Why your startup shouldn’t rush to $1 million in revenue

Your startup may have the coolest tech, be in the biggest market and have the smartest team, but no matter what your board says, revenue is not the primary indicator.

There is a prevailing belief that the magic formula for early-stage tech startups hinges on how quickly they achieve $1 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR). Investors in SaaS companies, in particular, are very guilty of pushing this or its equally loaded corollary, “When will you sign your first six-figure deal?”

But in the rush toward these numbers, too many startups lose sight of their primary intent: These metrics are supposed to be an indicator of product/market fit. We’ve seen companies reach $1 million in ARR in less than a year, yet not have enough market momentum to get their next million easily. We’ve seen early-stage companies so concerned about getting those first sales, they don’t validate the market and if they’re building the right product. We’ve also watched a focus on new logos make companies forget about keeping existing customers happy, introducing unexpectedly high churn — something startups can’t afford.

Those first customers and that first million are supposed to be the bedrock on which the rest of the business grows. Founders must constantly ask what they’re learning about their market, product and go-to-market approach — in that order! — so the business becomes a flywheel.

Revenue is a lagging indicator of sales success, so must likewise be prioritized accordingly. That’s not to say revenue isn’t vitally important and that there isn’t a great deal of urgency to it, but focusing on it too much too early can mask big problems that will hurt startups later when the stakes are higher.

Here are a few lessons we’ve learned by watching our early-stage companies go through this crucial phase. Every early-stage company needs to do them well.

Customer and market discovery is job No. 1

We talk about product and knowing customers a lot, but that is insufficient. Startups must understand the market, as well. How do customers do this today? Is there urgency around the problem? What is the community saying? An early investor in PagerDuty went onto Reddit and Quora and just looked at who people were talking about. It made his decision easy.

To be really successful, it is as important to understand market dynamics as it is to deliver a great product. This also helps zero in on all the aspects of your ideal customer profile; it needs to be more specific than you think! This also then helps qualify customers for future sales.

Elevate Security stood out in their super-crowded security space because they carved out a unique position around people-powered security. They used their early sales process to carefully qualify who would help them best develop their products. Their first product got shout-outs on social media from users who loved it — a rare occurrence in security — and were indicators they had found good initial customers and were creating something unique.

Build a product that sells itself

You’ll always find smart people saying, “I love what you’re doing.” Some things are so broken even a mediocre improvement is worth a change. But this is why revenue can be a false indicator for scalable success: Founders find enough early adopters to get that first million, which leads them to believe the product is enough. The company starts chasing more revenue, not investing in a product-based growth engine. If sales keeps hitting their numbers, everyone believes things are fine. Until they’re not. And then it’s usually a really heavy lift, with 6-12 months of product, sales or team upgrades.

What startup doesn’t want a growth curve like this? Zoom had triple-digit growth for the last four years in a crowded, mature video conferencing category. Janine Pelosi, Zoom’s head of marketing, said the reason they were so successful before and after she arrived was they have a great product. It’s reliable, easy to use, and the founder, Eric Yuan, was selling it every day. Yuan knew the market really well coming out of Webex, and always touching customers meant he could adjust company strategy accordingly. Zoom embodied the real magic formula: know your market + build great product.

Pay attention to customer engagement and delight

Customer satisfaction is simple: It comes from the perception that people get value from their purchase; it’s much less about how much they paid. It’s also always cheaper to make an existing customer happy than it is to acquire a new one, so make sure even in the early days that you’re investing in making current customers happy advocates.

Aquabyte uses computer vision to identify sea lice in the $160 billion aquafarming market. When they showed customers FreckleID (think racial recognition for fish) to uniquely identify fish in a pen of 200,000, fish farmers loved the idea. The price they were willing to pay was 3x what the CEO thought possible. They’re likewise investing heavily in making sure their initial customer is successful with the product and are delighting them in unexpected ways (handwritten holiday cards). They have more prospects in their pipeline than they have capacity, which means they don’t need to expand sales to grow revenue fast.

Your startup may have the coolest tech, be in the biggest market and have the smartest team. No matter what your board says, remember revenue is NOT the primary indicator; it is simply an indicator. To become a breakout success, you need to read the tea leaves of all aspects of your market and build a product and customer experience that is truly superior.

Mercaux bags $4.5M to help bricks-and-mortar retail tool up to sell more

Retail tech SaaS platform Mercaux has closed a £3.5 million (~$4.5M) Series A funding round led by European VC fund Nauta Capital.  The 2013 founded London-based startup sells software for retailers to tap into digital capabilities in their physical retail stores — offering a modular platform that’s intended to support digital transformations at a pace of the […]

Retail tech SaaS platform Mercaux has closed a £3.5 million (~$4.5M) Series A funding round led by European VC fund Nauta Capital. 

The 2013 founded London-based startup sells software for retailers to tap into digital capabilities in their physical retail stores — offering a modular platform that’s intended to support digital transformations at a pace of the retailer’s choosing.

“Historically offline retail was just a sales channel. But with the rise of e-commerce, and ability to communicate with clients digitally at any moment of time, offline stores (and in-store employees) have started to play multiple roles,” says founder and CEO Olga Kotsur.

Physical stores are “not just a sales channel but also an e-commerce window, marketing channel, customer relationship centre” and much more, she argues.

Or, well, they can be — if retailers spend to upgrade legacy IT systems that have not been designed with more expansive digital shopping capabilities in mind.

Mercaux’s platform offers a pick n mix of services intended to empower retailers’ employees to sell more — such as by tapping into up-to-the-minute style suggestions — and thereby “improve and personalise the in-store customer journey”.

On a practical level this translates into real-time access to inventory levels in-store and online at one end; through merchandising content via cross-sell suggestions and styling ideas (powered by crowdsourcing); digital marketing content; all the way up to customer profiles and preferences, pulling on personal data to better inform and steer the in store shopping experience.

At the business end, the platform plugs into retailers’ POS and e-commerce systems to power instant online and checkout sales. On top of that its value-add is assistant tools and analytics for in-store sales people, as well as a channel through which they can communicate with each other and Head Office.

By capturing the usage of the app, the platform also provides retailers with an overview of store analytics — serving up insights on shoppers’ behaviour, most popular products, lost sales and so on.

The SaaS platform can be deployed on a variety of hardware touchpoints, including in-store kiosks.

“Mercaux integrates across all retailers digital touchpoints, making existing data (CRM, Inventory, or Marketing) actionable in-store and enhancing it further,” says Kotsur. “It also follows a ‘lego approach’: modularity in terms of features, flexible configuration and easy integration allow retailers to launch first what they can or need most (for example real-time inventory and recommendations for effective selling), and gradually enhance the platform subject to their new needs (for example customer profiles and preferences for personalised experience).”

The company claims its platform drives an up to a 14% increase in direct store sales — achieved via store conversion and basket size uplift as well as new omni-channel sales.

It also reckons it can quantify its “sales people efficiency” gains — claiming to eke out up to a fifth more productivity from your humans thanks to digital aids like its mobile sales assistant app. (It offers “help” with initial training of salespeople but Kotsur suggests the app is intuitive enough that sales people “normally adopt it in a matter of days”.)

“Conversion increases due to more effective sales people who do not waste time walking away from a customer, can confidently offer alternative if something is not available, or can show all options via catalogue,” she continues. “Basket size increases due to cross-sell and styling suggestions. Omni-channel sales means new online orders directly from stores or e-commerce purchase by a customer after receiving a follow up email post store visit.

“Our most recent UK customer Karen Millen, realised +9% store sales increase in less than 3 months.”

Deployment time for integrating the platform varies depending on the retailer. Kotsur says it can take up to a month to integrate with systems, plus another couple of weeks for retail prep. So it “normally” takes clients between one to two months to go live, although rolling the platform out across all stores can take “between a month and a year” — depending on the number of stores and infrastructure readiness.

Mercaux has more than 15 customers at this stage, across markets including the UK, continental Europe, LatAm and Russia.

Other current customers include the likes of French Connection, United Colors of Benetton, Nike and Under Armour, and it says its platform is being used more than 100,000 times per day in more than 250+ stores around the world. 

Fashion remains the company’s largest segment but Kotsur says the platform can operate in any retail vertical that requires “service selling” (or where sales people are expected to have “at least basic product knowledge”), and is looking to grow usage in other verticals.

“Currently we work with Apparel & Fashion, Sports, Department stores, Cosmetics, and even Alcohol segments,” she says, adding: “We are planning to expand to Home & Furniture as well as Electronics over the next few months.”

The Series A funding will be used to drive growth in existing and new markets, as well as being put into R&D to further develop the platform.

On the competition front, Kotsur names Canada based Tulip Retail and US PredictSpring as also addressing similar challenges around digital transformation but she suggests a modular approach and attention to analytics is helping it stand out.

“Mercaux approach is different as not only our in-store solution is modular and easily configurable, which means faster integration and more flexibility for our clients, but we also provide a powerful tool for Head Office teams that allows them to get in-store analytics, control stores performance and execution, and allows real-time connection between stores and retail management teams.”

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Carles Ferrer, Nauta Capital’s London-based general partner — who now joins Mercaux’s board — added: “We have been fans of Olga and Mercaux over the past years, as they have achieved a fantastic commercial traction by tackling a large industry in need of a transformative digital disruption. Within our broader software approach, we have developed a very strong thesis around the massive transformation the retail industry is currently facing.

“Having led several deals within this space — both in the offline retail tech market and in the online-enabled technology retail vertical — we are building another fundamental block that supports our broader view of the space with Olga and Mercaux’s value proposition.”