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San Fran-SaaS-co: Lessons from the SaaStr Annual Conference

Auror co-founder and CEO Phil Thomson shares what he learned at the SaaStr Annual Conference in San Francisco - and what New Zealand businesses can learn, too.

We promised ourselves that we would take every opportunity that San Francisco threw at us. We just didn’t realise we’d be put to the test on the very first night.

Yet there we were getting into an Uber, headed to a random party with a couple of startup founders we had just met. That’s how we ended up at the TechCrunch Crunchies Awards afterparty, surrounded by the likes of the Founder of 500 Startups and no less than six billionaires in the early morning hours. It set the tone for what was to be an intense week of learning, meetings, tours, and parties as we attended the SaaStr Annual conference in San Francisco earlier this month.

With 10,000 attendees, SaaStr is the largest startup tech conference in the world, spanning three days and more than 250 speaker sessions. Our team at Auror was fortunate enough to attend SaaStr Annual by winning an international video pitch competition earlier this year.

In all it made for an action-packed week, filled with opportunities to pitch, learn and refine the vision for growing and scaling a startup software business. And there was plenty to be learned from the conference even if you couldn’t make it to the show.


We’ve included three themes and impressions from our team, along with a short list of five lessons for other New Zealand software startups:

The opportunity to get to San Francisco and meet other startups was invaluable.

The level of sophistication in how people think, talk about, and approach startups in San Francisco is impressive. Everyone seems to know how the venture capital industry works, the metrics they use to gauge success, the latest technologies, and strategies for growing companies. Nearly everyone we met (or overheard in the foodcourt) was in a startup, had been in a startup, or was working on a startup side project.

But even though they're much larger, have access to a lot more funding, and are more sophisticated, Silicon Valley startups still face the same challenges that we do in growing a business.

One advantage we have in New Zealand is an incredibly tight-knit, vibrant and diverse startup community. We have an opportunity to share knowledge and avoid making the same mistakes twice, and we generally work well together. There are now a number of groups such as the PwC SaaS Club and Kiss My SaaS that foster cooperation with other businesses and founders, which is great for the NZ ecosystem. It’s a chance to collectively tackle the challenges common across startup companies and share learnings.


New Zealand was represented amazingly well at the show.

We joined a delegation of more than 30 Kiwi software companies attending the conference that was organised and supported by Callaghan Innovation. This was a remarkable number (nearly 1% of attendees were from New Zealand companies), and throughout the show it was easy to pick out familiar accents in conversation around the concourse. While there were plenty of other nationalities represented at SaaStr, none were as well coordinated and cohesive as the New Zealanders.

But Kiwi pride was on display on the conference stages as well, with Vend and Xero participating in a great panel session about selling across the spectrum to enterprise and SMB customers. There was also a shout-out to the Kiwi contingent from Matt Cameron, a San Francisco-based New Zealander at SalesOps Central, during his guest presentation. He provided fantastic insights into scaling a sales team at different stages of business growth.


We learned just as much outside of the show hours.

We used our free days to get around and visit some companies we admire, including Intercom, Lyft, Salesforce and Google. The latter two were especially interesting as a chance to see how companies of 25,000-plus employees manage their team culture and operations.

Sure, there were also all the Silicon Valley perks you’ve heard about: snack rooms of your dreams, napping pods, meditation rooms and dog-friendly workspaces. These are all standard fare in an environment where the competition for top talent is so intense. But the larger companies also had a strong commitment to social causes. Salesforce has a 1/1/1 model of integrated corporate philanthropy, where it donates 1% of company equity, product, and employee time, to charities and community groups, while Google encourages staff to dedicate up to 20% of their time into projects outside of their ‘day job’. This promotes innovation and future opportunities for the business and keeps things interesting for employees.

What other lessons can New Zealand companies learn from SaaStr Annual? Here’s our top five:

  1. Be bold about your vision and what you’re doing. American companies were great at making what they do sound like the most exciting thing ever and they had incredible passion in their pitches. Although by the third day it was getting hard to believe that everyone we met actually was the ‘market leader’ or number one in their space.

    Having a strong and purposeful vision that people can get behind is the cornerstone for getting customers and investment, and also a key contributor toward talent acquisition and retention. In San Francisco everyone is working on a start-up, and global competition for Silicon Valley venture capital money is fierce, so it’s imperative to stand out. Using your vision to paint a big picture of what you are going to achieve is critical to get interest and investment.

  2. Data is king. There was a real focus from speakers on metrics (and acronyms) like Customer Acquisition Cost, conversion funnels, Net Promoter Score, Annual Recurring Revenue, and Lifetime Value. This structured approach gives a greater understanding of what is really happening across your business and allows for better decision making.

  3. There is no silver bullet to make your business wildly successful. Success is a result of doing many things well over a sustained period of time. But all great companies have three things: a product users love, a great customer experience, and a superstar team capable of overcoming the relentless challenges faced as you scale.

  4. Customer success is evolving from a sales/support function into it’s own discipline. More SaaS companies are recognising the value of customer service, community, and optimising the lifetime value of a customer through upsell/cross-sell rather than just chasing raw subscriber numbers.

  5. Take advice, but trust your gut and stick to your guns. In a startup you get a lot of (often contradictory) advice from friends, family, investors, advisors, and teammates. Back yourself that you know the market and your product better than anyone else. You’ll definitely get pearls of wisdom, but you will need to sift through everything else to find them.

The obvious strength of San Francisco and Silicon Valley is a recurring flow of successful entrepreneurs and employees that build great companies, get exits, and start again as a founder or investor. Over time this has created a workforce of talented people that know how to scale a company into hyper-growth. The talent there on average isn’t smarter than what we have in New Zealand, but what they do have that sets them apart and makes it the tech hub of the world is experience in working in startups that scale. My hope is that one day, New Zealand will have this depth and experience to truly enable our many great ideas to be taken to the world and make us a nation of technology leaders.

Phil Thomson is co-founder and CEO of Auror, a New Zealand-based crime prevention software company taking on the world. Auror travelled to San Francisco and SaaStr with support from Callaghan Innovation, NZTE and the Kiwi Landing Pad. 

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