Do You Know How Your Subscription Business is Performing?

Dave Key Photo

Dave Key

Managing Director, Cloud Strategies


Guest author, Dave Key is Managing Director of Cloud Strategies, where he helps software companies transform to SaaS and SaaS companies perform at their highest possible level.  Dave has built and supported large enterprise systems with both on-premise and Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms.  



Why are high growth Subscription companies often unprofitable? 


High-growth recurring revenue-based companies are often unprofitable, yet financial institutions value them highly. The median net income for Public SaaS companies is negative 4.5%. 


Yet, despite these losses, the Price to Enterprise Value ratio for SaaS companies is 7.3x compared with 3.2x for Software companies, according to a 2014 Software Equity Group report. 


Investors are looking beyond profitability. They see the value in SaaS businesses that isn’t reflected in traditional GAAP-based financial statements. That value is the ongoing revenue stream, which provides future value (and profits) not shown by GAAP financials.


We need a quantitative method to assess the outlook for SaaS companies that takes into account the value of future revenue against the cost of rapid growth. These financials should show the underlying profitability of the core business separately from the cost of growth. 


Why doesn’t GAAP show the value of Subscription companies that investors see?

Product companies realize their revenue when the product is sold. SaaS companies realize the revenue as the product is used; it generally takes approximately three years of SaaS subscription revenue to equal the revenue from a product sale.


GAAP gives no accounting of the value

of the ongoing SaaS subscription –

not even a footnote of its predicted value

of the future revenue stream.  


What makes Subscription companies successful?

The objective is to augment GAAP with additional metrics that reveal the actual long-term value of the recurring revenue stream relative to the cost of obtaining these revenue streams. There are three primary drivers of very successful SaaS companies:

1)     Growing revenue

2)     Growing the long term recurring revenue stream annuity

3)     Growing efficiently


As Zuora has consistently advocated, the key 3 metrics that matter in assessing a SaaS company’s growth are:

1)     Retention Rate – keeping the customers who were so expensive to acquire

2)     Recurring Profit Margin – making money to fund new sales after taking care of customers

3)     Growth Efficiency Index – having a prudent cost of Revenue Acquisition relative to the cost new revenue


By excelling in these three key metrics, SaaS companies can grow efficiently increasing their aggregate Customer Lifetime Value of their customers, which is a significant driver of the company’s value. 


So when will Subscription companies become profitable?

For the successful SaaS company, the answer is “when they want to be.” Grow faster with low profits or even a loss. Grow slower, boost profits, but potentially lose the market opportunity.


Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 11.00.49 AM


The company can trade off profitability for growth since the revenue acquisition costs for growth occurs immediately while the SaaS subscription annuity stream is realized over years.  


So what should Subscription companies do?

Grow if you can grow efficiently. Near term profits are not so important if you’re growing efficiently.


Growing efficiently means that the core business (without the cost of growth) is profitable and the cost of growing the business is substantially less than the future value of that business.


With a goal of maximizing shareholder value, the equity markets sensibly value growth over profits.


Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 11.04.06 AM



How to assess if you are growing efficiently

1)     Separate the P&L from maintaining your existing revenue from the cost of growing to show the profitability of your core business

2)     Evaluate the return on investment of adding new revenue from the net present value of the subscription revenue stream

3)     Ensure your churn is low so you are not losing the future revenue stream that drives your ultimately success

4)     Benchmark key metrics against your peers, and watch your cash


The bottom line is this: now metrics outside of GAAP are needed to assess the outlook for SaaS companies. These businesses should be taking into account the value of future revenue against the cost of rapid growth and ultimately showing the underlying profitability of the core business.


Join me on Wednesday, April 23rd for a webinar with Zuora’s VP of Finance, Iain Hassall, to continue the conversation. We’ll walk you through the techniques and benchmarks that will help you measure, analyze, and understand your subscription business. Register today.


Recommended for you

Strategic Insights from Zuora’s Subscribed Institute Executive Breakfast in London
How to create personalized subscriptions using Zephr
Unlocking the Power of First-Party Data: Agility in a Changing Digital World