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

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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