Enterprise Collaboration Wars Lessons for SaaS startups

It’s going to be fun to watch the enterprise collaboration wars and how each company is approaching the market! In my mind it is a microcosm of many battles being played out with startups versus incumbents. Do large enterprises go for “best of breed” providers or the “one throat to choke” model? How does the bottom-up model work versus the traditional top-down enterprise sales model? As for collaboration, here is a view of some of the players:

  1. Slack – bottom up, adding enterprise features, but not on-prem yet, many early adopter enterprises but can they bridge gap to more traditional
  2. Microsoft – Teams, product not as fleshed out but starting with bases of thousands of enterprise clients due to enterprise company licenses, does that mean adoption?
  3. Box/Dropbox – coming at it from a technically commodity base layer of file sharing and storage, trying to add stickiness on top with Paper by Dropbox and Notes from Box
  4. Google – has Gsuite for Google Cloud – do they add a collaboration layer or do they just buy someone else?
  5. Salesforce – has Quip, do they keep adding layers on top?

and many others…

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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?

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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…