Op-ed: Tech lessons from SaaS North in Ottawa

Ed Bryant shares some of the key takeaways from the conference
Software

There’s no doubt that the SaaS North conference here in Ottawa was a huge success. With hundreds of different SaaS companies in attendance, in addition to many VC and PE firms, the conference fosters a diverse crowd where opinions are shared, challenged, and new insights are gained.

While at SaaSNorth, the Sampford team had the opportunity to sit in on a variety of discussions led by leading executives from various companies and investment funds and we’re pleased to present our key takeaways from the conference.

The conference kicked off with the release of L-Spark’s State of SaaS Report for 2017, showing the most prominent investment trends and highlights within the Canadian SaaS ecosystem. The report shows that companies in Canada’s primary markets (British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec) make up 95 per cent of dollars invested in the country, along with 90 per cent of the deal volume.

Canada’s most active SaaS investors this year include 500 Startups with 18 investments, and BDC Capital and iNovia Capital with 10 investments.

Later on, we also had the opportunity of sitting in on a keynote speech by Shopify’s COO, Harley Finkelstein.

Harley
File photo of Shopify's Harley Finkelstein.

During this speech, it was noted that a very impactful resource for startup SaaS companies is Bessemer’s 10 Laws of Cloud Computing and SaaS.

These 10 laws provide everything you need to know about running a SaaS business, including how to abandon legacy “best practices” in favor of new ones, key metrics and how to evaluate them, and how to best position your SaaS company for success.

Why are you raising funds?

For those further down the road who may come to a pivotal moment of deciding whether to raise VC funding, Igor Faletski, the co-founder and CEO of Mobify, noted the importance of knowing what you’re raising funds for. Are you raising funds simply to discover what your company will be? If so, it’s probably not the right reason.

VC

However, if you’re raising funds to pursue a unique growth opportunity that couldn’t be pursued otherwise, VC funding should definitely be considered.

It’s important to carefully evaluate such a growth opportunity to ensure the incremental value creation is worth more than the ownership you’re giving up.

For context, ask yourself this: Would I rather own 100 per cent of a company valued at $30 million or 70 per cent of a company valued at $40 million? If a funding round would lead to the latter, it’s better to stay bootstrapped if / until a better growth opportunity presents itself.

According to Microsoft Ventures partner Matt Goldstein, it’s also important to carefully evaluate the size of funding and in extension, the post-money valuation that would be given. The common notion of “bigger is better” is not necessarily true in this sense.

Having a lot of invested capital at a high valuation can often hinder a company’s ability to attract future investment or pursue an exit later down the road. Start off small and only take what is really needed.

If you ever do consider raising early stage funding, see below a summary of the leading ways to increase your odds based on insights from panelists from the following sessions:

Qualitative

  1. Harley Finkelstein suggested focusing on building a defensible product that your customers can’t live without, in addition to something they won’t just recycle as they grow. It’s one thing to grow ARR from $1 million to $10 million, but another thing to grow ARR from $10 million to $100 million as stated by Real Ventures principal Sam Haffar. This element is what really separates the two
  2. Obsess about customer success and continuously assess customer feedback to fill in gaps. Karim Ben-Jaafar, the chief growth officer at Beanworks, suggested focusing on booking as many customers as you can in the early stages. This will allow you to analyze, validate, and test accordingly. Consider moving away from the freemium model and charging $1 instead. This provides greater insight into “real” customers.
  3. Igor Faletski stressed the importance of putting your best foot forward to get some positive press around your company. This type of validation goes a long way.
  4. Foster a unique and positive company culture. And manage those Glassdoor reviews! You never know who might be looking at them according to Michelle McBane, an investment director at MaRS. A good way to manage this is to hire for culture first. Remember, you can teach people, but you can’t teach culture.
  5. Have a well-rounded founders group (i.e. one technical, one sales and marketing, and one management). This isn’t always possible, but it greatly increases your odds of raising funds
  6. Be responsive to investors during the due diligence process.
  7. Focus on measuring key metrics to your business and the stage it’s in. Otherwise, you could become overwhelmed with managing too many metrics that give conflicting results.

Quantitative

  1. Strive for high gross margins.
  2. Focus on managing cash burn rather than trying to achieve positive cash flows according to Acceleprise managing director Michael Cardamone.
  3. Aim for month-over-month growth of at least 10 per cent.
  4. Have a healthy degree of churn with a deep understanding of the drivers behind it, as stated by Tom Valis, a partner at Celtic House Venture Partners. If you have no churn, you’re probably not running a SaaS business!
  5. Aim to maximize sales rep efficiency / minimize cost to acquire (CAC). However, don’t stress over life time value (LTV) over CAC because it’s not as relevant in the seed / series A stage as stated by Louis Coppey, an associate at Point Nine Capital

We look forward to attending next year’s event and getting the opportunity to meet with so many prominent Canadian SaaS companies.

Ed Bryant is president and CEO of Sampford Advisors, an M&A advisory firm for Canadian technology companies.