I wrote an early SaaStr post way back in 2013 on my “Year of Hell” as a SaaS CEO in 2008. In 2013, we were just 2 years removed from the real recovery from ’08-’09. And the one thing that was clear to me was that as hard as it was to see at the time, once we got out of our Year from Hell at Adobe Sign / EchoSign … things roared back. I thought it would be worth a refresh of that post here.
Almost all SaaS founders experience a Year from Hell at least once on the 7-10 year SaaS journey.
And it’s almost never the first year, your real Year of Hell. Why? As tough as that first year is, that’s still an exploration. You are learning, just trying to get something off the ground. Year 1 is often incredibly stressful, full of drama, and have some near-death moments. But that struggle is … what it is. You make it, or you don’t, and you’re still in your hyper-creative period, figuring something new out, which is always stimulating.
No, the Year of Hell comes later. It comes post-Traction, usually. Sometimes post-Scale, like with the CEO above, sometimes before. But it comes when you see the other edge of the expanse, the way back to the Alpha quadrant … you see it … but it’s that one year when it’s just too darn hard on every level to keep slugging it out. You’re just under assault on too many fronts.
Now, this isn’t a particularly profound insight, other than to say, Trust Me. Other than to say, I’ve talked with so many SaaS CEOs and founders — and almost all of them who’ve done it long enough have had One Year of Hell. So if you’re in your Year of Hell, you’ll get through it. We’ve all been there. Accept it and keep pointing to True North, to the Alpha Quadrant.
At least, IMHE and that of many of my top investments, you’ll get there as long as you keep innovating.
Like RevenueCat here:
if you ever feel stalled on growth, i think there is always another gear pic.twitter.com/IXlJXvpkTq
— Jacob Eiting (@jeiting) October 25, 2023
The ones in my portfolio that didn’t pull out of a Year of Hell? They retreated — and stopped innovating.
My personal Year of Hell was 2008. The leads were there, the customer base was there … but we started to spend a lot of money, and it just wasn’t clicking. It was a tough year. You can basically see it here in our Google Trends:
The strange thing to me isn’t that almost everyone has a Year of Hell. The strange thing to me is that when people come through it, if they do come through it — then many and even most times it seems, the business does more than just improve. It Reignites.
I don’t exactly know why. I’ve asked myself that question, why it happened to us. You can see our chart above. And I’ve asked a lot of other SaaS founders. You hear a lot of different reasons – a great VP Sales (helped a lot with us), a big advance of the product (with us too), some self-wounds by a competitor. Or maybe it’s just market pull in Cloud and SaaS. The reality is, I don’t think people always exactly know. What you can see is that if nothing else, even in the toughest of times in our Year of Hell, the leads at least still came in:
So what I really think happens is that somehow, in the Year of Hell, you pick yourself up and start trying lots of things. And some combination of them click, not immediately, but they start working at some level. And during that year, you still grow. Or at least, still add pipeline. Still keep your customers. And as we know in SaaS, success builds on itself. It compounds.
And you will, quite likely, if you keep at it in your Year of Hell and keep innovating with a committed, strong team — see Reignition. A true re-acceleration of growth. It may be a full year after the Year of Hell (what we saw). I don’t know when. But Reignition does happen quite often. It’s a glorious thing. And just know, I think if you get to Scale, and you have good customers and a decent product, and you keep at it with 100% dedication — you’ll see Reignition too.
Patience + dedication here will work.