In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about calculating lifetime value. They discuss how its done with one time versus recurring revenue and funded versus bootstrapped payback time.
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Rob: In this episode of the Startups For The Rest Of Us, Mike and I dive deep into the riveting conversation topic of calculating lifetime value. Seriously, it’s pretty interesting. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us Episode 362.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. I want to kick today’s episode off with a question, Mike. What movie would be greatly improved if it was made into a musical?
Mike: If it was made into a musical. Hmm, that’s a tough one. My guess would be the old, black and white Frankenstein.
Rob: Okay. Yeah, I guess it wasn’t a musical but it was turned into a comedy by, what is his name?
Mike: Mel Brooks.
Rob: Yes! Young Frankenstein, is that what it’s called? But yeah, I could see them doing a musical as well.
Mike: Yep, definitely. Mel Brooks is on a couple of others that I think he turned into musicals as well.
Rob: I agree. There’s a lot of completely random questions that catch you off guard right at the start of the show.
Mike: I know. You come up with these things that are just totally off the wall and you don’t even run by me first.
Rob: It’s your new favorite thing.
Mike: My new favorite thing.
Rob: Other than answering ridiculous questions at the top of the show, what’s going on with you?
Mike: I wanted to give a quick shout out here to Tyler Tringas. We’ll link this up in the show notes, but he has a blog article that he posted talking about how he sold his bootstrap SaaS business from somebody that he met at MicroConf. Just wanted to say great job to Tyler and mention it so that people can go over and read the whole story. It’s a really lengthy article on it and where the product started, it’s called Store Mapper. It allows people to embed a map of their stores on their websites, sound like a pretty straight forward thing but he couldn’t find anything out there that did something for his customers so he built it. Fast forward a couple of years and he was able to sell it. I just want to say congratulations.
Rob: Yeah, congrats, man. I read the post, it was really in depth and really interesting and it’s posted over there on indiehackers.com.
Mike: I also wanted to read a quick listener email to us. This is from Zoren, he says, “Love the show, great tips. We’re busting our ass trying to grow [00:02:28] right now, and your show’s been great insight. Keep up the good work and maybe one day we’ll be on your show to tell everyone our story.” Really appreciate that, Zoren.
Rob: Yeah, thanks. For me this week, we actually launched a pretty big feature that took a while. It actually didn’t take that too long to build, it’s a long time to get approved and it’s an integration with Facebook custom audiences in Drip. It means that you can, in essence, have a native action right there in Drip, so that if someone’s at a certain point in the workflow or you can even just have a global automation rule that says when this happens, when anything happens, if it a tag’s applied to this person or if the lead’s core goes above something or they start checking out and they never complete their purchase, then you can just put them into a Facebook custom audience and you can then assess and retarget them when they’re on Facebook and then if they do buy, then you can pull them out of that audience.
It’s a pretty sophisticated, powerful feature, even though it was not that hard to build, but there’s a lot of possibilities to this and there are some use cases that are going live on drip.com right now. It’s a really impactful feature that took a month from the time we were code complete, about a month in order to actually get approval from Facebook because they want you to really have tested it out and you have to jump through some hoops and everything, which are warranted, I will admit. That’s been the habub this week.
Mike: That’s interesting. I’m on the other side of the spectrum with Google where I talked last week about how I was finishing up the [OWAF 00:03:59] authentication for Google to get mailboxes integrated into Bluetick. Because of the level of access that I’m asking for inside of people’s mailboxes, they have to basically fill out this form and they’re like you have to justify why you want this or why you need this level of access, I’m like, oh great. I went through and they’re like oh, it will take a minimum of three to seven days in order to get it approved, and of course I went through the process and I was like, oh, this is going to suck. Three hours after I submitted it, they said, sure, you’re good to go.
Rob: Oh, that’s cool. Good for them then, for keeping that queue short. You totally understand why they do that, right?
Mike: Oh, totally, definitely. That wasn’t the issue. The issue is I didn’t look to see that that was what I was going to need to do. I don’t know, I think the part of it might have just been the stuff that I was asking for and why and the documentation that I had to send in. I was pretty detailed in what I was requesting and why it needed to be done. Though I suppose it paid off.
Rob: Yeah, that makes sense. The other thing for me is the iTunes reviews, we now have 544 worldwide reviews in iTunes. Our most recent one that comes from Honey Mora from Canada and his subject line is: Ton of practical tips and lessons. He says, “I’ve been a listener for about four years now. I love what Rob and Mike share each week, I’m hooked. I’ve been following Rob’s Stewardship Approach since launching several premium WordPress plugins first and a few months back launching my first SaaS. Thank you for all you guys do.” He’s at repurpose.io.
Thanks for that review, Honey. We would appreciate if you’ve never given us a review, hop into Stitcher, Downcast, Overcast, whatever it is you use, or iTunes and click that five star button. You don’t even need an entire review or shout out or anything like that. Just clicking that five star helps keep us motivated, it helps us rise to the top of the rankings, helps us get more listeners, and the more listeners we have, the more we can do at the show, frankly, and it motivates us to keep putting out episodes.
Mike: The only other thing I have is I am speaking at the Cold Email Success Summit next week. We’ll link that up in the show notes but it’s not really quite an online conference but it’s an online summit where you can go and there are 20 different speakers that they’ve pulled from the world of email marketing to talk about various topics and give their insights and discuss what’s working and what’s not and give you actionable tips and things that you can do to help with your email marketing reference.
Rob: That’s cool. We’ll include a link in the show notes to that.
Mike: Awesome. What are we talking about this week?
Rob: This week, I outlined an entire episode around a single listener question from Andrea [00:06:28]. If you have a question that you think could make an interesting or even just a topic suggestion that you think could make an interesting episode for us, you can email that to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or feel free to call it into our voicemail line at 888-801-9690.
Andrea says, “Hey there, thanks for an amazing podcast. I have a question for you. A few times in the show, you’ve talked about customer lifetime value and how important it is for knowing how much to spend on user acquisition. That makes a lot of sense, but how do you calculate your CLV (Customer Lifetime Value)? I’ve seen some examples on how other people calculate it, it would be interesting to hear your perspective on how to do it for SaaS. Thanks.”
And just one quick note, I am going to use LTV for lifetime value. He calls it CLV, some people call it CLV, some people call it LTV, it doesn’t matter what you call it, it is the total amount of revenue that you are going to get on average from each of your customers. The reason that this is helpful to know is it can dictate the whole slew of things. The higher it gets in general, the healthier your business is, the more you can spend to acquire customers, and even the more you can spend to support them, to create educational material for them, more you can spend on feature development. This value grows and your customer count grows, those are the two things that multiply by each other.
If you make about having 500 customers with a total lifetime value of $100, that’s only $50,000. That’s the lifetime value of all those customers that they’re going to pay you the entire time that they are customers of yours. Now if they are a one time customer, you get that all upfront, meaning one time purchase. If it’s a recurring purchase, you will get that overtime but that’s not a ton of money to hire people, pay for server hosting, pay for whatever other – there are a ton of expenses; pay yourself, run ads, do all the stuff you need to do. Whereas if you take the same $500 customers and you just multiply that by 10, let’s say a reasonable lifetime value of $1,000, now we’re talking about $500,000. It’s a whole different ball game of how you can treat your customers.
We’re going to dive in today, we’re going to talk quickly about how to calculate it, and I have just a very simple and very streamlined way to do it. There are different ways to do it, there is more specific, in detail, and advance ways to do it, but especially for a podcast, we don’t want us just reading off a bunch of equations. We can link out to some more advanced stuff, there are some great stuff from Tom Tungus, there’s someone who dives into this really deep and they have five different formulas and it’s the simple one and then they add another thing and then you have the cost of goods sold and then you add this, and the that. It gets super complicated by the end, but for now, we will just dive at a more of an entry level but then I really want to talk, we are going to get in deep into some rules of thumb that I have for payback time on advertising and then run through a couple of examples that are very close to real world apps just so you can get a better sense of why all this matters.
To kick us off, if you think about having a one time purchase business, like a WordPress plugin, or even DotNetInvoice, which is an old product of mine versus a recurring business, there’s a big difference on how you calculate lifetime value. We aren’t going to spend a ton of time on one time purchases, it’s obvious if you are going to do a really simplified version of calculating it, you’re just going to look at your purchase price. To be honest, if you have multiple purchase prices, let’s say you have a $50, $100, $150, and again, these are one time sales, you should know at this point what you breakdown has been historically. You should be able to go back pretty easily, do an export out of Stripe and just basically, you want the average of all the purchases that people have made and that’s what I would start with.
As you get more advanced, you might have upsells, you might have cross sells, maybe there’s an annual payment that comes once a year, there’s all that stuff that you can add in later but this is a five second estimate of what people will pay you on a one time basis. An example, DotNetInvoice is a one time sale downloadable invoicing software, the purchase price was $329, and then we had a bunch of different add ons and we could do the math, it was 20% of people who bought DotNetInvoice bought one of the add ons and the average price of the add ons was $99, you can do that math and then 20% times the 99 is another $29, so it actually raises the lifetime value up to $349, give or take. What you’ll notice with that example is if I had just said DotNetInvoice is $329, and that’s the number I’m going to go with right off the cuff just so I would have it, it’s actually pretty close to the ultimate value.
That’s something I want you to think about is, ultimately, you’ll want to get down to the dollar because once you’re paying for ads and you’re running big time marketing spend, it does matter. But in the early days, when you’re just trying to get a sanity check on things or just trying to get an idea of how much someone is worth starting with one time sale, starting with the purchase price, that’s a fine way to do it especially if you’re prelaunch because you’re not going to have all the numbers that I just threw out right of who’s going to purchase what of which tier, just make a judgment call. If you’re one purchase price, use that. If you have three tiers, I would take the average of the bottom two. An example of the $50, $100, $150, I would take the average of the $50 and $100 and I would obviously say I have $75. That’s the lifetime value I would have going into a one time purchase business. Next we’ll dive into how to calculate it for recurring.
Mike: I think the analogy I might try to draw between calculating the lifetime value and how it relates to your business is that when you’re looking at this, you would think that calculating lifetime value is really straight forward and easy as okay, how much money you’re going to make per customer, but once you start digging into the details as Rob illustrated, if you get into things like cross sells and upsells, those things start to change what your lifetime value actually looks like. It’s very easy when it’s just a flat number and it’s one time payment but anything else, let’s say that you’re paying affiliates, that eats into whatever that margin is. If you’re doing cross sells, or upsells, maybe it adds 20% to the revenue but only for 50% of the customers, then it starts to get complicated.
It’s almost like the very simplistic analogy is okay, this is how you calculate gravity but depending on how close you are to center of gravity or how far away you are, there’s all these other little things that come into play. Then there’s air friction and lots of other stuff. It starts to get more complicated, and there are other things that you can add in that may make a difference or you may decide to gloss over them just based on what it is that you’re trying to get at and why you’re trying to get at that number. If it’s try to maintain profitability or optimize your profitability, you might dig in and say yes, these things actually matter to the calculation. In other cases you may just say, I don’t care, I just need a back of the envelope number so that I know kind of what I’m shooting for. It really depends on where you are in the process of trying to figure out how much money each customer is making you.
Rob: Let’s flip over to recurring which is what we’ll focus on for the rest of the episode. Obviously this works with SaaS, but also works for membership sites, something where someone pays you on a recurring basis. This can be used for quarterly or annual or whatever. We’re going to look at monthly because it makes the most sense for what we’re talking about.
To calculate lifetime value, the simplest formula is to take your average monthly revenue per user, per customer and you divide it by your churn percentage. If your average revenue per customer per month is $30 and you have a 10% monthly churn rate, then you’d have $30 over 0.1 and that means your lifetime value is $300. It’s not complicated, it’s just hard to explain on a podcast but basically your average customer lifetime, how many months they stick with you is one divided by churn. Again, it would be 1 over 0.1, so that would give you 10, and then your lifetime value is your average monthly revenue per user which is also called ARPU (Average Revenue Per User). ARPU times the amount of moths they stick around times the lifetime. The amount of months they stick around is 10 and the ARPU in this case is 30. 30 times 10 is 300.
Again, the simple way to do it, we don’t really need to derive it here like I’ve just done but it’s basically your average monthly revenue per user divided by your churn percentage. There is a more advanced way to do it, we’ll link over to profit wealth. We want to get down to the penny and how all these things come into it. But what’s interesting is you think about HitTail where an earlier SaaS app I had, had pricing tiers that were 10, 20, 40 and 80 and then it went up from there if you got really big. If I would to look at a SaaS app that had pricing tiers of 10, 20, 40 and 80, this is actually similar to what HitTail had. Those were the pricing tiers for that. You could take a reasonable guess. Typically, when I’m looking at a SaaS app, if I’m going to guess what the average revenue per user is, it tends to be one from the bottom. In this case 10, 20, 40, 80, I would from an outside perspective say it’s probably around $20. Maybe it’s $22, maybe it’s $25, something without expansion revenue specifically.
Expansion revenue is like what Drip or people as the ad subscribers goes up quickly, the costs. But in an app like HitTail or app where people choose a tier and stay on it, it’s going to tend to be somewhere on the lower end. If your average monthly revenue per user is $20, you can see how driving churn down drives this lifetime value up. If your churn is 10%, which is quite high, you only have $200 total from the lifetime. But if you cut that in half down to 5%, then you’re looking at to having $400 that you’re essentially grossing from that customer over their lifetime.
Mike: The thing to keep in mind with that churn rate is that as that churn rate goes up, it dramatically starts to affect the lifetime value. If you think about it strictly from a percentage, I think it was 5% churn is the example that I’ve used in a MicroConf talk in the past where if you have 5% churn, then on a year over year basis, you’re churning over 60% of your customer base and it actually gets a lot worse than that because it is 5% per month, not necessarily the total of the entire time because you have to calculate it at each point where somebody could potentially churn out of the application. That 5%, great number to have but you really want it over 5% over the course of the year, not 5% per month. You can get in trouble if your churn rate starts to climb and you end up churning over most of your customers on a yearly basis. That’s a really bad position to be in.
Rob: And I’ll just throw in this little tid bit here, this isn’t even in the outline but it’s interesting, you can get to the point where you have net negative churn, your churn is actually negative because your existing customers are expanding. It’s called expansion revenue like I just talked about. In a business where it is based on something that is constantly growing, let’s say imagine Amazon EC2, Amazon S3.
Mike: I think Stripe would be a good example.
Rob: Stripe’s a good example. Yup.
Mike: Stripe takes a percentage of the purchase price for their customers but as those customers grow and they sell more, Stripe grows their own revenue because of that.
Rob: Right. If they have a bunch of people signing up and some are churning but the ones who are there are growing 10% per month each, just as an example, you can imagine that their churn is negative and that’s crazy multiplier, crazy multiplier on lifetime value.
Why are we even thinking about lifetime value, why do you care? The big deal is lifetime value gives you an idea of what you can spend to support and to build the product and they acquire, but there’s even more interesting aspect that we can drill into and it’s not directly lifetime value but it’s based around payback time, payback duration.
Let’s say that there’s this common mistake of beginning startup founders, thinking that they can take their entire lifetime value and they can spend that to acquire a customer. If you had $500 LTV, I could go out and spend $500 to acquire that customer. That is far from the truth. There are three major reasons why that is, first one is that you’re going to have expenses, you’re going to be paying employees, you’re going to be paying yourself, you’re going to have hosting, you’re going to have Stripe cost, payment processing, there are a ton of expenses that are out there. When you are small you can get those small, but especially as you get big, your expenses will become a larger and larger percentage of that lifetime value. That’s the first thing to keep in mind. That’s where if you want to do the exhaustive LTV calculation where it’s net LTV, you can start deducting out expenses on a per customer basis, just takes a lot longer. When you’re small, it isn’t such a big factor, I wouldn’t necessarily do that earlier on.
Second thing is you don’t want to spend $500 to acquire a customer who’s going to bring you $500 because you want to make some type of profit, you want to have a business that actually generates some type of money that you put in your pocket. The third one is that you are likely to run out of cash. Imagine if you have a really long customer lifetime, people just stick around forever. Let’s say they stick around for 50 months and you get $10 a month from them. The lifetime value would be $500. But if you spend $500 to acquire them, or even if you spend $300 or $400, you don’t get payback for 30-40 months and unless you have a massive pile of cash, you are going to get killed. Frankly, you’re going to go out of business, it’s what’s going to happen, you’re going to run out of cash.
There is this whole concept of payback duration or payback time that doesn’t go all the way up to the LTV, it only goes for certain number of months to the point where you have enough cash to cover it and basically enough comfort to cover it. So Mike, you want to talk a little bit about these rules of thumb that I’ve used over the years for a funded company’s payback time and bootstrapped company payback time.
Mike: Yeah. The difference between them is striking because with a funded company, they have money to burn because they’ve gotten money from their investors and the whole purpose of that money is to not just find the customer but to also leverage the channels that are going to get them more customers. Not necessarily as concerned about profit. They can burn through the money that they are getting and it doesn’t matter as much to them, they’re really trying to spend that money in order to identify the channel that’s going to get them the most customers as quick as possible and then they’re going to use that to start optimizing what the revenue is. Sometimes they don’t even do that, sometimes they don’t care about revenue at that stage at all, they’re really just looking to get users.
If they are looking for a return on their investment though, they’re typically looking at something less than a year because they have the money to burn and they have the money to invest in those channels and the purpose is to get that money in the door overtime so that when the year comes up, then they have the money back in the bank. As Rob had given the example, $10 a month over the course of 50 months, let’s say that it’s $100 a month over the course of 12 months. They want to get that return within a year.
With a bootstrap company, you really can’t do that. Most people do not have the runway in order to be able to make that happen. This is where people are really looking to get that payback within two, three, four months at the most. If you have more cash in the bank, you can stretch it out to six or seven but if you don’t, you really need that payback very quickly, maybe one or two months at the most. This is an area where if you’re selling annual plans, it can make a huge difference in your ability to leverage channels that are going to cost you a lot of money to acquire those customers because if you can sell an annual plan, you get all the money up front, you don’t have to wait for it to come in. Maybe not everybody signs up for an annual plan but if you can get a certain percentage of them to sign up for an annual plan, then that calculates into what your upfront revenue is and what your payback time is on average. It’s not going to say everybody’s going to pay back within this period of time, whether it’s three months or upfront. But you also want to make sure that you have the money in the bank to be able to reinvest in wherever the channel is that you’re finding that’s working.
Rob: Yup. I remember when I first started running ads with HitTail was Facebook ads and my payback time that I was looking for was I think two months or three months because I didn’t have a lot of cash and then I did some deals. I did an AppSumo deal and I got $11,000 in cash from that and then I upped it to a four-month payback. And then I got even better at it, and I realized I wanted to spend more and grow faster so I went to five months and eventually I was at six months payback because I was comfortable with it and I had enough cash coming in from existing customer to cover that. It’s a really interesting thing to see how comfortable you are and how much cash you have in the bank. I would say as a bootstrapped founder like you said, somewhere between two and four months is where most people typically start.
One other thing I wanted to point out is there is there’s this rule of thumb with lifetime value to CAC ratio. CAC is Cost to Acquire the Customer. LTV to CAC ratio, in general is in funded circles but they say it should be about 3:1. Meaning if your LTV is $1,200 that your cost to acquire them should be right about $400. If you go over $400, let’s say you’re at $800, it means you’re spending too much to acquire customers and actually there are funded companies that do this because they’re trying to go after growth and they’re nowhere near profitable. These are the kinds of the companies that I think that a lot of us roll our eyes at because it’s like yes, you’re growing and yes you’re bragging about how you’re killing it but you’re never going to make money until you prove that you could acquire customers for less.
And then in the funded circles, if they say you’re acquiring customer’s, lifetime value is $400 and you’re only spending $100 or $200, then you’re actually missing out on growth. They’re not saying it should be below 3:1, they’re saying it should be at 3:1 or as close as you can get there. Personally, when I’ve done this, I have often not spent 3:1, I have often done below that like 4:1 or 5:1 because the rest is profit. If you are a bootstrap founder, you have to think about that. The less you spend, the slower you will grow but the more profit you will have. You want to balance that, you want to grow really fast, you can obviously have that ratio be even higher.
For the last few minutes of today’s podcast, I wanted to run through a couple examples of some real numbers to wrap your head around what it actually looks like to run ads and to think about payback time. What I’m saying is, as reasonable clickthrough rates and reasonable ads cost at different times, you have to find the right ad network to be able to justify some of these but let’s go back to lower price SaaS, which is $10, $20, $40 and $80 a month with average earn per user at $20 point, churn is 10% a month just to make it simple. Obviously you’d want to get lower than that but it’s easy math, that makes your lifetime value of $200.
Interesting thing, we’re just going to look at two scenarios, back in the day, when I was running Facebook ads, this is 2012, I was getting clicks for $0.30, that is not impossible to do at this point but there are ad networks still today where you could find those. At the time, Facebook was a [00:24:50] ad network and when Google AdWords was [00:24:53], it was cheap clicks that Jason Cohen and talked about getting $0.05 clicks when he first started the SmartBear. You have to go outside these mainstream areas because they are overcrowded with highly funded. It’s where everyone’s playing and so the clicks are more expensive, but if you can find networks or other opportunities for getting inexpensive clicks, be creative with it, that’s where you can get these $0.30, $0.40, $0.50 clicks.
Let’s say we were getting ad clicks at $0.30 piece, let’s say 2% of the people who came to our website converted the trial, that number is high but for a lower priced SaaS app, that’s really curiosity based, it’s possible although we’ll look at the next example as I think is probably a little more realistic these days. 2% conversion to trial and then half of your folks, this is credit card upfront, 50% convert from trial to paid. With that, if you do the math, $0.30, 2%, 50%, it takes you out to $30 to acquire each customer and you would get a payback in 1 1/2 months. You would want to run that all day and all night and you would actually want to pay more per click to drive more traffic faster. I would consider doubling one of those numbers, if you literally were getting 2% conversion rate to trial, that is a pretty hefty rate.
The second example is pretty much the same example, but I doubled the cost from $0.30 to $0.60 and then I cut the conversion to trial in half from 2% to 1%, which I’ll admit is a bit realistic. It’s $0.60 per click and 1% converting to trial and half converting to paid, that gives us a cost to acquire of $120 and that’s a 6 month payback. Realize that if you’re driving 100 customers new customers a month from this ad approach, that’s going to be $12,000 in cash that you’re going to need to do it. It puts into perspective, those are just loose numbers, if you add a higher average revenue per user, not uncommon to have $80 or $100 average revenue per user, then these numbers become very different. You can pay a lot more per click. If you pay a lot more per click, your conversion trial’s probably also going to be lower with a higher price point thing. These things will have to shake out.
But this is the analysis that I have done many times when I’m thinking about are we ready to start running ads and is there a scenario under which this is feasible and then we can reasonably grow a business using ads because every business is not cut out to do pay acquisition.
Mike: I think the most important piece to keep in mind when you’re looking at the numbers and try to figure out whether or not it makes sense to go after a particular advertising network is how quickly you’re going to get that return on your investment back. Because if it is six months, and if it’s costing you $10,000 to pump into that, you’re not going to see that $10,000 that you paid this month until six months out. In order to get yourself to that six month period or get yourself through it, it’s going to cost you $50,000, $60,000 and yes it decreases as you go on because you’re getting more money from the customers in the third month than you were in the first month, but the reality is you need a lot of money to make something like that work. That’s why funded companies can do it and bootstrapped companies really don’t have the ability to. Again, that’s also why the annual plans and getting the money upfront helps so much with being able to grow the business in an advertising space because you get that money and you can spend it, and in fact, almost gives you negative churn as a result of that.
Jason Cohen has talked about that at MicroConf. I think there’s a talk that you can find on the MicroConf website under the videos section from 2013 or so where he talks about exactly that.
Rob: Yeah. To be honest, even though we’ve been talking for more than half an hour, this really is high level introductory. I say introductory and I hope it was easy to understand but I will say that the kind of rules of thumb that I’ve thrown out here are from years and years of experience running this across multiple SaaS apps, many, many small businesses and this is the way that I think about paid acquisition as I’m diving into it. I was trying to think of any networks these days, like ad networks in particular, that would probably have tripleclicks, I think Twitter is one, and I think Instagram is another. I don’t know if Instagram’s up to Facebook cost yet, I know Instagram’s a pain, it’s not necessarily B2B, it’s got to be visual and all that stuff. Those are the two networks I think have a decent reach that could potentially have cheap clicks. I don’t think Facebook does it these days anymore, last time I ran ads, the cheapest I was getting was the $0.60 clicks but a lot of them were mostly between $0.60 and $1, I think it’s even higher than that now.
That is why these businesses like Facebook and Google mint money and why they’re worth so much, why the stock market values them so high because they know that overtime, if they’re successful and if they figure out their ad tech, which is pretty hard to build, if they figure that out, it’s just going to grow overtime and that’s good for them. It’s not necessarily good for the advertisers in the sense of it becomes more and more expensive to run ads.
Mike: I think the one wrench to throw in this entire thing is that even if you’re paying money to get those people to your site, there is the chance that they may not convert right away and they may just end up on your email list and you may need to figure out, okay, it cost me this much to get somebody onto my email list, but later on did they convert into a customer and that’s where you start getting into a really advanced analysis of what your sales funnel looks like. Maybe some people convert, maybe some people never convert or just unsubscribe and they will never become a customer but those are the places where it becomes very difficult to start making some of these calculations because then it’s not as straightforward as I paid $1 for this ad and 1% of the people converted. It’s probably a little bit more than 1% but it’s hard to know overtime, then you end up with problems trying to figure out what your attribution looks like. Attribution is an entirely different world, we could probably spend an entire episode on trying to figure out attribution but it’s complicated to say the least. I’ve talked to a lot of people who said trying to figure out what your attribution looks like is very, very difficult.
Rob: Yup. This is all good points. It’s not necessarily a purchase right off the bat from an ad, especially not from Facebook. They’ve tweaked their algorithms so actually they made that harder. If you look at someone like Brennan Dunn with Double Your Freelancing, he talks about every email subscriber he gets is worth x dollars and I forget what the number is. I imagine he’s been public with it, but it’s something like $10 or $11. He knows that if he runs Facebook ads and can just get someone to opt in, that down the line, if he does all the math, on average, it’s about $10 or $11 based on how much a bunch of people don’t buy and the ones that do buy these many things from him.
It’s interesting, if you can run ads and getting someone on the email list is not that hard, depends on the list, depends on the time and clicks and all the stuff but I’ve done it pretty consistently for between around $1 at the low end up to maybe $5, $6 on the high end. What I was just talking about, it’d be pretty interesting, you could see how you could mint money with the business model that makes money based on people being on an email list.
Mike: I think that sounds like a good place to wrap it up. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you could email it to us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about back of the envelope business model test. This episode is loosely based on chapter 2 of the book, Scaling Lean: Mastering the Key Metrics for Startup Growth. Some of the points discussed include defining your minimum success criteria and converting revenue goals to customer acquisition.
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Mike [00:00]: In this episode of ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ Rob and I are going to be talking about back of the envelope business model tests for revenue. This is ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ episode 294.
Welcome to ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ the podcast helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products; whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob [00:25]: And I’m Rob.
Mike [00:26]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. How you doing this week, Rob?
Rob [00:30]: I’m doing pretty good. I’m coming off a series of split tests that we’ve been running on the homepage of Drip. And actually Zack on my team took that over recently. And after I had run a couple split tests with – basically the normal result of a split test is that you’re not going to have an improvement. If you run ten split tests you’re going to get improvement on one or two that’s significant. And so, my split tests were just chugging along and just taking forever to run. And then the first one Zack runs, he made some more dramatic changes, he saw a 41 percent improvement in the click-throughs. And so now we’re taking it another step and we’re actually installing – something we should have done from the start – but we’re installing the pixels. So we actually know if it’s not just click-throughs but it’s actually leading to trial sign ups and that kind of stuff. But it was pretty cool to see that kind of jump because that’s definitely a notable percentage.
Mike [01:19]: Nice. Now that you’re doing that and when you go back, are you going to track everything through because obviously you have to have some sort of a benchmark, right?
Rob [01:25]: Yeah. We’re going to track it through. We didn’t talk today about whether we’re going to rerun the same test now that we have the revenue pixel in place, or if we’ll just use this as the new benchmark and start from there. But either way this stuffs always fun. I geek out on it because it’s like the engineer – this is engineering marketing. Nowadays it’s called growth hacking but this is what we’ve been doing for ten, 12 years, where it’s like applying the engineering mindset to marketing. Which isn’t something that was commonly done, or maybe it just wasn’t talked about very much, except for by direct response guys before a few years ago when kind of this growth hacking thing became popular.
Mike [02:03]: Cool. Well, I just recently kicked off my Twitter ads for Bluetick again. And I’m hoping that they aren’t completely messed up like they were the last time. I think that I talked about that a little bit on the podcast, where just before MicroConf I had put a bunch of new ads out there on Twitter and people were tweeting back to me and commenting to me like, “You’re doing it wrong”. And I was just like, “What ae you talking about?” And I didn’t really think to go back and look to see what it was. I just thought it was people trolling a little bit. I got enough of them that I went back and took a look at it and, of course, the Twitter lead cards were all screwed up and it was like people had to click on them and then click on them again. It was just messed up so I had to redo not the entire campaign, but at least different parts of it. Hopefully things will go well this time.
Rob [02:42]: Good luck with that. It’s always touch and go when you first start any type of ad campaign, especially if it’s not proven because you just have to monitor it really closely. Once you get to that point where you have something that’s working and you have history behind it and numbers behind it, it’s so much more – I don’t know, comforting. Or it’s just less nerve-wracking I guess when you start it up. Because you generally know the range that it’s going to fall into. But at the start, man, you can turn it on and be paying crazy click amounts or you can just get no impressions and not know why and stuffs always frustrating when you’re trying to figure it out.
Mike [03:11]: What happened before was I was getting lots and lots of impressions but very few click-through rates. So I wasn’t actually paying for very much, which on one hand that was nice, but on the other hand I just wasn’t seeing any sort of results that I was looking for and I just hadn’t had time to go look at it at the time. At least now I have a benchmark of what I should not be getting.
Rob [03:30]: For sure. Cool. So what are we talking about today?
Mike [03:32]: Today what we’re going to do is we’re going to go through back of the envelope business model tests. And this is loosely based on chapter two of a new book that just came out called Scaling Lean: Mastering the Key Metrics for Startup Growth. And this is by Ash Maurya. And he’s written a couple of other lean startup books or at least books that are in that particular realm or genre so to speak.
But what I wanted to do was go through chapter two specifically and take a look at what some of the different thoughts are from him about how to look at a business model and determine what the forward looking plateaus are going to look like. And you can use this either for an existing business or for a brand new business that you’re getting off the ground. Some of the calculations that he has in the book are especially relevant just because they greatly simplify what he calls ‘customer throughput,’ which is your customer acquisition. And it kind of measures that against your customer churn rate as well, on a yearly basis. So taking those two things into account, you can sort of look at where your business plateaus are going to be and figure out whether or not you’re going to be able to have enough of a customer acquisition channel or channels in place in order to be able to just maintain the business – whatever your revenue goals are for the business.
Rob [04:43]: And keep in mind that unless you’ve run a business before and you kind of have some loose rule of thumb numbers that you use, some of the stuff we talk about today is going to be less applicable if you have no business at this point. Because you’re just pulling numbers out of the sky and you’re going to find that you’re pretty far off. But if you’ve already started and you have at least a few thousand a month in revenue, you have some numbers and you know your kind of trial to paid, and you know how something should go, you can be much, much more accurate with these calculations because you just have a concept of where you are and where you need to get to. Realizing that the numbers will change but in much smaller increments than if you’re just kind of throwing darts at a dart board as you would if you really do have a business with no customers to date.
The other thing I wanted to mention is keep in mind with books like this that they are written for a broader startup audience. And so not everything – if you do go buy the book, which I’m guessing is pretty good – if you do go buy it you got to take some things with a grain of salt. And we’ll try to point some things out specifically with chapter two, here, that I think may apply more to bootstrappers or ways that these could be shifted to people who are self-funded rather than the examples of the ten million dollar ARR after three years. It’s like that’s just so irrelevant to our audience in particular. We’ll try to call that out as we go through.
Mike [05:55]: Let’s dive right in. And the first step of chapter two is to take a look at the business itself and define what you would consider to be the minimum success criteria. And as I said before, the business model that’s shown in here can be applicable to either an existing business or to a new business that you’re trying to get off the ground and you’re trying to figure out whether or not it’s going to be a viable business. Take a look about three years out and try to think about what the business looks like specifically in terms of revenue. Now those two different things are extremely important. The first one is that you’re looking no more than three years out. And the second one is that you’re looking specifically at a revenue dollar amount so that you can make some sort of calculations.
If you try and go out further than three years, you’re probably not going to be nearly as accurate. And in addition, if it’s a business you’re trying to get off the ground, three years, trying to look beyond that and plan beyond three years is not going to be helpful to you because the business may just not be there or you may have a really hard time getting the customers. So looking at those in a much shorter time period, essentially time boxing your problem so to speak, is going to be really helpful.
The other side of it is being able to take a look at a firm dollar amount. You can adjust that later on, but the idea here is that you want to have a dollar amount in terms of the yearly recurrent revenue that you want to shoot for, that you can base most of your other calculations on. And we’ll talk a little bit more about how you can play with the numbers to kind of reach that revenue target based on lifetime value, customer acquisition rate, how long those customers stick around, etcetera. But those are just the two basic things that you need to think about when you’re talking about the minimum success criteria.
Rob [07:24]: And I’ll admit, to even think about thinking three years out feels crazy to me. It feels very MBA to even be talking about 36 months out because so much is going to change after you launch. When I’m first starting a business I tend to look six months out and think what can we get there. And if we hit product market fit where can we be at 12 months. With that said, this exercise, by the time we get to the end of it, it gives you a cool formula that I’m impressed with. It’s a high level way of trying to find plateaus and figure out where the business is going to plateau based on lifetime value and based on how many customers you think you can pull in.
So there’s a give and a take here. I don’t love the idea of looking three years out because I just think that you’re going to be way off. Even with the business as consistent as Drip, if I looked three years out I’m going to be way off and I know the numbers like the back of my hand. Take that with a grain of salt and realize that if you are projecting out and you’re thinking I need 120k per year, and maybe you want that after the first 12 months and you want that to be you quitting your job. But then you want the business – you’re thinking you want it to go to maybe double in the next year, and then go to 360 of 500k, kind of in that range is ambitious but I’ll say it’s not impossible for a bootstrapper to get there. Those are the kind of numbers that you should probably be thinking about in terms of this exercise. Assuming that you’re not going to have funding at the start and then you’re not going to try and grow a seven, eight figure business super-fast in the style of Silicon Valley; that you’re going to build it like a real business and hire based on profit and that kind of stuff.
Mike [08:56]: The second step is to take that revenue goal that you came up with and convert it into what he calls customer throughput. And this is your customer acquisition rate over time. And there’s a number of different steps to doing this. And the first step of that is if you’re building a new product you have to come up with some sort pricing on it. And if you don’t know what your pricing is, the recommendation is to use some sort of value based pricing to estimate the base price. This is essentially pricing your solution on the value of what it provides, not on what it costs to build and deliver. So that’s a difference between the solution value to your customers versus the cost structure on the back end to you.
Something else that you might look at is using cost based pricing, which is essentially taking your costs to deliver the solution, and then adding a margin on top of that. There’s a lot of business models that fit this particular mold of a service based model of any kind; productized services. Those tend to fit that. But those tend to fit that particular type of model. But if you can get away with it, if you can provide some sort of a value based pricing, you’re much better off. And going back to what we said before, if you have an existing business in place, you already have your pricing. You can essentially just use that number.
Rob [10:02]: For SaaS, I’d say it goes without saying that you’re going to want to shoot for value based pricing. That’s just kind of the way it’s done. You look at the value you’re providing, figure out if there is any competitors that are doing similar things and you either price above them if you want to be premium, or you price similar to them if you just want to be a better product. And I think another example – you mentioned consulting and such of using cost based – another example of that is kind of metered pricing, like how Amazon EC2 does it. I’m sure that they just look at their costs and then add some kind of margin on it. So, I think for the purposes of bootstrappers and folks listening in this, value based is 99.9 percent going to be the direction you want to go.
Mike [10:39]: The second step is to calculate the total number of customers at the end of the time period that you want in order to identify what your active customer base needs to be in order to make your ends meet for the revenue target. So let’s say that your revenue target is $180,000 a year, if you’re charging $30 a month then you need 500 customers in order to be able to reach that revenue goal of $180,000. That’s the kind of calculation that you need to be able to do. And this is why it’s so important to come up with not just the time periods but also what you are selling your product for and what your average price point is going to be for your customers. Obviously, if you have different pricing tiers then you kind of have to guess a little bit. So if your pricing tiers are $50, $100, and then $200 a month, your average price might be something like $75 a month or $90 a month. It really depends on where in the pricing spectrum the largest number of your customers fall. And obviously it can go in the other direction, too. You might have an average price point of $175 even though you have a bunch of people on the $50 a month plan. So take those things into account, but you’re trying to get down to an average price point per customer, and a lifetime value.
Rob [11:48]: Lifetime value is very hard to calculate if you don’t have a product. I think we’ll come back to that point. If you really are spit balling this, you’re going to have to use some rules of thumb and you’ll be off by a factor of two or three. If you already have a product this is much each because then you should know this like the back of your hand.
Mike [12:03]: I think if you don’t have a product at all, then using benchmarks from other similar companies to get to an estimate or just using what their pricing models look like – again, going back to what Rob said about determining whether or not you want to be a premium priced product or commodity based product or something along those lines. Just use a conservative estimate if all else fails. If you’re really not sure, come up with some sort of a conservative estimate for most of these numbers.
Now that said, once you have the numbers for your lifetime value and for the yearly target that you’re trying to reach, the calculation that he offers up is to get your customer throughput. And to do that you would take your yearly revenue, divide it by the customer lifetime value. And this comes out to the number of customers per year that you need to add into your business in order to be able to maintain the business at that level, at that point in time. Now that’s not on day one. It’s not on the 12 months in. It’s at that multi-year mark that you came up with in the beginning. So the recommendation was three years, if you’re using three years. And for sake of an example let’s go through that. If you’re trying to get to $500,000 a year at year three and you have a $50 a month product with a two-year lifetime value, your lifetime value is very easy to calculate, it’s $1200 lifetime value. But your customer throughput is that $500,000 divided by your lifetime value. And that comes out to 417 new customers per year that you need to add.
Now again, this assumes that your business is at year three. And if you just look at the raw numbers of the customers who are paying you on a monthly basis, your business would need 833 active customers to get to 500k in yearly revenue. But if you also take a step back and you look at that lifetime value, you’re churning out 417 of these customers every year. Which means that at 500k a year you need to add 400 every single year in order to just maintain the business at that level. And this is really where those calculations start to come into play and you can start figuring out where your plateaus are if you’re going to hit them at that particular level.
Rob [14:00]: And when I first saw this calculation, which again is called customer throughput, and it’s your yearly revenue target. So, like Mike said, that 500k divided by your lifetime value. And when I saw that my first question was why are we dividing by lifetime value? Shouldn’t we be dividing by the annual revenue per customer? And as Mike and I batted this back and forth offline, and in fact this formula works, the one that he’s given works. And he’s doing some clever math and canceling some things out, but suffice to say we tweaked around with different lifetime values, different lifetimes and different monthly price points and in all of them the math works. So, what I like about this is it’s a high level thing. Don’t get me wrong, this is not something that you’re going to sit down on day one and it’s going to dictate everything about your business. But what I like about this is it’s pretty fast to calculate.
And based on when I’ve launched products, you have a general idea of what your price is going to be. You know it’s going to be maybe around 30 bucks, or around 50, or around 75. You know that your average revenue per year should kind of be that based on what you’re launching into. And then you can always take a guess at your lifetime. When in doubt go with 12 months. That’s kind of been my rule of thumb for people who are starting a new business. You’re going to start off way lower than that when you kick off because you’re not going to have product market fit, your customer lifetime’s going to be like four or five months. But as you improve it you’re eventually going to hit that one-year mark and move beyond it. So a one-year lifetime is reasonable, and a two year means you’re doing pretty well.
In certain spaces like, let’s say Web hosting, where people just don’t churn out nearly as much, you might have a four year LTV or even a five year LTV. And big enterprise software is also like that. Maybe a HubSpot or a Salesforce, those guys have these really long customer lifetime values. And with lower price point software, typically let’s say average revenue fees are 20 to 99 bucks a month. You’re just going to have higher churn, you always will. So you’re going to have between, let’s say a one and three-year customer lifetime. So it’s pretty easy to kind of run a couple different scenarios on this. If it’s 50 bucks a month and you’re doing one year, then it’s $600 lifetime. And if you’re doing three years then it’s $1800. And then you can pretty quickly get an idea of how many customers you’re going to need to bring in each year in order to replace the people that are leaving and to maintain that revenue level.
This is not a projection of where you’re going. That’s a whole separate conversation. To project where you’re going you want to sit down with an Excel spreadsheet and it’s a whole different set of numbers. But what this is telling you is where the business is going to plateau based on your customer acquisition. So if you see this number of 400 new customers per year, if you’re already in your business and you’re trying to grow this thing, it’s going to be pretty obvious to you whether or not you can bring in 417 new customers per year. Because you know your numbers. And you know your traffic sources. And you know your trial to paid. And you know how many trials you get based on unique visitors and you can pretty quickly see you’re either going to be above that or below it and where you’re going to plateau. That’s the fun part.
From here I would actually take this estimate – it is a higher level, more ballpark estimate – and I would dive into real numbers so to speak, of like your exact churn rate. Because I have a big Excel spreadsheet that I use to do this but anyone can put this together if you have your true trial to paid and your true visitor to trial and your true first 60-day churn and post 60-day churn. It’s just much more complicated though, and it’s going to take you a few hours to put together. And you’re going to see an exact projection. But the cool part is that this one that you can throw together in like five minutes is going to be within the ballpark. Close enough that it’s a nice first cut to give you an idea of where your business is going to plateau if you’re accurate enough with your churn and your lifetime value numbers. So this could be more useful when you’re first starting out if you do use those benchmarks of other existing businesses you might be competing against. If you can get any idea about their pricing and their churn and that kind of stuff this can give you an idea of how many customers you need to acquire right up front. And just give a sanity check on, “Boy, can I really bring in 4,000 customers a year if that’s what it takes to maintain that revenue level?” It just stands as a decent five-minute sanity check, I think.
Mike [17:47]: The other thing that I think that this is really helpful in showing you is that because you have that high level number of – whether it’s 400 or 4,000 new customers that you need to add per year – you can backtrack a little bit and say let me divide that by 12 and figure out how many new customers I need to add per month. And let’s say that if comes out to 100. If you’re only adding two customers a month or three customers a month right now, then you know that looking forward to that particular point in time that it’s probably going to be really challenging to find enough customer acquisition channels to get from two to a 100. So it does give you that ballpark sanity check that you may need in order to be able to determine whether or not this is a business that is going to take you to where you want to go. Or whether it is something that you should probably offload and go look for a different business or just try a completely different business to start with depending on whether or not it’s an existing business that you have or an idea that you’re trying out.
Let’s move on to the next step. Once you have this customer throughput number, then you can go back and take a look at revising some of your previous estimates. And the first one that you can obviously adjust is that high level revenue target. That’s probably the last one that you want to adjust but it’s the first one that shows up on the list because that’s the high level, big, hairy, audacious goal that you’re trying to reach. You can adjust that; you could up or down. Chances are probably good that based on your estimates it will most likely end up going down. But that is one option.
The other option is to take a look at the lifetime value and try and figure out whether or not there are ways to either increase the lifetime of the customer, which is going to raise your lifetime value. Or raise prices in such a way that it also raises the lifetime value. And those are essentially the two ways that you can adjust this number. It’s either adjust that revenue target or increase the lifetime value. And those are really your only two options available to you.
Rob [19:30]: And again, if you’re doing this on paper before you started a business it’s harder because you’re just guessing at the LTV. But if you are a year or even six months into a business, you’re going to have a reasonable idea of your LTV and probably some ideas about how to increase that, whether it’s by reducing churn or increasing prices.
Mike [19:47]: The one thing I do like about this particular piece of it though is that – even if you are at a pre-revenue stage and you’re trying to validate things – if you have to look at your lifetime value and ten X it or 20 X it, or raise prices by ten or 20X then chances are good it probably points to the fact that this may not be a viable business model at all for you. Obviously, there’s probably other costs and stuff that you’re going to take into account. But again, you want to be using conservative estimates to begin with. So if these numbers do not pan out on paper then they’re probably going to be significantly more difficult to make work in real life.
That kind of leads us to our takeaway. And that’s the first takeaway. If you can’t make this business model work on paper then you’re never going to be able to make it work in real life, barring some form of miracle in terms of doubling your LTV or quadrupling it. Because those things are going to be very difficult unless your initial estimates were way off. Which is possible, but you also have to take into account that when it comes to math like this, if you have a bunch of estimates – there’s various theorems out there that say if you have all these different estimates or a number of different data points – chances are really good that your final number, because it’s an average, it’s going to come out in an average range. It’s not going to be at one of the extremes.
Rob [20:59]: And to give you ballpark ideas about lifetime values, it ranges very broadly because if your churn is high and your price point’s low, you can pretty easily have lifetime values in the $100 range. Like if you’re charging, let’s say $9, $19, $29 a month, if those are your tiers, you’re probably going to have a lifetime value that’s between – assuming you don’t have just crazy churn – you’re going to be looking at around somewhere between 80 bucks and a 150 bucks because that’s just where lower prices apps tend to churn out more than higher priced apps. And getting something into that range, let’s say that the 150 to 250 range is harder to do than you might think.
Now with that said, if you’re able to build an app that businesses depend on and that they really are using as kind of a core piece of their business, you can pretty quickly jump that above $1000 to $2,000 is completely reasonable for a business or for a SaaS app that has a monthly fee. Maybe the tiers are 50, 100, 150 and even on up for enterprise. If you’re building something people are relying on and they’re sticking around for a couple years – two to three years – that quickly gives you a lifetime value in that $1000 to $3,000 range, let’s say.
And moving on up, of course, you get a Salesforce or a HubSpot of whatever, which have lifetime values of tens of thousands of dollars per customer. And some even into six figures. And that is because the price points are so high and because they lock them into annual contracts, and because their entire business if focused on it. And so that’s your real range.
But if you’re listening to this podcast and you’re just starting out, you’re probably going to want to think my LTV’s going to be between 50 and 100 bucks. 150 bucks once you know what you’re doing. But it’s going to start out really low. Unless I’d say if you’re a repeat entrepreneur and you kind of know more of what you’re doing, you’re going to be able to push it into the several hundred dollars and then potentially into the low thousands. These are kind of ballpark guesstimates based on all the apps that I’ve seen.
Mike [22:44]: Another key takeaway is that the calculation for the customer throughput is really heavily dependent upon the inputs and the outputs to the model. And those inputs and outputs help you to define what is and is not actionable. So when you’re taking a look at the lifetime value, for example, that’s one of the inputs into this. And you can take action on that. You can raise the lifetime value of the customer by either increasing prices or increasing the lifetime of the customer.
In terms of the outputs, the number of customers that you need to reach on a yearly basis, you do have influence over that, and it is dependent upon the types of marketing channels that you use, advertising, whether you’re doing some sort of affiliates or leveraging other people’s networks. A lot of those things you have some level of control over. But obviously the math itself has to work. If you can’t make those final numbers work for you based on the inputs and the output, then the business model itself is not going to work for you at that point in time.
Rob [23:36]: I think some other things to keep in mind are this type of calculation, it estimates the viability of a business. It doesn’t give you an exact answer but it does give you a ballpark sanity check on whether or not this thing’s going to fly. In addition, Ash points out that time-boxed goals are more concrete and thus better than kind of simple revenue goals of I want to get to 500,000. It’s like without it being time-boxed what does that mean? And that’s something that I’ve always liked. I look ahead, like I said, six to 12 months and have a spreadsheet that’s looking at that. Because without the timeframe, it has so much less meaning because you have no concept of how many customers you’re going to need and how low your churn’s going to need to be. And therefore, how many trials you’re going to need. And therefore, how much traffic you’re going to need. If you know one step to the next what the conversion rates are, you can just back calculate from a 12-month revenue goal, you can back calculate to exactly how many unique visitors you need per month in order to make that happen. And if you’re complex enough you can include things like churn and upsells and downsells, and upgrade revenue and downgrade revenue.
It gets complicated but the idea is that this calculation that we talked about is that first swipe at it to give you the sanity check, and then you can dig into it as you get numbers that are better and that are real once you’re into the business. And then you can start plugging those in and figuring out how to improve them and how close your original estimates really were.
Mike [24:56]: Now I don’t know if this is something that Ash covers in a different section in the book, but one thing I think that we should probably talk about is a little bit about the difference between something like this versus your growth targets and your growth goals and how to look at those. Because what this gives you is that back of the envelope test to say at such and such point in time what does the business have to look like, how many customers do I need to acquire and how many will be leaving at this particular time. But that can be heavily overshadowed by your growth or your current growth. So if you’re growing at a very fast clip right now, it can be very easy to be distracted and look kind of micro focused at the business itself right now; how it’s doing, how you’re acquiring customers, doing split testing on all these different things and onboarding customers, doing support. And not really think about this down the road because you’re so hyper focused on that three to six-month timeframe.
But if you don’t take a step back and look at something like this then you can easily run into a situation where your business essentially flip flops and you almost drive it into the ground because you’re not paying attention. You’re hiring ahead of the curve or ahead of the need because the business is growing so quickly and you don’t realize that 18 months, 36 months down the road you’re probably going to run into serious customer acquisition problems or business problems because your customer acquisition needs are going to become so high based on your lifetime values.
Rob [26:12]: That’s the key here. These are not growth targets we’re talking about. These are plateaus. This is a heads up about a potential plateau. And this is something you need to be looking ahead at constantly as a subscription business. We had Ruben Gamez from Bidsketch on 50 episodes ago, I guess, to talk about how to identify and overcome plateaus. And this is the biggest hurdle that I see new SaaS founders hitting is not looking ahead and projecting. Given my churn, given my average revenue per user where are we going to plateau and how do we get past that? And the answer can be add more trials into the funnel. Sometimes that’s what it is. Sometimes the answer is we know that our funnel has no optimization so it may be running a bunch of split tests because you should be, at that point when you’re projecting, that you should be at scale. And I don’t even mean big scale like venture capital scale, but even if you just have 10,000 uniques a month or something, you can start running some split tests or even just making improvements on conversions on the site.
So there are a bunch of different ways to do it, but the idea is that when you’re running this business you have to be thinking ahead and projecting when am I going to hit the next plateau? And that’s what this calculation is about rather than growth projections. That’s probably another episode entirely.
Mike [27:24]: Sure. And then once you’ve identified what those plateaus look like and where they are likely to occur, then you can backtrack to where you currently are, plug in your numbers into a growth model and say, “when do I think that I’m going to end up actually hitting that plateau?” Because the business model might say it’s two years out or three years out, but looking at where your business is right now, if you’re growth rate is much higher then you could very well hit it in 12 months. And you really want to be in a position where you are looking at how to adjust the lifetime value of your customers well in advance of that. As Rob said, if you’ve done all those optimizations and then there’s not really other ways to address that, then you can start looking at your lifetime values and say, “how can I keep customers on longer? Are there ways for me to raise my prices or offer additional services?” And what that will do is that will increase your lifetime value, which will essentially push out that plateau even further.
Rob [28:15]: That wraps us up for today. If you have a question for us call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from ‘We’re Outta Control,’ by MoOt. It’s used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for ‘startups,’ and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.