SaaS companies spend 23% of revenue on R&D

February 26, 2019

Today's syndicated article was written by Sammy Abdullah, Co-Manager at Blossom Street Ventures. The chart below is a good set of data from recent SaaS IPOs and their R&D spend.

Building out, maintaining, and upgrading a technology stack requires a constant commitment to developers and engineers, so what is an appropriate level of development or R&D expense for a successful SaaS business? We looked at 74 publicly traded SaaS businesses at the time of IPO and 2 years prior to get a sense for how successful SaaS businesses allocate to R&D.  The raw data and observations are below:


R&D spend is 23% of revenue

Leading up to the IPO, SaaS companies spent on median 23% of revenue on R&D.  As you can see there is almost no deviation between the financials reported at IPO and 2 years prior. (medians were 22% and 23% respectively)   For many of these companies, they were in their Series B or Series C two years prior to IPO, so it’s safe to say that spending a quarter of revenue on R&D is the right level for a SaaS business even at earlier stages.  No matter where your SaaS business is in its lifecycle, as one founder put it to me, “managing a large and growing stack for a cloud application is damn tough” so you’re going to be spending materially on the stack no matter how fast you’re growing or how mature you are.

Median spend is $20mm

The median level of revenue at IPO for these SaaS businesses was $99mm so with 23% of revenue going to R&D, that means R&D spend was $20mm on median at the time of IPO.  That’s a lot of dev talent.

The range of spend is wide

Hortonworks and Castlight spent more on R&D than they generated in revenue, with R&D/revenue of 110% and 117% respectively.  On the other end, Paycom software spent only 2% of revenue on R&D, and that business did $108mm in revenue prior to IPO.   Similarly, Tabula Rasa spent only 2% of revenue on R&D.

Smaller businesses spend more

Not surprisingly, given the fixed cost nature of R&D, the 10 smallest companies by revenue spent 41% of revenue on R&D while the 10 largest spent 24%, closer to the overall median.  Smaller businesses are likely going to have to expend a larger percent of revenue on R&D than their more mature peers.  Note that those smaller businesses are faster growing, with average revenue growth of 127% for the 10 smallest on the list versus 47% for the 10 largest.

This article originally appeared on Blossom Street Ventures.

Sammy Abdullah

Sammy Abdullah chairs the board of Blossom Street Ventures and manages the day to day operations. His primary responsibilities are to source and diligence new opportunities, oversee the portfolio, and handle investor relations. Previously, Sammy was a Vice President at Congruent Investment Partners. Prior to that, he worked at Prudential Capital Group and Blossom Street Capital (unaffiliated with Blossom Street Ventures).