From Initial Traction to Initial Scale (~$10M in ARR): The Hardest Phase. But — The Cavalry is Coming.

Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 6.20.56 PMThe hardest phase of SaaS, at least for the founders, is the phase from Initial Traction ($1-$2m in ARR + 100% YoY growth + 50% of new customers from zero-cost marketing) to the next phase — Initial Scale.

Inevitability in SaaS comes around $10m in ARR, plus or minus.   Once you hit this point, you have a brand, you have a fully baked team, you have a robust product, and you have a self-generating stream of new leads and new business.  Will you get from $10m ARR to $100M ARR?  I don’t know.  Is an IPO in your future?  Not sure.  But once you hit $10m in ARR or so, you cannot be killed by anything.  That’s the power of compounding SaaS revenue.  And actually, as we’ll get to, $10m in ARR — this is when it really gets fun.

The real challenge turns out to be getting from $1m to $10m in ARR.  Getting those first 10 {Unaffiliated} Customers is Hard, and for most MVP’s in fact, it turns out to be impossible.  In the end, getting these first 10 customers, it’s Magic.  It’s Chutzpah.  Then, getting from 10 customers to $1m in ARR — that’s basically Impossible.  So if you’ve done that — a Big Congratulations.  Magic and Impossible sound hard.  But it turns out, the hardest part isn’t the Magic and the Impossible.   The hardest part is this phase: the Possible, But Painful.

And that’s where you’ll be after $1-$2m in ARR.  Seeing the early signs of success — but In Pain.  Why?   Because you have too many things you absolutely have to do to make it — with too few resources:

  • You’ll have real customers — plenty of them by number, if not yet by revenue — but not enough resources to serve them.  You’ll almost be overwhelmed with their needs and in-bound requests.
  • You’ll have a real sales team, the core of one — but not a large enough one to experiment, or add redundancy, or management layers.  Sales ops?  SDRs?  Lead qualification reps?  You want it all, but it doesn’t seem like you can afford them here.  The math doesn’t pencil out yet.
  • You’ll have a strong product — but it won’t be anywhere near feature complete.  You’ll constantly be struggling to meet just the bare minimum requirements of your real customers, and in some ways, given all the new customer demands, it will feel like your product is further behind than Day 1.
  • You can’t take a hit.  If your VPE, or head of marketing, or someone key quits — you’re almost dead.  There’s no fat on the system.  You lose one key resource — and all that hard work, all that momentum you are building … can almost disappear overnight.
  • The next phase is loooooong.  Yes, you can see $10m in ARR if you squint.  But it seems so far away, so hard.

>> So this is the phase when exhaustion and “overwhelmedness” sets in.  Especially as founders, you’re now doing just too much with too few people.  You can’t hack it anymore.  You can’t do it all yourself.  But you’re not big enough (50+ employees) to get all the real help you need to fill all the necessary key roles, unless you are extremely well funded.

The thing is, you have to fight through.  Because it will get so much better once you are at Scale, say $8-10m in ARR, say 50+ employees.  You’ll get all the help you need then, or at least enough help.  It will be easier — I guarantee it — when you get to the next level, and can add the next level to your team.

And also, you need to fight through it because you can now see Success, True Success.  In fact, as soon as you are at Initial Traction, you can build a simple model, like below.  Take your MRR/ARR, add your trailing compounding rate, and just see when It Gets Easier.  When you hit $8-10m in ARR.  When you hit Initial Scale:

Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 6.02.12 PM

In this model, the cavalry is coming.  Help is on its way.  It’s just probably 18 months out or so ;)

So first, buck up.  Second, take some steps to make it easier.  Because as long as you continue to invest, hire the right people, and make the right decisions — if this initial success doesn’t kill you — you will make it to Scale as long as your growth rate is sufficient.  And then, your life will be easier.

On that note, a few things to do on the journey from $1m+- (Initial Traction) to $10m+- (Initial Scale) ARR:

  • Raise a Few Extra Bucks.  If you are raising money, raise a few more dollars.  Say 15% more than you were planning.  This will take some stress off.  And/or raise some debt.  You can easily pay it back later at Scale.  
  • Hire Someone to Share the Load.  Maybe an Ex-Post Facto Founder.  You’re going to have to hire a bunch of great people in this phase.  Try to hire at least one that goes even further.   That can take some of the founder load off your shoulders.  It could be a COO, that’s great.  It could be a VPS or VP Product.  It doesn’t even matter.  What matters is they go above and beyond the job, above and beyond excelling, and take on some of the load of being responsible for The Whole Company.  It will help.  A lot.
  • Spend A Few Extra Bucks.  I know you’ve probably been scrappy to get to $1-$2m in ARR.  But now you need to open the coffers — at least a little.  Of course, don’t be stupid about it.  That can wait until you are at $10m in ARR ;)  But if you are on the fence on an expense, a marketing program, a hire — that you think will pay off, but you just aren’t sure — go for it.  Don’t screw around any more at this phase.  Don’t Think Small.
  • Get Admin Help.  Some of you are against an executive admin.  That’s fine.  But seriously, get 1-2 inexpensive resources to help — everyone.  Do you really want your best engineer waiting at home for the cable guy?  Of course not.  That’s terrible, negative ROI at this phase.  Get someone to help everyone.  It’s time to stop taking out the garbage yourself, my friend.  You just don’t have the spare cycles anymore.
  • Get More Advisors.  This is the time when sometimes, you are so busy, so tactical, and now know so much about your nascent but real business — you stop seeking out new mentors and advisors.  That’s wrong.  In fact, a little help here — perhaps more tactical than strategic — can help more than ever.  Get help from folks who have been here and done it.
  • Don’t Make a Bad Key Hire.  This is perhaps the most important one, by far.  A bad senior hire (VP level) can kill you here.  It can set you back so far in time on this journey to $10m in ARR, that even though you could still make it in theory … the goal line gets moved out another 6-9 months.  You simply cannot afford this.  Whatever it takes, don’t make a bad senior hire now.  Get help.  Have your advisors review your picks.  When in doubt — don’t do the hire.  Find someone better.  No matter how hard it is.  Because this is the phase, when most of all, a huge setback will kill you.  Because there’s no fat on the model from Initial Traction to Initial Scale.

Whatever you do, build the model above, and stay true to it.  This is the gritty phase, when you fight it out to get to Scale.

Scale has its own issues.  Politics begin to creep in, and you can’t be as loose and fluid as you were Back in the Day.  Releases take longer, things can seem less nimble, post-Scale.  But it’s much, much easier as founders when you’ve got 50+ strong folks working with you to make it happen, on top of a engine that’s humming.

Just get there.  And your success will then be Inevitable.

20 comments

  1. best read in a long time. you just summarized the past 3 years for me and we are right in the middle of the 1-10million ARR. thanks for making me realize i am not alone and crazy.

  2. Reblogged this on Juliette Denny and commented:
    Just an awesome article! Very motivating! Thrilled to hear we have already achieved what us impossible!

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  9. Very well written piece with a lot of realism in it. The timing of the article couldn’t have been better for me. Thanks!

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  16. Jason – Great Blog and Post. At $2MM ARR whats your take on managing cash flow and growth without funding? Hiring COO, sales and top engineers is great but with 100% organic growth its a challenge. thoughts?

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