Is it good to be cashflow positive?

Often, when I meet companies and we talk about what milestones they will accomplish with their seed funding, one of them is to get to cashflow positive. I don’t have hard numbers but would guess that 1/2 think they will do this with seed funding and another 30 – 40% will do it after Series A.

The question on my mind is: is this a realistic or even a good goal to be shooting for?

Readers might accuse me of completing my transition to the darkside after reading this, but I have always wondered about whether it’s good for a startup to be cashflow positive or not.

My feeling is that anything that is worthy of investor $ and expectations is going to take a lot of capital to realize. If your startup truly needs a few hundred K then you’re just not on a path to being the next Facebook. That’s totally cool.  And a core aspect of our fund is the flexibility we have re: exit outcomes. We are a relatively small fund and we invest small amounts iteratively as a company hits its milestones. This enables us to generate good returns on early exits but also be able to swing for the fences.

From a fund perspective, it’s less important that you get to cashflow positive, than it is that you establish a profitable business model.

Let’s look at my favourite sector SaaS as an example.

The biggest barrier to growth in SaaS is customer acquisition cost. SaaS vendors typically have to spend many months of subscription revenue up front to acquire a customer. They recover that investment in the coming months and after that the customer is profitable. So, each customer contributes margin and profit, but if you want to grow fast you need the cash upfront for acquisition. Otherwise, you have to wait to collect months of margin before being able to grow more.

Dharmesh from Hubspot is (I believe) on record as not loving VC and does not encourage entrepreneurs to raise lots of capital. Yet, Hubspot has raised over $65M! Why? Not, I assume , because he’s a masochist, but because it enables the business to grow faster. Hubspot customers pay $500/ month. The capital gives him the ability to acquire customers far faster than he could organically.

I know a CEO that has gotten his business to cashflow positive each time he has raised capital in order to prove that the business can do this and also to not be burning and hence vulnerable (by “needing” $). I think this is a bit extreme. If your business is profitable and growing on a per customer basis, that’s enough.

I know another CEO that recently raised millions for his SaaS business that was already profitable. He could have just kept going, but by raising the capital, he has positioned his company to become the dominant player in the category.

So, I guess in the end, it comes down to your objectives. If you want to be the market leader in your space and/ or if you want to work with “tier 1″ investors (those objectives are highly correlated) then accept that your company will raise many rounds. If you don’t that’s fine, but don’t try chasing down the Sequoia’s and Union Square Ventures of the World.

That’s my take. What do you think?

  • http://www.incion.com/ profesional web design

    Great thoughts! Will add these to my growing number of local business resources! Thanks!

  • Somen Mondal

    Hey Mark,

    I think it all comes down to being able to have some control over your funding process. If you are cash flow positive, you can choose to raise money or not. If you aren't, you have no choice and will be dictated terms by the VC's. If you are generating a lot of sales (like Hubspot), they probably don't need to be cash flow positive as they can probably raise money on their own terms.

    • http://startupcfo.ca Mark MacLeod

      for sure. that is the approach one of the companies I mentions has taken. The only issue is that periodically getting to cashflow positive slows them down. If the fundamentals are there, then I think companies can raise money on good terms. But for sure, you can control things if you're not actually burning.

  • http://www.geekypeek.com Dan Morel

    "From a fund perspective, it’s less important that you get to cashflow positive, than it is that you establish a profitable business model." – I think the problem is that this is a chicken-egg issue. Don't most companies run out of cash before they find a profitable business model (even/especially the ones who raise a lot)? So why not chase breakeven/manage burn on your not so great business model before "pivoting" to your great business model.

    I think once you do prove you can add customers at some reasonable customer acquisition I think its fine to load up on cash and "get fat" and ignore cashflow (within reason).

    I also think that if you are an "attacker" (new entrant, existing proven market) that managing to cashflow would be tactically wrong.

    • http://startupcfo.ca Mark MacLeod

      I think your last point is key. To deliver the returns that investors need, you need to grow fast. Being cashflow positive is not consistent with growing fast. On your other points: how do you get to cashflow positive if your biz model is not working?