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Local investor shares how Houston SaaS companies can stay afloat amid the pandemic

In the golden age of software companies, here's what SaaS entrepreneurs need to focus on to thrive. Getty Images

The COVID pandemic has created a macro environment that is similar to that of the 1918 Spanish Flu and the 2008 downturn and B2B software-as-a-service companies, like Salesforce, found the 2008 downturn an advantageous environment for cheap revenue growth — I've discussed this in a previous column. Now, I'd like to explore how B2B SaaS founders can position their businesses to capture this opportunity and better prepare themselves for the $400 billion of private equity looking for IT investments.

A prolonged recession due to the global response to COVID-19 provides opportunities for smart founders. Talent and partnerships from non-tech industries are likely to be much easier to access in a recessionary environment. Widespread adoption of technology is likely to result in a much more open and fruitful sales environment. And robust exit opportunities mean that this over performance will be rewarded.

So, how should smart founders operate given this opportunity? Here are a few implications that are congruent with our research.

Know your sales performance data

Many companies forsook effective KPI management while growing. Now is the time to home in on metrics so that you can discern the payoff of different tactics. Knowing sales performance metrics will help founders deploy capital wisely. Good quality and frequent data will also help you assess whether this thesis is working out for your firm.

Get whatever funding you can — and fast

In 2008, funding dropped by 20 percent, valuations by 20 to 25 percent and check sizes by 35 percent, and the current environment could be more drastic. This is paradoxical given the incredible opportunity for B2B SaaS right now, but it is in line with the human urge to run from risk. Despite claiming to be risk-seeking and long-term focused, most venture firms will pull back in this environment. Get what you can and be flexible on valuation. A smart founder who sees the opportunity can overcome additional dilution now.

Hire expert sales talent

The urge to cut back on salaries and freeze pay is high right now. Don't make that mistake, especially not in sales. There will be many firms that make this mistake, giving you the opportunity to hire expert sales talent. Pay them at the top of market, give them uncapped commission plans, and capture the growth opportunity.

Create a survival plan and set limits

This growth opportunity might not materialize. Fortunately for most B2B SaaS, there is operational flexibility built into the cost model. You can cut back on aggressive sales growth and pull expenses within your recurring revenue. Once you have a cash floor in mind and a downside plan of what you will do if either 1) you get to your cash floor or 2) the sales metrics are not proving attractive, you are safe to charge ahead. Armed with compelling acquisition data and a stable customer base, it would be easy to find additional capital.

Prepare for inflation in you customer contracts

While most B2B SaaS investors love long term contracts, the unprecedented level of fiscal and monetary support in the wake of a global shutdown will likely lead to above average levels of inflation. Current inflation expectations are muted (measured by the spread on the 10 year TIPS and the 10 year treasury). Inflation may not take off, but it is wise to prepare for it and include annual increases on multiyear contracts or a CPI price adjustment each year.

Be nice

Most companies are beating up on their vendors right now, if for no reason other than this is 'what you do during a downturn.' It is worth exploring what your vendors can do for you, but this should be a partnership driven discussion. Invite your vendor in and explore how to reach a win-win during this time. Communicate often and clearly and try to their point of view. Larger companies have programs in place to help where smaller ones might not have as much flexibility. This downturn will pass, but how you treat people will have consequences.

Build flexibility into your growth plan

This environment is a great opportunity to add flexibility and optionality into your cost profile. Leveraging flexible development resources from a firm like Golden Section Technology can get you expert talent and execution with month-to-month flexibility. This will help you scale down if your survival plan kicks in, but it will also help you ensure the product keeps up with a successful sales push.

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

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Building Houston

 
 

"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

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