SaaS margins — where they should be

Sammy Abdullah
2 min readNov 30, 2020

The general rule of thumb for spending in SaaS is 40/40/20. In other words, 40% of operating expense should be on R&D, 40% should be on sales and marketing, and 20% should be on G&A. Rules of thumb are just generalizations, so we wanted to see what the data really is. 28 SaaS companies have gone public from 2018 to today and below are their margins. Perhaps the rule of thumb should be 30/50/20. The data is below.

30/50/20. On median, 30% of opex is R&D, 47% is on sales and marketing, and 22% is on G&A. The rule is therefore “30/50/20” may be more accurate.

There are outliers. Rules of thumb are just general guidelines, and sure enough there are significant outliers. 45% of Dropbox’s spend was on R&D while only 13% of Zoom’s spend is on R&D. Similarly, 73% of Zoom’s spend was on sales & marketing, Dropbox spent only 37% on S&M, and spent 28% on S&M. Snowflake spent a whopping 130% of revenue on S&M and indeed their EBITDA margin is the worst of the bunch at -192%.

Don’t let G&A be the outlier. Obviously you should minimize spend on G&A. Building product and selling it should be the priorities. Cloudflare, Sendgrid, Snowflake, and Palantir I’m looking at you (they spend 36%, 34%, and 37%, and 43% of opex on G&A).

COGS isn’t 20%. The other rule of thumb that needs to be debunked is that COGS is 20% of revenue. As you can see, the median and averages are 25% and 27% respectively.

Where is the profitability? We put together simplified EBITDA calculations based on the data (Revenue — COGS — R&D — S&M — G&A). Only 3 out of the 28 companies have positive EBITDA. Not only that, but the median and average EBITDA margins are an anemic -28% and -34%. Even more alarming, the average EBITDA margin of the last 6 companies to go public was -74% (if you exclude Snowflake, it’s still a very bad -50%).

Indeed, software is forgiving: so long as you’re growing fast, have excellent retention, and marquee customers you’re allowed to burn cash as recurring revenue that doesn’t churn is an annuity with tremendous value.

Overall we found the data to be really compelling: 30/50/20 is the new 40/40/20 for more established SaaS businesses, unprofitability is ok so long as your business fundamentals are solid and you’re growing, and COGS is allowed to be slightly higher than 20% of revenue.

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