SaaS and Indy Car Driving: Don't Lift the Accelerator

A race car driver who had just qualified for the first time for the Indianapolis 500 explained to me the most difficult part of navigating the 2.5 mile circuit: keeping the accelerator pushed to the floor. He said it's easy to do while driving down the straightaway; the tough part is when you're heading into the 90-degree turn at the end. If you lift the pedal, the car won't turn left in front of the concrete wall at turn one.

A quick lesson on race car aerodynamics. Indy Cars are designed like aircraft wings, only upside-down. In a plane, the faster it goes, the more lift is generated to carry it up into the air.

Indy Cars, by contrast, need to stay on the ground, not fly into the air. They are designed so that the faster the car goes, the more downforce is generated to hold it onto the track. Not enough speed means not enough downforce, means the car leaves the track surface, means the driver can't steer, means... you get the idea.

Marketing software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions is a lot like driving an Indy Car.

The goal with SaaS marketing is to build a machine that generates lifetime customer revenue that exceeds customer acquisition costs. You want a process in place whereby every $1 of sales and marketing expense yields more than $1 in revenues over the life of a customer's subscription. (I discuss this in more detail at "Marketing Spend: How Much is Enough?")

Of course, those subscription revenues are recognized over the entire lifetime of the customer, often over several years. However, the sales and marketing costs are recognized immediately. You spend now to earn later. According to this formula, the faster you spend, the more short-term losses you generate.

As you're racing down this straightaway, running up big deficits, one instinct is to lift off the accelerator. Radically cut spending on sales and marketing. After all, these are probably the largest single expense items on your income statement. (I've shown how much publicly-held SaaS companies are spending at "The Risk of Spending Too Little on SaaS Marketing.") It's an instinct perhaps learned from experience with the business model for on-premise applications.

Resist the instinct to cut spending on customer acquisition

But if you've built an efficient sales and marketing machine, lifting the accelerator is exactly the wrong thing to do. If your finely-tuned customer acquisition machine is yielding $3, $4, $8 for every $1 in sales and marketing spend, keep the pedal to the floor.

If you cut back on spending, you lose visibility in the market, you can't generate prospects, and you can't support your sales efforts. The result: you can't acquire customers, and you'll fall further behind competitors until you're no longer a viable choice.

You'll lose revenue in the short term, and you'll lose revenue over the long term. Then you're unable to fund product development, customer support, and operations, so you lose your existing customers.

You may save cash by cutting expenses, but at the same time you've lost market traction. Like an under-steering Indy car heading toward turn one, the business slides into a drift, and at least figuratively, hits the wall.

Of course, keeping your foot on the sales and marketing accelerator requires enough fuel, in the form of capital, to stay in the race until the lifetime customer revenues come in over time. And it requires a well-tuned, efficient customer acquisition machine.

But it also requires courage. No doubt, the notion of accumulating big short-term losses is downright scary. Maybe not quite as scary as heading toward a reinforced concrete barrier at 220 miles-per-hour, but scary nonetheless.