Why Talk About Budgeting NOW?!

March 31, 2023
5 Minutes
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In SaaS businesses, operating results are earned every single day; and good businesses are made, not found. Writing here about building organizations, learning from the experience, and appreciating the ride.
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Like pre-Christmas sale commercials, blog posts about budgeting generally peak sometime in December — near the end of one fiscal year and before the beginning of the next. So why share a budgeting-related post toward the end of Q1? Because this is the time when many operators look at their budget and realize…something is off. I’m not talking about the top-line; hopefully bookings performance for most businesses is still tracking to plan. Rather, I am referring to expenses. What we’ve observed over time and across many companies is that some expense items commonly get overlooked in the (normally) Q4 budget planning process. And, like the green shoots of weeds in our yards, now is the season when those unwelcome cost items begin to first reveal themselves. But it’s still early enough in the year that those expenses can be identified, quantified, forecast, and proactively managed throughout the remainder of the fiscal calendar. This post calls out commonly missed expense items that might just warrant leaders’ attention and allocation within SaaS budgets:

1) Financial Audits: Not every private company invests in audited financial statements. But I’d argue that they should. And any business that has taken on institutional capital will undoubtedly be required to do so. These audits aren’t cheap (they generally run $20K — $40K), which is a big, unexpected pill to swallow for small-scale SaaS businesses. If a business has debt on its balance sheet, there will inevitably be additional audit activities (and more associated costs). Note: these and estimates throughout this post are for businesses in the $5M — $10M ARR range.

2) Performance Bonuses: This one shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone (it generally gets set at the outset of the prior year). Nevertheless, payment of bonuses often creates miscommunications and drives variances to budget. Perhaps it’s the timing complexity (“…remind me again, do year X bonuses get paid in year X, or in year X+1?!”). Whatever the case, now is a good time to think it through to avoid unpleasant surprises later.

3) User License / Vendor CPI Increases: This was less of an issue in prior years, but it’s a reality in the current high-interest rate / high inflationary environment. Particularly for companies that are expansive in their use of subscription-based solutions to power their enterprise, these increases can be substantial. As a rule, plan for 5% annual increases across the board…and then be pleasantly surprised when they’re less. Note: for volume-based contracts (e.g., Salesforce seats) it’s important to also update usage forecasts to ensure accuracy.

4) Legal Fees: They just…happen. Even in years that are relatively drama-free, legal fees just seem to have a way of finding us. And as the adage holds, “there are two types of lawyers: expensive ones…and REALLY expensive ones to fix the first group’s mistakes.” If possible, don’t skimp here. Make sure to set aside a healthy pool. Absent any other data, take a 3–5-year average of prior years’ fees…and gross it up per the CPI comment above.

5) Team Professional Development: Often the first line-item to get slashed in lean-times, this still has a way of adding up (e.g. a $500 / employee alloocation for a 30 person team = $15K). Please don’t kill this line-item entirely. If you want to lower the $ / Employee allocation…okay (but not great). But just be sure to keep this line-item realistic . SaaS leaders don’t expect team members to just stop investing in their learning in down-cycles…so, budgets shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

6) Tax Filings: Scrappy start-ups may be able to spend $0 to file their taxes, but it’s a dodgier proposition for growing SaaS businesses to do so. This one is close cousins to the point about financial audits above. And while it is generally much less expensive ($6K — 8K), it’s not $0.

7) Healthcare Increases: Ugh…don’t get me going on how the cost can continue to go up while the quality / coverage of the offering consistently declines. Whatever…just plan on a 5% — 8% increase annually.

8) Salary Increases: Okay, I’ll admit, this one rarely gets missed. Rather, business leaders generally have a great handle on it. But because most SaaS businesses’ biggest expenses are personnel-related, this one is super-material. And because retaining those people is so critical, it’s best for leaders not to hamstring themselves with an overly frugal assumption here. Although the “Great Resignation” thankfully seems to have abated, this is no place to low-ball.

There is a very long-tail of other line-items that could be included in this list. But hopefully the above capture the most material expenses that commonly get overlooked. And if this post helps SaaS operators avoid some unpleasant surprises as the year unfolds, then it will have been worth every penny readers paid for it. 😊


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