SaaS companies are often reluctant to talk about numbers in their early stages. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that “We don’t release customer numbers but we’re really happy with how things are tracking”. I always take this with a pinch of salt and translate it as “Our numbers are tiny, we’re a little embarrassed to admit it but wait until we’re huge and we’ll tall you all about it”.

Especially in the nascent SaaS space everyone is feeling their way and partaking in something of a land-grab. Admitting the small size of land one owns doesn’t exactly appeal to the imperialist inside us all.

With this context, I was contacted the other day by Tim Fouracre from Clear Books. Clear Books is (yet another) SaaS accounting startup – this time based in the UK. A couple of months ago on the Clear Books blog, Tim posted about a personal bet he made with a friend about customer acquisition numbers. Basically Tim bet 50 pounds that Clear Books would have 50 paying customers within its first year. The bet was taken up, and the number was reached.

Moving on from that, Tim decided to extend the concept, and the goals and set himself a target of 1000 paying customers by July 2010. Not happy keeping this to himself however he set up a page to track customer numbers.

It’s a pretty brave move – at the time of writing Clear Books had around 600 customers, of which 90 or so are paying punters – not exactly huge figures it adds up to around 10k in recurring annual revenue. So why publicize a figure that’s not exactly setting the world on fire?

Tim explained his decision with some history – around this time last year Clear Books was only a concept – they’ve worked hard over the last year to develop the product and, as development has been their focus, sign ups to date have largely stumbled upon them by luck more than anything else.

Clear Books is now at the interesting stage having started charging customers. They’re now switching towards working out how to market Clear Books more and their efforts will be visible via the sign-ups page.

As to the reasons for publicizing the information, Tim told me that;

The rationale for publishing the numbers is twofold. First, we want to be completely open and honest with our users. We want them to know they are part of a growing movement and to feel a part of that.

Second, it hasn’t really been done before in the way we are doing it. We want to publicize our growth story through statistics. I would welcome other applications doing something similar because the data is incredibly interesting especially if you are able to start making comparisons.

There isn’t really anything to lose by publishing your statistics. All there is to gain from knowing whether a competitor has x or y users is how many users you need to maintain the gap or close the gap. The way to achieve that is by developing a better product and selling it better, which is something we should all be doing anyway.

I think Clear Books are taking a risk, but potentially a smart one, by making this move. The micro end of the SMB market is all about personal relationships – this level of openness will encourage potential customers to see a human-side of Clear Books, something arguably missing altogether from the larger on-premises and SaaS vendors – hears hoping, for their sake, that the gamble pays off.

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Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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