Thursday, March 22, 2012

Financial planning for SaaS startups

A few people who read my recent post about financial planning asked if I could provide an example for a good financial plan, so I'd like to post one here. The plan is very similar to the one that I created in the very early days at Zendesk and re-used a few times in the meantime, but I had to make a few adjustments to make it more generic.

It's a simple plan for an early-stage SaaS startup with a low-touch sales model – a company which markets a SaaS solution via its website, offers a 30 day free trial, gets most of its trial users organically and through online marketing and converts them into paying customer with very little human interaction. Therefore the key drivers of my imaginary startup are organic growth rate, marketing budget and customer acquisition costs, conversion rate, ARPU and churn rate. If you have a SaaS startup with a higher-touch sales model where revenue growth is largely driven by sales headcount, the plan needs to be modified accordingly.

For non-SaaS business models the template needs to be modified more heavily or may not be useful at all, other than that it shows my way of thinking around business planning. That was one of the points that I was trying to make in the original blog post – you can't simply re-use a template, your financial plan needs to mirror your specific business case.

Here's the plan as a Google spreadsheet. If you want the original Excel version please let me know (yes, Excel is one of the few desktop apps that I'm still using).

[Update: If you'd like to get the original Excel version, which looks a bit nicer, click here to get it in exchange for a tweet...or drop me an email. :-) ]

The grey box at the left contains all assumptions (blue text color). Everything on the right is calculated, no hard-coded numbers there. I have, of course, used dummy numbers for all assumptions.

The model should be largely self-explanatory but here are a few notes:

  • It all starts with the signups that you're adding. I've separated signups into non-trackable signups (signups that you get from word of mouth, PR and so on) and trackable signups (signups from AdWords and other paid advertising where you can track the costs of acquiring a signup). You may have to break this down further depending on your customer acquisition channels.
  • Then I'm assuming that you're converting a certain percentage of signups into paying customers (with a one month time lag, assuming that you have a 30 day free trial). The model contains just one conversion rate regardless of the signup source. You can change that if your conversion rate varies depending on the signup source.
  • Next up, I'm calculating revenue by multiplying the (approximate) number of customers that you have mid-month by your average revenue per account. If you have a tiered pricing model or a per-seat pricing, consider modeling that.
  • Moving down to the costs side – this should all be self-explanatory. Just replace the dummy values by your actual values or assumptions and add additional expense categories as needed.
  • Regarding P&L and cash-flow, I'm keeping things really simple here and am assuming that your EBIT is equal to your operating cash-flow. That is, I'm assuming that you're charging your customers on a monthly basis, that you're not making any investments (in accounting terms) and that there are no taxes or interest payments. I think that simplification works well for most very early-stage SaaS startups but it of course needs to get more sophisticated as you grow.
  • Last – but not least because this is one of my favorite parts – the sanity checks: I've seen MANY financial plans with an EBIT margin north of 90% in year 3. That's a classic mistake which can happen if you project your revenues to grow exponentially but don't provision realistic increases on the costs side as well. Adding some sanity checks will help you spot these mistakes and make sure that your plan remains realistic. For example, I've included the number of paying customers which each support agent needs to take care of. If that number gets too high you need to allow for more support staff.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A very brief history of Point Nine

I just created a slide about the development of Point Nine Capital for a little company presentation and thought it might be useful if I posted it here as well to give everyone some information on where we're at and how we got there:


In 2008, Lukasz Gadowski – who almost everyone in the German Web startup scene knows because he built or helped build some of Europe's biggest Internet success stories, e.g. Spreadshirt, studiVZ and brands4friends – and Kolja Hebenstreit teamed up with Pawel Chudzinski and Steffen Hoellinger to create Team Europe Ventures (TEV). TEV had two purposes: Building companies and investing in other Internet startups. Since then, TEV has founded a number of highly successful Internet companies – DeliveryHero, DigitaleSeiten, ChicChickClub, madvertise and SponsorPay, to name just a few.

In 2009 TEV raised a ~ €6M fund, which was managed by Pawel and invested in 24 companies. 16 out of these 24 companies were co-investments with myself, some led by Pawel, some by me, some by both of us together. So as you can see, although we didn't formally set up a partnership until recently, we've worked together very closely in the last few years.

In 2011 we concluded that it's time to take our collaboration to the next level and Lukasz, Kolja, Pawel and I decided to create an independent investment firm called Point Nine Capital. In connection with this, the existing TEV fund has been renamed into Point Nine Capital Fund I. The new fund, called Point Nine Capital II, is now managed by Pawel and me, and we're also the biggest stakeholders. Lukasz and Kolja continue to run Team Europe, which is now exclusively focused on creating fast-growing Internet companies, and they also support us as Venture Partners.

Point Nine Capital II has made four investments already – one is a great Canadian SaaS startup called Jobber, the rest hasn't been announced yet – and we're looking forward to making many more investments in the coming months and years. Our focus continues to be on SaaS, marketplaces, lead generation, eCommerce and mobile. Additional information is available on our website, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask!


Monday, March 05, 2012

Join Point Nine for a summer internship!

We're looking for an intern – a great opportunity for a young, super-smart over-performer to get an inside view of an early-stage VC in Berlin. :-)

I'm reposting our job ad here:

* * * * *

We offer a three month paid internship, starting middle of April or beginning of May at our office in Berlin.


What you do:
  • Support evaluating the dealflow; give us your opinion on >100 business ideas and plans per month; find the one we should invest in.
  • Do networking; meet people and founders.
  • Screen new markets; find hidden champions; be faster than the rest.
  • Dig deep into topics; help with research; find answers for questions we have not asked yet. 
  • Help us run operations more efficiently.

What we offer:
  • Insights how a venture capital firm works.
  • Steep learning curve; small team; much responsibility if you can earn it.
  • Access to our network: our portfolio companies as well as Team Europe (Company Building), iPotentials (HR), Gruenderszene & Venture Village (media).
  • Berlin, the upcoming heart of the European StartUp industry. That is where you meet all the founders, evangelists, angels and influencers.
  • Enough time to enjoy life.


What we expect from you:
  • You are a digital native; you used facebook, before people heard about studiVZ; you check in with foursquare and take photos with instagram; maybe you even blog and twitter.
  • You are familiar with basics of the Internet infrastructure and have some understanding of key Internet based business models, like e-commerce, large networks, SaaS, etc.
  • You are curious; you have your own ideas; you want to see results.
  • We do not need to tell you what you have to do. You see the tasks, you do them, you surprise us.
  • You don’t need 9 to 5 working hours.
  • And the usual stuff: you have at least 4 semesters at your business school, preferable already a first degree. You have gained international experience, have done at least one internship before. You speak fluent English and hopefully German.
* * * * *

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Avoiding Parkinson's Law of Triviality in your financial plan

In the last few years I've seen a lot of financial plans, and since we started Point Nine in the middle of last year that volume has been skyrocketing. I've seen everything from just a few numbers in an email to extremely sophisticated Excel spreadsheets with dozens of tabs and tens of thousands of cells, and I thought I'd offer some advice on what I think a good financial plan looks like.

To begin with, among the worst financial plans are those that you get if you take a template from a business plan competition or a bank in Germany and don't customize it to your particular business. These templates are usually very detailed on the costs side, listing everything from magazine subscriptions to stationary and postage, but the revenue projection is just one line – a pure estimate that is coming out of nowhere. Parkinson's Law of Triviality comes to mind!

The best financial plans of early-stage Internet startups in my opinion:
  • are relatively simple – just one Excel tab or a few at most (a later-stage company will often require a more complex plan but in the beginning you can keep it simple)
  • are based on the key drivers of your business (your conversion funnel, your projected ARPU, churn etc.)
  • make your assumptions transparent and easy to change
  • contain very few hard-coded numbers which would make the plan hard to revise (an exception to this are historic numbers, of course)
  • avoid Parkinson's Law of Triviality – spend more effort on what really matters and lump together stuff like tiny expense categories
  • contain a few extra lines for sanity checks (anyone who will seriously review your plan will perform them anyway, so why not make their lives a little easier?)
If anyone is interested in further details, please let me know in the comments section, email me or send me a tweet and I can add some more color and post an example.
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