SaaS securitization will disrupt VC’s biggest returns this coming decade

SaaS investing has been on fire the past decade and the returns have been gushing in, with IPOs like Datadog, direct listings like Slack and acquisitions like Qualtrics (which is now being spun back out) creating billions of wealth and VC returns. Dozens more SaaS startups are on deck to head toward their exits in the same way, and many VC funds — particularly those with deep portfolios in the SaaS space — are going to perform well.

Yet, the gargantuan returns we are seeing today for SaaS portfolios are unlikely to repeat themselves.

The big threat in the short term is simply price: SaaS investing has gotten a lot more expensive. It may be hard to remember, but just a decade ago the business model of “Software as a Service” was revolutionary. Much in the way that it took years for cloud infrastructure to take hold in corporate IT departments, the idea that one didn’t license software but paid by user or by usage over time was almost heretical.

For VCs willing to make the leap into the space, prices were (relatively) cheap. Investor attention a decade ago was intensely centered on consumer web and mobile, driven by Facebook’s blockbuster IPO in May 2012 and Twitter’s IPO the following year. While every investor was chasing deals like Snap(chat), the smaller population of investors targeting enterprise SaaS (or even more exotic spaces like, gulp, fintech) got great deals on what would later become the decade’s biggest unicorns.

Opportunities (and challenges) in church tech

Americans are rapidly becoming less religious. Weekly church attendance is falling, congregations are getting smaller or even closing and the percentage of Americans identifying as “religiously unaffiliated” has spiked.

Despite all this, now might be the perfect time for church tech companies to thrive.

A combination of COVID-19-induced adoption, underrated demographic trends and pressure to innovate is setting the stage for new successes in the previously sleepy church tech space. Venture dollars are flowing in, and Silicon Valley is slowly showing serious interest in the sector. Hot new startups are finding creative growth hacks to penetrate a difficult market. Major challenges remain for companies in this space, but their odds seem better than ever.

Less religion, more spirituality

Yes, Americans are going to church less often, but that doesn’t mean they’re not staying spiritual. In fact, the percentage of Americans identifying as “spiritual but not religious” has grown faster than any other group in this Pew survey on religiosity. This fact is reflected in other data. For example, the percentage of Americans that pray daily or weekly has stayed fairly flat even as overall religiosity declined. This opens up two distinct opportunities, as well as two challenges.

Opportunities:

  • What tools do the growing “spiritual but not religious” crowd need?
  • Churches are realizing they need to innovate or die. What tools do they need to reach out to their members and gain new congregants?

Challenges:

  • Two demographics: young, tech-savvy and more willing to try a new product, but less involved in church tradition versus older, not as tech-savvy and harder to reach.
  • Very byzantine market: as documented in part one of this series, the market is dominated by small companies waging a turf war with one another. In addition, because churches are so local and hard to sell to, all of the companies to date have been smaller land-grabs rather than anything with scale or accumulating advantage.

Rapidly growing startups in the space are deftly navigating this landscape and taking advantage of these trends.

Jesus, SaaS and digital tithing

There are more than 300,000 congregations in the U.S., and entrepreneurs are creating billion-dollar companies by building software to service them. Welcome to church tech.

The sector was growing prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic forced many congregations to go entirely online, which rapidly accelerated growth in this space. While many of these companies were bootstrapped, VC dollars are also increasingly flowing in. Unfortunately, it’s hard to come across a lot of resources covering this expanding, unique sector.

Market map

In broad terms, we can split church tech into six categories:

  • church management software (ChMS)
  • digital giving
  • member outreach/messaging
  • streaming/content
  • Bible study
  • website and app building

Horizontal integration is huge in this sector, and nearly all the companies operating in this space fall into several of these categories. Many have expanded through M&A.

The categories

  • Church management software: Almost all are SaaS businesses, mostly using cloud hosting. Typical features include workflow management, virtual check-in for events, a database of members and online scheduling. Examples include Elvanto and One Church.

Hearsay, maker of compliant tools for financial services, deepens ties with Salesforce

Financial services companies like banks and insurance tend to be heavily regulated. As such they require a special level of security and auditability. Hearsay, which makes compliant communications tools for these types of companies, announced a new partnership with Salesforce today, enabling smooth integration with Salesforce CRM and marketing automation tools.

The company also announced that Salesforce would be taking a minority stake in Hearsay, although company co-founder and CEO Clara Shih, did not provide any details on that part of the announcement.

Shih says the company created the social selling category when it launched 10 years ago. Today, it provides a set of tools like email, messaging and websites along with a governance layer to help financial services companies interact with customers in a compliant way. Their customers are primarily in banking, insurance, wealth management and mortgages.

She said that they realized if they could find a way to share the data they were collecting with the Hearsay toolset with CRM and marketing automation software in an automated way, it would make greater use of this information than it could on its own. To that end, they have created a set of APIs to enable that with some built-in connectors. The first one will be to connect Hearsay to Salesforce with plans to add other vendors in the future.

“It’s about being able to connect [data from Hearsay] with the CRM system of record, and then analyzing it across thousands, if not tens of thousands of advisors or bankers in a single company, to uncover best practices. You could then use that information like GPS driving directions that help every advisor behave in the moment and reach out in the moment like the very best advisor would,” Shih explained.

In practice, this means sharing the information with the customer data platform (CDP), the CRM and marketing automation tooling to deliver more intelligent targeting based on a richer body of information. So the advisor can use information gleaned from everything he or she knows about the client across the set of tools to deliver more meaningful personal message instead of a targeted ad or an email blast. As Shih points out, the ad might even make sense, but could be tone deaf depending on the circumstances.

“What we focus on is this human-client experience, and that can only be delivered in the last mile because it’s only with the advisor that many clients will confide in these very important life events and life decisions, and then conversely, it’s only in the last mile that the trusted advisor can deliver relationship advice,” she said.

She says what they are trying to do by combining streams of data about the customer is build loyalty in a way that pure technology solutions just aren’t capable of doing. As she says, nobody says they are switching banks because it has the best chat bot.

Hearsay was founded in 2009 and has raised $51 million, as well as whatever other money Salesforce will be adding to the mix with today’s investment. Other investors include Sequoia and NEA Associates. Its last raise was way back in 2013, a $30 million Series C.

Why aren’t Rackspace and BigCommerce worth more?

This week has brought with it two tasty pieces of IPO news — Rackspace’s return to the public markets and BigCommerce’s debut will be far more interesting now that we know what a first-draft valuation for each looks like.

But amidst the numbers is a question worth answering: why aren’t cloud-focused Rackspace and e-commerce-powering BigCommerce worth more?

Using a basic share count and the top end of their initial ranges, Rackspace is targeting a roughly $4.8 billion valuation, and BigCommerce a $1.3 billion price tag. Given that Rackspace had $652.7 million in Q1 2020 revenue and BigCommerce reaped $33.2 million in the same period, we have a puzzle on our hands.

Let me explain. At its IPO price, Rackspace is worth around 2x its current revenue run rate. For a company we associate with the cloud, that feels cheap at first glance. And BigCommerce is targeting a valuation of around a little under 10x its current annual run rate, which feels light compared to its competitor Shopify’s current price/sales ratio of of 66.4x (per YCharts data).

We did some maths to hammer away at what’s going on in each case. The mystery boils down to somewhat mundane margin and growth considerations. Let’s dive into the data, figure out what’s going on and ask ourselves if these companies aren’t heading for a second, higher IPO price range before they formally price and begin trading.

Margins and growth

Let’s unpack Rackspace’s IPO pricing first and BigCommerce’s own set of numbers second.

Rackspace

While Rackspace has a public cloud component, its core business is service-driven, so it isn’t a major cloud platform that competes with Microsoft’s Azure, Google’s GCP or Amazon’s AWS.  This isn’t a diss, mind, but a point of categorization.

The company has three reporting segments:

  • Multicloud Services
  • Apps & Cross Platform
  • OpenStack Public Cloud

BigCommerce files to go public

As expected, BigCommerce has filed to go public. The Austin, Texas, based e-commerce company raised over $200 million while private. The company’s IPO filing lists a $100 million placeholder figure for its IPO raise, giving us directional indication that this IPO will be in the lower, and not upper, nine-figure range.

BigCommerce, similar to public market darling Shopify, provides e-commerce services to merchants. Given how enamored public investors are with its Canadian rival, the timing of BigCommerce’s debut is utterly unsurprising and is prima facie intelligent.

Of course, we’ll know more when it prices. Today, however, the timing appears fortuitous.

The numbers

BigCommerce is a SaaS business, meaning that it sells a digital service for a recurring payment. For more on how it derives revenue from customers, head here. For our purposes what matters is that public investors will classify it along with a very popular — today’s trading notwithstanding — market segment.

Starting with broad strokes, here’s how the company performed in 2019 compared to 2018, and Q1 2020 in contrast to Q1 2019:

  • In 2019, BigCommerce’s revenue grew to $112.1 million, a gain of around 22% from its 2018 result of $91.9 million.
  • In Q1 2020, BigCommerce’s revenue grew to $33.2 million, up around 30% from its Q1 2019 result of $25.6 million.

BigCommerce didn’t grow too quickly in 2019, but its Q1 2020 expansion pace is much better. BigCommerce will file an S-1/A with more information in Q2 2020, we expect; it can’t go public without sharing more about its recent financial performance.

If the company’s revenue growth acceleration continues in the most recent period — bearing in mind that e-commerce as a segment has proven attractive to many businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic — BigCommerce’s IPO timing would appear even more intelligent than it did at first blush. Investors love growth acceleration.

Moving from revenue growth to revenue quality, BigCommerce’s Q1 2020 gross margins came in at 77.5%, a solid SaaS result. In Q1 2019 its gross margin was 76.8%, a slightly worse figure. Still, improving gross margins are popular as they indicate that future cash flows will grow at a faster clip than revenues, all else held equal.

In 2018 BigCommerce lost $38.9 million on a GAAP basis. Its net loss expanded modestly to $42.6 million in 2020, a larger dollar figure in gross terms, but a slimmer percent of its yearly top line. You can read those results however you’d like. In Q1 2020, however, things got better, as the company’s GAAP net loss fell to $4 million from its year-ago Q1 result of $10.5 million.

The BigCommerce big commerce business is growing more slowly than I had anticipated, but its overall operational health is better than I expected.

A few other notes, before we tear deeper into its S-1 filing tomorrow morning. BigCommerce’s adjusted EBITDA, a metric that gives a distorted, partial view of a company’s profitability, improved along similar lines to its net income, falling from -$9.2 million in Q1 2019 to -$5.7 million in Q1 2020.

The company’s cash flow is, akin to its adjusted EBITDA, worse than its net loss figures would have you guess. BigCommerce’s operating activities consumed $10 million in Q1 2020, an improvement from its Q1 2019 operating cash burn of $11.1 million.

The company is further in debt than many SaaS companies, but not so far as to be a problem. BigCommerce’s long-term debt, net of its current portion, was just over $69 million at the end of Q1 2020. It’s not a nice figure, per se, but it is one small enough that a good IPO haul could sharply reduce while still providing good amounts of working capital for the business.

Investors listed in its IPO document include Revolution, General Catalyst, GGV Capital, and SoftBank.

SaaS and cloud stocks finally give back ground

After a heated run, SaaS and cloud stocks dipped sharply during regular trading on Monday.

According to the category-tracking Bessemer cloud index, public SaaS and cloud stocks dropped around 6.5% today, a material blow to the value of some of the world’s most highly valued companies, measured by sector-averaged revenue multiples.

After recovering all their COVID-19-related losses earlier this year, SaaS and cloud stocks kept on rising, reaching new all-time highs with regularity. But earnings season is starting, meaning that the value of modern software and digital infrastructure companies will soon be tested against Q2 results — results that were recorded fully during the global pandemic.

To hear bulls — both private and public — tell the story, COVID-19 and its ensuing workplace disruptions have provided software companies with a huge boon. Namely, that customers current and future have radically changed their procurement models and will need more software solutions, more quickly, than they previously anticipated. (Stay tuned to The Exchange for more on this later in the week.)

The thought that there are more and better customers coming for SaaS and cloud companies made them relative safe havens in otherwise turbulent public markets; while other industries had uncertain demand curves, the thinking went, software companies were being pushed forward by an accelerating secular shift.

Today, however, the broader markets slipped from early-day positions of strength while SaaS and cloud shares dropped sharply. Prior patterns in investor behavior didn’t hold up, in other words.

Why today brought such sharp selling is not clear. No more, really, than reasons for prior days’ gains were clear at the time. Profit taking? Rotation to other sectors? Whatever you want to ascribe to the day’s declines you can make stick.

For our purposes here at TechCrunch, the dropping share prices of public software companies serves as an anti-signal for late-stage valuations in SaaS startups, and a general headwind toward venture investors making more early-stage bets in the sector. Of course, one day doesn’t change the game. But several days of sharp losses could begin to change sentiment, and days when shares of modern software companies drop by 6% are few and far between.

Earnings are next, but for many companies in the SaaS and cloud world, reporting their results just got easier. When expectations drop, everyone loses a bit of worry, right?

What do investors bidding up tech shares know that the rest of us don’t?

The biggest story to come out of the post-March stock market boom has been explosive growth in the value of technology shares. Software companies in particular have seen their fortunes recover; since March lows, public software companies’ valuations have more than doubled, according to one basket of SaaS and cloud stocks compiled by a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

Such gains are good news for startups of all sizes. For later-stage upstarts, software share appreciation helps provide a welcoming public market for exits. And, strong public valuations can help guide private dollars into related startups, keeping the capital flowing.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, and now you can receive it in your inbox. Sign up for The Exchange newsletter, which drops every Friday starting July 24.


For software-focused startup companies, especially those pursuing recurring revenue models like SaaS, it’s a surprisingly good time to be alive.

Indeed, after COVID-19 hit the United States, layoffs and rising software sales churn were key, worrying indicators coming out of startup-land. Since then, the data has turned around.

As TechCrunch reported in June, startup layoffs have declined and software churn has recovered to the point that business and enterprise-focused SaaS companies are on the bounce.

But instead of merely recovering to near pre-COVID levels, software stocks have continued to rise. Indeed, the Bessemer Cloud Index (EMCLOUD), which tracks SaaS firms, has set an array of all-time highs in recent weeks.

There’s some logic to the rally. After speaking to venture capitalists over the past few weeks, notes from EQT VenturesAlastair Mitchell, Sapphire’s Jai Das, and Shomik Ghosh from Boldstart Ventures paint the picture of a possibly accelerating digital transformation for some software companies, nudged forward by COVID-19 and its related impacts.

The result of the trend may be that the total addressable market (TAM) for software itself is larger than previously anticipated. Larger TAM could mean bigger future sales for and more substantial future cash flows for some software companies. This argument helps explain part of the market’s present-day enthusiasm for public tech equities, and especially the shares of software companies.

We won’t be able explain every point that Nasdaq has gained. But the TAM argument is worth understanding if we want to grok a good portion of the optimism that is helping drive tech valuations, both private and public.

DocuSign acquires Liveoak Technologies for $38M for online notarization

Even in the best of times, finding a notary can be a challenge. In the middle of a pandemic, it’s even more difficult. DocuSign announced it has acquired Liveoak Technologies today for approximately $38 million, giving the company an online notarization option.

At the same time, DocuSign announced a new product called DocuSign Notary, which should ease the notary requirement by allowing it to happen online along with the eSignature. As we get deeper into the pandemic, companies like DocuSign that allow workflows to happen completely digitally are in more demand than ever. This new product will be available for early access later in the summer.

The deal made sense given that the two companies had a partnership already. Liveoak brings together live video, collaboration tooling and identity verification that enables parties to get notarized approval as though you were sitting at the desk in front of the notary.

Typically, you might get a document that requires your signature. Without electronic signature, you would need to print it, sign the document, scan it and return it. If it requires a notary, you would need to sign it in the notary’s presence, which requires an in-person visit. All of this can be streamlined with an online workflow, which DocuSign is providing with this acquisition.

It’s like the perfect pandemic acquisition, making a manual process digital and saving people from having to make face-to-face transactions at a time when it can be dangerous.

Liveoak Technologies was founded in 2014 and is part of the Austin, Texas startup scene. The company raised $13.5 million during its life as a private company, according to Crunchbase.

This acquisition is part of a growing pandemic acquisition trend of sorts, where larger public enterprise companies are plucking early-stage startups, in some cases for relatively bargain prices. Among the recent acquisitions are Apple buying Fleetsmith and ServiceNow acquiring Sweagle last month.

How European seed firm Connect Ventures finds ‘product-first’ founders

Connect Ventures, the London-based seed-stage VC that was an early investor in Citymapper and Typeform announced a new $80 million fund last month to continue investing in “product-led” founders.

Launched back in 2012, when there was a shortage of institutional capital at seed stage in Europe and micro VC was a novelty in the region, Connect Ventures invests in B2B and consumer software across Europe, including SaaS, fintech, digital health and “future of work.”

Running throughout the firm’s investment thesis is a product focus, with the belief that product-led — or “product-first” — software entrepreneurs are the kinds of founders most likely to transform the way we live and work at scale.

Connect Ventures does fewer deals per year than many seed-stage firms, promising to place bets in a smaller number of early-stage companies. It recently backed scaling startups such as Curve and TrueLayer. Keeping a compact portfolio lets the shop throw more support behind its investments to help tip the scales toward success.

To learn more about Connect’s strategy going forward, I put questions to partners Sitar Teli, Pietro Bezza and Rory Stirling. We covered what makes a product-first founder, the upsides and downside of “conviction investing,” and the next digital product opportunities in fintech, health and the future of work.

TechCrunch: Connect Ventures positions itself as a pan-European VC investing in “product-led” founders at seed stage. Can you be more specific with regards to check size, geography and the types of startups you look for?

Sitar Teli: Of course, I know it can be hard to differentiate seed funds at first glance, so it’s worth digging in one layer down. Connect is a thesis-led, seed stage, product-centric fund that invests across Europe. I know we’re going to dive into some of those parts later, so I’ll focus on our investment strategy and what we look for. We lead seed rounds of £1-£2 million (sometimes less, sometimes more) and make 8-10 investments a year. Low volume, high conviction, high support is the investment strategy we’ve executed since we started eight years ago.