How long is a startup a startup? We found ourselves asking this question in a marketing meeting not too long ago. It came up because people regularly refer to Chargify as a startup, but our company has been around for 7+ years. Are we still a startup? Nope…

There are specific stages a SaaS company moves through during its lifecycle.

The first thing you may be thinking (we did): “Does it matter? Do you really need to know what phase your company is in?”

According to research by the Startup Genome Project, after studying more than 3,200 startups they found that “70% [of startups] fail because of premature scaling.” By understanding which stage your SaaS business is in, you can help determine the appropriate time to scale to the next phase successfully.

In today’s blog you’ll learn how to identify each SaaS stage, what you should be focused on in each stage, and when it is the right time to scale to the next phase. The four major SaaS lifecycle stages we’ll cover:

  • Pre-Startup
  • Startup
  • Growth
  • Maturity

Hopefully below will help you avoid premature scaling by understanding what stage your SaaS company is in and when to scale for success. Let’s get started:

Pre-Startup

Pre Startup Problem Solution Fit

You may also hear this stage referred to as Discovery, Vision/Mission, or Problem/Solution Fit.

During the pre-startup stage, a SaaS company should be focused on identifying a problem and how your SaaS provides a solution to the problem.

“At this point, you are trying to work out whether or not you are solving a problem. It involves a lot of research, reading, and discussion. And, realistically, you don’t have to quit your job to do it. Find out that a problem exists, before you dive into the deep end,” explains Majoran’s Leticia Mooney.

Common activities your SaaS should focus on during the pre-startup stage can include:

  • Talking to potential customers
  • Seeking financing from friends & family
  • Establishing relationships with advisors and/or mentors
  • Joining an incubator or accelerator group
  • Initial MVPs (Minimum Viable Product)

You should also be aware of the common risks your SaaS faces during the pre-startup stage.

The “primary risk [during pre-startup] is the failure to design a business plan and strategy that will enable the company to become profitable as it makes sales and earns revenue. Other significant risks include a dependency on seed money to cover operational costs for a longer period than anticipated, or a lack of funds to cover rising employee and infrastructure costs,” according to Andrew Armstrong, founder of KickStart Search.

Finally, how do you know when it is time to move your SaaS forward to the next stage?

“Ask yourself two questions: ‘What problem am I compelled to solve?’ and ‘Does my proposed solution solve it effectively?’ If you have a clear answer to the first question and a confident ‘Yes’ for the second, then you’ve got problem/solution fit and a hypothesis, and it’s time to start pressure testing your idea,” advises growth marketing consultant Lauren Bass.

As you move forward, the next stage of your SaaS will be…

Startup

startup product market fit

It is also common to hear this stage called Validation or the Product/Market Fit stage.

As those names indicate, at the startup stage a SaaS company’s focus should be on finding product/market fit. While it may seem counter-intuitive, you should avoid focusing on how to scale at this point.

Sean Ellis Product Market Fit

We’ve gone into detail on how to find product/market fit in a previous blog, so we’ll concentrate on the important aspects of this stage in the SaaS lifecycle for today’s blog.

Common activities you SaaS should focus on in the startup phase include:

  • Refining product/core features (this may involve pivoting to achieve product/market fit)
  • Finding channel/market fit
  • Establishing/implementing metrics & analytics**
  • Making initial key hires
  • First paying customers
  • Securing angel/seed money

**We should note that utilizing Sean Ellis’ product/market fit survey, NPS (Net Promoter Score), and measuring activation and retention rates are important elements of implementing metrics and analytics in this stage. The higher the activation and retention rates, the greater the indication that this is a “must have” product. All of those are discussed in detail in the blog “Finding Product/Market Fit: When To Stand Firm & When To Pivot.”

As to gaining your first paying customers, “there isn’t a hard and fast number, but you need enough users moving through so you can see whether people are sticking around and using your product or abandoning it,” says Morgan Brown.

You may be less familiar with channel/market fit vs. the more popular product/market fit. At the startup stage, you’ll want to address both.

“Channel-product fit is all about using a process of channel discovery to find the highest yield and most efficient avenues for reaching your target customers,” says Bass.

It’s important to understand the risks and concerns typical in the startup stage:

  • Failing to identify the best customers/target audience for your product
  • Thinking too broadly about who target customer is**
  • Unable to get sufficient number of customers to create cash flow needed
  • Making hiring mistakes early on that have costly impacts on the company
  • Spending too much on customer acquisition before product/market fit
  • Not pivoting when it’s needed
  • Expanding into a narrow market that is already oversaturated with competition

**Side note: Bass explains why broad target market definitions are a concern to be aware of:

“You MUST be hyper specific here. For user acquisition purposes, your target customers are NOT working mothers or marketers (they may be exactly that for the sake of fundraising, since you need to demonstrate a huge addressable market for your product). Example – In the beginning, New Relic didn’t see their target customers as developers, they zeroed in on Ruby on Rails developers as their early adopters and became a voice within that very niche community. Later they expanded to serve a larger population of developers as they scaled.”

The focus at the startup stage is not on scale, but it is important to note New Relic’s accomplishments in the startup stage by narrowly defining their target market helped the company’s continued success as they scaled in later stages.

It can be very tempting to scale from startup to the next phase too quickly. Resist.

“Startups need 2-3 times longer to validate their market than most founders expect. This underestimation creates the pressure to scale prematurely,” according to the Startup Genome Project.

Stepping Stone: Efficiency/Process Improvement

SaaS efficiency process improvement

Efficiency/process improvement is a stepping stone along the way to the next major SaaS stage. “The goal here is to build a base of loyal, passionate, and successful customers to establish credibility while preparing the startup for full-on growth,” writes entrepreneur Mark Birch.

Common activities your SaaS should be focusing on at this stepping stone of the startup stage can include:

  • Clarifying value proposition
  • Refining customer experience/onboarding
  • Funnel optimization**
  • Achieving viral growth
  • Finding the channels which allow you to scale customer acquisition
  • Identifying a repeatable sales process (this is mission critical!)

**For more information about optimizing the customer lifecycle funnel from first touch to paying conversions and beyond, check out our post: “Master The SaaS Customer Lifecycle Funnel: Acquire, Retain, Engage.”

SaaS customer lifecycle funnel

Typical risks and concerns to be aware of during this stepping stone phase include:

  • Not pivoting when needed as the market changes
  • Expanding “to exploit a company’s accomplishments…rather than keeping the company stable and profitable” (Armstrong)

Once you’ve successfully found product/market fit and improved initial processes to be more efficient, your SaaS is ready to scale to the next stage (appropriately titled “Growth”).

Growth

saas-growth-stage

Congratulations, you’re growing! In this SaaS stage:

“You have a product and market fit. You know it works. You’ve got the process to a point where you’re driving traffic, leads, and conversions. So you move into top gear and drive acquisition quickly, efficiently, and smartly,” says Mooney.

For enterprise tech startups, this step “defines the true market challengers and when the startup evolves from a scrappy startup to an actual business that has a clear understanding of how and the cost of acquiring customers,” writes Birch.

Industry-wide, there is some disagreement about whether “scale & establishment” is its own distinct phase or if it falls under the umbrella of “growth,” such as in Startup Commons’ model below:

For the purposes of this blog, we agree with the latter.

At the growth stage, some companies will find themselves needing to shift focus from revenue growth to profitability. Alternatively, your SaaS may need to focus on raising the capital required to support aggressive customer acquisition and scaling.

Some of the common activities at the growth stage include:

  • Seeking Series A funding
  • Aggressive customer acquisition
  • Hiring executives
  • Scaling improvements on the back-end
  • Gaining a deeper understanding of A/B testing and conversion optimization**
  • Have an established, repeatable sales process 
  • Ensuring your product, marketing, and sales teams are aligned

**BigCommerce co-founder Mitchell Harper points out, “improving your visitor to trial conversion rate by just a few percent can have a huge impact on your revenue, so getting an intimate understanding of conversion rate optimization and split testing during [this phase] should be a top priority.”

Scaling is expensive because your costs increase as the number of customers you support grows. In the graph below, Groove illustrates their scaling expenses as the company grew and provides the following advice: “Be careful not to let your costs scale faster than your revenue.”

groove scaling costs

Some of the other typical risks and concerns at the growth stage that you should be aware of include:

  • Insufficient cash to handle the costs associated with growth
  • Inability to get “costs lower than revenue at scale” (Startup Genome Project)
  • Failure to focus on your business model
  • Hiring mistakes (at this stage bad hires can harm company culture)
  • New competitors created by copying your business model**
  • Scaling prematurely
  • “Issues of cash burn and working capital requirement will be amplified” (Destin)
  • It becomes harder to get things done within the company as you increase the number of employees
  • Developer attention shifts***

**”The first two stages are easy. The third stage is when other people can see what you are doing and now other companies try to copy and destroy you,” explains Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky.

***As Groove scaled, they found themselves forced to shift developer attention. CEO Alex Turnbull explains, “more customers means more bugs. And more bugs means less time for our team to work on everything else.”

Metrics are key throughout every SaaS stage and at this step the data will determine when your SaaS is ready to move into the next phase…

Maturity

saas maturity stage

In the maturity stage:

“Customers know what they bought, how your services are used/consumed and what your product will do for them have been defined/documented. Ninety-five percent of outcome scenarios fall into an operational bucket and are delivered consistently, at scale. Your department’s’ and organization’s products/services have a known set of predictable measures,” according to Alexander A. Sulpasso, Director of Operations at Continuity.

At this stage the growth of your SaaS will slow, but it should never completely stop.

Some of the common activities your SaaS should focus on during the maturity stage include:

  • Looking for opportunities to grow globally – local teams should be put in place who understand the local culture and nuances
  • Considering the addition of new products or services
  • Identifying acquisition opportunities**
  • Continue investing in growth and experimenting to find additional growth opportunities
  • Consider preparing your company for IPO or think about an exit strategy

**According to Bass, acquisition opportunities can “align either directly or tangentially with your product. Maybe an acquisition target gives you access to a new but very similar market of users, or maybe a product helps you expand the value you offer current users.”

Even at this stage, it is critical that employees “understand that regardless of how well your business is doing, you’re never done, so a cultural bias towards ambition and a drive to win are important,” says Harper.

The biggest risks at the maturity stage are that the SaaS company becomes too comfortable in its success and stops:

  • Monitoring/changing with the market
  • Testing new things (products, tools, etc.)
  • Retaining your competitive edge

Leslie Ventures Managing Partner Mark Leslie paints a picture of the worst-case scenario for a SaaS in the maturity phase:

“Growth slows even more, eventually flattening out — yet operational expenses continue to climb as they strive to compete with new players in the market. Finally, unable to keep up, burdened with bloated budgets, companies spiral into negative growth, marked by layoffs, high burn rates and eventual bankruptcy or liquidation.”

Yikes! While that description is dire, the key to avoiding those extreme circumstances is strategic transformation.

If you’re a company leader, you’ll be the force behind any company transformations, whether it means a pivot in your business model, bringing new products/services to market, or some other strategic change.

At the maturity stage, it is likely that there are a series of shifts your business takes on that “will meld over time into an overarching story of transformation and extended life expectancy.” Leslie shows what that looks like:

saas strategic transformation

At the maturity stage your SaaS company is in a prime spot! You have momentum behind you and stability in front of you. “You have the talent, money and market influence to do something new while maintaining and growing the core business,” says Leslie. Alternatively, you may be considering an exit strategy at this point.

Wrap-up

With premature scaling being the reason 70% of startups fail, it is vital to identify the points at which your SaaS can successfully expand.

By understanding the major stages of a SaaS company, you can create and implement better strategies for growth at every phase. And no matter where your SaaS company currently is in its lifecycle, there are always opportunities to learn, adapt, and excel.

Do you have any tips for what a SaaS company should be doing or watching out for at each stage along the way? Let us know in the comments below.

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