Today is a big day for Volition as we announce our latest fund, Volition Capital Fund III, with $250 million in capital commitments. This fund will have substantially the same strategy and focus as all of our prior funds – which we call small cap technology growth equity. We invest in high growth, principally bootstrapped, technology companies that are poised for market leadership. This is the same strategy that we have been executing on since Day 1. This strategy has been born from our collective experience over decades of investing, in up cycles and down cycles, with lots of success and lots of scar tissue. Our small cap technology growth equity strategy is not a marketing pitch – it’s our genuine, feel-it-in-our bones, part-of-our-DNA, belief about how to best steward the capital of our investors.
Nonetheless, we had to make an important decision with this fund. It was clear before our fundraising process even began that there was substantial demand from investors for what we do. If our primary goal was to be bigger, we probably could have raised a $500 million to $750 million fund – but it would have taken us away from our focus and who we are as a firm. Instead, we decided that bigger wasn’t our goal – our goal, as it has always been, is to be excellent at what we do. Our goal is to be the best small cap technology growth equity fund in the market – and ultimately, we decided that a $250 million fund would best suit that goal. So, we opted for a focused fund with a quick fundraising process – less than six weeks from opening the data room to a single close at our hard cap of $250 million all the while having the privilege to be able to add some of the most reputable investors in the industry to our LP roster.
As we look forward to deploying this new fund, Volition will continue to be a study in contrasts. Some folks at Volition refer to this as our yin and yang.
We will continue to be a conservative and aggressive firm. We are conservative in that capital preservation is baked right into the heart of our investment strategy. Quite plainly, we don’t like to lose money on any investment. However, we are an aggressive firm in that we will not make any investment that we don’t think has tremendous upside potential. If you’re with a Volition portfolio company today, it’s because we think your company can be an absolute home run. We are not just a conservative firm, nor are we just an aggressive firm. We strive to be both at the same time in equal proportion, and it’s that marriage which will help pave the way for unique success.
We will continue to be a creative and focused firm. We endeavor to be creative because you don’t generate great returns through commodity thinking. We have to think different to be better. We have to have differentiated ideas to have differentiated returns. We are committed to this belief. However, we are equally and deeply committed to focus because focus is the key to excellence. And our goal is to be excellent at small cap technology growth equity investing. We have complete clarity on who we are and, equally so, who we are not. Once again, we can’t just be abundantly creative without focus. And, we can’t just be abundantly focused without creativity. But, it’s the two together that is a foundational to our long-term excellence.
Finally, we will continue to be a firm that looks backwards and forwards at the same time. We look backwards to remind ourselves of the patterns of our success and to remind ourselves of the mistakes we aim to not repeat. We look backwards to remind ourselves every day of what got us here and to be consistent about who we are. Importantly and simultaneously, though, we look forwards with absolute certainty that the world of technology will change – change is the constant. We look forwards with the understanding that our pace of learning must exceed the accelerating pace of change that is endemic in technology markets. We look forwards with complete conviction that we can’t stand still – we must constantly grow as a firm and as investors. It’s this tension of looking backwards and forwards at the same time that we don’t just embrace as a firm, but is something we aim to thrive within.
This is who we have been and will continue to be as we take our next step forward with this fund.
We couldn’t possibly conclude an announcement of a new fund without a substantial word of thanks. To the founders and executives who provide the leadership, vision, and heart for our companies – we are here because of you. On behalf of all of us at Volition, we love what we do because we have the privilege to work with people like you. Thank you for your perseverance, fearlessness, and unbridled commitment. We appreciate that your companies are not just companies – they are part of who you are as people. And we are incredibly grateful for the very personal invitation to partner with you on your journey.
To our LPs and investors – we hope that many years from now, you will be able to make one primary statement about Volition: that we did exactly what we said we would do. That we executed on the strategy we said we would execute on. That we generated the returns that we said we would generate in the way that we said we would generate them. That we were the type of people we said we would be from the very beginning. Thank you for your substantial vote of confidence by entrusting your reputation and capital to us.
Finally, to all the Volition team members – thank you for all of the efforts that you make every day to help make Volition’s success a reality. Thank you for going above and beyond when no one is watching. Thank you for not just doing your job but also caring deeply about and taking immense pride in what you do. Job well done. It’s a joy to be on the same team. Onwards and upwards…
This week, we announced a $10M growth equity investment in Pramata. I am very honored to be joining the Board and am excited to work with the team going forward. So, what do they do and why did we invest?
What does Pramata do?
It’s very simple. Pramata extracts key information out of enterprise customer contracts and puts the data into CRM systems so that enterprise sales reps, sales ops, and account managers can have a clean and accurate view about an existing customer relationship. What’s so hard about that? Well, it might not be hard if you are an enterprise with 5 sales reps, selling one product, to 30 customers, on a standard contract. But, what if you have hundreds or thousands of reps, all across the country or world, selling dozens or hundreds of products, to thousands or tens of thousands of customers, with several distinct buyers within the same customer, mostly on negotiated non-standard contracts, with SLAs, addendums, etc.? Well, then it gets very complicated, very quickly. But, that is just direct sales.
What if you throw in channel partners who also sell your products with their own contract structures? It’s even more complicated. And, what if your company is acquisitive, so you are regularly layering in companies with overlapping customers on different contract structures? Then the complexity is nearly impossible to manage. The net of it is for a large enterprise that has negotiated enterprise customer contracts – a single customer relationship can be buried in hundreds, if not thousands, of complex and ever-evolving contractual documents.
When that’s the situation, it becomes incredibly challenging to answer seemingly very simple questions that sales reps and account managers want to know such as:
- What products or services has this customer bought?
- How much does this customer spend and on what?
- What are key dates, milestones, expiration periods, etc. on their contract?
- How much are they paying and what discounts are in effect?
- Are there any non-standard terms or overlapping agreements?
It becomes even harder for sales ops to have visibility across their customer base to answer important questions like:
- Which customers are expiring in the next 6 months?
- Which customers bought x product, so we can focus on upselling y product?
- Which customers have non-standard pricing?
Having a clear view into a customer relationship has very practical implications. Account managers know when to approach customers about renewals or products to upsell. New reps can get up to speed quickly on existing customer relationships. Bills can actually be right (which is a bigger problem than meets the eye). Pricing and utilization can be optimized across a customer when you have a holistic view into the relationship. Net net, having a clear view of customers can have direct and profound revenue and productivity implications for enterprise sales teams.
Why Did We Invest In Pramata?
There were lots of really important reasons why we invested in Pramata, and then one indispensable reason.
Among the really important reasons:
- Great Product-Market Fit. We really believe the problem Pramata has identified and the way they solve it can provide tremendous value across a broad cross-section of enterprises. It’s a big pervasive problem that they have cracked the code on solving.
- Blue Chip, Highly Recurring Customers. It’s not often we see a company start at the high-end of the market – winning the biggest and best brands first. Industry leaders like Cisco, Medtronic, Centurylink, FICO, Comcast among many other customers provide great validation for the value of the product.
- Nirvana Customer Feedback. The before Pramata/after Pramata feedback from existing customers was not just good – it was described as a game-changer. A number of customers talked about how Pramata is the single-most important vendor that the sales team works with.
- Proven Delivery Model. They can deliver the goods. They give customers a great customer experience. They live up to their promises. They do what they say they’re going to do. Their delivery model has been refined and hardened taking on some of the largest companies in the world.
- Strong growth. Of course, this is indispensable for us as a growth equity investor – but the company is experiencing strong growth as the market becomes more aware that the solution exists. We certainly expect that our investment will drive even stronger growth ahead.
But, the most important reason we invested was apparent the very first time I met with Praful Saklani, CEO, well over a year ago – philosophical alignment and shared values with the management team. From the very first time I met Praful, and met other members of the Pramata team, it was very clear to me that we think alike and share common points of view on how to build a business. We share an old-fashioned sensibility that businesses should be built off of delivering real value to happy customers, egos should be checked at the door, and we should do right by the people around us. My reaction the first time and every subsequent time I’ve met with the Pramata team is this is a Volition management team. And, I’m thrilled to make that a reality today.
I had the chance to swing by MSNBC to talk about 5 key components to cover when pitching an investor. The short synopsis is this:
- Start by explaining the problem your company solves.
- Define specifically who experiences that problem.
- Clearly articulate how your company’s product or service solves that problem.
- Explain how you charge and what you charge for your company’s product or service.
- Give proof points.
Remember, pitching an investor is not about sharing information – it’s about telling a story. Hopefully this is a helpful framework to craft a good story for your business.
…the market size slide.
My sense is most entrepreneurs feel like they have to have a $1B+ market size for investors to get interested. And, then the more aggressive entrepreneurs, knowing that everyone else has at least a $1B+ market size, come in with the $5B-$10B+ market sizes. The means to arrive at these numbers is usually to take a generous number of possible customers and multiply that times a large spend per customer to equate to the multi-billion dollar “addressable market size“. Others might site 3rd party data sources which is intended to lend credibility to the analysis, but which are largely derived by the same methodology. It’s this approach to market size analysis which I don’t find particularly useful and can generate a false sense of comfort if you actually believe it.
When I’m looking at a prospective investment in a company, here’s how I think about market size:
The first question I ask is how much revenue do the companies that sell principally the same product or service generate today. This is the “current market size“. For example, when we invested in Ensighten in 2012, which started out as a tag management vendor, if you added up all of the revenue (from tag management software) of all of the tag management vendors, the total would have been less than $30M, but with hyper growth. That, in my mind, was the current market size for tag management. It was a small number because tag management was a new market rather than an existing market. Alternatively when we invested in Globaltranz in 2011, which is an Internet freight brokerage, the revenue of all of the companies that broker freight capacity in the US was $127B. It was a much larger current market, but with more moderate growth given the maturity of the industry.
It’s important to establish the current market size because it helps to establish whether the company is going after a new or an existing market. If the current market size is small, such as tag management was two years ago, that’s not a deal killer by definition. It just means you have to develop strong conviction that the market will grow and appreciate the inherent risk with that. Lots of investments fail because a new market doesn’t grow at the scale or pace anticipated. If the current market size is large, but not experiencing hyper growth, such as in the overall freight brokerage industry, that’s also not a deal killer by definition. It just means you have to have a crystal clear rationale on why market spend will shift towards a new upstart rather than stay with the incumbent. These are important and fundamentally different questions.
The next question I then ask on market size when evaluating a company is how much revenue, in aggregate, will all of the companies that sell principally the same product or service generate in the future (5-10 years from now). I think of this as the “attainable market size“. When you define a market size by the aggregate revenue of the competitors, it immediately juxtaposes market size against market leadership. For example, if an entrepreneur wants to say their company will have a large multi-billion dollar attainable market (e.g. $5B in 5 years), but their company “only” projects $50M in revenue in 5 years, then it begs the question why 99% of the spend in the market did not go their way. You can claim a large attainable market, but it becomes harder to claim market leadership with little market share. Alternatively, if an entrepreneur wants to call their company a market leader by generating $50M of revenue of a $200M attainable market, then it begs the question of whether the product or service has that much value if the eventual attainable market isn’t that large. It forces everyone to think through the realities of how their market will evolve and how their company’s competitive position will evolve alongside that.
Today, Ensighten is one of the fastest growing SaaS companies in the country and Globaltranz is one of the fastest growing freight brokerages in the country. Despite coming from diametrically different current market sizes when we invested, in both cases, the attainable market has turned out to be large and both have established strong leadership positions within those markets. We’ve been fortunate that the stars have aligned for both.
In summary, my biggest issue with the bloated addressable market slides we see day in and day out in company pitches, is we all know that when we fast forward 5-10 years, almost in all cases, the actual aggregate revenue generated by the companies in those markets will not come close to equaling the addressable market size. In other words, the attainable market almost always turns out to be a small fraction of the addressable market. This tells me that the addressable market size slide is too theoretical to actually be useful and should have little or no bearing on an investment decision. For this reason, in my opinion, it is generally the least useful slide in the pitch deck.
Nearly every company pitch I’ve seen covers the topic of market size. And, in every serious internal discussion about a prospective investment, we talk about market size as well. Usually, the primary topic of discussion in both contexts is the size of the market boiled down to an actual dollar figure. Entrepreneurs and investors alike will come up with a very detailed, methodical way, to define the size of the market opportunity. While that’s fine and worth doing, comparatively less time is spent on the topic of whether the market is an existing or a new market – and the associated risks and opportunities related to that. And, the latter topic can be more indicative of the prospects of the investment than the former analysis on market size, itself.
An existing market is a market where customers already spend money buying more or less the same product or service that a given company is selling. That product or service may be delivered or sold in a different way, but at the end of the day, the customer that you’re targeting is already spending money on substantially the same thing. What’s an example of this? Care.com is an online marketplace to find babysitters. People already spend money on babysitters, Care.com is just helping them to find babysitters more easily. This is an existing market. Chewy.com is an e-commerce company for pet food. Their target customers already spend money on pet food. Again, an existing market. Amazon started out selling books, which people already buy. Uber started out replacing taxi services, which people already buy. Globaltranz is an online freight broker for trucking capacity, which companies already buy to ship goods. Square is going after the existing market of credit card processing. Prosper is a peer-to-peer lender, which sounds like a new market, but they’re really selling unsecured consumer loans, which consumers have been procuring for ages. These are all existing markets.
A new market is a market where the end product or service is new – in other words there isn’t really existing demand, but there could be. SpaceX just closed a big financing last week – space travel is a new market for certain. When Google first came out, it was targeting a new market of online search and search engine marketing. There really wasn’t much of an existing market in search at that time, outside of maybe Yahoo and Altavista. Everything related to drones is a new market. Twitter ushered in a new market that had never existed of micro-publishing. Many location-based applications on smart phones (though there are exceptions) are more than likely to be a new market given the technology didn’t exist to do it until the smart phone revolution. Even a lot of the SaaS companies are selling to mid-market companies that never spent money on traditional software applications before therefore making it a new market in practice. New markets abound in the world of venture-backed companies.
When investors and entrepreneurs go after a truly new market – the advantage is usually there are not entrenched competitors so if the market materializes as quickly and dramatically as they hope, market leadership is more attainable. In addition, new markets can grow exceptionally quickly, far faster than existing markets – and a rising tide can lift all boats as the saying goes. So, there is no doubt that you can win and win big in a new market. That being said, the risk one takes with a new market actually emerging is often profoundly underestimated. My guess is the most common reason companies targeting new markets fail is primarily because the market never really emerges at the pace and size that the company and investors expected. You can have great management, a great product, excellent sales and marketing, but if the market isn’t there, then it’s easy for a company to get stuck. It’s hard to have good product/market fit, when there’s no market after all.
When investors and entrepreneurs go after an existing market – the advantage is there’s little or no market risk. You can go into an investment knowing exactly how big the market is, that customers care about the product, that there’s already a product/market fit and customers derive value from what they’re buying. The value of that can’t be overstated. But, the risk of existing markets is there are already companies serving those customers so there is entrenched competition. If existing competitors have substantial customer loyalty or capital, they can be excessively difficult to displace. A new company entering an existing market has to not just be a little bit better, but meaningfully better than existing means of procuring that product to really win. That can be a tall order, but if that competitive distinction exists, there’s a high probability you’re onto a compelling opportunity and success is far more predictable than most companies targeting new markets.
A few companies dominate existing markets while simultaneously opening new markets. A great example of this is Uber. On the one hand, I said that Uber is going after the existing market of taxi services. But, I also said most location-based smart phone apps, which Uber is, are going after new markets. In this example, this is not a contradiction because both are true. Uber started out by displacing the $11B taxi services market. But, why is the company worth $40B? Uber has become so convenient, that they have changed the behavior of how people travel – so they’ve opened a new market as well that may be bigger than the existing taxi market. Certain studies say that Uber’s revenue in the Bay Area is multiples larger than the entire taxi market in the region – which suggests they have both won an existing market and opened up a large new market. That’s a beautiful thing.
So, next time you see a pitch or make a pitch that says the market size is $1 billion – note that not all markets of comparable size are created equal. And, the risks and opportunities of existing and new markets can be substantially different.
It’s only taken 16 years in the investment business for me to discover my favorite value proposition. And, I admit, it’s a boring selection. First, some context. A value proposition is the value a business offers its customer such that the customer decides to buy that company’s product. To be fair, there are many categories of value props that all have great merit and can be the basis of building a valuable company. So, one is not by definition greater than another. But, we all have our predispositions, and I have a positive predisposition for one value prop in particular. I favor this value prop because, if it is structurally sustainable, it can be equally transformative as it is predictable – and those usually don’t go hand in hand. So, without further ado, my favorite value proposition is offering a customer the opportunity to buy something they already buy, but at a structurally lower price. Yes, if the options are better, faster or cheaper – I like cheaper. Why do I like this value prop? Because there’s little fundamental market risk. If a customer is already buying a product, then you know they want that product and that product benefits them in some way. You know they are ready to buy it now because, well, they already buy it now – so you’re not taking market timing risk. Whether there’s even a market or whether the market is here now is a profoundly underestimated risk undertaken by many emerging technology companies. And, in this example, you meaningfully mitigate those risks. Then you layer on top of a large existing market, a very clear reason to buy with you – you’re selling to them the very thing they already buy, for a lower price. Who doesn’t want that? The key to a company with lower price as its fundamental value prop being a good investment, is their basis for having a lower price must be structurally defensible and sustainable. It can’t be that they’re doing exactly the same thing as their competitors, just charging a lower price. That’s the definition of unsustainable. There is usually some disruption in the supply chain or some technology innovation, which they can take advantage of above and beyond their competitors which is why they’re able to offer sustainably lower prices to their customers and quickly take market share of a large existing market. When I look at our current and historical portfolio, where the ingredients of a structurally sustainable lower price value proposition is true, those companies have an inordinate propensity to be worth $1B+ in enterprise value. Xoom went public last year by offering online global money remittance at a lower price than folks like Western Union because they have an Internet front-end. Prosper offers loans to consumers at a lower interest rate because they use the Internet to cut out the banks who take a margin in the normal lending process. Globaltranz offers businesses access to trucking capacity at a much lower price due to the efficiency of their agent network, technology and buying capacity. Cortera is offering business credit data at a much lower cost than Dun & Bradstreet because of its proprietary data acquisition platform. And Chewy offers pet owners high quality pet food at a lower price than bricks and mortar competitors because they have no bricks and mortar. These companies are all taking significant steps in transforming their respective industries on the core value proposition of lower price. While I can easily fall in love with companies that have other value propositions such as convenience, selection, revenue enhancement, service, etc., lower price is a tried and true value prop which while admittedly boring, can be extremely effective if it’s sustainable.
I love meeting with new companies. To me, it’s the oxygen of this business and the most energizing aspect of the job. That being said, the one thing that can take the energy right out of an introductory meeting is the obligatory 20-40 slide company pitch deck that drags on and on. Personally, I prefer a more conversational meeting in which slides are used to launch conversations, rather than claim the entire conversation, about various important topics relevant to the business. Therefore, I thought I’d provide a general framework for a succinct 10-slide pitch deck that should be more than sufficient for an introductory investor meeting. Keep in mind that given Volition is a technology growth equity investor, this is more geared towards companies with some revenue and customers rather than a pure start-up. But, I do think there are principles that are portable across different stages.
The 10 Slide Pitch Deck (in no particular order):
1. The Problem Statement. This is the problem the company solves. What is the problem, why is it such a high priority for whoever has it? Why does this problem have to get solved?
2. How You Solve The Problem. This gets to what the company does. Why do you have unique knowledge of the problem, how do you solve the problem, and why is that a differentiated / defensible approach?
3. The Customer. This gets to who the target customer is specifically. The more detailed and segmented this is, the more credible I find it to be. I’d rather hear, “The chief compliance officer at hedge funds with $100M+ in assets” than “financial services companies”, as an example. Then provide examples of actual customers. How many of those target customers out there actually have the problem you articulated?
4. The Value to the Customer. This gets to the return on investment. How much does the customer have to pay (what is the pricing model), and why is it clearly worth it to them to pay it.
5. Actual Use Cases. Now that you’ve established the problem, solution and value in concept – let’s talk about it in reality. If there’s only one primary use case, given an example of a real customer with a prototypical use case. If there are 2 or 3 common use cases, let’s hear example of all of those.
6. The Product. This can go anywhere in the presentation, but if it’s at this point, I’m probably more than eager to see the product in action. A live demo is always best.
7. Competitive Position. Who else out there is also trying to solve this problem, and why are you better positioned to succeed? Why are you going to win your segment? This is a great chance to talk about win-rates against competition, etc.
8. Financial Overview. A simple slide with historical and projected (to the degree you have them) income statement, balance sheet, and cash flows. A couple of bullets on financing history and ownership breakdown are helpful.
9. Other Key Metrics. This is your opportunity to brag with the actual data that you consider leading indicators for your business. Maybe it’s retention rate, lifetime value/CAC, upsell dynamics, customer or transactional growth, etc.
10. Management Team. Who are the people behind this company? Don’t just put logos of past companies, but titles/roles, companies, and key achievements for each exec at their prior companies. Also worth noting if there are any key hires you want to make.
Every company is different, but hopefully this provides a helpful framework to organize a simple pitch deck. Don’t feel the need to address every sub-question with actual content on the slide. You can always talk to the details during the presentation. Often times, less is more when it comes to slide content.
My suggestion in terms of order is to start with the strongest aspect of the company. If the management team is the strength, lead with it. If the financial performance is the strength, by all means, lead with that. If you’ve got a breakthrough product, start with a demo. But, creating momentum in the meeting right out of the gate is always a good idea.
I’m probably missing something important, but hopefully this is helpful in getting readers pointed in the right direction.
After hearing dozens of company pitches over the last week or so, I noticed a common theme with how CEOs told the story of their business. They typically expended great energy explaining what their company’s product or service does. They will talk about features and functionality that no other player in the market has. Where appropriate, they will dive into a demo to show exactly how their product is such a game changer. While this is important, in some respects, I think it is putting the cart before the horse.
Personally speaking, I think a good story for a business starts with the problem that is being solved. It’s hard to fall in love with a product, if you don’t believe it solves a big problem. A problem worth solving is one that is a high priority issue for the one experiencing it. It is a problem that is experienced to a similarly high degree, by a large and common constituency. It is also a problem that people are willing to pay, and sometimes pay substantially, to resolve.
In every company pitch, the CEO will try to tell me what the company does. But, you may be surprised that in many pitches, the CEO may neglect to really spend time articulating the problem their company solves. Sometimes when I ask very directly what problem it is that they solve, the response will be a description of product functionality, not in fact a problem. This to me is a telltale sign that the company was started to create functionality, not necessarily to solve an important problem.
If we were ever to get into due diligence on a company, we will likely spend as much time validating the magnitude and priority of the problem the company solves as we do on the merits of the product. If we love your product, but are unconvinced on the problem it solves – we are unlikely to get across the finish line on an investment. The reality is a company can control how a product evolves and develops. But, the problem is what it is – so choosing the right problem to solve is critical for the ultimate success of any business.
So my simple advice is that when you tell the story of your business, start with the problem. If you convince people of the problem your company is trying to solve, you have laid the foundation for them to love what your company does.
Following up on my prior post, “What Is Tag Management”, this second post will be specifically about why Volition Capital invested in enterprise tag management leader, Ensighten. Often when we announce a new investment, like we did with Ensighten last week, people ask me why we invested. Hopefully this post will serve to help answer that question. Let me emphasize that for any investment, the management team and the people behind the company is the most important factor. That being said, I will start with some other key factors on why we invested and end with the most important one, the team.
#1: Clear Competitive Separation and Market Leadership
When a new market emerges that we think will be a high growth and strategic market, like tag management, we want to invest in the market leader. While the term “market leader” is easily thrown around in marketing collateral, we use it sparingly when it comes to our investment decisions. Our analysis on whether Ensighten is the market leader in tag management rests on a number of objective measures.
The first sets of measures are financially oriented. Is Ensighten the largest and fastest growing tag management vendor? Yes and yes. We are very confident that Ensighten is the largest independent tag management vendor in the market based on revenue. The revenue difference between Ensighten and the next largest player in the market is quite substantial. We also believe that Ensighten is the fastest growing company in the market in terms of revenue growth. These size and growth characteristics combined suggests that Ensighten is scaling aggressively and expanding its lead over the competition.
A second key measure of leadership is competitive win-rate. When Ensighten goes up against its competitors in a sale process, they win 90%+ of the time. This is an astonishingly high win-rate. After talking to dozens of blue-chip, brand name customers who tested Ensighten against its competitors in proof-of-concepts (POC), we think Ensighten is winning because of superior technology. I will expand on the technology later, but a 90%+ win rate is a clear indicator of competitive separation.
A third important measure of market leadership is customer retention. Ensighten has a near 100% customer retention rate. This means that once Ensighten wins a customer, they almost always keep the customer. This level of retention indicates that the value the customer receives is extremely high. When you combine these attributes: largest company, fastest growing, 90%+ win rate, and near 100% customer retention – we think Ensighten has both established and is extending its leadership position in the tag management market. That’s a great dynamic to invest behind.
#2: High Customer Value – Must-Have Product
We talked to dozens of Ensighten’s blue-chip enterprise customers including Microsoft, Sony, Seagate, Symantec, United, Dell, and many others. Typically, Ensighten’s buyer comes from the marketing organization of these companies. The customers communicated to us, both with their words and their tone, that in no uncertain terms, the value they are receiving from Ensighten is exceptionally high. We think of value as the differential between how much pain the customer experiences from a problem and the delight of the customer when that problem is remediated. On both measures, Ensighten’s customers measured exceptionally high.
In their own words, the key problem marketing organizations have before deploying Ensighten is a fundamental inability to do their job. As I discussed in greater detail in my prior post, “What is Tag Management”, if adding, changing, fixing, or deleting a tag requires dependencies on IT release cycles that can run in intervals of many months – marketing is completely hamstrung. They can’t modify website analytics with ease. They can’t test different ad networks or tailor their website with ease. They can’t deploy and customize important customer centric apps like chat, voice of the customer, and recommendation engines without substantial dependencies on IT. They just can’t do their job. When marketers describe this pain point – it’s very clear in their tone that the problem is debilitating.
On the flipside, when customers describe what life is like after deploying Ensighten’s tag management system (TMS), the joy in their tone is obvious. It was clear to me that the dozens of customers we spoke with were smiling ear-to-ear on the other end of the phone when they talked about Ensighten’s value. That’s rare in customer references. Often times customers will say nice things to be polite to their vendors, but their tone will be more muted. In Ensighten’s case, the customers were raving fans. The reason is that Ensighten’s TMS gave these marketers unprecedented agility and control not to just do their job, but importantly, to do their job well.
#3: World-Class Technology
We spent an extraordinary amount of time evaluating Ensighten’s technology because the tag management space is noisy. Our conclusion is that tag management is one market where the distinction between complexity in servicing basic tag management needs and enterprise-scale tag management needs is dramatic. This market will evolve to be the tale of two worlds. We believe that low-end tag management is a relatively easy technical proposition and will be commoditized quickly. Conversely, we also believe that supporting the complexity and scale of large enterprise tag management deployments is one of the hardest engineering problems we have seen.
From inception, Ensighten has had four philosophical pillars underpinning all technology development. 1. All Ensighten products must be able to be delivered through a single line of code. 2. The platform must support all tag-based applications. 3. The platform must support any device (e.g. PC, smartphone, tablet, kiosk, ATM, etc.). 4. Everything must enhance page performance. First of all, this is an outlandish vision in many respects. Many would have said at the outset that it couldn’t be done. To those who would try, there would have been hundreds, if not thousands, of engineering decisions along the way where it would have been simpler to relax these constraints to get to market more easily and quickly. But, Ensighten pulled together a team with both the technical genius and discipline to architect the solution that stayed true to these principles.
Adherence to these principles is why Ensighten now stands in the position of having the only tag management solution that can truly meet the needs of any and every enterprise-scale customer. This is why Ensighten wins over 90%+ of the time against its competitors. Ensighten’s entire platform was designed from the ground up with rigid adherence to principles that would ultimately prove to be critical to servicing enterprise-scale deployments. After the conclusion of an exhaustive technical diligence process, we sat back and just said, “Wow.” It became clear that Ensighten has a brilliant technical team that cares deeply about their engineering – and the biggest beneficiary of that is their customers.
#4: Large Strategic Market Whose Time Is Now
A year ago, not many people knew much about tag management. We believe that a year from now, tag management will be known as one of the most strategic and important enabling technologies in digital marketing. While Ensighten aims to be the enterprise leader in this market, we believe that thousands of companies large and small will be deploying some form of tag management in the years to come. Large enterprises in particular will have to deploy an enterprise scale tag management system (TMS) like Ensighten just to be competitive. Not having a TMS will soon be an unacceptable position for any enterprise whose web and digital properties are mission critical.
Tag management will become a critical part of web infrastructure as it sits between a company’s digital properties and potentially every third party application that interacts with those properties. This position will be very strategic as the TMS will have potentially unparalleled visibility into the activity and data of a company’s digital properties. Therefore, we expect the tag management market to evolve as quickly and as pervasively as the web analytics market. We anticipate consolidation early in the lifecycle of the market, but also believe there is room for one or two significant independent companies – a position we expect Ensighten to occupy.
#5: Talented and Trustworthy Management Team
Let me finish this post with where my interest in Ensighten all started, the management team. Specifically, I connected with Josh Manion, founder and CEO, the first time in August 2011. He was kind enough to return the cold call of an associate who was in his first month on the job (related post: What Happens After The Associate Cold Call). I met with Josh five times before we seriously engaged in discussions on an investment. Josh is unique – home schooled through high school, chess champion, MIT grad, and grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. The first thing I came to appreciate about Josh is an alignment of values. He’s a nice guy. He’s trustworthy. He’s a grounded and decent person. He’s got old-school values which I respect. The second thing I came to appreciate about Josh is he’s just inordinately smart. The third thing I liked about Josh is he’s deeply competitive and wants to win. Don’t be fooled by him being a nice guy – he wants to dominate.
As I got to know the rest of the management team, I could see Josh’s characteristics throughout the team – off-the-charts intelligence, good people, and fiercely competitive. They also happen to be real domain experts in the field of tag management and passionate about the problem they are solving. At the end of the day, it was our confidence in the team that was the deciding factor on our investment.
So, there you have it – that’s why Volition Capital invested in Ensighten. Needless to say, we’re excited to be involved and honored to be part of the team.
This week we announced Volition’s newest investment in enterprise tag management leader, Ensighten. I couldn’t be more excited to be involved with the company and to join their Board of Directors. I was sitting down to write a post about why we invested in Ensighten, but after some thought, I realized it would probably be best to first write this post to explain what tag management is for those who don’t live it every day. My next post, therefore, will be about why we invested in Ensighten.
So, what is tag management? Let’s set the stage for the problem.
For many companies, their website is a mission critical part of their business. Hence, to get the most functionality and intelligence from their websites – the webpages themselves interface with many different best-of-breed third party applications. You may not realize it, but when you visit a reasonably sophisticated webpage today, it’s probable that many different third-party applications are loading on that page because of your visit. Some of these applications are visible to you as the end user. Examples of these are ad networks, recommendation engines, video platforms, chat applications, social network plug-ins, re-targeting platforms and feedback engines. Some of these applications are not as visible to you as an end user. Examples of these are web analytics applications, a/b testing platforms, content optimization engines, audience measurement applications, affiliate networks and marketing automation systems.
The way these applications interface with a company’s webpage is typically through a tag. Think of a tag as a little program that is inserted into the html code of that webpage. When the webpage loads, the tag fires, and the application runs. That tag contains the instructions for how that third-party application will operate on that particular webpage for that particular user. For a web analytics platform, it could define what specific parts of the webpage to measure. For an ad network, it could contain instructions on what type of ad unit to run. For a feedback engine, it could set the parameters for what type of feedback module to render. For an a/b testing platform, it could set the algorithms for how different tests will run. Simple enough.
Here’s where it starts to get complicated.
First of all, the tag for a single application can take many different forms. For example, if you want a different ad unit on one webpage versus another, it could necessitate a different tag even if the ad is delivered from the same ad network. If you want the web analytics platform to pull different data from different webpages, which is often the case, that could require different tags. In short, tailoring any application creates many different variants of tags from any single vendor. So, the first complication is there are many different tags, within a single application vendor.
The second complication is that sophisticated websites have lots of different tag-based applications running. In our conversations with Ensighten’s enterprise customers, they may have 10-50 different tag-based applications on any single webpage. The volume of tags is driven by two things. First, companies want best of breed functionality on their websites across all application categories. Secondly, they may be testing different application vendors within each application category. So, that adds even more complexity to the equation.
The third complication is volume. A single website can have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of webpages. If a tag for a single application needs to be placed on every page, that can be hundreds of thousands of tags on hundreds of thousands of webpages for a single application. Not only can companies have websites with lots of webpages, they may in fact have lots of different websites. Many large enterprises have different web properties with distinct domains often in many different geographies. Some enterprises have hundreds, if not thousands, of distinct web properties. That obviously multiplies the volume problem. Then throw on top of all those websites and all of those webpages – tons of web traffic.
Therein lies the complexity: (lots of tags) x (lots of tag-based applications) x (lots of websites) x (lots of webpages) x (lots of traffic) = millions of tags firing every day to users like you and me from a single company’s web properties. And, I won’t even start talking about other platforms like mobile and flash at this point.
That sets the context, now what’s the problem?
The problem occurs when you want to change, delete, add, fix or reconfigure a tag. Think of a typical marketing analytics or optimization organization at a large enterprise. They’re sitting on top of this sea of potentially millions of tags firing every day as users interact with their web properties. Let’s say they need to change a single tag. Maybe they want to run a different ad unit or capture slightly different analytics data. Because that tag sits in the html code of the webpage, marketing must convince IT that the single change should be in the cue of the next release cycle for the website. If they are successful in that, which is an if, then they must wait until the next IT release cycle for the website which could potentially be many months away. Think about that, it could take months to make a single and simple change to one solitary tag.
In reality, large enterprises need to change tags all of the time. Tags can be programmed improperly, so they need to be fixed. The website itself could change which could necessitate a change to a tag. Maybe they were testing an application on part of the website, and now want to roll it out to other parts of the site. Maybe they want to take down an application or deploy a new one. There are reasons why enterprises need to engage with their tags and their tag-based applications in a dynamic way. But the current model of being beholden to the IT release cycle brings marketing agility to a halt.
That’s where Ensighten comes in.
Ensighten turns the entire methodology for managing tags upside down through its Tag Management System (TMS). They start by placing a single line of code in the header of the website:
That’s it, one single line of code. That code interfaces with Ensighten’s cloud-based TMS every time a user views a webpage. The magic of Ensighten’s TMS is it enables marketing organizations to manage all of their tags without ever touching the code of the website. That means they can now fix, change, add, delete, and reconfigure any and all tags in Ensighten’s TMS right there in the cloud without ever engaging with IT – and those changes will render on the webpage as if the tag was hard-coded onto the page itself. It bears repeating, Ensighten enables this flexibility for any tag-based application. Enterprises now have ultimate flexibility to try different applications, configure existing ones differently, and remove underperforming applications with complete ease. What could take months, if not years to do, can now be done in a days with Ensighten’s TMS. We talked with many of Ensighten’s blue-chip clients like Microsoft, Sony, Symantec, United, Dell, Seagate and several others – and the feedback was very consistent with this sentiment:
“For me to get a new tag added to the site or change an existing one, it would take 4-5 months. In order to get that tag changed, I would have to go through IT, log a defect, get in a release cycle, fight and claw. I was at the mercy of our bureaucratic IT processes. This is one of the best things we’ve ever done. I can go in and change tags within a day. If I need to add something new, I can add it within a day. It has made my life much easier. I am in control of my own destiny.” – Fortune 500 Ensighten customer.
Hopefully that gives you a window into what tag management is and what Ensighten does. I could go into how Ensighten does it, but that would be a longer post. But, let me just say that what sounds simple required some really brilliant technical minds to come together to create. We think the problem of tag management will be a pervasive problem. We think the tag management market will quickly accelerate to be one of the most prominent sectors of the web because the problem is unavoidable. And, we know that Ensighten has a significant lead in the market. But, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. Now that you know what tag management is, my next post will be about why we invested in Ensighten.