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Xero's CFO: Where are you growing towards?

8th Aug 2018
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Growth - even hyper-growth - doesn’t mean squat if it’s not moving somewhere profitable. And according to Xero’s CFO, high-growth businesses need a reality check.

A common jibe throughout the accounting software firm’s growth journey has been “Yeah, but where’s the profit?”

So it was probably with more than a hint of satisfaction that the company announced it was EBITDA positive in its latest set of results. The company still posted a £14.6m after-tax loss, but even that was a marked improvement on £35m loss in FY17.

Xero’s chief operating and financial officer Sankar Narayan talks about the company’s finances as a journey. “We remain committed to managing our business to cash flow break-even within our current cash balance,” Narayan told AccountingWEB, “without drawing down on our debt facility, excluding capital outlays for M&A such as Xero’s recent acquisition of Hubdoc announced in August.”

Xero continues to grow rapidly. And according to Narayan, the pursuit of profits won’t come at the expense of growth. “We have a strong focus on both topline and bottomline performance.

“Strong growth and operating disciplines ensure the activities to drive topline growth really move the needle. Xero’s cash flow margins over the past three years improved from -70% to -9% while revenues have grown 49% pa.”

In a recent piece in Forbes, Narayan noted that the business landscape is “rich with the carcasses of bright ideas that attracted a lot of funding but didn’t translate to viable businesses”.

The economics of high growth businesses often require reinvesting receipts to push further growth and expansion. That’s fine, said Narayan, but there’s two things high growth businesses need to determine: are you growing towards a profitable model, and when are you going to run out of cash?

“Profits are not necessary for strong valuation in the rapid growth phase of a business, but a credible and demonstrable future profit model is essential,” Narayan wrote. “Belief can only take a business so far before questions are asked about the long-term viability.”

Speaking to AccountingWEB, Narayan added that the CFO “needs to keep a close watch on the operating performance of the business ensuring the lead indicators are in line with the targeted course of the company and flagging course corrections where required.

“Your cash flows and cash position are very important in a rapidly growing business. As long as the business’s growth plans are value-enhancing with strong future returns, it makes rational sense to invest in the company to drive value growth.”

A business’s profits can be impacted in the short term, as many investing type activities with benefits well beyond one year are fully expensed. These would include customer acquisition costs (which are high in a SaaS business like Xero).

“Economic value added through metrics like LTV are more meaningful in the rapid growth stage,” Narayan added, echoing the philosophy of Anup Singh, the former CFO of Anaplan.

Anaplan is another cloud software enterprise, and it achieved unicorn status (a $1bn valuation) through rapid growth. While he was at the helm, Singh’s key focus is on recurring revenue and subscribers. Singh constantly monitors how many customers terminate their agreements - and also how many customers are decrease the size of their agreements with Anaplan (what’s termed as ‘shrinkage’).

The churn rate is intricately tied to the company’s net expansion rate. The big aim is to grow each customer’s spend and have it outpace lost revenue from churn and shrinkage. “It’s the so-called ‘land and expand’ strategy,” said Singh. “Land the initial deal, then service it.”

That’s where lifetime value comes in. Narayan’s focus is similar: “From a performance perspective, my primary focus is on revenue and subscriber growth. Other key metrics that I watch are Lifetime Values, gross margins and cost of acquisition.”

But, he added, “Your cash flows and cash position are very important in a rapidly growing business. As long as the business’s growth plans are value enhancing with strong future returns, it makes rational sense to invest in the company to drive value growth.”

Replies (6)

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By Moonbeam
08th Aug 2018 15:32

The trouble is that no or very low profit means that much needed improvements to customer and supplier accounts are abandoned on wishlists, which are absolutely pointless if quite basic improvements are never done.

Thanks (2)
By Tornado
08th Aug 2018 18:11

I would have thought that profit is not that important to Xero.

Surely the game is to sign up as many subscriptions as possible, by any means possible. Each additional subscription contributes to a dramatic increase in the value of shares and the real money will be made when those shares are sold for silly money to the highest bidder from anywhere in the world.

That is just business.

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Chris M
By mr. mischief
09th Aug 2018 07:59

I hope this is a wake-up call to all those people who think Xero is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Here we have a company whose CFO thinks making profits is no big deal, and who thinks EBITDA is what really matters not earnings per share or - perish the thought! - cash flow per share.

See my earlier posts on this subject, in my view Xero is overtrading and carries an insolvency risk with it which other better capitalised rivals, with more robust business models and balance sheets, do not.

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By Paul Scholes
09th Aug 2018 10:04

Lots of words and jargon there, but my take is (and always has been) that most of the money I (and my clients) have paid Xero over the past six years has gone to make it fat.

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09th Aug 2018 11:54

I am struck by the old saying that ends with " is reality", and that, in anything but the shortest of terms, only cash profit gives us more coming in than going out. In the longer run, the CAPEX and investment needs to be covered as well. But, I subscribe heavily to the school that says looking to run and grow a business that doesn't make a profit is in-sanity. I don't care too much what business it is, for me that adage holds true. Even for subscription-type businesses where the marginal costs of acquiring new subscribers is likely to be lower than the value they add, the business must surely have to reach a point where fixed and variable costs are covered, or it can't survive long-term. Maybe, if the model is to "grow like hell, and then you sell" you might think a little differently, but it's a very strange proposition to me, as an accountant and business person!

Thanks (1)
Chris M
By mr. mischief
14th Sep 2018 15:31

I've just sent this thread to one of my book-keepers, "Good grief!" was her response. A client is being frogmarched on to Xero because the head franchise company insists on it.

Where I think accountants need to tread warily is in recommending clients to switch software to poorly capitalised companies such as Xero.

Some of them will be going "pop!" in the next 5 years, that is the nature of software. Then what? All that lovely cloud data has just gone "pop!" and what are you going to be telling the clients?

I can tell you that if I were the client I expect my accountant, of all advisors, to be up to speed with supplier balance sheets. If he or she recommends me to switch to something that goes "pop!" then I am very definitely blaming him or her for whatever mess I find myself in.

And once I have put down the phone to him or her having heard the bad news, I will immediately pick it up again to call Sue, Grabbit and Run my commercial lawyers.

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