Guest column

Houston investor: Is this the golden age for B2B software?

This Houston venture capital leader is looking at how 2020 — for all its disappointments — might be a great year for B2B software-as-a-service companies. Getty Images

B2B software as a service, or SaaS, founders entered 2020 riding a wave of the longest economic expansion in United States history. Valuations increased to new highs, funding rounds continued getting larger at each stage, and forecasts went up and to the right fast. But then, March hit.

Quickly and seemingly out of nowhere, headlines became dominated by apocalyptic predictions of death, record levels of unemployment, shocking economic forecasts of GDP contraction, historic mass layoffs and furloughs, and unprecedented multi-trillion dollar economic stimulus packages. For founders every instinct began screaming to cut costs and hunker down.

But should B2B SaaS founders cut their organizations right now? Through analyzing a few key events and looking to the evidence in the market today, founders can develop a strategy for growing during this crisis. Not only is growth cheaper for most B2B SaaS against the backdrop of economic meltdown, but with the majority following a hunker-down instinct, a growing B2B SaaS firm will compare very favorably against a landscape of stale and stagnant competitors.

Reviewing the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic and the 2008 downturn

While the health implications vary widely between the current pandemic and the 1918 flu epidemic, the economic reactions share many similarities. The US response to 1918 was just as fractured as the states' reactions to COVID have been this year. As cities and states in 1918 shut down commerce to stem the spread of the flu, economic contraction quickly gave way to rebound, the so called "V-shaped recovery," despite the Spanish Flu having much higher death rates among working individuals than COVID-19.

There are major differences between 1918 and 2020, however. First, there is untapped potential in technology to replace workers. As businesses look for ways to cut costs, expect them to aggressively turn to automation, ultimately depressing real wages. Second, the 1918 response did not include shutdown measures as draconian as those we are experiencing in 2020. This could lead to permanent output loss across a wide range of industries, increasing real prices just as real wages decline. And third, the trillions of dollars in federal economic relief are unlike anything attempted in 1918.

The 2008 downturn that nearly brought the financial sector to a halt rippled through the economy as businesses in a wide range of industries made steep cuts to operations and capital expenditures. Despite this dangerous environment, SaaS firms increased profitability and continued to grow revenues each quarter. Growth slowed but remained positive while most other companies experienced absolute declines in revenue.

Customer acquisition for SaaS businesses usually gets more efficient during downturns, driving the potential for faster growth. The performance of all publicly traded B2B SaaS firms during 2008 illustrated in Figure 1 above proves the resilience of this category during a recession. While revenue continued to grow, profitability rose from a 10 percent loss on average to a 5 percent gain on average by 2010. This is likely due to firms freezing salaries and hiring and perhaps cutting down the sales and marketing budgets.

Downturn case study: Salesforce

Salesforce entered the downturn as a category leader in B2B SaaS with nearly $500M in revenue in 2007 and $3.5 million in operating losses. Throughout 2008, the company grew revenues by 51 percent to $748 million and operating profit surged to $20.3 million. And in 2009, the company repeated this stellar performance by growing revenues 44 percent to $1,077M and operating profit to $63 million. These results occurred against the backdrop of a global financial downturn and with a product focused on helping people sell more effectively (not something one would expect would sell well during a free-fall recession).

The revenue growth throughout those years followed the growth in sales and marketing spend. In 2008, the company grew sales and marketing by 49 percent, driving 51 percent revenue growth at about $1.50 of sales expense per $1 of recognized revenue added. In 2009, the company grew sales and marketing 42 percent resulting in 44 percent revenue growth at $1.63 of sales expense per $1 of recognized revenue. By 2010, the sales growth advantage was gone and Salesforce not only dropped its expense growth rate but also reverted to spending $2.64 per $1 of new revenue added.


Looking at these results Salesforce executed on the growth opportunities in 2008 and 2009 by ramping up sales expenses. The relative cost to acquire customers in 2008 and 2009 compared to 2010 proved significantly cheaper (approximately 40 percent less expensive). When faced with an advantage like that, every founder should charge ahead.

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Dougal Cameron is director of Houston-based Golden Section Venture Capital.

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Building Houston

 
 

CERAWeek attendees identified the four energy tech companies to watch. Photo via Getty Images

Wondering what energy tech companies you should keep an eye on? Wonder no more.

As a part of 2021 CERAWeek by IHS Markit, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship hosted a virtual pitch competition today featuring 20 companies in four sessions. Each entrepreneur had four minutes to pitch, and then a few more to take questions from industry experts.

"Of the companies here today, we've intentionally selected a diverse group," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance at the start of the event. "They range from companies looking for their seed funding to companies that have raised $20 million or more."

The following companies pitched at the event: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

At the end of each session, attendees voted via Zoom poll on which startup had the most potential. According to the event attendees, the most promising energy tech companies are:

REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies

Asheville, North Carolina-based REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies is working to "put a green spin on power." The company's micro-Expansion Turbine System produces green power for digital oilfield and pipeline initiatives through the recovery of excess natural gas pressure.

"RTT's technology provides a scalable, clean energy source to reliably power digital oilfield and pipeline initiatives at a significantly low operating cost," says Christopher Bean, founder and CEO, in his presentation. "Never has it been more important to make production and pipeline operations greener, safer, and efficient."

Connectus Global

Connectus Global, based in Calgary, provides custom technology solutions that can increase productivity, profits, and competitiveness. Connectus' Real-Time Location System, or RTLS, uses Ultra-Wide Band for communication and triangulation while hosting a Radio Frequency Identification Device, which come in the form of badges, tags, and receivers.

"In our first year, we received $800,000 in revenue and are on track to hit our numbers — $3.6 million — at the end of this fiscal year," says Mike Anderson, CEO of the company, in his presentation." We have a global white labeling agreement with Honeywell and we make up about 75 percent of their digitized workforce management portfolio."

The company's U.S. office is located in Houston.

DrillDocs

Houston-based DrillDocs has created an automated drilling cuttings characterization service, called CleanSight, that supports an operator's understanding of their wellbore's state of stability and cleanness in real time.

"We're taking computer vision to the drilling rig," says Calvin Holt, CEO and co-founder at DrillDocs, in his presentation. "Now for the first time, drilling and geomechanics teams will have unique, real-time data to ascertain the well's condition."

Revterra

Revterra, a Houston-based company and inaugural Greentown Houston member company, is creating a flywheel energy storage system for long-duration grid-scale applications.

"For those of us in Texas, the power outages we experienced a couple weeks ago are a stark reminder that the stability and the resiliency of our electric grid should be a top priority as we transition to low-emission power sources," says Ben Jawdat, founder and CEO at Revterra, in his presentation. "Energy storage is a critical element in both grid stability and enabling our transition to sustainable energy."

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