platforms, opportunity to rebuild with new stack from back-end to front-end and go after large incumbents (our pitch in 2016 and continues in 2017). SaaS 3.0 is adding an intelligent layer to this new platform.

boldstart in 2016, enterprise tech in 2017 year in review, outlook for enterprise tech in 2017

2016 was a banner year for boldstart, and we could not have achieved any of this without the amazing support of our boldstart family and the founders who have given us the opportunity to invest in and partner with them.

Before diving into the standard year-end predictions on the enterprise, I thought I would share some data on our firm and our founding teams from 2016:

  1. we welcomed 9 new enterprise founding teams to the portfolio including Workrails (started by venture partner Jeff Leventhal), BigID, Hypr, Init.ai, and 5 stealth companies
  2. Thematically our new investments include 5 infrastructure/dev platforms, 3 security, and 2 SaaS; 4 are using some form of AI or machine learning; geographically 4 are in NYC, 3 Bay Area, 1 Canada, 1 Chicago
  3. 8 of our portfolio companies raised follow on Series A rounds with > $70mm raised and an average size of almost $9mm — announced rounds include Kustomer, Robin, Emissary, Replicated and Front — geographically 2 in NYC, 3 Bay Area, 1 Canada, 1 LA, 1 Chicago
  4. 4 of our portfolio companies raised Series B financings with close to $70mm raised and an average financing size greater than $17mm — announced rounds include security scorecard, handshake, and wevr — geographically 2 in NYC, 1 LA, 1 Canada
  5. fund iii had an oversubscribed closing of $47mm

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2017 will be big year for freelance economy Linkedin/Microsoft allowing users to hire freelancers in-app

When Microsoft announced the purchase of LinkedIn an overlooked element of the story was how they planned to give users the ability to find experts while inside of all office apps. Imagine being in powerpoint and having a sidebar to find expert designers who are connected to you for hire or sitting inside of Microsoft word and looking for some editing help from a contact of yours. This is going to be big and disruptive.

One of the key trends we have observed in our portfolio is that larger enterprises are looking to augment their teams using on-demand/freelance labor. We are seeing this across the board in companies like Wonder (on-demand research), Workrails (on-demand software consulting), Emissary (on-demand sales intelligence) and Crew (best freelance mobile designers and developers). We must all be wary of linkedin but I do believe there will be opportunities for incredibly focused startups to thrive in this space as LinkedIn and Microsoft make this more mainstream in the business world.

our journey to an oversubscribed fund iii for first check enterprise boldstart closes $47mm fund iii for first check, enterprise founders

 

This is a story about starting an enterprise seed fund called Boldstart in 2010 and our journey in enterprise since 1996. Despite our firm being a little over 6 years old, our individual stories go further back. We each independently fell in love with enterprise software 20+ years ago as seed investors (cos like gotomeeting/Citrix, greenplum/EMC, livperson/IPO LPSN) and founders (workmarket, onforce/Adecco, spinback/buddymedia/salesf0rce) and are now benefiting from the ecosystems, knowledge and network that we’ve collectively developed.

What seemed like a big bet in early 2010 was only us pursuing our passion. Our goal was to be the best first check partner for enterprise founders, bringing the value add of a VC firm while moving with the speed and conviction of an angel investor. We set out to build boldstart at the height of mobile app mania and viral growth and were faced with questions about our focus on enterprise and NYC. At the time there were only a handful of micro-VCs in existence, and despite going against the tide, we felt that the opportunity to build the first and best enterprise seed fund was a dream worth pursuing.

Today, we are super excited to announce our final close of $47mm for fund iii. This was oversubscribed from our initial target of $30mm

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The 4 Kinds of Series A Rounds in Enterprise roadmap for understanding how to go from seed to Series A

A wise VC once told me when dinner is served, you eat. When it comes to fundraising, I’ve learned that if someone is trying to invest now, you should strike while the iron is hot. Given that the headwinds are getting stronger, we at boldstart have been advising all of our portfolio companies to raise as much as they can as soon as they can and to make sure that every dollar spent has a real ROI.

Related to this, the question I am often asked is “what metrics do I need to hit” to get that next round. While super important, I always like to understand where the business is in its lifecycle before answering. Having spent the last week in several meetings with startups going from seed to A, I thought I would break down the various types of A rounds and the major 🔑🔑🔑 to success:

The 4 kinds of A rounds:

  1. No A round. Sucks. — self explanatory
  2. Vision A round, super hard — raise on the promise and pre-launch, on the vision, huge market with the killer team that can build and scale. sometimes easier to raise on the promise and the expectations of amazing success than after the launch
  3. Metrics A round, easier — killer metrics, repeatable growth and predictable sales model, used to be $80–$100k MRR/$1mm ARR, the bar is raising…
  4. Hybrid A, toughest — this is where you are between 2 and 3 and the hardest to get done.

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First enterprise customers – revenue or user engagement? need to optimize for engagement first, revenue comes after

Since we are seed investors in enterprise technology, I am often asked this question. The answer on the surface seems quite obvious — generate as much revenue as you can to prove that customers find value and are willing to pay. My answer is the less obvious one — focus first on user engagement and the revenue and bookings will follow.

Wait, isn’t user engagement more of a consumer metric? It is, but it is equally as important to focus on this metric in the enterprise. No matter what business you are in, you need to ensure that your ultimate customer (the end user) is happy and absolutely loves using your product. I have seen countless situations where a startup extracts initial dollars top-down from an enterprise but ultimately cannot get traction because the end users don’t love the product. Without love of product there is no user engagement, and without user engagement, there is no long-term customer.

This is especially important in the age of SaaS as switching costs are quite low for substitute solutions. This is also the reason why next to VP of Sales, I would argue a VP of Customer Happiness/Success is a crucial hire. One is for generating new revenue and the other is for expanding existing customers and reducing churn. It is also why a number of companies have been created to help understand and monitor user engagement in the enterprise to proactively determine issues before they happen (totango, gainsight, and preact — full disclosure, my fund is an investor)

What is user engagement in the enterprise? When understanding initial customer traction, we like to understand how a product/solution can/will become a daily habit for the user. It is pretty clear that the more an end user interacts with the product the more important it becomes and ultimately the more value it provides. Another important metric to optimize for would be expansion of users within an existing account. In other words, how do you sell into one user and create viral loops (sharing dashboards, etc) and expand the active user base for the product. Once again, this sounds like a consumer metric but quite an important one —the more people that use it the more it becomes part of the ingrained workflow creating more value.

The challenge sometimes is that many enterprise tech companies are designed to work in the background, invisibly to automate tasks or aggregate data to reduce noise. If your tech is seamlessly analyzing data in the background, you need to find ways to show the user how awesome your product is by either sending alerts or creating some other eye candy to remind the user that your product is working and important. I have seen a few of our portfolio companies implement some simple changes regarding this and see their usage increase significantly.

So to recap, revenue matters but the path starts with optimizing for the end user in the enterprise and focusing on engagement. Once you create happy end users who love your product, the revenue will follow.

Revenues kill the dream counterintuitive - short term revenue can sometimes come at cost to long term opportunity...

I was on the phone yesterday with the CEO of one of our portfolio companies, and we were talking about goals for the next few months and in particular, what the company needed to get a Series A done.

Her answer was quite simply “make the product delightful.” She continued: “I want to iterate to continue to make the product faster, better, and easier to use. I want to get the user to the “a ha” moment even faster.”

And with that I knew that she got it. The company paid user base is already growing rapidly but rather than focus on a couple of features that can boost MRR in the near term, she would rather focus on the longer term.

This reminds me of a quote from Yossi Vardi, founding investor in ICQ (creators of IM and sold to AOL).

“Revenues kill the dream.”

It may sound counter-intuitive but what Yossi is really saying is don’t sacrifice long term opportunity for short term revenue…

One VC’s take on NYC and Enterprise Tech enterprise tech in NYC on the rise!

When Willie Sutton, the prolific bank robber, was asked why he robbed banks, he answered, “because that’s where the money is.” When asked by investors in early 2010, why we were starting a seed fund focused on enterprise and leveraging NYC, I answered with Willie’s quip but also said, “because that’s where the customer-driven talent is.” One of the key criteria for successful enterprise investing besides team, product, and huge markets is ensuring that you invest in a “must-have” and not a “nice-to-have” solution. When companies are born out of real pain, more often than not this criteria is wholly satisfied!

I bring a unique perspective to this conversation having been a VC based out of NYC for the last 19 years (wow — am I dating myself!). While I have had my fair share of failures, I have also been a first round investor in many enterprise successes both in and outside of NYC, including leading or seeding the first round in LivePerson ( NYC, current market cap of $650mm), Greenplum (sold to EMC, now Pivotal), GoToMeeting (sold to Citrix, now Citrix Online doing over $600mm+ revenue), Divide (NYC, sold to Google), blaze.io (sold to Akamai), GoInstant (sold to Salesforce.com) and a few others.

Necessity is the mother of invention

As I think about common characteristics of great enterprise startups that I have had the pleasure to work with in NYC, I think about entrepreneurs building companies based on great pain, a deep understanding of the customer problem because they are customers themselves, and from that, using their computer science backgrounds to engineer a better and more scalable solution. Many of these great founders are simply hidden in larger companies, developing software for non-tech firms and functioning where tech is more of a support role versus front and center in terms of driving revenue growth. This is much different from entrepreneurs leaving established software vendors wanting to create a bigger, better, and cheaper mousetrap with a “great technology in search of a problem to solve.” While starting with a customer pain is great, the big question for many of these startups is whether or not this pain is a one-off or a market problem that is massive enough to attack.

Success Breeds Success

Divide

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When we first met Andrew Toy and Alex Trewby in mid-2010 they were VPs Wireless at Morgan Stanley and experiencing a huge pain point — employees were bringing in their iphones and android devices for personal use while still using their blackberrys for corporate purposes. Like any great entrepreneur, they asked the question, how do I solve this problem with software and allow companies to have the peace of mind and security policies needed for them while also allowing employees to use their existing devices. The challenge was to create a separate sandbox that could be easily used and understood. Rather than forking off android, Andrew and Alex built an App, something consumers could easily understand and yet make it easy for huge enterprises to deploy. The big bet in 2010 was that we would move to a BYOD world and that Android would become a dominant mobile platform (at that time, it was a big bet!) Hence Divide was born and 4 years later sold to Google and now branded as Android for Work with a stated goal of being on a billion devices. Pretty cool for two ex-technology execs at a financial services firm!

Security Scorecard

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We first met Alex Yampolskiy and Sam Kassoumeh in-mid 2013. They were both formerly Chief Security Officers at Gilt Groupe and were experiencing major pain in their day to day jobs. They were in charge of auditing the security of every vendor that touched the Gilt platform and all of it was done manually through intensive Q&A and when in doubt, via an expensive security audit from a consulting firm. As Alex and Sam spent many cycles on this method, they asked themselves if they could continuously scan the security of their partners in a non-intrusive way. It was already clear that software was moving to the cloud but less certain was the belief that a company is only as secure as its least secure partner and continuous monitoring would be imperative. From this, security scorecard was born. SecurityScorecard provides precise global threat intelligence and risk awareness continuously and non-intrusively so businesses and their partners can collaboratively predict and remediate data security issues. Fast forward 15 months from the initial seed round, and they have landed several large customers and closed a $12.5mm Series A with Sequoia Capital, founding investors in some phenomenal, multi-billion dollar security companies — netscreen, palo alto networks, and fireeye.

I could go on and on about many other great enterprise companies in NYC, but you get the point — find a massive pain that you are experiencing and living with first hand and create a software solution around this. It is this unique understanding of the customer that we will see time and time again as new enterprise-related startups in NYC are launched. It is also this deep domain expertise and understanding of the customer that will allow many enterprise startups in NYC to flourish, especially as we live in a cloud-based world where switching costs are not as high as they once were.

Bottom Line

The idea of NYC enterprise startups succeeding should no longer be a laughing matter. We have great entrepreneurs, companies, talent, and investors ready to capitalize on Willie Sutton’s vision — NYC is where the money is (see Jonathan Lehr’s great overview on NYC Enterprise Tech). We at boldstart ventures feel quite fortunate to be invested in a number of enterprise related startups in NYC like security scorecard, divide, truly wireless, handshake, yhat, and bowery.io and are excited about the future of enterprise tech in NYC. We have seen more success stories in the last 3 to 4 years versus the 10 years before that, and we expect this rapid innovation to continue. While many of these companies are engineers coming from large Fortune 1000 type companies here in NYC, we are also increasingly seeing founders leaving the more established tech companies like Google, OnDeck Capital, and Gilt to pursue their dreams.

As I write this I am wondering who the next entrepreneur will be that is hidden in the bowels of a more established company, feeling massive pain everyday, and ready to launch the next unicorn like MongoDb. Is that you?

(reprinted from my post at Medium)

boldstart ventures in 2014 – our ethos how we work with enterprise founders from first check onwards

As we look into 2014, we thought it was important to reflect on our activities in 2013 and refocus and refine our thinking and messaging as a firm. We are thematic in our approach and primarily known as seed investors with a focus on enterprise and companies that can scale quickly. To date our messaging has been clear, but we also could not ignore the fact that companies like Plain Vanilla Games took off quickly and became known as the fastest growing mobile game in history. The challenge for us is how to explain this in a focused, simple manner.

Here is our attempt and then I will break down how it all ties together:

boldstart’s messaging
We have over 20 years of experience backing bold founders with big visions. Our founding team has led first rounds in market leading enterprises such as LivePerson (LPSN), GoToMeeting (sold to Citrix), Greenplum (sold to EMC), and 24/7 Media (TFSM). BOLDstart helps founders at the seed stage accelerate their growth from idea/ alpha phase to product market fit and successful Series A round. With a focus on seed investing in the mobile, agile, and smart enterprise and business models that harness the power of network effects, our entrepreneurs have successfully been able to raise over $200 million of financing following our initial seed investment. Founded in 2010, we have backed 27 awesome teams including Indiegogo, divide.com (sold to google), goinstant (sold to salesforce), blaze.io (sold to Akamai), thinknear (sold to telenav), Plain Vanilla Games (quizup), rapportive (sold to LinkedIn), and klipfolio.

ok, so let’s break down the key elements of our message:

“We have over 20 years of experience backing bold founders with big visions.”
That is pretty self explanatory. However, to add to this, we love entrepreneurs who have big visions but of course, start with an incredibly focused product. This means we invest in product-driven engineering teams where all of the development is done in house and where rapid iteration is a key to success.

“helps founders at the seed stage accelerate their growth from idea/ alpha phase to product market fit and successful Series A round”
While this sounds simple, there is a ton of work that goes into helping our portfolio companies get to a successful Series A. This includes thinking through what milestones the startups will need to hit to make them attractive for an A round and ensuring there is real plan with enough cash (typically 18 mos) and runway to get there. Since most of our companies have a product that is in alpha stage (super early, buggy), we like to help our entrepreneurs get more market data and customer feedback through our relationships to help them further refine their product.

We also help our teams find key engineers, and sales and marketing folks who can help build and refine the gotomarket strategy for the entrepreneur. Finally, we try to prewire the Series A investment by getting our portfolio companies to meet with the right partners at the right firms early on before they even need money. Getting feedback from smart Series A funds helps the entrepreneur further hone their message.

“focus on the mobile, agile, and smart enterprise”
The big trend in technology today is the growth of mobile. The other force we always hear about is the consumerization of technology meaning that much of the innovation in design, applications, and user interface is driven by consumers first (think Facebook, twitter) and then brought into the enterprise or business after the fact. Yammer would be a great example of a Facebook like feed being brought into the enterprise and then being sold to Microsoft for $1.2 billion. Here at BOLDstart, we believe we are still at the very beginnings of this consumerization trend in the enterprise and hence our focus on the “mobile and agile enterprise.” Many of our portfolio companies in BOLDstart II reflect this theme such as Truly Wireless and handshake .

The other big theme is one of big data. As you know, we believe big data is passé and the real trend is smart data or what you do with the big data that matters. Storing and scaling tons of data cheaply and efficiently is already done. Smart enterprises are analyzing all of this data to make better decisions, increase revenue, and improve operating performance. Making sense of that data with algorithms and other software is the next wave and is reflected in investments like Coherent Path, klipfolio, security scorecard, and preact .

“companies that harness the power of network effects”
we are really investing in companies that can scale rapidly with zero to limited to market costs. Another way we think about this is that we fund products or companies that derive most of its growth by users recruiting other users. In industry terms, this means we looks for companies that have a high viral coefficient. Since we can’t predict the future, our investments in these types of companies are driven by small data sets that we can extrapolate to determine the potential opportunity and usage. For example, when we funded Plain Vanilla Games (Quizup), the team had launched a small test app in Europe called Eurovision Quizup where they were able to sign up 10,000 users in a week and one month later still had 30% of the users come back up to twice a day for 30 minutes a day. Given that other analogs like Words With Friends (scrabble) and Draw Something (dictionary) were quite successful and that no one had done Trivial Pursuit in the right manner, we decided to back the company in the seed round. As they say, the rest is history. We have taken this same approach with other networked investments like memoir.

finally, this theme is also applicable for b2b…
There is also a b2b theme as companies like ooomf and emissary.io are leveraging network effects, viral marketing, and growth hacking to ramp up their user base in the enterprise side. In addition, many enterprise software companies are exposing their functionality/service via APIs so other developers can easily build upon their platforms. APIs are the new business development models for these companies and once again represent many of the elements of consumer platforms. Companies like yhat, zillabyte, and goinstant fit this model.

In the end, we believe that we are better investors in the agile and mobile enterprise because of our front row seat investing in innovative, networked consumer companies. Companies like Plain Vanilla Games and Memoir help inform our thinking on what may/may not work from an enterprise perspective. The long term trend in the enterprise that we have been investing in for years is bottom up marketing. Instead of selling at the C-level, companies are better off getting one user in a department to use a product and then building in viral hooks and loops to help bring other employees on board. This is yet another example of the consumerization of tech. One of our most recent investments which is in stealth mode (will be announced shortly) is a great example of this – 3 users began to use the enterprise product and within 2 weeks, 42 of 45 employees were using the service and were interacting with it at least twice a week over a period of a couple of months. Now there is a backlog of over 200 companies waiting to use the system (we will give more detail in the next newsletter).

We hope this gives you a better idea of how we are thinking about opportunities and building our portfolio in 2014 and more importantly how to approach and what types of companies and teams in which we like to invest.

Branding first starts with your team External branding starts with developing a consistent, internal message first

External branding starts with developing a consistent, internal message first. When you think of branding and positioning, remember that your first line of offense and the most important representation of your company comes from your employees.  Make sure you have a succinct, crisp and clear 2-3 sentence pitch on what you do and that everyone from the CEO down to the engineer or QA can repeat the same mantra.  Whether your employees are doing sales pitch or at a conference or cocktail party, they should all be starting with the same message.  The more it is said the easier the message spreads. We live in a sound-byte generation with information overload so if you can cut through the clutter with a powerful and succinct message, you will not be forgotten.

It reminds me of the old kids game “telephone” where one player starts with a message and passes it down the line and in the end the last player repeats what they heard.  Many times the message is completely different from the initial version.  Obviously if you think of messaging in terms of the game “telephone” you will quickly recognize that the crisper and simpler it is, the harder it will be to get lost in translation.  You want the next degree of relationships to be able to explain just as easily as your employees – this is how great buzz builds.

At Cisco, it was “we network networks” or at Tableau Software which went public today “we help people see and understand data” Obviously what goes into sentence 2 can provide a little more detail on how or why you are special (see my blog post from 2007 on why vision statements matter and how to craft one.  In Tableau’s case, it is “we help anyone quickly analyze, visualize and share information.”  And sentence 3 is the build and ah-hah moment – “More than 10,000 organizations get rapid results with Tableau in the office and on-the-go.”  Yes, that is strong messaging to the outside world and in the written word but it can also be simplified for strong messaging from employees in the spoken word.

So remember when it comes to messaging and positioning, keep it simple, easily remembered and to the point. What is your message and does everyone on your team know it? When your startup is out in the market meeting with customers and VCs, will everyone you meet be able to say the same message – “yeah, i met this cool company today and they do “x”.  If so, you off to a great start!