SMB SaaS at Scale: Founder Learnings from HubSpot

SMB SaaS is hard. Getting the positioning right, increasing ACVs, controlling churn – it all becomes harder when your customer is a small business that is resource constrained & perpetually dealing with its own execution challenges.

Despite this, given SMBs are the most frequent early adopters of new products, the reality is that most startups tend to start mid-market. Though, in my experience, a majority get stuck in unfavorable economics of this customer segment & are unable to achieve breakout PMF.

So, what is the secret sauce founders can learn to effectively scale SMB SaaS? Hubspot is a great case study. I recently came across this SaaStr podcast with the HubSpot CEO Yamini Rangan, where she shared some of the company’s SMB strategy & learnings. Here are the key highlights:

  1. Go after a large TAM: given the fragmented nature of SMB verticals, it’s really important to have a large TAM. HubSpot made the smart decision to transition from marketing automation to CRMs, basically going after Salesforces’s lunch.

Mid-market verticals tend to have open opportunities for startups as SMB customers are usually sandwiched between either buying a host of solutions & stitching them together or buying an expensive, enterprise-grade solution. In this context, I had recently posted a Twitter thread about how Zoho followed a similar multi-use case bundling strategy to position itself as an “operating system for SMBs”. This strategy works well as SMBs have a tendency to simplify their tech stack & procurement processes by buying multiple solutions from the same vendor.

2. Customers gravitate towards competitively-priced, mission-critical products: in times of economic uncertainty like today, SMBs tend to become really sensitive about budgets. Customers start asking tough questions internally around (1) where are they spending?, (2) do they have a clear path to getting enough value from the spend? and (3) can they do more with less?

Acting per this analysis, SMB customers are then likely to consolidate their tech stack to a handful of mission-critical platforms that are competitively priced & deliver the most value. This is the bar startup products need to cross while selling in this tough macro environment.

3. PLG-based distribution is king: to achieve break-out growth in SMB SaaS products, startups need to have the widest possible distribution. The front door needs to be big enough so that most people can come in.

For the first 8-9 years, HubSpot was mainly driven by a sales motion comprising Direct Sales & Partner Sales. Around 2016-17, in order to exponentially grow distribution, the founders made a counter-intuitive bet to go from sales motion to product motion. Today, HubSpot has a massive user base of ~1Mn WAUs to monetize off of.

4. A strong “free” product is key to PLG: One of HubSpot’s truly differentiated product strategies has been to offer a strong, full-featured free product. Rather than making a “free” product free just for the sake of it, they have focused on making it really valuable.

Some important benefits of having a strong “free” plan:

  • Drives high top-of-funnel growth & user engagement, improving the probability of monetization once the value is proven out.
  • Puts product org. under pressure to deliver enough features at the top, in order to maintain the competitiveness of paid versions.
  • Forces the product team to maintain a “consumerized” ease of use, which benefits all customers, free or paid.

Irrespective of whether your GTM is sales-led or PLG-led, a founder should never give up on the “free” plan as it’s key to keeping your product competitive.

5. North Star Metric should be Net Revenue Retention: NRR is the best health indicator of an SMB SaaS business given it represents whether or not: (1) you are retaining the customer, (2) you are continuing to drive enough value so they buy more from you and (3) you are protecting yourself from churn.

6. Don’t underestimate the value of a Partner ecosystem: once you reach a certain scale, PLG & Direct sales aren’t enough. A thriving partner ecosystem can be a strong GTM moat. Interestingly, a majority of HubSpot solution partners *only* sell & deploy HubSpot as a CRM, thus creating valuable network effects for the company.

7. In geo-expansion, less is better: PLG-driven companies will always have customers in many countries eg. Hubspot has 130+. But in order to deeply localize for elements like language, currency, customer support etc., it’s important to focus only on a few markets. As an example, HubSpot has chosen 7-8 markets to deeply localize their offerings in, based on factors like TAM, existing installed base, net ARR growth being seen & the company’s ability to serve the market locally.

While SMB SaaS can be a tricky business model, it compounds beautifully once the founders figure out its key levers, as HubSpot has shown.

PS: if you enjoyed this post, you might also find this post on Top 10 enterprise SaaS learnings from a unicorn founder helpful.


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Author: Soumitra Sharma

Operator-Angel I Product Leader I US-India corridor I Believer in Power Laws I Love building & learning

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