Scaling Startups: Advice from JMI Equity’s Dave Greenberg After Nearly Two Decades of Investing in Canadian SaaS

If you want to get into the big leagues, you need growth capital. After investing over $600 million in Canadian growth SaaS businesses over the past two decades, Dave Greenberg, General Partner at JMI Equity, shared his advice with SAAS NORTH on what SaaS founders should use their growth capital for.

Using growth capital effectively is all about picking which fire to fuel, and giving it just the right amount of gas. For founders wondering what the right next step is, people like Dave Greenberg are on hand. JMI Equity (‘JMI’) has invested over $600 million in Canadian SaaS success stories like Eloqua, Intelex, Clio, and Benevity. Over the years, Dave has noticed trends about where high-impact SaaS founders invest their growth capital: here are the top six focus areas he recommends.

1. PRODUCT MANAGEMENT

“Job number one for founders of growing SaaS companies is to maintain a maniacal focus on product and customer needs,” said Dave.

Dave said founders are often heavily involved in product management by the time a growth investor like JMI comes along. This is either because they are a technical person that built the early product or they are the sales founder that built initial customer feedback loops. But when founders take on growth equity, they need to step back from day to day operations and instead focus on market needs.

After hiring a product executive, your job as the CEO elevates into focusing on customer needs and product expansion opportunities. This means speaking with customers as often as possible, assessing product usage data to glean trends, and keeping a keen eye on the broader market to anticipate what’s coming. From there, use the information to inform your product strategy, either deepening your current product offering or, as PointClickCare did after JMI invested, add additional product modules to better serve market needs.

2. Sourcing Key Executives

When scaling a SaaS company, it’s not just about hiring go-getters and visionaries, like it often is at smaller sizes. Instead, Dave said CEOs need to find executives who can grow with the business.

“You need executives who know how to run a business at the next level up,” said Dave. “If you’re at a $5-$20 million revenue rate, hire a team that knows how to build a $50-$100 million revenue rate organization. Look for candidates who have made that transformation a couple times before, so you have confidence they can do it in your organization.”

This is where a growth equity investor is incredibly valuable. Not only do they often have a strong network - for example, JMI Equity was able to help Clio source a Chief People Officer from their network after making a growth investment in the legal tech startup - but they also provide some credibility to help lure heavy-hitter executives that otherwise might have passed on an unknown opportunity.

“Good executives know that a growth equity partner has done due diligence on the quality of the company,” said Dave. “That helps them feel more confident they are joining a strong organization.”


3. Customer Success

More startups are focusing on customer success in the early stages, but Dave said the growth round is the absolute latest that a company can implement a customer success program. If there’s already one in place, then the goal is to operationalize it and hit SaaS nirvana: zero percent (or less) net churn.

“We used to say that valuation was directly correlated with the growth of a company,” said Dave. “Now, it’s a mix of growth and retention rates. So that makes customer retention a big value maximizer in how SaaS companies get valued.”

Success in customer success is about helping customers onboard quickly, reach a “value moment,” and then integrate your product into how they do business. From there, you can look at solving additional problems by talking to customers about bigger issues they are facing.

4. Operational Systems and Processes

With a strong product, great executives, and a customer success system in place, startup leaders need to build the operational processes and data flows that will empower quick decision-making.

The first thing JMI does with new investments, if the company doesn’t have one already, is set up a monthly operational meeting. This is a data-driven meeting solely to talk about key business issues and allow the CEO to have a pulse on the operations of the business. Done properly, this meeting allows the CEO to focus on strategy - working “on” the business instead of “in” it.

“CEOs want to be in the details, and that’s great, but you have to stay strategic if you want to be successful,” said Dave. “That’s what these operational meetings are for.”

5. ACQUISITIONS

A growing trend in the SaaS startup world is mergers and acquisitions (M&A). For Dave, this is just one more task on a growth-CEO’s plate. The key to success, though, is to think of acquisitions as a speed to market tactic.

“M&A is about speed to market,” said Dave. “Market-leading software businesses can buy really good products and move more quickly, distributing it throughout their existing customer base.”

This is exactly what Clio did with its acquisition of Lexicata. Dave shared that the Clio team could likely have built a similar product, but it would have taken about 18 months to build and even longer to message to customers. By acquiring Lexicata, the company not only saved a lot of time, but also gained a high-quality product to add into the Clio suite and a new team to join the Clio mission.

“If we’re doing our job well, customers will want to buy more from us,” said Dave. “M&A is one way to help that process go faster.”


6. Sales and Marketing Enablement

While hiring more sales talent and spending on marketing programs is considered table stakes of any growth company, Dave encourages founders to look explicitly at sales and marketing enablement, not just headcount.

“Think about the things that act as ‘scaffolding’ around your sales and marketing reps,” said Dave. “You might think that you need to hire 10 sales reps to sell a certain amount, but we’ve found that if you have a support resource for every 3-5 reps, it makes those reps far more productive.”

Examples of sales and marketing enablement include software, content, or even additional people explicitly dedicated to enablement. The goal is not to bloat the sales or marketing team, but to think about how to get the most from each rep. Done well, you can maintain a leaner, more efficient team that can scale more easily in the future.

Growth Capital brings you to the big leagues

There’s a growing movement for startups to bootstrap longer and grow from profitability versus investment. While this model works for some businesses, Dave said that growth equity takes you into the “big leagues” of business building.

“We always thought it was a great thing that Canadian companies built great products and didn’t burn tons of cash doing it,” said Dave. “But now we’re looking at the opposite: not raising growth capital means you don’t step up into the world-class set of companies, because world-class companies typically consume more capital, make more investments, and spend in order to recruit the best people. And we’re now seeing more of that ambition in Canada, which is fantastic.”