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Point Nine Land

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Five ways to build a $100 million business

The y-axis shows the average revenue per account (ARPA) per year. In the x-axis you can see how many customers you need, for a given ARPA, to get to $100 million in annual revenues. Both axes use a logarithmic scale.
  • 1,000 enterprise customers paying you $100k+ per year each; or
  • 10,000 medium-sized companies paying you $10k+ per year each; or
  • 100,000 small businesses paying you $1k+ per year each; or
  • 1 million consumers or “prosumers” paying you $100+ per year each (or, in the case of eCommerce businesses, 1M customers generating $100+ in contribution margin** per year each); or
  • 10 million active consumers who you monetize at $10+ per year each by selling ads

Hunting flies

In order to get to 10 million active users you need roughly 100 million people who download your app or use your website. This is of course a gross simplification, and the precise number depends on various factors like your conversion rate, how active your users are, churn, etc. But it doesn’t change the take-away: To get to $100 million in ad revenues, you need dozens of millions of users. I know of only two ways to achieve that (plus one mega-outlier which breaks all rules, Google). The first one is to have a product that is inherently social and has a high viral coefficient (Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp). The second one is a ton of UGC (user-generated content), which leads to large amounts of SEO traffic and some level of virality. Good examples of this second option include Yelp or our portfolio company Brainly.

Hunting mice

To acquire one million consumers or prosumers who pay you roughly $100 per year, you need to get at least 10–20 million people to try your application. This is – again – a gross simplification, but I believe it’s order-of-magnitude correct. To get to 10–20 million users you almost certainly need some level of virality, too – maybe not Snapchat-like virality, but some social sharing or “powered by”-virality. Great examples of this category include Evernote and MailChimp. If you’re an eCommerce business you might be able to acquire one million customers using paid marketing, but it requires huge amounts of funding.

Hunting rabbits

Most SaaS companies that target small businesses charge something around $50–100 per month, so their ARPA per year is around $1k. To acquire 100,000 of these businesses you need something in the order of 0.5–2 million trial signups, depending on your conversion rate. Let’s assume that your CLTV (customer lifetime value) is $2,700 (assuming an average customer lifetime of three years and a gross margin of 90%) and that you want your CLTV to be 4x your CACs (customer acquisition costs). In that case you can spend $675 to acquire a customer. If your signup-to-paying conversion rate is 10% that means you can spend $67.50 per signup (assuming a no-touch sales model where your CACs can go entirely into lead generation).

Hunting deers

If you’re a deer hunter and want to acquire 10,000 customers paying you $10k per year each, most of the rabbit hunting tactics still apply. An ARPA of $10k per year usually isn’t enough to make traditional enterprise field sales work, and you likely still have to get 100,000 or more leads. The main difference is that when you’re hunting deers you can use an inside sales force to close leads, potentially also to generate leads. It also means that you can pay VARs and channel partners an attractive commission, although I’ve rarely seen this work in SaaS. SaaS companies sometimes start as rabbit hunters and expand into deer hunting over time. This can work very well and we’re very excited about these types of businesses, but to successfully execute this strategy, SaaS founders with a product/tech/marketing DNA usually have to bring in an experienced VP of Sales who has built an inside sales organization before.

Hunting elephants

Like it or not, most of the biggest SaaS companies derive most of their revenues from selling expensive subscriptions to large enterprises. Workday, Veeva, SuccessFactors, Salesforce.com, you name it. Jason M. Lemkin, another friend and co-investor, once said (I’m quoting from memory) that if you have a good solution for a significant problem experienced by large enterprises, building a $100 million business is relatively straightforward. After all, you only need 1,000 customers, and the $100k you need from each of them is less than they spend on the salary of one executive. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

  • If you have $100 million in annual high-margin revenue, you will likely be able to exit for $500 million to $1 billion or more. That’s the kind of exit most venture capitalists are looking for, although we as a small fund can achieve a great fund performance with somewhat lower outcomes. ** For eCommerce companies, which naturally have a much lower contribution margin than purely digital businesses like SaaS and are therefore valued at much lower revenue multiples, it makes more sense to target $100M in contribution margin.

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P9 is an early-stage VC focused on B2B SaaS and marketplaces. Point Nine Land is where the P9 team (and sometimes members of the wider P9 Family) share their thoughts on SaaS, marketplaces, startups, VC, and more.

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Christoph Janz

Internet entrepreneur turned angel investor turned micro VC. Managing Partner at http://t.co/5WJ3Pepbcv.