The Road Now Taken: 4 SaaS Start-ups And Their Quest For Independent Growth

By Geoff Roberts

Last year Clement Vouillon of Point Nine Capital wrote an article entitled The Rise of the Non “VC compatible” SaaS Companies. It made the rounds in tech circles online. And it expressed a growing sentiment in the world of SaaS start-ups; for the majority of SaaS founders the traditional VC model is a clusterfuck that makes very little sense.

Fast forward 18 months, and the article looks downright prophetic.

In recent months some of the most well known names in tech have announced that they’ve decided to buy out their investors. First it was Wistia, followed shortly thereafter by Buffer; both buyouts a sort of declaration of independence that gave both companies back the ability to build their businesses on their own terms.

Rand Fishkin of Moz poured his heart and frustrations into his book Lost and Founder, then began building SparkToro taking a drastically different approach than he did in building Moz. Investment funds like Indie.VC have turned from a little known “isn’t it cute what they’re doing” blip on your Twitter feed to a highly regarded fund with an extremely passionate following.

If you’re reading this post, this probably isn’t news to you.

I’ll be the first to admit that all of the above resonates with me - I think more companies looking to stay independent and operate on their own terms is, generally, a good thing. But that said, the dialogue around the “VC compatibility” issue has quickly become very much divisive and polarizing.

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Venture capital is not inherently bad or the manifestation of greed and commitments to impossible-to-deliver growth. And the companies choosing the independent path are not all hipster led lifestyle businesses choosing nobility over bankroll and operating with a chip on their shoulders.

The fact of the matter is there are countless ways that you can choose to build your business, and even amongst this new flock of independent SaaS companies there are significant, deliberate differences in the approaches these companies have taken.

This post will look at two more established companies - Wistia and Buffer - and two newer start-ups - Outseta (my start-up) and SparkToro - taking a closer look at the pros and cons of the unique decisions each company has made on their road to independent growth.

 

TWO ESTABLISHED COMPANIES CHANGE COURSE

Don't fret, we just bought out our investors and took on some debt

 
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Wistia

Funding History

  • $650,000 from angel investors in 2008

  • $775,000 from angel investors in 2010

  • $17.3M in debt from Accel-KKR in November 2017

Wistia, a Cambridge, MA based video hosting company, made waves throughout the SaaS world this July when they formally announced that they had taken on $17.3M in debt to buy out their investors.

The company had for a few years prior followed a growth-first path, hiring aggressively and prioritizing projects designed to make an immediate impact on their growth rate. This newfound focus created cultural issues within the company, saw the company’s monthly burn rate dramatically increase, and did little to accelerate growth. At the end of the day, “We broke pretty much everything,” says CEO Chris Savage. Perhaps worse yet, long tenured employees of the company began leaving, saying the new focus on growth “didn’t feel Wistia.”

Wistia is certainly not the first tech company to suffer from over-scaling, but their story is both unique and illuminating for a number of reasons.

First, Wistia had for years taken a long-term approach to growth. They had built a highly profitable business that was generally adored by its customers. They had been very deliberate about not raising too much money, and to date the company has only raised a total of $1.4M. Their first round of Angel investment in 2008 had not been a round for the sake of raising a round, or funds really even earmarked to invest heavily in growth. Founders Chris Savage and Brendan Schwartz only raised money when after two years, “we admitted to ourselves we needed some help from folks with more experience than us.”

Despite taking this carefully considered, only-what-we-need approach to growth they began hearing advice and a narrative that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere outside of the traditional Silicon Valley tech bubble.

“As we grew the company and began sharing our story, we kept hearing the same counterintuitive advice from other entrepreneurs — Wistia was too profitable. We weren’t spending enough on growth, thereby limiting our opportunity.”

While I’m all for reinvesting in growth, it’s hard not to chuckle when you hear that a business is too profitable. In a for-profit business, isn’t making profit the objective? The idea of temporarily jacking up your annual growth rates so you can sell your business at a high valuation multiple is really a much more sideways approach to growth if you take off your tech blinders for a minute and use your head.

But after a few years of more aggressively chasing growth and realizing that they were no longer having much fun, Wistia’s Founders decided something had to change. If they were to get back to growing Wistia on their own terms, some serious challenges lay ahead.

Wistia’s Challenges

  • They needed to provide a return to their angel investors

  • They needed to provide return to their employees

  • With no intention of selling their business, they needed to replace their stock option plan

  • They didn’t have enough cash on hand to buy back stock, so they had to raise money

  • They had to raise debt which increased their ownership in Wistia, but also their risk

The solution to the problem that gave Wistia back the right to grow on their own terms came in the form of taking on $17.3M in debt from Accel-KKR in November 2017, an enormously difficult decision that has since been generally and rightly lauded in tech circles.

“We felt confident that the profitability constraints the debt imposed would be healthy for the business. Spending or hiring ahead of budget to try to juice growth weren’t options in this model and we’d be forced to grow the way we wanted to: sustainably, with a focus on creative, long-term solutions for our customers and team,” said Savage.

Commentary

As one of Wistia’s very early customers, I watched the company grow up from afar and had heard bits and pieces of this story from those both inside and outside of the company. But as I reflect on this story, there’s three things that stick out in my mind that I admire.

  • Wistia’s Founders made the decision to take on debt after they received an offer to sell their company outright. It was a large enough sum of money to change their lives, and their family’s lives, forever. Not many people choose to walk away from a pot of gold. Especially when you’re taking on $17.3M of debt in a business with an annual run rate of $32M.

  • In raising debt, the company chose to provide a return to both their investors and their employees. It was the right thing to do, but this is exceedingly rare.

  • Ultimately one of the major reasons Wistia chose to raise debt was so that they could get back to taking long-term, creative risks that had been hadn’t been prioritized when they were pursuing growth more aggressively. While taking creative risks may not be what’s most important to your tech company, it’s one of Wistia’s four core values and is deeply important to them. I applaud them for “knowing thyself” and serving their values above all else.

Curious how he felt reflecting on the decision to raise angel money - a decision that ultimately resulted in Wistia needing to take on $17M in debt - I asked Wistia Co-founder and CTO Brendan Schwartz if he’d do anything differently.

“That money brought us two phenomenal teammates, a really helpful mentor who's still on our board, and lots of connections and help from investors. I'm quite confident we would not be as successful without raising that money initially,” said Schwartz. “The only thing I think we would have done differently in retrospect would be to structure the deal with some kind of payback terms similar to what Bryce has been doing with Indie.vc. I think that's a great way to preserve optionality - you can pursue the venture track or you can aim for profitability, pay back your investors, and maintain full control over your business.”

Further Reading

How An Offer To Sell Wistia Inspired Us To Take On $17M in Debt

 
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Buffer

Funding History

  • $120,000 through AngelPad start-up accelerator in August 2011

  • $330,000 seed round in December 2011

  • $3.5M series A round in December 2014 (60% was from Collaborative Fund)

  • Bought out main series A investors (representing $2.3M of $3.5M raised) in July 2018

Just a few short months after Wistia’s announcement another household name in tech circles, Buffer, announced that they were also buying out their investors. While they didn’t need to take on any debt to buy out their investors - let alone $17.3M worth - their story is uniquely turbulent in a number of ways.

Buffer began as very much a darling child of the tech world - they had everything going for them. After raising a total of $450,000 in 2011, Buffer would raise a Series A round of $3.5M in 2014 - 60% of which came from Collaborative Fund.

Buffer was so hot at the time - revenues were growing 150% per year - that the terms they got for their Series A were insanely good. They were doing $4.6M of revenue at the time and the business was valued at $60M - a valuation multiple of 13x revenues. The $3.5M they raised only required them giving up a 6.2% equity stake in the company… and no board seat. The company even took $2.5M of the $3.5M and paid it out to the Founders and early team members.

Without question, Buffer was flying high.

After the Series A, Buffer fell into a similar trap to Wistia - they hired too quickly, specifically to accelerate product development. Shortly thereafter Co-founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne and team had to make the tough decision to layoff a number of Buffer employees to regain financial control of the business. Morale took one on the chin.

Shaken by this experience and unwilling to compromise on many aspects of his company’s unique culture (open salaries, fully-remote team) that he viewed as Buffer’s secret sauce, Joel began articulating a vision for the company that accepted a slower, more deliberate growth rate. This vision was not aligned with his investors, or his Co-founder and CTO, both of whom would leave the company.

As tensions with his Series A investors increased, the fine print on the Series A term sheet surfaced some additional challenges if Buffer sought to control its own growth trajectory.

Buffer’s Challenges

  • They needed to provide a return to their investors

  • They had to layoff employees after hiring too aggressively

  • They could not provide liquidity to employees or seed investors without majority support from Series A investors. They had to buy them out first.

  • Their Series A term sheet provided downside protection for Series A investors, who had the right to claim a guaranteed 9% annual interest on their investment at any point 5 years after the initial investment.

Communication soon broke down with Collaborative Fund and Joel found himself in a meeting where he was being asked if he would step down as CEO of Buffer if he could not afford the 9% annual interest his investors were entitled to after 5 years. If Joel was not willing to pursue growth that was in alignment with his investor’s expectations, he could be squeezed out of his company altogether.

Luckily for Buffer, the layoffs and slowed emphasis on growth had helped Joel regain control of the company and start operating profitably again; so much so that he was putting $400,000-$500,000 of profit away in the bank each month. Buffer spent $3.3M - about half of the cash they had in the bank - to buy out their main VC investors (who had kicked in $2.3M of the $3.5M Series A investment). Those that chose not to accept the buyout proved to be comfortable with Joel’s decision to grow the company at a slower, more organic rate moving forward.

Commentary

While Buffer’s path to independence did not require walking away from a pot of gold and taking on a large amount of debt, the company’s path was both turbulent and admirable in its own right. Laying off employees, watching your relationship with investors who believed in you sour, losing a Co-founder and a CTO, and having it suggested that you might be squeezed out of the company you’ve spent the last 7-8 years of your life building is all agonizing stuff that will keep you up at night.

To make matters worse, when you “had it all” previously these things are even harder for your team and employees to understand. Said Gascoigne, “Whereas in the past we’d had it all and achieved growth alongside creating a unique culture with a fully remote team and high levels of transparency, it now started to feel like we had to choose between those things. It was suggested that some of the fundamentals that I had come to value could be removed to create a productivity environment that would increase the growth rate.”

Another takeaway for me from Buffer’s story is how easy it is for Founders and investors to become misaligned, even when both sides have good intentions. When Buffer set out to raise their Series A, they knew they were raising an “atypical round” in terms of the round’s size, not turning over a board seat, and only giving up a small stake in their company.

Collaborative Fund, who looks to make investments that are “better for the world” and “pushing the world forward,” was open to this structure granted some downside protection. Said Gascoigne, “We shared openly that we may not want to raise further funding, sell the company, or IPO. We were transparent that we wanted to be able to keep questioning the way things are done. Specifically, we communicated that we wanted the option to be able to give a return via distributions, not an exit.”

The point is these conversations were on the table from the get-go and from afar this looks like a situation where neither the Founder nor the investor meant any ill-will or malice. But while stashing away $400,000-$500,000 of profit per month and accepting a slower growth rate made a lot of sense to Joel, it certainly didn’t jive with the expectations of his lead investor; previous conversations had or not.

Ultimately what I appreciate most about Buffer’s story is similar to what I appreciate about Wistia’s.

  • Buffer chose to pay out $2.5M of the $3.5M they raised in their Series A to their Founders and early team. I applaud the decision to pay out those who were responsible for the company’s early successes and the company’s ability to raise that round in the first place.

  • While Wistia wasn’t going to sacrifice their ability to take creative risks, Joel wasn’t going to compromise the remote workforce and highly transparent culture that he’d built at Buffer. In fact, he saw these aspects of the company as largely responsible for their successes. I admire his recognition of this part of their culture as a strategic advantage and something that he would absolutely not compromise on.

Further Reading

We Spent $3.3M Buying Out Investors: Why And How We Did It

 

TWO NEW COMPANIES PLOT THEIR COURSE

Our start-up structures are new and daring, we distribute wealth through profit sharing

 
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Sparktoro

Sparktoro, a Seattle based company that’s building a “search engine for audience intelligence,” is a product of Rand Fishkin (formerly Co-founder of Moz) and his Co-founder Casey Henry.

Funding History

  • $1.3mm from 35 angel investors in June 2018

When Rand Fishkin made the decision to start building his next company after Moz, he came out of the gates swinging with his book Lost and Founder followed shortly thereafter by a very atypical funding round.

The traditional VC model was not a fit for his new business, and he wasn’t afraid to say it. He’s hell-bent on showing that there are alternative paths for Founders who want to retain the right to grow their company on their terms.

Rand and Casey chose a corporate structure and investment terms that are a departure from the norm - the company is a LLC and can pay dividends to employees and investors when the company does well. The company has the option to pay profits out to investors or choose to invest profits back into the company’s growth. On the surface, this structure looks similar to the deal Basecamp made when they took investment from Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos - a no control stake in a LLC that has now returned (via profit sharing) more than 5 times the amount Bezos initially invested.

The structure is also specifically designed to hold the Founders accountable; neither Casey nor Rad can take any profit or raise their salaries above the market average for Seattle until they have returned all invested capital to their investors.

Changes to this structure require that 80%+ of outstanding units (think of these as stock options) vote for the suggested change. If the company is sold, investors get to greater amount between the amount they invested or the worth of their outstanding units.

SparkToro’s Challenges

  • They wanted the ability to stay independent and profitable vs. seeking an exit or IPO

  • They wanted the ability pay out invested capital as dividends when the company did well

  • The Founders had different financial situations and didn’t want to wait to start working on SparkToro full-time

Commentary

SparkToro’s path is most interesting to me because the decisions they made were very much intentional and deliberate. While Wistia and Buffer had existing investors and lots of success before they were faced with the financial restructuring of their businesses, if they wanted to plot their own independent course their hands were somewhat tied and they had to figure out how to best make that happen. Casey and Rand were starting with a perfectly blank slate.

The first thing that I like about what they did is they made a deliberate effort to highlight their new course in the hopes that others can follow or at least derive some inspiration from the decisions they made. This is evident in their one page term sheet, their investor prospectus, and even their mention of using tools like Carta to distribute units. All of this is helpful fodder and they took the time to make these documents clean, understandable, and generally as useful to others as possible.

But what’s really most interesting to me about SparkToro’s path was that behind the term sheets, financial figures, and equity structures they took the time to share the human element behind some of their decisions.

They could have bootstrapped the business, but they decided not to because that wasn’t an option for Casey’s family or financial situation. Rand had previously funded Moz in the early days via consulting revenue, and was well aware of the hidden costs and tradeoffs that come with bootstrapping.

And let’s face it - between Moz’s success and Rand’s standing in the worlds of marketing and VC-backed technology companies, money wasn’t only available but it was available on their terms. They got a decent valuation with very little traction and were able to add a number of key investors with a vested interest in their business without giving them voting rights.

While this scenario is exceedingly rare, it definitely removes the majority of the drawbacks often associated with raising money. While SparkToro did give up a good amount of equity, the only other real downside in this scenario is adding some complexity around reporting and legal costs earlier on than they might otherwise have. And while their investors don’t have voting rights, they still represent stakeholders that need to be considered in future decision making.

With these realities on the table, I appreciate the deliberately frugal approach and agreements Rand and Casey made regarding how their funding would be spent. By agreeing to take market level salaries and not allowing themselves to raise their salaries or dip into any profits themselves until all capital is returned to their investors, they’re demonstrating self-imposed financial constraints that show investors they’re being responsible and judicious with their investment dollars.

It was also cool to see the one area where they admittedly splurged - high quality health insurance through WTIA. They weren’t afraid to call out their needs in this area or compromise and put their families at risk by skimping on their healthcare until a later stage. Personally, I was not aware of programs like these and while WTIA’s program only serves the state of Washington, this set me on a course to exploring options like this for California residents (where I live).

Further Reading

SparkToro Raised A Very Unusual Round Of Funding & We’re Open-Sourcing Our Docs

 
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Outseta

Funding History

  • Bootstrapped

All of which brings us to my start-up, Outseta, a fully remote team that’s building a suite of software tools specifically for early stage SaaS start-ups. We’ve been in business since late 2016, and since the get-go have been building our own intentionally independent path. Like SparkToro, we also open sourced our operating agreement in the hope that it would be helpful to others considering a similar path.

My Co-founder, Dimitris, also Co-founded Buildium, where we met. Buildium (founded in 2004) was set up as a LLC with a membership units plan to help drive employee retention and deliver financial rewards to employees in the case of a liquidity event. It was certainly one of the few SaaS start-ups I was aware of with this structure at the time. Buildium bootstrapped for its first 8 years, well past $5mm in revenue, before eventually raising money to keep accelerating growth. The path we’ve chosen at Outseta certainly reflects this past experience, but with some notable changes.

Challenges

  • We wanted the ability to stay independent permanently and have all employees reap financial benefits when the company does well via profit sharing rather than pursuing an exit that makes a small number of shareholders wealthy

  • We wanted to to embrace self-management, a structure that rewards autonomy and focuses on rewarding employees for their contributions to the company rather than their positional authority or job title

  • We knew we’d be bootstrapping against heavily venture-backed competitors in a particularly competitive market

  • Our founders have very different financial situations, which we knew would predicate us taking a long term approach to building the company

Commentary

The first thing that I’ll note is that by deliberately choosing to bootstrap in such a competitive market, we knew that we had to take a very long term approach to building Outseta. We have and are continuing to ramp up the amount of time we spend on the company - Dimitris is still involved with Buildium as a board member, and my Co-founder Dave and I both continue to take on some consulting work.

There’s obviously a trade-off here, one that was questioned recently when I was interviewed by Nathan Latka on his podcast. “If you’re so confident in what you’re building, why don’t you go all-in?” he asked. In short, our answer is…

  • We’re building a product with key functionalities - CRM, subscription billing, and customer communication tools (email, live chat, help desk) - that don’t need to be “validated.” These are established categories and known needs of the companies we serve - there’s no “first mover” advantage in this market and there are already players of all shapes and sizes.

  • Like Wistia, we think that needing to operate within the constraints of our own profitability is actually a good thing and will keep us financially disciplined.

  • I would argue that the path we’ve chosen is much more “all-in” than building the company using someone else’s money. We’re putting ourselves, our own time, and our own money on the line.

Perhaps most importantly, I’d say our ability to take this long term approach is only possible because of the relationships our founding team has with one another. I worked with Dimitris for 5 years previously at Buildium, Dave and Dimitris worked together previously at Sapient. In addition to the prior working relationships, there are friendships. While that creates challenges of its own, what it’s meant for us is a high degree of confidence and philosophical alignment in how we want to build Outseta.

Secondarily, it’s really important for us to share Outseta’s financial successes with our team without requiring an exit event. As such, all employees at Outseta are eligible to participate in profit sharing once they’ve been with the company for one year. We also issue membership units (like stock options) to employees and offer a buyback program so that if an employee gets a great opportunity elsewhere they can take it and still cash in on the value of their units. This program pays back employees based on the number of membership units they hold and the valuation of the company, which we calculate as 2X the past year’s revenues.

Finally, as Rand and Casey did it’s worth acknowledging that our founding team has different family and financial situations. This is certainly a potential source of misalignment, but at the same time it’s a reality that’s forced us to consider how we wish to structure and operate Outseta that much more.

Since day one, every hour spent working on Outseta has been tracked and everybody is earning sweat equity in the business commensurate with their time invested in the company. The plan, absolutely, is for us all to go full-time when we have the revenues to support our own salaries.

In the meantime, I have all the “normal” financial challenges that you might expect; I have a mortgage payment each month, school loans to pay off, and a fiance who wants to remodel our bathroom. On top of that, I simply need to “keep the lights on” as well as pay for my own health insurance. All of the above is without question stressful, especially when you look at friends with big-salaried corporate jobs and growing 401ks.

My advice for anyone considering bootstrapping that doesn’t have financial freedom is this; don’t fall into the trap of viewing bootstrapping as this noble endeavor that’s going to impose some short term limitations. Manage your burn rate obsessively, and create a plan to keep yourself financially afloat for 3 or 4 years.

I’m coming up on two years now making about a 50% salary without any benefits. I’m 32 years old and generally healthy, so I opted for a “good enough” health insurance policy that really just provides coverage were anything bad to happen to me health-wise - it costs about $280 month through Covered California.

Bootstrapping for 3 months is very different than bootstrapping for 3 years, so do some soul searching ahead of time to figure out if this is feasible for you.

Further Reading

My Reservations With Our Start-up Idea (And How I Overcame Them)

Breaking Down Our SaaS Start-up’s Operating Agreement

 

Conclusion

Wistia and Buffer are two very admirable companies that have done well for themselves already. Outseta and SparkToro are really just getting started. But while all of these companies have made very different decisions to get to where they are today, they all share a common belief - that the right to grow your business at a more organic, deliberate pace can actually be one of the biggest advantages to long term revenue growth that’s out there.

If you’re considering a similar path I hope this provided some inspiration, and I’d love to hear about your company’s path via a comment below.