This article first appeared here.
There are 30 million small businesses (“SMB,” which stands for Small and Midsized Business) in the United States and 125 million globally. Small businesses are the heart of the American economy and represent 99.9% of all businesses, employing nearly 60 million people (~50% of the US workforce)(1). Despite this, the SMB category was considered “off limits” for tech companies for decades – we’ll explain why below – while the majority of VC dollars poured into companies focused on serving large enterprise customers (the “Fortune 500”). Over the past 10 years, that sentiment has shifted dramatically, as companies like Square (~$30B), Shopify (~$17B), Zendesk (~$7B), RingCentral (~$7B), Wix (~$5B), and others have built multi-billion dollar businesses with a strong focus on the SMB category. In fact, our SMB Tech Index(2) of public companies has grown from an aggregate market cap of ~$15B in 2010 (with only Intuit and 8x8 public) to $200B+ in just the last 8 years.
SMB Tech is a category we have been betting on for many years, and we thought we’d share our perspective on why now – more than ever – it's an amazing category to be investing in. In short, we believe that the current $200B will grow significantly again over the next 5-10 years.
In the Beginning…
In the 80s and 90s, as enterprise technology began to take off with companies like SAP, Oracle, and IBM leading the charge, almost all software was sold via direct sales. Venture dollars flowed into companies that were selling a myriad of solutions to large enterprises, as these customers had budgets that were large enough to justify the lengthy and expensive sales process associated with deals that often topped $1 million. I (Jeff) started my career in the 1990s at PWC during the era where large corporations regularly spent $25-100 million+ on SAP implementations, often with mixed results (see this CIO article) and often very expensive lawsuits when things went wrong.
In the early 2000s, Salesforce and others began to pioneer the SaaS (software as a service) model, and we saw early signs of life in selling to SMBs, as Salesforce built its initial business selling into the category. The SaaS model enabled Salesforce to both host its software on behalf of customers (a must for SMBs who weren’t going to buy and host their own software) and charge on a per user per month basis, making it affordable for SMBs. Just four years after product launch, Salesforce posted $96M in annual revenue (2004), and the race was on. Thank you, Marc Benioff.
Despite Salesforce’s success, investors remained skeptical about technology companies targeting SMBs. The rationale boiled down to a few key points:
1) SMB adoption. SMBs were notoriously behind the curve when it came to using technology. In the mid-2000s, many didn’t even have Internet access in their store or office and very few were engaged in online marketing, e-mail, or other digital channels for growth. They also had zero capacity to host and run their own technology, so before SaaS, adoption was minimal.
2) Unit economics. Scaling a sales, marketing, and customer support model for SMBs was incredibly difficult and required a new approach vs. the traditional enterprise software strategy. Hiring a sales rep who made $200,000 per year made sense when selling $1 million license deals, but not when selling subscriptions at $1,000 per month. A new model had to emerge for the SMB Tech space to take off. Intuit, the “OG” of SMB Tech, built its original customer base selling packaged software via retail stores – not a model any VC was looking to replicate in the 2000s era.
3) Infrastructure costs. Building and running software for SMBs was expensive. We think of AWS as ubiquitous today, but S3 and EC2 weren’t launched until March and August 2006, respectively. Before that, building and running software “in the cloud” was expensive. Many companies in the late 90s and early 2000s burned through hundreds of millions in venture capital building their own expensive infrastructure, and they certainly weren’t going to focus that expensive infrastructure on SMB customers.
The real rise of SMB Tech can be traced to four important factors, all of which happened in the same 3-4 year window between 2006-2010. Not surprisingly, many of today’s most important SMB Tech companies were founded in this time window –Shopify (2006), Wix (2006), Square (2009), and Stripe (2010) to name just a few.
1) Cloud. As noted above, AWS S2 and EC2 launched in 2006, providing core compute-on-demand infrastructure at prices cheaper than any startup could build and run core infrastructure itself. This spurred a massive wave of innovation (and Amazon market cap gains) and made it viable for tech companies to serve SMBs with less expensive infrastructure on demand.
2) Mobile. Apple launched the iPhone in 2007 and the App Store in 2008. For the first time, small business owners had “the internet” in their hand 24/7. As they began to experience the power of mobile maps, e-commerce, email, and other basic consumer applications, they started to ask, “Why don’t I have tools to run my business in my hand as well?” On the other side, entrepreneurs started to realize that they could reach the SMB customer audience via the App Store, which was a complete game changer in terms of distribution, solving one of the core problems highlighted above (cost of acquisition, installation and support). Apple highlighted a few game-changing stats this summer to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the App Store.
“Before 2008, the software industry was dominated by a few large companies. The App Store opened the door for any developer, from one-person shops to large studios, to come up with a great idea, build a high-quality app and seamlessly deliver it to the growing number of customers around the world.”
- Apple, “The App Store Turns 10,” July 2018
3) Digital. Scalable acquisition models emerged with the rise of social media and digital marketing. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn provided efficient ways to reach SMB customers, in addition to supporting much stronger word-of-mouth flywheels where customers could spread positive feedback about the products they were adopting and loving. Before social media, it would have been awkward for a small business owner to email 100 of her friends and say “I just started using this product, and I love it!” But on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, it’s not awkward at all, and it’s changed the game for building a robust marketing flywheel to reach SMB customers. For example, Houzz built its community of 1 million professionals (architects, contractors, designers, etc.) almost entirely on the back of word of mouth plus social media and content sharing – a model that didn’t exist before the 2010+ era. E-mail has also played a critical role with companies like ExactTarget, HubSpot, and Mailchimp creating flexible, easy-to-use platforms for companies to reach potential customers. The rise and combination of these tools and digital platforms has enabled today’s SMB Tech acquisition playbook.
4) Payments. Stripe and Braintree launched integrated online payments platforms. Before Braintree (founded 2007) and Stripe (2010), it was incredibly difficult for a SaaS company, or any online business, to integrate fully automated billing or payment capabilities. Today, many of the most interesting SMB Tech businesses offer seamless billing, payment, and transaction capabilities, driving larger share of wallet with SMB customers as well as meaningful revenue growth (on a fraction of overall GMV, or Gross Merchandise Volume). Look no further than Shopify, a ~$17B SMB Tech leader which drives more than 50% of its revenue from “Merchant Solutions,” a primarily payment-related revenue stream.
These four factors created a powerful playbook for entrepreneurs to create entirely new markets serving SMB customers, and as we mentioned above –- it’s no accident many of our SMB Tech Index leaders got their start in the 2006-2010 era as a result.
What the Best Do Well
So…10+ years into this boom, what can we learn from the leaders -- and how can we apply it to the next generation of SMB Tech players? A few thoughts:
1) Focus matters. When we first met Jack Dorsey as part of our investment in Square in 2011, a common misperception was that he wanted to go after big enterprise POS (point of sale), and that he would fail. Jack said to us “I’m not going after enterprise POS. I’m going after SMB cash.” His point – the vast majority of SMBs were still predominantly running on cash, and Square was created to bring them into the digital age. The company strayed a bit from this strategy in its partnership with Starbucks (which did not work out), but the majority of the company’s energy was relentlessly focused on the needs of its core SMB customer. At the time of its 2015 IPO, 89% of Square’s revenue came from businesses with less than $500K in annual sales.
For SMB Tech entrepreneurs, it’s critical that everyone in the organization has a laser focus on the same end customer – from Product and Engineering through to Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success. A larger customer may look appetizing from an ASP standpoint, but it can crush your Product team with off-roadmap requirements, which will subsequently crush your Support/Customer Success team with nonstandard issues and eventually…churn.
2) Go horizontal, go vertical. Traditional tech companies sell horizontally, solving functional problems across vertical markets (Salesforce sells CRM across many verticals and many geographies). This approach has worked well in SMB Tech as well, with companies like RingCentral (cloud phone systems), Square (POS), Wix (web sites), Shopify (ecommerce), building very large companies selling solutions to all types of SMBs. Increasingly, though, we see a new breed of SMB Tech company focused on a single industry vertical. These teams intimately understand the industry ecosystem, how things get done in that industry today, and the SMB customer’s pain points – often solving one very critical pain point, then expanding their offering over time. Most importantly, they have a vision for how to do things better and know how to communicate this vision to the various participants in the ecosystem. Vertical solutions can also benefit nicely from network efforts (more on this below). MindBody is a terrific example of this, having built a $1.3 billion company serving the needs of yoga studios and salons across the US. Private companies like ProCore (construction), Toast (restaurants), Brightwheel (education), and Houzz (home remodeling and design) are running a similar playbook.
3) Deeply understand unit economics and churn. In SMB Tech, unit economics really, really matter. It may seem obvious, but it can be hard to grasp in the early days of a startup when a company’s mantra is all about growth and there are no finance execs on board to help drive analyses and metrics. The basic ingredients for unit economics in SMB Tech are a) acquisition cost (“CAC”), b) lifetime value (“LTV”) and c) churn (each segment has numerous underlying metrics), and all three have to work in synch for an SMB Tech business to scale. In the early days of a company’s lifecycle, it is common to invest ahead of the curve on sales, marketing and customer support – often driving growth at >100% annually – so it can be challenging to develop a realistic view of “steady state” unit economics. We’ll generalize a bit here, but we typically see early stage (seed -> Series B) companies very focused on growth, CAC and LTV without much data to really understand churn. Given that churn often shows up 12-24 months after a strong growth spurt, we’re big advocates of making a Customer Success executive an important early hire. In short, if your SMB Tech churn rate is in the 15-20% (annual) zip code, you’re at the top of the game. If it’s north of 30%, you’re going to have a hard time building a sustainable business.
4) Get in the payment flow. As highlighted above with Shopify, billing and payment are often a critical part of the SMB Tech solution stack. It’s a terrific mechanism for creating value for the customer (often replacing numerous manual billing and payment processes), drives share of wallet/IT spend, and has become a reliable and valuable source of revenue for the SMB Tech provider. It also has a super strong hidden value for the SMB Tech provider – once an SMB customer has moved core billing, payment, customer and/or accounting information over to a new platform, they become much less likely to churn. No customer will stick with you if your offering is terrible, but if it’s reasonably good, they’ll think twice about switching to another provider if the switching costs are high – and moving anything related to cash flow, the lifeblood of any small business, is hard (and dangerous).
5) Create network effects where possible. Network effects help support viral, compounding growth – and also help support a certain level of stickiness (= reduced churn). Network effects help your sales and marketing dollars go further if with every customer you acquire you also bring on additional ecosystem participants (in the form of your customer’s partners, customers, etc.) at relatively low cost. Network effects also drive customer retention, brand value, and can be a significant barrier to competitors at scale. We will go into this in more depth in our next post, but SMB Tech leaders Shopify, Square, DocuSign, Etsy, GrubHub, Yelp and Dropbox all have strong network effects to their business model (we’ll go into this in more depth in a future article), and private companies like Houzz, Slice, TalkSpace, BigCommerce and Toast have built network effects into the core of their business models.
The Road Ahead
As we highlighted at the start of this post, the GGV SMB Tech index of public companies today is valued at over $200 billion, up from just $15 billion eight years ago. Will it grow another 10X+ in the next 8 years? Seems crazy, but it’s worth noting we’ve focused the bulk of this article on the US market, while SMB Tech is decidedly a global wave. One of the most successful companies of our time, Alibaba Group, built its entire $450 billion (market cap) business by empowering 10 million+ SMBs in China. Research firm IDC estimates the US market for SMB Tech at approximately $39 billion, while the worldwide number is orders of magnitude larger (estimates range as high as $600 billion). Many of the companies we mentioned above already have thousands of customers outside the US (it is not uncommon for us to see this at Series A in SMB Tech private companies), and we expect the globalization of SMB Tech to be a significant driver of growth for both US and international companies.
With strong tailwinds for technology adoption among SMBs, global markets open for the first time via the app store distribution model and global ecommerce platforms, we expect the Rise of SMB Tech to be a storyline worth following for the next decade+. We’re betting on it.
Tiffany Luck (@lucktm) is an investor and Jeff Richards (@jrichlive) is a Managing Director with GGV Capital, a global venture capital firm with $6.2 billion under management. GGV SMB Tech portfolio companies include Alibaba, Square, Zendesk, Houzz, BigCommerce, Poshmark, Namely, Slice, Brightwheel, and Tray.io.
(2) Market cap data from Capital IQ as of December 1 for 2010-2017 and as of December 3 for 2018