In an economic environment that’s turbulent and prone to change, finance leaders need to be ready for anything.
That’s true across industries, but even more so in the fast-paced Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) sector, where business can shift on a dime when prospective customers aren’t spending.
For some, it’s part of what makes the SaaS industry so exciting. But it also means SaaS finance teams need to be prepared to pivot. So how do they ensure they’re ready to pivot? Vena explored the answers in “Lessons from SaaS Leaders: Aligning Your Budget To Changing Business Goals,” now available on demand for members of Vena’s Plan to Grow platform.
Moderated by Tom Seegmiller, Vena’s Vice President of FP&A, the panel gathered SaaS finance leaders to discuss the current financial climate and how finance teams can stay ready for whatever’s ahead. Harjot Ghai, Chief Operating Officer at Delbridge Solutions; Steve Player, Principal Consultant at BPM Partners; and Chris Ortega, Chief Executive Officer at Fresh FP&A, all offered their insights.
The question of the day: How can teams stay agile in the wake of these uncertainties?
- Agility is key in SaaS, and even more so in these times of change. SaaS organizations need to plan for anything. But they should also understand that their plan will likely go wrong at some point and to be ready when it does.
- By documenting their assumptions and strategy, and using agile-based rolling forecasts to keep looking ahead, finance teams can stay on top of potential changes and better understand where their assumptions go wrong. This will keep them more agile when those changes happen.
Keeping a close eye on critical KPIs and being ready to leverage drivers when changes happen will help finance teams pivot quickly. Technology can add to those efforts, helping them align their data and making collaboration and communication easier.
1. Know That Your Plan Is Going To Be Wrong
Planning ahead doesn’t come with a crystal ball. You don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future—so while you can plan for anything, you’re not going to get it perfect. At least that’s what Steve Player, Principal Consultant at BPM Partners, pointed out during the “Lessons from SaaS Leaders” panel.
“Everything we do is filled with tons of assumptions. Assumptions about how deep the recession is going to be, what the economy’s going to be, what the supply chain availability’s going to be, are we going to be able to find the people,” Steve said. “It’s really hard to get to clear, concise conclusions when the reality is that anything we conclude is based on a bedrock of a bunch of assumptions that oh, by the way, are likely going to be wrong.”
The question is, to be agile, how do you make the right move when you know you’re going to be wrong? Ensuring your data is accurate and putting in the work to have detailed short-term planning in place are good ways to start. You also want to test your minimum viable product (MVP) and build forecasting and planning around it, added Chris Ortega, Chief Executive Officer at Fresh FP&A.
But it’s also okay knowing you’ll be less than perfect the further you look ahead.
“I think too many times, as finance leaders—and I've fallen victim to this—we focus too much more on precision around six, eight, 12-month forecasting. Precision is that 85% to 95% confidence interval that these numbers are going to be right,” Chris said. “Don't spend your time, energy, effort or resources focusing on precision when there's so much change. Be directionally accurate, inform accuracy, develop MVPs to have that agility and get that feedback both externally and internally from the business around your scenarios. That to me is how you win.”
2. Document Your Strategy and Assumptions
But even if you end up making assumptions that are wrong in the long run, your strategy may still have merit. That’s why it’s important to document your assumptions and strategy as you go, the panelists said. That way you can better understand where you went wrong.
“Everything you're doing is a major shift to try to change where we’re headed, and so number one, just write that down. What are we assuming?” Steve said. “And then when you write that down, know that you're going to be wrong. That's almost the hardest part. I'm writing it down, but I know there's an extremely high probability I'm going to be wrong. I just don’t know if I’m going to be long or short—and the agility you require for long is different from the agility you need if you’re coming up short.”
Once you see how things are lining up, you can start to adjust those assumptions—whether they’re long or short—and determine where you need to pivot. By writing down your assumptions and documenting your strategy, though, you’ll already have a starting point for achieving that. You can also better communicate your evolving plan to the stakeholders involved.
3. Put in Place an Agile-Based Rolling Forecast
The lesson so far is not to get too tethered to your plan, even once you’ve put it into action—but to document everything so that you’re ready to pivot when the market changes. But on top of that, “you need a way to replan and communicate that to everybody to keep everybody moving in the same direction,” Steve said.
That starts with an agile-based rolling forecast. Yet a lot of people have “misconceptions” about rolling forecasts, Steve added during the “Lessons from SaaS Leaders” panel.
“With the rolling forecast, a lot of people think, ‘I don't need a budget, I'm just going to do a rolling forecast,’” he said. “The problem is what we ask budgets to do is very different from what a forecast can do. Budgets basically say, ‘Here's our goal,’ and it incentivizes people to reach the goal and to develop action plans to reach the goal. It coordinates and puts that all together and then tracks to see if it’s actually happening. Forecasts should only do one thing—the only thing forecasts should do is tell us what we think is going to happen.”
In finance, then, rolling forecasts are as close as you’re going to get to that crystal ball. Your forecast will let you adjust your budget and plan based on new information and changes in the market as they happen.
“To me, there are three questions being answered,” Chris added. “The budget answers, ‘What are we going to do?’ Actuals answer, ‘What did we do?’ And the forecast says, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ That’s literally the three questions that are being answered.”
4. Keep a Close Eye on Your KPIs
For Chris, there are just a handful of critical KPIs you need to follow if you want to know how your business is doing. While there will be other metrics you may want to track, these six KPIs will let you “intimately know” your business at any given time—and fuel your forecasting, planning and growth efforts.
For Chris, those KPIs are:
- Leads to Opportunities
- Opportunities to Closed Business
- Closed Business to Project
- Projects to Revenue
- Revenue to Revenue Retention
“We ingrain and integrate those six KPIs in any decision that we make,” said Chris. “So if a business partner came to me and said, ‘Chris, you need to increase our headcount. We need to hire more salespeople.’ Okay, let's go look at the North Star. How are we tracking leads to opportunities to close more? How is that performing? Are we below the budget? Are we behind it? Are we ahead of our forecasts? Then we make that part of our decision-making process.”
Aso critical, especially during times of economic change? Keeping a close eye on your cash KPIs and cash flow forecasting. In fact, that’s even more important today than it was a couple years ago, according to panelist Harjot Ghai, Chief Operating Officer at Delbridge Solutions.
“Cash is very important,” he said. ”Obviously interest rates are rising around the world, and especially for SaaS companies, a lot of them are raising equity or they have cash coming in and they grow their company a certain percentage every year—not necessarily being profitable, but they’re growing the company. And having cash in the bank and having cash flow forecasting is very important.”
5. Leverage Drivers To Streamline Your Process
Following the right KPIs is just the start, though. In order to know how and when to pivot, you have to be able leverage your business drivers to act quickly and realign your business goals. By tracking your drivers, you can determine the best way to streamline your process throughout your mid- to long-term planning, to help you reach your objectives.
“You can use drivers and populate the different assumptions and … calculate the actual output, the actual expenses and revenues based on those drivers,” Harjot said. “The other way is doing more of a top down, and actually inputting data at a higher level, but then basically seasonalizing the data or pushing the data down to a lower level based on prior actuals, or based on last year’s forecast or last month’s data.”
If you’ve planned in enough detail in the short time, and your inputs out of your finance and operations teams are 100% accurate, you’ll have drivers that will help you build momentum through the periods of change. And you’ll be more confident that you aren’t spending too much time on a plan that you’ll eventually need to course correct anyway.
6. Embrace Technology
Finally, staying agile and accomplishing all of the above are a lot easier when you have the right technology to help you. The right planning solution will make it easier to keep track of data and monitor your KPIs, allow you to make changes to your plan when you need to and help you determine when your assumptions are wrong.
“You can have a great business process, but you really need a solution to take it to the next level and make it efficient,” Harjot said.
But even more than that, in today’s remote and hybrid workforces, technology plays a huge role in helping finance teams work together toward their goals and communicate around their planning needs.
“With the changing environment, a lot of people are not in the office on a daily basis,” Harjot added. “People are working remotely in different locations, they’re working in a hybrid mode, and in order to do this more efficiently and effectively, you really need to implement a solution that allows collaboration. We can't just walk over to somebody's cubicle like we used to and ask a question. We need a solution where we can chat with each other, make comments and collaborate.”
As an industry, SaaS is used to navigating change and being ready for whatever comes next—prepared to make a positive out of whatever negative comes their way. As the economy continues to shift, those are good attributes to have. But to be ready for those changes, you still need to have the right processes and tools in place.
Leading SaaS finance professionals know how to make opportunities out of those challenges. And they know how to best go about it.
Now hopefully, these lessons from our SaaS financial leader panelists will help you do the same.