How To Navigate The SaaS Minefield

Jul 14, 2015 · 6 min read

Software-as-a-service products are becoming commonplace. It is an evolutionary stepping stone in business modeling, offering customers the flexibility they desire and businesses the potential for rapid growth. Even with such promise, the industry has witnessed the rise of a SaaS purgatory where once promising businesses fall flat. High upfront costs are the hoop SaaS businesses have to jump through to become successful.

For SaaS startups, growth can be a double-edged sword. SaaS businesses have high upfront acquisition costs reflecting, sales and marketing, research and development, hosting infrastructure and customer support. To be successful, SaaS companies need to earn revenue over the lifetime of their customers — that means surviving the early years of low profitability.

The #1 goal of any early-stage SaaS business is to grow monthly recurring revenue (MRR) by 15% — 20% month over month. This is becoming (more) common today, because unlike the 1st generation of SaaS companies, customer skepticism around cloud-based services is lower today than in the past, thanks to access to more distribution options, like app stores and freemium models.

But the industry struggles a little with how (and when) SaaS businesses need to show a clear path to profitability. This has resulted in valuations and trajectories of promising businesses to stumble. Growing at 15%+ MoM for two years is awesome, but doing so with 75%+ of leads being organic (non-paid), and with customer payback periods of one year or less, is even better.

So how do we change the math, and unlock the value that SaaS promises? Here’s what you need to know when navigating the SaaS minefield:

Focus On Customer Acquisition Costs

A reality in Saas business is the high initial costs to operate and slow growing revenue over the customer lifetime. This is fantastic for SaaS customers, who get the flexibility they desire, but it also means that a customer is typically unprofitable for the first 12–24 months.

So how do we balance the short-to-mid term objectives of finding product-market fit, attaining 15% MoM MRR growth, while also setting ourselves up in the longer-term to unlock the underlying value of SaaS? To do that, you need to start tracking (and understanding) the core operational metrics that makes SaaS tick.

Early on, hone down to one core metric: Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) : Customer Lifetime Value (CLV). Ensuring your total costs associated with acquiring a new customer (CAC) are less than their lifetime worth (CLV) is vital to SaaS profitability. Even if all your other metrics look fantastic, getting this one wrong will sink the ship. Focusing on the relationship between CAC and CLV will shape how you develop strategies to attract, win, and grow your customers.

Give your customers an easy way to upgrade

Begin with a low friction offering, such as a freemium (e.g. Slack) or free trial-based (e.g. Zendesk) model. High initial costs will scare off potential customers, while a complex product requires expensive sales and support right off the bat. With a free or low-cost offerings, online SaaS opens the door to a broad range of first-time customers, and works best when facing large, horizontal markets.

100 raving fans can be more valuable than 10,000 “users.”

Remember that 100 raving fans can be more valuable than 10,000 “users”. Early word of mouth success means 80% or more leads come from organic (non-paid) sources. B2B companies like Atlassian drive huge top of funnel interest with charitable cause campaigns — requesting a $10 donation to get credit card details, filter out unqualified users, and make upgrading easy.

Create “Aha” Experiences That Drive Word of Mouth Referrals

Successful SaaS companies map out their customers’ buying and growth journey, and obsess over optimizing activation and conversion rates. This in turn drives up platform adoption, MRR/customer, and customer satisfaction. Customers should have “aha” moments — magic moments of sudden realization of how a product will solve their problems — throughout the customer journey. An “aha” onboarding experience that produces satisfied customers, as reflected by high Net Promoter Scores, will drive word of mouth referrals and repeat purchases.

So how to do you this?

One approach is to micro-analyze the hurdles and buying decisions faced by a new user, then deliver personalized in-product, email, and live touch points to guide a user through their journey towards “aha” or magic moments. As a rule of thumb, get a new user to an “aha” moment within 30 seconds of signup, and you earn 3 more minutes of attention. Deliver another “aha” after 3 minutes to earn 30 minutes, and 30 minutes will earn you three days. Most SaaS trialists are emotionally bought in (or not) after three days. Intuitive, attractive design decorated with on-voice copy (including 404 pages) can help differentiate a SaaS business and drive social shares and forum chatter.

Build a Conversion Engine That Destroys Onboarding Costs

Build a repeatable, light-touch sales model to drive down customer acquisition costs while maximizing sales growth. Onboarding customers one at a time is lengthy and costly, so figure out what works manually, then automate those best practices to delight your small and large customers alike. Create “swimming lanes,” or sales channels, that aligns acquisition and support costs with the average customer sales price (ASP) to continuously drive down your company’s CAC to CLV ratio. You’re winning if you have a payback periods of under two years in the first two years of selling, and can drive this further down as you scale.

Automation and Real Time Dashboards Will Help You Scale at Lightning Speed

Growing fast while ensuring that lead and customers aren’t slipping through the cracks is more manageable if your growing list of activities are automated and you have up-to-the-minute insights. Codify your swimming lanes, personalize your customers’ journey, and early-diagnose what’s working and what’s not, with an automated customer engagement technology stack.

Fortunately, the marketing stack for high-growth SaaS is (relatively) painless and inexpensive to develop today using best-of-breed tools. Start out with the customer identity by linking CRM to marketing automation or messaging. Add subscription billing, then incorporate in-product events (via Salesforce APIs or Segment) to personalize messages and early-diagnose conversion or churn signals. Integrate your business-intelligence software to combine usage, revenue, activity, and billing data into dashboards, enabling your teams to monitor and react in real-time.

Upgrades Will Vanquish Cancellations

While new monthly recurring revenue (MRR) is the lighter fluid that ignites a SaaS business, successful long-term growth comes from expanding existing customer MRR faster than cancellations occur. This is known as attaining “net negative churn,” which can be achieved in two ways.

First, commit to continuously improving the customer experience by regularly measuring satisfaction levels with a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey. Loyal customers are more likely to renew, expand, and refer friends and colleagues. Second, SaaS pricing and packaging can make or break future growth. Regardless of your company’s SaaS pricing axes (e.g. editions, users, functionality), as customers grow and mature, seamlessly upselling them to the next package is critical to offset cancellations. Doing so is easier if you hone a value-based pricing path that minimizes upgrade friction, reduces discount requests, and guards against competitor switching threats.

Always Keep An Eye on Your Key Metrics

While these techniques should come as no surprise, many SaaS companies still have yet to fully embrace them. By incorporating steps like: starting simple, creating “aha” moments, building a conversion engine, automating systems, and offsetting cancellations through upgrades, a SaaS company can hit predictable performance indicators, revenue growth, and long-term profitability.

The SaaS business model takes a keen eye and ability to prioritize the right SaaS metrics to establish success. Our early-stage KPIs are as follows:

  • Number of monthly trials
  • % Activation (Trials who achieve product usage levels)
  • % Conversion (Trials Who Convert to Paid within 45 days)
  • Average MRR / Customer
  • Total MRR
  • % of New Customers who expand the following month
  • MRR Churn % (monthly)
  • Net Promoter Score (NPS) @ Day 90
  • % of Leads that are Organic (non-paid)
  • Cost per Lead (CPL)
  • Customer Acquisition Cost (fully loaded)

What key metrics is your SaaS company measuring? And what growth tips have you learned along the way?

Autopilot is easy-to-use marketing automation that works for email, SMS and direct mail. Check us out at

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