Layer gets $5.6M to make joint working on spreadsheets less hassle

Layer is not trying to replace Excel or Google Sheets. Instead the Berlin-based productivity startup wants to make life easier for those whose job entails wrangling massive spreadsheets and managing data inputs from across an organization — such as for budgeting, financial reporting or HR functions — by adding a granular control access layer on top.

The idea for a ‘SaaS to supercharge spreadsheets’ came to the co-founders as a result of their own experience of workflow process pain-points at the place they used to work, as is often the case with productivity startups.

“Constantin [Schünemann] and I met at Helpling, the marketplace for cleaning services, where I was the company’s CFO and I had to deal with spreadsheets on a daily level,” explains co-founder Moritz ten Eikelder. “There was one particular reference case for what we’re building here — the update of the company’s financial model and business case which was a 20MB Excel file with 30 different tabs, hundreds of roles of assumptions. It was a key steering tool for management and founders. It was also the basis for the financial reporting.

“On average it needed to be updated twice per month. And that required input by around about 20-25 people across the organization. So right then about 40 different country managers and various department heads. The problem was we could not share the entire file with [all the] people involved because it contained a lot of very sensitive information like salary data, cash burn, cash management etc.”

While sharing a Dropbox link to the file with the necessary individuals so they could update the sheet with their respective contributions would have risked breaking the master file. So instead he says they created individual templates and “carve outs” for different contributors. But this was still far from optimal from a productivity point of view. Hence feeling the workflow burn — and their own entrepreneurial itch.

“Once all the input was collected from the stakeholders you would start a very extensive and tedious copy paste exercise — where you would copy from these 25 difference sources and insert them data into your master file in order to create an up to date version,” says ten Eikelder, adding: “The pain points are pretty clear. It’s an extremely time consuming and tedious process… And it’s extremely prone to error.”

Enter Layer: A web app that’s billed as a productivity platform for spreadsheets which augments rather than replaces them — sitting atop Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets files and bringing in a range of granular controls.

The idea is to offer a one-stop shop for managing access and data flows around multi-stakeholder spreadsheets, enabling access down to individual cell level and aiding collaboration and overall productivity around these key documents by streamlining the process of making and receiving data input requests.

“You start off by uploading an Excel file to our web application. In that web app you can start to build workflows across a feature spectrum,” says Schünemann — noting, for example, that the web viewer allows users to drag the curser to highlight a range of cells they wish to share.

“You can do granular user provisioning on top of that where in the offline world you’d have to create manual carve outs or manual copies of that file to be able to shield away data for example,” he goes on. “On top of that you can then request input [via an email asking for a data submission].

“Your colleagues keep on working in their known environments and then once he has submitted input we’ve built something that is very similar to a track changes functionality in Word. So you as a master user could review all changes in the Layer app — regardless of whether they’re coming through Excel or Google Sheets… And then we’ve built a consolidation feature so that you don’t need to manually copy-paste from different spreadsheets into one. So with just a couple of clicks you can accept changes and they will be taken over into your master file.”

Layer’s initial sales focus is on the financial reporting function but the co-founders say they see this as a way of getting a toe in the door of their target mid-sized companies.

The team believes there are wider use-cases for the tool, given the ubiquity of spreadsheets as a business tool. Although, for now, their target users are organizations with between 150-250 employees so they’re not (yet) going after the enterprise market.

“We believe this is a pretty big [opportunity],” Schünemann tells TechCrunch. “Why because back in 2018 when we did our first research we initially started out with this one spreadsheet at Helpling but after talking to 50 executives, most of them from the finance world or from the financial function of different sized companies, it’s pretty clear that the spreadsheet dependency is still to this day extremely high. And that holds true for financial use cases — 87% of all budgeting globally is still done via spreadsheets and not big ERP systems… but it also goes beyond that. If you think about it spreadsheets are really the number one workflow platform still used to this day. It’s probably the most used user interface in any given company of a certain size.”

“Our current users we have, for example, a real estate company whereby the finance function is using Layer but also the project controller and also some parts of the HR team,” he adds. “And this is a similar pattern. You have similarly structured workflows on top of spreadsheets in almost all functions of a company. And the bigger you get, the more of them you have.

“We use the finance function as our wedge into a company — just because it’s where our domain experience lies. You also usually have a couple of selective use cases which tend to have these problems more because of the intersections between other departments… However sharing or collecting data in spreadsheets is used not only in finance functions.”

The 2019 founded startup’s productivity platform remains in private beta for now — and likely the rest of this year — but they’ve just nabbed €5 million (~$5.6M) in seed funding to get the product to market, with a launch pegged for Q1 2021.

The seed round is led by Index Ventures (Max Rimpel is lead there), and with participation from earlier backers btov Partners. Angel investors also joining the seed include Ajay Vashee (CFO at Dropbox); Carlos Gonzales-Cadenaz (COO of GoCardless), Felix Jahn (founder and CEO of McMakler), Matt Robinson (founder of GoCardless and Nested) and Max Tayenthal (co-founder and CFO of N26).

Commenting in a statement, Index’s Rimpel emphasized the utility the tool offers for “large distributed organizations”, saying: “Spreadsheets are one of the most successful UI’s ever created, but they’ve been built primarily for a single user, not for large distributed organisations with many teams and departments inputting data to a single document. Just as GitHub has helped developers contribute seamlessly to a single code base, Layer is now bringing sophisticated collaboration tools to the one billion spreadsheet users across the globe.”

On the competition front, Layer said it sees its product as complementary to tech giants Google and Microsoft, given the platform plugs directly into those spreadsheet standards. Whereas other productivity startups, such as the likes of Airtable (a database tool for non-coders) and Smartsheets (which bills itself as a “collaboration platform”) are taking a more direct swing at the giants by gunning to assimilate the spreadsheet function itself, at least for certain use cases.

“We never want to be a new Excel and we’re also not aiming to be a new Google Sheets,” says Schünemann, discussing the differences between Layer and Airtable et al. “What Github is to code we want to be to spreadsheets.”

Given it’s working with the prevailing spreadsheet standard it’s a productivity play which, should it prove successful, could see tech giants copying or cloning some of its features. Given enough scale, the startup could even end up as an acquisition target for a larger productivity focused giant wanting to enhance its own product offering. Though the team claims not to have entertained anything but the most passing thoughts of such an exit at this early stage of their business building journey.

“Right now we are really complementary to both big platforms [Google and Microsoft],” says Schünemann. “However it would be naive for us to think that one or the other feature that we build won’t make it onto the product roadmap of either Microsoft or Google. However our value proposition goes beyond just a single feature. So we really view ourselves as being complementary now and also in the future. Because we don’t push out Excel or Google Sheets from an organization. We augment both.”

“Our biggest competitor right now is probably the ‘we’ve always done it like that’ attitude in companies,” he adds, rolling out the standard early stage startup response when asked to name major obstacles. “Because any company has hacked their processes and tools to make it work for them. Some have built little macros. Some are using Jira or Atlassian tools for their project management. Some have hired people to manage their spreadsheet ensembles for them.”

On the acquisition point, Schünemann also has this to say: “A pre-requisite for any successful exit is building a successful company beforehand and I think we believe we are in a space where there are a couple of interesting exit routes to be taken. And Microsoft and Google are obviously candidates where there would be a very obvious fit but the list goes beyond that — all the file hosting tools like Dropbox or the big CRM tools, Salesforce, could also be interesting for them because it very much integrates into the heart of any organization… But we haven’t gone beyond that simple high level thought of who could acquire us at some point.” 

‘No code’ will define the next generation of software

It seems like every software funding and product announcement these days includes some sort of reference to “no code” platforms or functionality. The frequent callbacks to this buzzy term reflect a realization that we’re entering a new software era.

Similar to cloud, no code is not a category itself, but rather a shift in how users interface with software tools. In the same way that PCs democratized software usage, APIs democratized software connectivity and the cloud democratized the purchase and deployment of software, no code will usher in the next wave of enterprise innovation by democratizing technical skill sets. No code is empowering business users to take over functionality previously owned by technical users by abstracting complexity and centering around a visual workflow. This profound generational shift has the power to touch every software market and every user across the enterprise.

The average enterprise tech stack has never been more complex

In a perfect world, all enterprise applications would be properly integrated, every front end would be shiny and polished, and internal processes would be efficient and automated. Alas, in the real world, engineering and IT teams spend a disproportionate share of their time fighting fires in security, fixing internal product bugs and running vendor audits. These teams are bursting at the seams, spending an estimated 30% of their resources building and maintaining internal tools, torpedoing productivity and compounding technical debt.

Seventy-two percent of IT leaders now say project backlogs prevent them from working on strategic projects. Hiring alone can’t solve the problem. The demand for technical talent far outpaces supply, as demonstrated by the fact that six out of 10 CIOs expect skills shortages to prevent their organizations from keeping up with the pace of change.

At the same time that IT and engineering teams are struggling to maintain internal applications, business teams keep adding fragmented third-party tools to increase their own agility. In fact, the average enterprise is supporting 1,200 cloud-based applications at any given time. Lacking internal support, business users bring in external IT consultants. Cloud promised easy as-needed software adoption with seamless integration, but the realities of quickly changing business needs have led to a roaring comeback of expensive custom software.

Zoom and CrowdStrike hang onto 2020 gains despite huge earnings expectations

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Yesterday after the bell, Zoom and CrowdStrike reported earnings. The two technology shops, members of the SaaS cohort of public companies that has performed so well this year, had high expectations to meet.

This column noted on Monday that both companies could help set market sentiment regarding SaaS valuations at firms thought to enjoy a strong updraft from COVID-19 and its related market disruptions; working from home means that many companies needed new, better video conferencing abilities and more security tooling, the two things that Zoom and CrowdStrike provide.

If the pair failed to detail strong recent performance, their share prices, long rising, could have dramatically corrected.

But, in a huge boon to public SaaS companies — and, therefore, late-stage private SaaS valuations and early-stage SaaS investment — Zoom and CrowdStrike reported impressive financial gains. Notably in the case of Zoom, the improved results were sufficiently priced in that the company’s share price didn’t rise much after this disclosure, but defending huge gains was still a difficult feat.

CrowdStrike shares did rise after it reported its results.

On the heels of one of the sharpest rallies in SaaS history, let’s dig into how quickly the two firms grew and see what their new valuations and revenue multiples tell us about investor sentiment. If you are in a hurry, the short answer is that the risk-on move towards SaaS stocks doesn’t look like its about to abate. For those bullish on software companies, it’s a good week.

Great expectations

Let’s talk numbers first. Here’s how things shook out:

AWS launches Amazon AppFlow, its new SaaS integration service

AWS today launched Amazon AppFlow, a new integration service that makes it easier for developers to transfer data between AWS and SaaS applications like Google Analytics, Marketo, Salesforce, ServiceNow, Slack, Snowflake and Zendesk. Like similar services, including Microsoft Azure’s Power Automate, for example, developers can trigger these flows based on specific events, at pre-set times or on-demand.

Unlike some of its competitors, though, AWS is positioning this service more as a data transfer service than a way to automate workflows, and, while the data flow can be bi-directional, AWS’s announcement focuses mostly on moving data from SaaS applications to other AWS services for further analysis. For this, AppFlow also includes a number of tools for transforming the data as it moves through the service.

“Developers spend huge amounts of time writing custom integrations so they can pass data between SaaS applications and AWS services so that it can be analysed; these can be expensive and can often take months to complete,” said AWS principal advocate Martin Beeby in today’s announcement. “If data requirements change, then costly and complicated modifications have to be made to the integrations. Companies that don’t have the luxury of engineering resources might find themselves manually importing and exporting data from applications, which is time-consuming, risks data leakage, and has the potential to introduce human error.”

Every flow (which AWS defines as a call to a source application to transfer data to a destination) costs $0.001 per run, though, in typical AWS fashion, there’s also cost associated with data processing (starting at 0.02 per GB).

“Our customers tell us that they love having the ability to store, process, and analyze their data in AWS. They also use a variety of third-party SaaS applications, and they tell us that it can be difficult to manage the flow of data between AWS and these applications,” said Kurt Kufeld, vice president, AWS. “Amazon AppFlow provides an intuitive and easy way for customers to combine data from AWS and SaaS applications without moving it across the public internet. With Amazon AppFlow, our customers bring together and manage petabytes, even exabytes, of data spread across all of their applications — all without having to develop custom connectors or manage underlying API and network connectivity.”

At this point, the number of supported services remains comparatively low, with only 14 possible sources and four destinations (Amazon Redshift and S3, as well as Salesforce and Snowflake). Sometimes, depending on the source you select, the only possible destination is Amazon’s S3 storage service.

Over time, the number of integrations will surely increase, but for now, it feels like there’s still quite a bit more work to do for the AppFlow team to expand the list of supported services.

AWS has long left this market to competitors, even though it has tools like AWS Step Functions for building serverless workflows across AWS services and EventBridge for connections applications. Interestingly, EventBridge currently supports a far wider range of third-party sources, but as the name implies, its focus is more on triggering events in AWS than moving data between applications.

VC firm Oxx says SaaS startups should avoid high-risk growth models

Oxx, a European venture capital firm co-founded by Richard Anton and Mikael Johnsson, this month announced the closing of its debut fund of $133 million to back “Europe’s most promising SaaS companies” at Series A and beyond.

Launched in 2017 and headquartered in London and Stockholm, Oxx pitches itself as one of only a few European funds focused solely on SaaS, and says it will invest broadly across software applications and infrastructure, highlighting five key themes: “data convergence & refinery,” “future of work,” “financial services infrastructure,” “user empowerment” and “sustainable business.”

However, its standout USP is that the firm says it wants to be a more patient form of capital than investors who have a rigid Silicon Valley SaaS mindset, which, it says, often places growth ahead of building long-lasting businesses.

I caught up with Oxx’s co-founders to dig deeper into their thinking, both with regards to the firm’s remit and investment thesis, and to learn more about the pair’s criticism of the prevailing venture capital model they say often pushes SaaS companies to prioritize “grow at all costs.”

TechCrunch: Oxx is described as a B2B software investor investing in SaaS companies across Europe from Series A and beyond. Can you be more specific regarding the size of check you write and the types of companies, geographies, technologies and business models you are focusing on?

Richard Anton: We will lead funding rounds anywhere in the range $5-20 million in SaaS companies. Some themes we’re especially excited about include data convergence and the refining and usage of data (think applications of machine learning, for example), the future of work, financial services infrastructure, end-user empowerment and sustainable business.

To measure sales efficiency, SaaS startups should use the 4×2

Once you’ve found product/market fit, scaling a SaaS business is all about honing go-to-market efficiency.

Many extremely helpful metrics and analytics have been developed to provide instrumentation for this journey: LTV (lifetime value of a customer), CAC (customer acquisition cost), Magic Number and SaaS Quick Ratio are all very valuable tools. But the challenge in using derived metrics such as these is that there are often many assumptions, simplifications and sampling choices that need to go into these calculations, thus leaving the door open to skewed results.

For example, when your company has only been selling for a year or two, it is extremely hard to know your true lifetime customer value. For starters, how do you know the right length of a “lifetime?”

Taking one divided by your annual dollar churn rate is quite imperfect, especially if all or most of your customers have not yet reached their first renewal decision. How much account expansion is reasonable to assume if you only have limited evidence?

LTV is most helpful if based on gross margin, not revenue, but gross margins are often skewed initially. When there are only a few customers to service, cost of goods sold (COGS) can appear artificially low because the true costs to serve have not yet been tracked as distinct cost centers as most of your team members wear multiple hats and pitch in ad hoc.

Likewise, metrics derived from sales and marketing costs, such as CAC and Magic Number, can also require many subjective assumptions. When it’s just founders selling, how much of their time and overhead do you put into sales costs? Did you include all sales-related travel, event marketing and PR costs? I can’t tell you the number of times entrepreneurs have touted having a near-zero CAC when they are just starting out and have only handfuls of customers — which were mostly sold by the founder or are “friendly” relationships.

Even if you think you have nearly zero CAC today, you should expect dramatically rising sales costs once professional sellers, marketers, managers, and programs are put in place as you scale.

One alternative to using derived metrics is to examine raw data, which is less prone to assumptions and subjectivity. The problem is how to do this efficiently and without losing the forest for the trees. The best tool I have encountered for measuring sales efficiency is called the 4×2 (that’s “four by two”) which I credit to Steve Walske, one of the master strategists of software sales, and the former CEO of PTC, a company renowned for its sales effectiveness and sales culture. [Here’s a podcast I did with Steve on How to Build a Sales Team.]

The 4×2 is a color-coded chart where each row is an individual seller on your team and the columns are their quarterly performance shown as dollars sold. [See a 4×2 chart example below].

Sales are usually measured as net new ARR, which includes new accounts and existing account expansions net of contraction, but you can also use new TCV (total contract value), depending on which number your team most focuses. In addition to sales dollars, the percentage of quarterly quota attainment is shown. The name 4×2 comes from the time frame shown: trailing four quarters, the current quarter, and the next quarter.

Color-coding the cells turns this tool from a dense table of numbers into a powerful data visualization. Thresholds for the heatmap can be determined according to your own needs and culture. For example, green can be 80% of quota attainment or above, yellow can be 60% to 79% of quota, and red can be anything below 60%.

Examining individual seller performance in every board meeting or deck is a terrific way to quickly answer many important questions, especially early on as you try to figure out your true position on the Sales Learning Curve. Publishing such leaderboards for your Board to see also tends to motivate your sales people, who are usually highly competitive and appreciate public recognition for a job well done, and likewise loathe to fall short of their targets in a public setting.

4x2 chart venrock saas

A sample 4×2 chart.

Some questions the 4×2 can answer:

Overall performance and quota targets

How are you doing against your sales plan? Lots of red is obviously bad, while lots of green is good. But all green may mean that quotas are being set too low. Raising quotas even by a small increment for each seller quickly compounds to yield big difference as you scale, so having evidence to help you adjust your targets can be powerful. A reasonable assumption would be annual quota for a given rep set at 4 to 5 times their on-target earnings potential.

Samsung ramps up its B2B partner and developer efforts

Chances are you mostly think of Samsung as a consumer-focused electronics company, but it actually has a very sizable B2B business as well, which serves over 15,000 large enterprises and hundreds of thousands of SMB entrepreneurs via its partners. At its developer conference this week, it’s putting the spotlight squarely on this side of its business — with a related hardware launch as well. The focus of today’s news, however, is on Knox, Samsung’s mobile security platform and Project AppStack, which will likely get a different name soon, and which provides B2B customers with a new mechanism to deliver SaaS tools and native apps to their employees’ devices, as well as new tools for developers that make these services more discoverable.

At least in the U.S., Samsung hasn’t really marketed its B2B business all that much. With this event, the company is clearly thinking to change that.

At its core, Samsung is, of course, a hardware company, and as Taher Behbehani, the head of its U.S. mobile B2B division, told me, Samsung’s tablet sales actually doubled in the last year and most of these were for industrial deployments and business-specific solutions. To better serve this market, the company today announced that it is bringing the rugged Tab Active Pro to the U.S. market. Previously, it was only available in Europe.

The Active Pro, with its 10.1″ display, supports Samsung’s S Pen, as well as Dex for using it on the desktop. It’s got all of the dust and water resistance you would expect from a rugged device, is rated to easily support drops from about four feet high, and promises up to 15 hours of battery life. It also features LTE connectivity and has an NFC reader on the back to allow you to badge into a secure application or take contactless payments (which are quite popular in most of the world but are only very slowly becoming a thing in the U.S.), as well a programmable button to allow business users and frontline workers to open up any application they select (like a barcode scanner).

“The traditional rugged devices out there are relatively expensive, relatively heavy to carry around for a full shift,” Samsung’s Chris Briglin told me. “Samsung is growing that market by serving users that traditionally haven’t been able to afford rugged devices or have had to share them between up to four co-workers.”

Today’s event is less about hardware than software and partnerships, though. At the core of the announcements is the new Knox Partner Program, a new way for partners to create and sell applications on Samsung devices. “We work with about 100,000 developers,” said Behbehani. “Some of these are developers are inside companies. Some are outside independent developers and ISVs. And what we hear from these developer communities is when they have a solution or an app, how do I get that to a customer? How do I distribute it more effectively?”

This new partner program is Samsung’s solution for that. It’s a three-tier partner program that’s an evolution of the existing Samsung Enterprise Alliance program. At the most basic level, partners get access to support and marketing assets. At all tiers, partners can also get Knox validation for their applications to highlight that they properly implement all of the Knox APIs.

The free Bronze tier includes access to Knox SDKs and APIs, as well as licensing keys. At the Silver level, partners will get support in their region, while Gold-level members get access to the Samsung Solutions Catalog, as well as the ability to be included in the internal catalog used by Samsung sales teams globally. “This is to enable Samsung teams to find the right solutions to meet customer needs, and promote these solutions to its customers,” the company writes in today’s announcement. Gold-level partners also get access to test devices.

The other new service that will enable developers to reach more enterprises and SMBs is Project Appstack.

“When a new customer buys a Samsung device, no matter if it’s an SMB or an enterprise, depending on the information they provide to us, they get to search for and they get to select a number of different applications specifically designed to help them in their own vertical and for the size of the business,” explained Behbehani. “And once the phone is activated, these apps are downloaded through the ISV or the SaaS player through the back-end delivery mechanism which we are developing.”

For large enterprises, Samsung also runs an algorithm that looks at the size of the business and the vertical it is in to recommend specific applications, too.

Samsung will run a series of hackathons over the course of the next few months to figure out exactly how developers and its customers want to use this service. “It’s a module. It’s a technology backend. It has different components to it,” said Behbehani. “We have a number of tools already in place we have to finetune others and we also, to be honest, want to make sure that we come up with a POC in the marketplace that accurately reflects the requirements and the creativity of what the demand is in the marketplace.”

The SaaS gold rush will become the ‘Hunger Games’

SaaS has been the motherlode of enterprise software investing for two decades now. Venture investors, entrepreneurs, and Wall Street have all learned to pile on, leading to a shared consensus that cloud investing is “a sure thing.” Nothing is more destructive to investors over the long term than a sure thing, so I began to wonder, “what could cause the wonderful economics of cloud investing to unravel?”

My conclusion is that while the cloud is obviously here to stay, the next five years in cloud investing will neither be the same nor as easy as the last 10. My reason for writing this post is not to be a party pooper, but to provide a context for startups to navigate this potentially harsher environment. This post identifies three different startup strategies, all of which can work even in the more competitive cloud economy that I envisage. More on that below.

Big picture, the summary points are as follows:

First, cloud company valuations are at all-time highs which cannot be justified by improved company operating performance but can explained by 20 years of consistent 30% growth in the cloud software market. This has given investors the comfort to “pay up.”

Second, within the next two to three years, there will be a “growth crunch” as many cloud markets saturate. At that point the Gold Rush will become the Hunger Games, as cloud companies large and small compete against each other for survival.

Third, there will be three winning strategies for a startup when this happens: fight, or compete head on in an existing cloud market; focus, or find those parts of the cloud market where there is still low competition and good growth; fly, which is to build a company based on more than just the move to the cloud.

Fourth, “beyond the cloud” means “assume the cloud” and build on top of that stack using newer technologies and a design approach where instead of the user working for the software, the software works for (or instead of) the user. At Scale, we think of this as building the Intelligent Connected World (ICW).

Let’s walk through the details.

How did we get here?

We got here because the cloud model works. It works as a computer architecture, and there is no clear replacement architecture on the horizon. It works for customers by aligning incentives with vendors to keep their software working. And it works – brilliantly – as a financial model. In a world of low growth and low interest rates, SaaS looks like a perpetual motion machine and the valuations show it. Today the median SaaS multiple is 8.5x run rate versus an all-time average of 5.6x. Higher growth companies trade at even loftier multiples of 20x and 30x.

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Are cloud companies performing better than ever?

The short answer is no. The four charts below show growth rate, profitability, Sales Efficiency and the Rule of 40 (a combination of growth and profitability) for the entire public SaaS universe from 2004 to today. Each chart also shows separately the median for three sub-periods within this time period: pre-crash (2004 to 2008), the crash period (2009 to 2011), and post-crash (2011 to today).

The story is the same in every case. Pre-crash operating performance was stellar in what was then a new uncrowded market. The crash was brutal on growth and forced companies to get profitable fast. But since 2011, growth rates, EBITDA, Sales Efficiency and Rule of 40 measures have all been roughly flat and provide no justification for almost a doubling of valuations in the last two years.

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So why are these companies trading so richly?

It’s all about the growth

Sometimes the answer is in plain sight. The big picture in all the above numbers is that public companies in this sector have been growing at 30% plus for 15 years now, since the Salesforce IPO in 2004. Growth has not gone up but, far more importantly, it has not gone down.

Why per-seat pricing needs to die in the age of AI

Pricing is the most important, least-discussed element of the software industry. In the past, founders could get away with giving pricing short shrift under the mantra, “the best product will ultimately win.” No more.

In the age of AI-enabled software, pricing and product are linked; pricing fundamentally impacts usage, which directly informs product quality. 

Therefore, pricing models that limit usage, like the predominant per-seat per month structure, limit quality. And thus limit companies.

For the first time in 20 years, there is a compelling argument to make for changing the way that SaaS is priced. For those selling AI-enabled software, it’s time to examine new pricing models. And since AI is currently the best-funded technology in the software industry — by far — pricing could soon be changing at a number of vendors.

Why per-seat pricing needs to die in the age of AI

Per-seat pricing makes AI-based products worse. Traditionally, the functionality of software hasn’t changed with usage. Features are there whether users take advantage of them or not — your CRM doesn’t sprout new bells and whistles when more employees log in; it’s static software. And since it’s priced per-user, a customer incurs more costs with every user for whom it’s licensed.

AI, on the other hand, is dynamic. It learns from every data point it’s fed, and users are its main source of information; usage of the product makes the product itself better. Why, then, should AI software vendors charge per user, when doing so inherently disincentivizes usage? Instead, they should design pricing models that maximize product usage, and therefore, product value.

Per-seat pricing hinders AI-based products from capturing value they create

AI-enabled software promises to make people and businesses far more efficient, transforming every aspect of the enterprise through personalization. Software tailored to the specific needs of the user has been able to command a significant premium relative to generic competitors; for example, Salesforce offers a horizontal CRM that must serve users from Fortune 100s to SMBs across every industry. Veeva, which provides a CRM optimized for the life sciences vertical, commands a subscription price many multiples higher, in large part because it has been tailored to the pharma user’s end needs.

AI-enabled software will be even more tailored to the individual context of each end-user, and thus, should command an even higher price. Relying on per-seat pricing gives buyers an easy point of comparison ($/seat is universalizable) and immediately puts the AI vendor on the defensive. Moving away from per-seat pricing allows the AI vendor to avoid apples-to-apples comparisons and sell their product on its own unique merits. There will be some buyer education required to move to a new model, but the winners in the AI era will use these discussions to better understand and serve their customers.

Per-seat pricing will ultimately cause AI vendors to cannibalize themselves

Probably the most important upsell lever software vendors have traditionally used is tying themselves to the growth of their customers. As their customers grow, the logic goes, so should the vendors’ contract (presumably because the vendor had some part in driving this growth). 

Tethering yourself to per-seat pricing will make contract expansion much harder.

However, effective AI-based software makes workers significantly more efficient. As such, seat counts should not need to grow linearly with company growth, as they have in the era of static software. Tethering yourself to per-seat pricing will make contract expansion much harder. Indeed, it could result in a world where the very success of the AI software will entail contract contraction.

How to price software in the age of AI

Here are some key ideas to keep top of mind when thinking about pricing AI software:

  • Start by using ROI analysis to figure out how much to charge

This is the same place to start as in static software land. (Check out my primer on this approach here.) Work with customers to quantify the value your software delivers across all dimensions. A good rule of thumb is that you should capture 10-30% of the value you create. In dynamic software land, that value may actually increase over time as the product is used more and the dataset improves. It’s best to calculate ROI after the product gets to initial scale deployment within a company (not at the beginning). It’s also worth recalculating after a year or two of use and potentially adjusting pricing. Tracking traditionally consumer usage metrics like DAU/MAU becomes absolutely critical in enterprise AI, as usage is arguably the core driver of ROI.

While ROI is a good way to determine how much to charge, do not use ROI as the mechanism for how to charge. Tying your pricing model directly to ROI created can cause lots of confusion and anxiety when it comes time to settle up at year-end. This can create issues with establishing causality and sets up an unnecessarily antagonistic dynamic with the customer. Instead, use ROI as a level-setting tool and other mechanisms to determine how to arrive at specific pricing.

Pan-European VC fund Target Global is opening an office in Barcelona

Hola Barcelona. Target Global, a pan-European VC firm with €700 million under management and a broad investment canvas spanning SaaS, marketplaces, fintech, insurtech and mobility, is opening an office in the Catalan capital.

Investor director, Lina Chong, will lead the expansion into Spain, having relocated to Barcelona from the fund’s Berlin headquarters. They’re setting up in a co-working space on Avenue Diagonal in the center of the city. 

Target Global backs early and growth stages startups, as well as doing some seed investing. The firms tells us it’s expecting to do between one and three deals per year out of the Barcelona office, envisaging the same mix of investments in terms of early and growth stage.

“We’ve been seeing decent deals in both stages. Definitely. Across Spain,” says Chong. “There is just more — by numbers — way more early stage seed than A. I think that’s just the maturity of the ecosystem here.”

Dialling up a local presence across Europe means Target Global can pitch founders on being able to connect talent and expertise across key regional startup hubs, while also plugging into a wider international network. (It also has offices in London, Tel Aviv and Moscow.)

From a VC perspective opening local offices is of course about deal flow. Being on the ground to take more meetings widens the pipe, increasing the chance of an early shot at the next high growth business.

That’s important because Europe’s startups have many more options for early stage funding than in years past, and founders are getting smarter about choosing their investors. Boots on the ground means more time for all important relationship building.

Target Global describes itself as something of a startup — it was founded in 2012 — which means it’s competing for deals with VCs that have more established brands and networks. Becoming a familiar face in the room looks like a solid strategy to growth hack its own network.

We are a global or a pan-European fund but for an entrepreneur here we want them to feel that we’re local; we understand the ecosystem; that we have deep rooted connections; that we’re committed; that we show up,” general partner Shmuel Chafets tells TechCrunch.

“It’s all a function of time and effort. Just being here and having breakfast with people, lunch with people and helping out even the people we don’t invest. You get more connected and then you start to see more deal flow.”

This is the second local office it’s opened in Europe this year, after adding a London base in April — making it a flattering pick for Barcelona. Plenty of other European hubs are being passed over in the city’s favor this time, be it Madrid, Lisbon, Paris or Stockholm. 

Chafets says the firm looked at five or six other cities but settled on Barcelona for now, though he won’t rule out opening more offices in future. “Never say never,” he quips. 

Having been a regular visitor to Barcelona for a number of years he talks enthusiastically about the creative energy motivating entrepreneurs — saying the city’s ecosystem reminds him of how Berlin felt a few years ago. “It looks like it’s just about to happen,” he reckons. 

“From what I’ve seen Barcelona is sort of strong in creative. It’s a very creative city. It’s always pretty strong in mobile, historically. It had more mobile successes… SaaS, particular smb SaaS, is pretty good here. I think it would be harder to find enterprise sales companies and companies building these very deep tech stuff right now. But definitely in the marketplace, smb SaaS space, mobile space you see great stuff here. 

“That ties into the creativity, because it’s a product driven environment — not a tech driven environment. I think Berlin is a very operationally driven environment, Tel Aviv is a very tech driven environment, this is a very product driven environment — which actually complements well our other hubs.”

“There’s some pent-up energy here,” agrees Chong, who says they’ve already come across a “surprising” amount of deal flow. “Again it’s very similar to Berlin where there’s a lot of willingness and there’s a lot of dreaming but there’s not a lot going on. So I think the younger people here they’re creating that.”

Target Global has been testing the water prior to formalizing its commitment to Barcelona, and has four local portfolio companies which it’s ploughed around €20M into over the past 12 months.

Its biggest regional investment to date is in business trip booking SaaS, TravelPerk. It’s also backed flatmate matching platform Badi; online doctor booking platform, Doc Planner (which relocated from Warsaw, Poland after merging with local startup Doctoralia); and medical chat app MediQuo.

From a wider perspective, Barcelona’s tech ecosystem has been gathering momentum for years, helped by the annual presence of the world’s biggest mobile tradeshow (MWC) — as well as more specific pull factors for startups such as a relatively low cost of living and an attractive Mediterranean location. 

“It’s a great place to live and you can’t ignore that,” says Chafets. “In Europe if you’re a team and you’re an international team there are very few places you can live.”

This combination means Barcelona is now home to a growing number of high growth startups, including Target Global’s portfolio firm TravelPerk — as well as the likes of on-demand delivery platform Glovo; and RedPoints, which sells a SaaS to brands for detecting and acting against the sale of fake goods online, to name two other notable examples.

Other local startups grabbing attention and investment in recent years include 21Buttons, Holded, Housfy, Typeform and Verse. While hyper local mobile marketplace startup Wallapop — which was on a growth tear in an earlier wave of ecoystem growth — remains the go-to classified app on every local’s phone (though it merged with a US rival back in 2015).

The city even has its own youthful scooter startup (Reby) which has refused to be put off by some tough regulations controlling rentals — and has recently been applying AI to try to make like a good citizen by automatically detect poor parking.  

Mobility is a major area of focus for Target Global — which last year announced a dedicated fund (with an initial raise of $100M) for startups working to disrupt transportation. Although, when it comes to stand-up e-scooters the firm is already invested in Berlin-based Circ so will presumably be looking to spend elsewhere on that front.

“Barcelona is the perfect city for scooters,” says Chafets. “Scooters can really change the way the city works. It’s also small and has relatively good public transportation from outwards in — but they need to be regulated. You need to really make sure that [they aren’t a misused nuisance].”

He notes that European regulators have been relatively quick to spot the risks of shared mobility, and close off the antisocial expansionist playbook that played out in some US cities during the first wave of scooter startups — when people trolled Bird by hanging scooters in trees (or, well, worse) — but he sees that as good news for building a sustainable future for alternative mobility. 

“It’s a great challenge and it will be a huge money maker — that’s where we want to be right, multiple trillion dollar businesses!”

Away from disruptive developments on the ground in Barcelona and the other local tech hubs that Target Global is intending to explore from its new base in Catalonia, it also views Spain as a low risk gateway to opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic. 

“There’s a decent local domestic market and there is a natural second market in South America,” says Chafets. “Actually in the US too — because Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in America so when you start a company here you have that second market built in. Which is very important — you can scale it.”

“Latin America is a fascinating market right now, it’s a fascinating time,” he adds. “So in a way it’s a way for us to make a side bet on Latin America without going out of Europe and investing far.”

We’ll share a full interview with Chafets and Chong on Extra Crunch.