​Reality check for SaaS firms bent on hyper-growth

Low valuations for New Zealand's SaaS stars will not be helped by the collapse of Mako Networks.

If I were to pick the time when the gloss came off New Zealand's software as a service tech boom, it wouldn't be last week with the collapse of Mako Networks.

It would instead be June 24 last year, the day travel management software developer Serko listed.

Serko, the first tech listing of the year, issued shares in its IPO at NZ$1.10. On debut, they climbed to NZ$1.13 before slumping to NZ$1. They have barely traded above par since and were at 78 cents today.

Serko's timing was unfortunate to say the least. It is a minnow compared with cloud accounting software company Xero, shares in which were trading at nearly NZ$45 last March after a 2007 public offer at just NZ$1 a share.

Xero's shares tracked steadily down from that high to NZ$25.90 the day Serko listed. On the morning of its debut however, Xero shares fell to a nine month low of NZ$23 before recovering.

Serko's share price did not similarly bounce. The damage was done and they closed at 95 cents.

Serko co-founders Bob Shaw, left, and Darrin Grafton on listing day.

Xero shares now trade at just over NZ$13.

Mako Networks, now in receivership, developed a cloud-based system for ensuring PCI DSS compliance -- essentially payment system security.

Mako was a company many thought was making notable international inroads. Large contracts with dairy giant Fonterra and fuel chain Z Energy locally were complemented by a major deal with Texaco/Chevron in the US

Unlike Xero and Serko, however, Mako was not listed so its financial reports were not public.

The receivers were called in last Thursday by New Zealand telco Spark, which was reportedly owed NZ$26 million in asset finance. The future of Mako's technology is not yet clear.

Last week was a difficult one in the New Zealand SaaS market; it also emerged that cloud point of sale system developer Vend was cutting local staff.

The company said scaling its team to keep up with and stay ahead of growth was a challenge and '"frankly we grew our costs too quickly". The restructuring is also reflective the fact that 85 percent of Vend's customers are now outside of New Zealand.

Privately-owned Vend, which recently joined an elite Apple programme to encourage adoption of the iPad in business, also raised a further NZ$12 million, taking its total capital raisings to-date to NZ$47 million.

Other local listed SaaS stars grappling with what they perceive as low valuations stemming from slim trading volumes on the NZX.

VMob, which combines data from various sources in a SaaS analysis and marketing platform to enable personalized mobile retail content and offers, has won high profile international deals with retailers such as McDonald's, Ikea, 7-Eleven in Australia and brewer Anheuser-Busch.

The company featured prominently at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in Florida in July. VMob, a large user of Azure, is integrating its technology into the Azure mobile engagement platform and is also being showcased in Microsoft's Retail Excellence Centre in Redmond.

Last week, however, VMob management expressed frustration at its market valuation and announced plans to shift its head office to San Francisco in response. Development and back-office systems will remain in New Zealand.

VMob's valuation problem could be at least partly of its own making; however, it entered the NZAX alternative market via the back door in 2012, courtesy of listed shell Velo Capital and it has repeatedly returned to shareholders for further funding since.

The company has also been forced to postpone a signalled dual listing on the ASX until it has migrated from the NZAX to the main board. At its annual meeting this month VMob also announced a further NZ$5 million capital raising.

Adding an ASX listing in 2012 helped propel Xero to the dizzy heights its share price achieved in early 2014. It's a strategy being pursued by other New Zealand techs, such as crime analytics software developer Wynyard Group, to unleash what they feel is their true value.

But those valuations are also a product of changed investor sentiment. Companies in the SaaS sector are almost always, and of necessity, pursuing hyper-growth rather than short-term profitability.

That can be a rough ride.

Perhaps one lesson from the failure of Mako Network is that even if the journey is long, as a bottom line SaaS start-ups need both a clear path to profitability and to sufficient funds, preferably raised in an orderly manner, to see that journey through.

Disclosure: Rob O'Neill owns small parcels of share in Serko and VMob.