SAAS – What’s In It For Vendors?

sbv-fiSAAS promises zero upfront cost, freedom from maintenance and relief from headaches of updates, and so on.

These are all benefits for its customers.

What’s in it for software companies offering SAAS solutions?

Shorter sales cycle is the most obvious benefit. Because they don’t need to incur huge licensing costs while signing up for a SAAS solution, SAAS lowers the entry barrier for buyers. This often translates to shorter sales cycles for SAAS vendors (provided they’re able to achieve the SAAS multiplier effect).

But, while the onprem sales cycle can be longer, the vendor gets a big “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” by collecting license fees for the entire lifetime of the software soon after booking the order. On the other hand, all that a SAAS vendor gets upon booking the order is the first month’s subscription fees. As illustrated below, there’s a big difference between the two numbers.

License Fee $2000 per user (onetime) N.A
Subscription Fee N.A $75/user/month*
Deal Size 1000 users 1000 users
Month 1 Revenue $2,000,000 (1000*2000) $75,000 (1000*75)

*: This is ~1/27th of license fee. This figure is based on anecdotal evidence of SAAS subscription fee being 1/20 to 1/30th of onprem license fee.

2 million dollars versus seventy five thousand dollars. That’s the difference in order booking. That’s a big hit to short term revenues. Which is a big problem for sales leaders measured on quarterly numbers.

Why then are software vendors – IBM and Oracle to name a couple – pushing SAAS so heavily?

I have no inside track into these companies but, from my experience of building and marketing SAAS products during the past 2-3 years, I can hazard an educated guess as to the benefits of SAAS for software companies.

#1. No Piracy

It’s no secret that piracy is still a thing – even in enterprise software.

SAAS can only be used by people registered directly with the product owner. This effectively eliminates piracy of SAAS.

#2. Zero Revenue Leakage

sbv02In the onprem world, the vendor signs a license agreement for, say, 1000 users. Most software products don’t block usage beyond the contracted number of users. In other words, there’s nothing in the product to stop the customer from adding the 1001th user and beyond. In fact, it’s customary for users of onprem software to keep adding users through the year. Since the software is administered by the customer, the vendor may not even know about excess users – users exceeding contracted number of users – at the point of their addition to the system. On prem vendors typically regularize their license agreements every year by asking their customers to declare the exact number of users at the end of the year. I personally experienced this practice when I was responsible for the rollout of PeopleSoft at one of my former employers. We declared the actual count. However, not all people / companies may be as transparent. When excess users are not declared, the onprem vendor loses license fees for them. While Microsoft conducts audits – and even raids – on customer premises to expose and bill excess usage of its products, such practices are not very common in the industry.

Excess usage is not possible in SAAS since every user needs to be registered on the cloud, which is owned and administered by the vendor (not customer). Therefore, SAAS virtually eliminates revenue leakage.

#3. Tighter Control of Receivables

When an onprem customer delays payment, the toughest action a vendor can take is to threaten to stop support. This is not very effective because the customer can still continue to use the software. Besides, I wonder if onprem companies are culturally attuned to actually follow through with their threats. I say this based on a data point of one: At one of my past employers, a field operations manager wrote a letter to a customer threatening to stop service due to nonpayment of AMC and then signed off the letter with the customary “Thanking you and assuring you of our best service at all times” line!

With cloud software, the vendor can literally turn off the tap if the customer delays payment à la electricity, gas and telecom companies. I know many companies – including some small ones – that actually do that.

#4. Higher CLV

While SAAS is sold for a zero or very low upfront cost, you can see from the following illustration that the total fees collected by a SAAS company over the lifetime of the software far exceeds revenues from onprem software.

Life of Software 5 years 5 years
Annual Maintenance Charges 15% of License Fees N.A
Lifetime AMC Revenues $1,500,000 (0.15*2000000*5)
Customer Lifetime Value $3,500,000 (2000000 + 1500000)
$4,500,000 (1000*75*12*5)

As against onprem revenues of $3.5M, SAAS revenues are $4.5M, which is 28% higher.

According to common wisdom, SAAS helps vendors by giving them recurring revenues. But, IMO, what actually counts is the relatively high MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue) and, hence CLV, of SAAS – you’d agree that there isn’t much point in earning an MRR of US$ 10 / user / month and taking 17 years for SAAS revenues to match onprem license fees of US$ 2000 / user collected at the start of Year 1.

#5. Data

In the onprem world, all customer data stays on the customer’s infrastructure. Whereas in the SAAS model, they reside on the SAAS provider’s infrastructure. This means the SAAS vendor has access to data of multiple organizations that it can mine to gather insights. According to Fortune, both Salesforce and Oracle have announced plans to do so. Nature of insights include:

  • Is there a major client that you haven’t heard from in awhile or who has been name-dropping your competitor in email or on social media? It’s time to reach out.
  • If you have hundreds or thousands of sales prospects on a list, how do you tell the potential winners from the duds?
  • Detect if a competitor is mentioned on an email thread.

Assuming these insights have commercial value, data offers a potentially new revenue stream for SAAS vendors.

We have a little experience with this ourselves: For a Customer Engagement Management platform developer, we spec’ced an Uplift Manager module that has the capability to mine response, conversion rates and other performance metrics of targeted offer campaigns run by different companies to various target audiences. Using the insights gathered therefrom, the module can guide ways to boost the performance of subsequent campaigns.

Of course, this may need the buy-in of customers. Going by our experience with the aforementioned Uplift Manager, customers see tremendous value from this functionality and are open to onboarding on to this module.


sbv01With so many benefits, is it any surprise that software companies are promoting SAAS so aggressively?

On a side note, IT services companies don’t seem to be too enamored with SAAS.

And for a good reason: According to the CEO of a midsized IT services company I met recently, implementation of an onprem ERP product requires 5-6 consultants for 1-2 years, which translates to billable efforts of 5-12 person years; whereas a SAAS ERP project hardly needs 3-4 consultants for 4-6 months (i.e. billable efforts of only 1-2 person years). As a result, SAAS causes a dramatic drop in an IT services company’s billing.

As of now, SAAS has not had a significant impact on IT services revenues. That’s perhaps because “for many leading software developers, SaaS still remains something of an afterthought … only 8 percent of the revenues of the top 100 software companies come from SaaS models”, according to a McKinsey article published last year.

But that’s so 2015. Judging by their recent high decibel announcements around cloud computing, SAAS is no longer an afterthought for leading software companies. If and when SAAS goes mainstream, it can be a disruptive force for the IT services industry.

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