A colleague recently shared with me Benedict Evans’ tech trends for 2023 presentation. It’s amazing — 104 slides of compelling data that make sense of a dizzying range of topics, from interest rates to consumer behavior to global power-shifts to a new breed of digital gatekeepers. Before proceeding, I have two admissions to make: (1) I was previously somehow unfamiliar with Evans’ work; but I will pay closer attention going forward. (2) Although macro tech-trends conceptually interest me, I sometimes find it difficult to connect them back to our seemingly more pedestrian work of building small-scale B2B SaaS businesses. With these confessions in mind, this blog post is for practitioners like me. It cherry-picks just a few of the presentation’s many awesome slides and highlights points that struck me as particularly relevant to SaaS operators. It does not attempt or purport to summarize the presentation; and it’s certainly not comprehensive. Rather, it’s just a quick-share of my top takeaways — a codification of those points that I plan to revisit and bear in mind in the day-to-day fray throughout 2023. And they are…
Is it now time for the little players to have their day from an employment perspective? It was difficult during the pandemic for small-scale SaaS businesses to hire / retain top talent. To use a basketball term, the “possession arrow” in the resource economy seems to have shifted from employees back to employers. More specifically, with a quarter million veterans of big tech firms newly unemployed, what kind of a recruiting opportunity does this present for us? What roles could these people fill in our businesses, how best to recruit / on-board them, what support might they need to make the transition to small companies and to thrive in a less structured environment? This feels like a great, but fleeting, opportunity, let’s make the most of it.
2. Glass half empty, glass half-full (Slide 16):
This slide reminded me of an oft-cited pearl from the best software investor I know, “when it’s going well, things are never as good as they seem; and it’s never as bad as it seems when they’re not.” As a SaaS investor-operator, I found this slide encouraging. Particularly the last bullet: every market, every value-chain, every workflow, every customer engagement, every dataset is being rethought and remade — and there is still a ton of work to do on this front. When it can sometimes feel like every industry has already gone through digital transformation, this is an important point to remember. The following slide (about enterprise workloads in the public cloud) struck me as using different data to reinforce this same point.
3. Fragmentation (Slide 49):
This slide specifically addresses the steadily declining share of Nielsen ratings among the top-rated US TV shows over numerous decades. So, what does this have to do with small-scale B2B SaaS? What it highlights for me is that today’s most successful, top-performing shows only draw 10% of the available viewership. And they’re still winners. Perhaps not to the same degree as I Love Lucy back in 1955, but still massively successful. There are many niches, within which B2B SaaS businesses can thrive. And while they may need to garner more than 10% market share if they operate within a particularly small vertical, they don’t need to be all things to all people in order to prosper. If “focus is the friend” of SaaS operators, this is good news.
4. The ‘innovators’ dilemma costs real money… (Slide 55)
It’s hard to argue against being fist to market. But being the challenger does have advantages, and a lack of legacy baggage is one of them. This slide hammered home for me what small-scale SaaS operators inherently feel: it’s often more efficient / liberating / plain-old-fun to go-to-market as an innovative fast-follower than as the incumbent with tons to lose. Small-scale SaaS business should embrace that mentality and its many benefits.
5. Advertising is the price you pay… (Slide 69)
I’d never heard this fascinating 2009 quote from Jeff Bezos. And, although Evans goes on to illustrate that Amazon has since become the world’s largest advertiser, it’s a great reminder to budget-conscious SaaS operators.
In short, it puts a premium on ALWAYS focusing on ensuring that a business’ products are differentiated from those of competitors. Moreover, this highlights what is true in many vertical SaaS markets — that there are other, more effective means of communicating one’s go-to-market message (e.g. thought leadership content, earned media, word of mouth, customer references, community marketing, conferences, etc.). Said another way, should direct their energy into scalable and high-return organic marketing initiatives, rather than costly PPC efforts (aka advertising). Focus there.
6. The end of the American internet (Slide 95)
The “focus is your friend” axiom has a downside; and that is that it can foster short-sightedness. I found this slide to be a good reminder that even small-scale businesses should always be scanning the horizon to grow TAM and identify new opportunities to win customers. Wow, this slide is a mindblower — although the US may continue for some time to be the largest single market for B2B SaaS, other markets demand serious consideration.
I have no big finish to this post. Rather just a big thank you to Ben Evans for his fantastic work. It really is helpful, not just to the large players on which much of his work focuses…but also to small-scale operators who can learn from the trends he highlights.