Jan 052010

When I wrote the recent article “SaaS: 10 Trends for 2010” I used the phrase “Best Case SaaS.” I realized from feedback and some thinking afterward though that many people don’t share my vision of what it is.

What I was trying to say is there really is a path to success for SaaS products through the thicket of options out there.  But since we don’t all share an understanding of all the options – that becomes pretty nebulous.  We’ve written about the 10 Ways to Fail at SaaS – What about Success?

Whether you call it “best practices,” “optimum implementation,” or best case – to have a discussion of what it takes to field a successful product we need to have a common understanding of SaaS itself. One of the people who has been pretty clear about a vision has been Phil Wainewright – but there are several others who are advocating for various aspects. My concern is a lot of them tend to be involved in the technical side of SaaS and not a straight- forward business discussion.  Of course, it takes an understanding of technology to bring a SaaS product to market, but in truth, you can hire that expertise if you have a clear business strategy to back it up.

Before I list the six points I have outlined – let’s get our definition clear.  Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is not as simple as, “A application delivered over the Internet on a subscription basis.” That definition is what most people think, but in truth it is far to limiting by itself. If you want to keep it simple, you could just say, “an online service” but that might be a little broad. To cover both sides of the fence, vendor and user, I’ve been using, “an application delivered across a network to a client in a pay for service model.” On reflection – even that definition has its faults.

The point of this little exercise in definitions is that we need to realize that what we once called “Business-to-Business (B2B or B-to-B)” or even the slightly more exotic sounding “B2B2C” would be called SaaS today.  Does that mean Priceline is a SaaS product? Well – Yes! The simple end-user travel services they offer are monetized on a transaction basis, but we should also understand that behind that stands an even more important service disposing of excess inventory for the hospitality and travel industry. Somewhere in the middle is an advertising platform that allows the “inventory customers” sell through Priceline directly. Does Priceline care which service you use? Not really, they make money from all sides of the transaction and with any service you select. It truly is a Long Tail offering in every way.  The same could be said of the Amazon platform only more so.

So – really we could just say SaaS is “an online service” or “service automation delivered in a pay for service model” and be accurate? When we do that we begin to realize there is a whole field of service companies that use applications to automate and deliver aspects of their services – but aren’t usually considered as “SaaS companies.”

With that in mind, let’s go forward and look at “Best Case, Successful SaaS.” The points build on each other – so follow along through them and it will make more sense.

6 Points for Successful SaaS

1. Expertise that can be sold to a reasonably large market segment in an online delivery model and can be scaled to meet the market potential over time.

This is of course the “reason for being” for SaaS.  Online services are sold on a “pay as you go model.” No matter how you look at it, if you don’t have a target market large enough to give you a positive return on investment in a reasonable period of time, you aren’t going to be successful in a SaaS business model. In a vertical, this means offering a service that is attractive to at least second and third tier markets. It could also mean “tagging along” with more general offerings that give your service more weight in an “ecosystem” model. Regardless, you cannot ignore the simple economics of online services. You cannot afford to run out of cash before you reach a positive cash flow. That means development has to be planned and controlled to yield just enough of a service to sell successfully as soon as possible. It means that you must have a understanding of SaaS Metrics and the critical Customer Lifetime Value Ratio (CLV). It means you need to have a “proof of market” investigation as a part of product planning and (for heaven’s sake!) development. It means you have to understand (and monetize) the value your end-users perceive. It means your online service must be planned to evolve after release (see point #2).

Now the second part of our first point is what brings up the application model of SaaS. To scale a service economically, it has to be automated. When you get right down to it – SaaS is service automation! We’ve been doing that for years – the most significant difference is that now the Internet offers a delivery vehicle that is pervasive and universally accepted. So – if you’re really going to deliver a service online, plan to automate your own business operations from day one or you won’t scale with enough efficiency to reach positive cash flow in time. You might be able to onboard your first 100 customers manually – but if your market plan says you need to take on 1,000 customers with 20 seats each in your first year – your operational costs will quickly eat your cash reserves – IF you are able to handle the work that involves. (See point #5).

2. A strategic roadmap that allows the product to be brought to market early in the design cycle and to adapt to user and market feedback.

Taking the first point to heart means really understanding you can’t do everything and you shouldn’t if you want to be successful. You need to have a plan, a roadmap. You need to provide a valuable service from day one the market will pay for, but you also need to have a strategic plan for where your service is going over time.  Within that plan, you need to be flexible (see point #3) and responsive to user feedback (see point #4) and market forces.

Bringing the product to market early also means not taking on development of features that don’t support the direct value to end-users. As mentioned in point #1 – you need to automate your service – but do you really need to build all your operational automation (see point #5) to bring a product to market? No. There are many operational services you can leverage to lower your development complexity (risk), time to market and total development cost.  The general rule of thumb is you will save as much as 60% of your development effort and about 40% of your total costs before launch. The services you use become part of your overhead and need to be part of your metrics. Can you develop them into your service at a later date when the cost is justified by growth? If you take point #3 into account – yes.

3. An extensible, service-oriented technical architecture that will support the expected growth and change over the long term, economically.

Before anyone calls me on it – the last word in this point covers a lot of sins that have been visited on the SaaS business model. Let’s be straight-forward. We’re interested in SaaS because we want to MAKE MONEY. If we want to do that we have to be able to operate, deliver and maintain our application economically and reliably over the long run. That means we need a multi-tenant database structure. I don’t know any other way to say it. You cannot scale on individual instances for each customer or maintain them over time and make money.

It doesn’t mean however we have one big spinning top that runs everything forever.  As your service grows, you will use several strategies to extend your application over multiple instances, and to balance your service among several applications perhaps. Do you have the idea that Amazon is one big application? Of course not. Your service might present one “interface” for users – but that doesn’t mean it is just one application. Architecturally, that is just the “presentation layer.” We have to have an understanding of the technical strategies that allow online services to scale, embed other services, extend our services outside the application, and change our service without extensive rewrites over time while continuing to make a profit.

With that understanding, we can plan our roadmap to help us decide the battles we need to take on and when. Do we need to buy infrastructure if we can rent it? Not if the market price, availability and reliability meets our needs. Do we need to build a pricing and settlement system to monetize our service? Not if there is one available at a price that can be incrementally applied as we scale and with the level of maturity we need.  Can we eliminate some maintenance concerns with virtualization? Yes – when it makes business sense – if we have a properly architected application that is built for the online environment.

What about “lock in?” they ask. There are two things to consider: #1 – Can you afford to spend thousands of extra dollars over some extended period of time before you put your service in the water, take on customers and begin making money?  For most of us the answer is no.  #2 – If your application is properly architected and you have developed a roadmap with proper risk avoidance, the services and platforms you use are tools you use to reach your maket sooner and with less up-front investment. Do you want to buy that store on the mall or rent it? If you rent – can buy or build when you have a proven market? In most cases – yes.

All this implies you or your team has technical background in online services. But if you are a entrepreneur or service company without a strong technical team – can you still survive in the SaaS world? Yes. There are companies with services that will fill that void – (shameless plug for the people who bring you this blog) Hello….

4. Customer and user collaboration tools embedded in the service and the business operations that surround it.

If you absorbed the last three points – you should have gotten one thing clearly: Release 1.0 day is not the end of the development cycle for online services. Because of Google, SalesForce, Amazon, and service portals like FedEx operates, we all expect, even require, online services to evolve. It should be no surprise that online services need to evolve dynamically to meet customer needs and stay ahead of the market. The question is how?

Just like nearly everything else in online services, the answer comes with some level of automation. Inside the application, monitoring must be embedded to help evaluate feature use in a user context. We need to know if user admins are able to use the tools they have effectively. We need to know what percent of their day our line of business users spend in the application and how often they use it to complete “high value tasks.” With that information as a baseline, we can evaluate the impact of new features, improved help, better support strategies. Without it – we’re clueless and we might as well be selling licensed software to silos behind firewalls.

To leverage our delivery platform even more we need to embed direct user engagement with blogs, forums and community tools like UserVoice and Get Satisfaction.  These are services you subscribe to (point #3) not build. These are not the endpoint for user engagement however, they are just the tools. As tools, they are used by product management, support, sales and marketing to help guide service development, to retain customers, up sell and grow best practice communities.  What you should be beginning to realize is this really means a successful online service needs to rethink the timeworn model of “key stakeholder engagement” and get directly to the end user. To do that the business organization behind the service needs to be aligned to leverage the tools and integrate what they yield into decisions. (Enter points #5 & 6).

5. Integrated business operations for the service itself embedded in the same delivery model used to deliver to end-users.

Once again – SaaS products are classic service automation. If you are going to sell a service – if you are going to build an application to deliver your services – shouldn’t you also automate the pricing, settlement, onboarding, user management and all the other operational aspects of your business directly in the application itself?

This is a point that seems to have eluded many service companies and ISVs with licensed products. You cannot scale to reach profit in online services with manual or loosely connected internal business processes. SaaS is all about making a profit from volume.  But, as point #2 cautions, you cannot build all the operational aspects of your service directly into the application without placing considerable risk on your costs, application complexity and time to market. If you have planned your product with the architecture discussed in point #3, you can leverage available services that will provide these critical aspects of business operations for you and embed them in the product platform itself. This gives you the best of both worlds – fully integrated business operations using the data and infrastructure you already have online and a cost that is applied incrementally based on use.

6. Agile business philosophy embodied in every aspect of product development, operations and services.

You nearly have it – successful SaaS is all about service automation and dynamic business. It delivers what we need, when we need it, at a cost that is measured by use on every side of the platform. That means you and your customer alike are benefiting from the investment in the application and involved in its continued success intimately.

To handle the continued development and change involved in SaaS, most technical teams use Agile methodologies. To feed development and manage the product roadmap then, we also need to consider an organizational alignment with agile philosophy. When we really consider the organizational impact of being an online service, we start to understand there is really no option. To be successful at SaaS, we need to be an agile business top to botttom.

This is a lot to absorb. It is a different way of doing business. I don’t want to underplay the significance of any one of these six points. We at Scio made a strategic decision last month – we’re alining our services to deliver best case SaaS to our product customers and nothing else.  To help people put this into their own context, we’re giving a workshop on January 28th in Dallas as part of SaaS University. I strongly encourage you to join us if you have any interest in developing an online service in the coming year.

So – what is your take? Did this list suprise you? I hope not – but I’d love to hear your point of view.

  One Response to “6 Points for Successful SaaS”

  1. hi Mike.. and indeed this list surprise me. Sometimes when we heard about SaaS, it’s easy to lose the key aspects about it, in non technical words.. as you said we’ve been making automation services for years, so the important thing here is that you can hire all the technical expertise and have a successful and profit SaaS business if and only if you do have a clear business strategy to back it up, that’s the key part. And like any other business including SaaS it needs to keep evolving in order to fill the customer’s needs. So for sure we’ll see SaaS continue to evolving and growing. I can’t wait to see how far it’s going to go.

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