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Beyond ARR: The Rise of NRR as a Key SaaS Metric

April 5, 2024
June 22, 2023
June 22, 2023

SaaS companies have long held the belief that Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) is the North Star guiding their growth trajectory. However, the sands are shifting, and a new star is rising: Net Revenue Retention (NRR).

This shift in focus from ARR to NRR is not a result of chance, but a consequence of macroeconomic pressures, evolving market dynamics, and the growth strategies that SaaS businesses are now finding themselves forced to re-evaluate.

Before we delve deeper into why NRR is taking center stage, let's briefly touch on what these two metrics are all about.

Understanding ARR and NRR

ARR, or Annual Recurring Revenue, has been a fundamental measure for SaaS businesses for years. It's the value of the recurring revenue components of your subscription agreements normalized to a one-year period.

Sounds simple enough, right? It is, and that's one of the reasons it's been so widely used.

On the other hand, NRR, or Net Revenue Retention, looks at the recurring revenue from your existing customers, factoring in churn, expansion, and contraction.

It's a way of determining how much of your revenue is sticking around, and even growing, from one period to the next.

Now, at a glance, both these metrics sound pretty crucial, and they are. However, in a rapidly changing economic environment, one is emerging as more telling of a SaaS company's health and potential for growth.

Why The Shift?

Firstly, the current macroeconomic pressures have demanded a critical look at how SaaS businesses measure growth.

Increasing inflation rates and financial volatility have led companies to turn inward, focusing more on customer retention and expansion within their existing customer base.

Consequently, the spotlight has landed on the key metric that encapsulates these elements: NRR.

Additionally, market dynamics in the SaaS industry have shifted.

There's a more acute emphasis on driving sustainable growth, enhancing customer loyalty, and maximizing customer lifetime value (CLTV). The lens is now trained on improving the quality of growth, rather than just the speed of it. This shift in focus from quantity to quality has catapulted NRR into the limelight, as it provides a more holistic and long-term view of growth.

Lastly, SaaS companies are evolving their growth strategies in response to these macroeconomic and market changes. Traditional growth tactics, like aggressive new customer acquisition and massive funding rounds, are being supplemented, and in some cases replaced, by strategies that enhance revenue from existing customers. Thus, SaaS companies are turning to NRR as a more accurate and reliable measure of growth.

In the sections to follow, we'll delve into the limitations of ARR as a growth indicator, the benefits of focusing on NRR, and the steps businesses can take to shift their focus. Keep reading to understand why NRR is poised to become the go-to metric for SaaS companies aiming for sustainable growth in a rapidly changing economic landscape.

NRR Scoring eBook

The Limitations of ARR as a Growth Indicator

ARR, or Annual Recurring Revenue, is a key performance indicator (KPI) in the SaaS business model. It helps to measure the predictable revenue that a company can expect based on its current subscribers over a one-year period.

But while it's undeniably crucial for monitoring the financial health and performance of SaaS businesses, relying solely on ARR to gauge growth has its drawbacks.

The Meaning and Significance of ARR in SaaS Business Models

In the subscription-based SaaS business model, ARR is the holy grail of metrics. It's relatively easy to calculate and understand: You add up the recurring revenue from all your annual subscriptions and there you have it, your ARR. This metric provides a quick snapshot of a company's financial stability and its success in securing long-term commitments from customers.

In a business world that loves the thrill of growth, ARR seems to fit the bill perfectly. A rapidly increasing ARR indicates that a company is acquiring new customers or upselling existing ones at a high rate, suggesting potential for significant future growth. Because of this, ARR is often the headline number that companies report to stakeholders.

However, as essential as ARR might be, it's not the be-all and end-all metric for SaaS businesses, especially in the current economic climate.

Let's take a closer look at the limitations of ARR.

Uncovering the Blind Spots of ARR

One major limitation of ARR is that it fails to fully consider customer churn.

Customer churn is when subscribers stop doing business with a company or service. While ARR can give a sense of how fast a company is acquiring new customers or upselling existing ones, it offers no insight into how many customers it’s losing.

A company could be losing customers as fast as it’s gaining them, which is a serious issue that ARR just doesn't capture.

In addition to churn, ARR can't accurately predict future revenue from existing customers.

While it gives a sense of a company's recurring revenue, it doesn't take into account how that revenue might change over time. A customer who initially signs up for a basic package might upgrade to a premium package later on, contributing more to the company's revenue. Conversely, a customer might downgrade their package, or reduce their usage, resulting in lower revenue. ARR is a static measure that doesn't reflect these potential changes.

Finally, ARR fails to capture expansion revenue, which is the additional recurring revenue generated from existing customers through upselling or cross-selling. Given that it's more cost-effective to sell to an existing customer than to acquire a new one, expansion revenue is a vital growth lever that ARR overlooks.

ARR Misconceptions: The Illusion of Growth

Let's examine a hypothetical scenario to illustrate these limitations.

Suppose a SaaS company reports an ARR of $10 million, up from $6 million the previous year.

At first glance, this might look like impressive growth. However, if you dig a little deeper, the picture might not be so rosy.

Let's say the company also reports that it lost customers worth $2 million in ARR during the year due to churn. Suddenly that growth doesn't look as impressive.

But ARR doesn't reflect this loss, so unless the company reports its churn rate alongside its ARR, stakeholders might remain blissfully unaware.

Now, let's add another layer to the scenario. Suppose that same company's existing customers increased their spend by $1 million during the year. This is expansion revenue, a sign that the company is not just retaining customers but getting them to spend more.

However, this valuable metric is also overlooked by ARR.

As a result, ARR alone might indicate that the company is growing robustly, when in reality, its growth is more modest, and it's losing a significant amount of revenue to churn. At the same time, it fails to showcase the additional growth achieved through expansion.

As you can see, ARR, while a useful metric, paints an incomplete picture of a SaaS company's growth. It overlooks critical elements like customer churn, future changes in customer revenue, and expansion revenue. As a result, ARR can create misconceptions about a company's growth trajectory and profitability.

In the next section, we'll look at how NRR can address these limitations and provide a more holistic view of growth.

The Benefits and Importance of Focusing on NRR

In the face of the current economic challenges and the evolving dynamics of the SaaS market, it's evident that companies need to go beyond ARR to truly grasp their growth and profitability.

This is where Net Revenue Retention (NRR) comes into the picture.

Unpacking NRR: A Comprehensive Measure for Today's Market

Net Revenue Retention is a comprehensive metric that fills in the gaps left by ARR.

In simplest terms, NRR measures the change in recurring revenue from existing customers over a certain period, considering expansions, contractions, and churn. It's calculated by taking the revenue at the end of the period, subtracting any revenue from new customers, and then dividing by the revenue at the beginning of the period.

In the face of the economic challenges of 2023, NRR proves particularly critical.

As inflation has soared in the US to its highest level in over two decades, and tech valuations experienced a near 30% decrease compared to the previous year, there's a clear signal: The landscape is shifting.

Add to that the end of the era of easy acquisitions and the rising number of layoffs in the tech sector, and it's clear we're dealing with a much more challenging market.

NRR vs. ARR: A Better Gauge of Customer Value and Business Health

Unlike ARR, NRR gives you a more detailed look at your revenue landscape. It accounts for churn, which is the lost revenue from customers leaving. It also factors in expansions (up-selling or cross-selling to existing customers) and contractions (downgrades or reduced usage by existing customers).

Consider our earlier example of a SaaS company. NRR would have highlighted the loss from churn and gains from expansion, providing a clearer picture of the company's financial health. While ARR suggested strong growth, NRR would have presented a more nuanced and accurate view of the company's performance.

Moreover, NRR can help indicate customer satisfaction and product-market fit. If customers are sticking around and spending more (expansion), that's a good sign they're finding value in your offerings. This isn't something ARR can reveal.

Supporting the Shift towards NRR: Breaking Down the Numbers

The need to focus on NRR isn't just theoretical—it's backed by data and plain old math.

Let's look at the impact NRR rates on growth over a 10 year period:

  • Company A: 100% NRR. In 10 years, it will have the same revenue level.
  • Company B: 125% NRR. Over ten years, the compound growth would increase revenue by around 938%.
  • Company C: 150% NRR. Over ten years, the compound growth would increase revenue by about 5,766%!!!

So, the growth differences between these companies over ten years would be significant. Company B will have grown roughly 938% more than Company A, and Company C will have grown a whopping 5,766% more than Company A, demonstrating the power of a strong NRR in driving long-term growth.

This finding underscores the power of retention and expansion in driving growth.

In addition, Bain and Company found that a 5% improvement in customer retention can lead to a 25-95% increase in company revenue for a SaaS company over time. These findings validate the importance of focusing on NRR.

So, while ARR remains a useful metric, NRR provides a more holistic view of a company's performance and growth potential, particularly in today's challenging market. It accounts for key factors that ARR overlooks, like churn and expansion, providing a more realistic picture of customer value and business health.

In the next section, we'll explore how to optimize NRR to fuel sustainable growth.

Practical Steps to Shift Focus from ARR to NRR

Switching the focus from ARR to NRR is no mere pivot; it is a thoughtful shift requiring strategic planning and actionable measures. In this section, we will guide you through the steps your SaaS business can take to refocus on NRR effectively and sustainably.

Strategic Considerations When Shifting Focus

Embarking on the journey from ARR to NRR implies moving away from a sales-centric outlook to embracing a customer-centric vision. Your aim is not merely to acquire new customers but to retain and expand the existing customer base.

This involves revisiting your metric targets and reevaluating your customer success initiatives.

To kick off, foster a company-wide understanding of NRR's importance and how it differs from ARR. This involves enlightening your team about the elements feeding into NRR like churn, upselling, and cross-selling. Clear and consistent communication forms the basis of team alignment and drives them towards the shared goal.

Rethinking your customer success initiatives is the next step in the shift. If your focus has been predominantly on customer acquisition, it's time to shift gears towards customer retention and expansion. This could mean reshaping your customer success strategies, initiating new training, or tweaking your customer service efforts.

Notably, upselling and cross-selling present a considerable opportunity. Encourage your sales and customer success teams to explore ways to provide more value to existing customers, which could include enhanced features, additional services, or complimentary products.

The Role of Data Analysis and Predictive Scoring

Paratives NRR Pipeline takes in many data sources
Parative's NRR Focused Solution

In Parative's approach to NRR, data analysis and predictive scoring play a crucial role. Shifting focus to NRR is not just about changing strategies but leveraging the right tools.

This is where Parative steps in.

Parative isn't just another customer data analysis tool. It's a comprehensive customer data engine designed to unify data and drive NRR. It goes beyond analyzing customer data and generating Expansion Qualified Leads (EQLs); its approach to NRR focuses on identifying key factors that influence future outcomes.

Examples Parative Scoring Models.

Using historical customer data, Parative determines which signals hold the most weight in predicting NRR. These signals are leveraged in various models addressing unique aspects of customer behavior, including Renewal Propensity Model, Customer Health Model, Churn Risk Model, and more.

For instance, a Buyer Fit Model considers factors like business type, financial backing, marketing automation, web traffic, and several others. By assigning weights to each factor, the model generates a score, which helps predict future customer behavior.

Parative's strength lies in its ability to unify data from diverse sources like CRMs, marketing automation tools, revenue and opportunities data, feedback data, and more. This unified data forms the backbone of Parative's robust data and automation engine that not only stores customer data but also drives employee workflows, tracks events, and performs data scoring.

The data scoring identifies potential outcomes, and automated workflows drive team action. This results in an NRR Pipeline Management, Expansion Identification, Risk Identification, and Automated Workflows, contributing to a proactive approach to managing NRR.

Actionable Steps to Make the Shift

Finally, let's discuss actionable steps to make this shift:

  1. Improve Customer Engagement: Engaged customers are more likely to stick around and spend more. Enhance your communication efforts, offer educational content, and ensure your customers are making the most out of your product or service.
  2. Reduce Churn: Retaining customers is just as crucial as acquiring new ones, if not more. Identify why customers are leaving and address these issues head-on. This might involve improving your product, offering better customer support, or adjusting your pricing.
  3. Maximize Customer Lifetime Value (CLTV): CLTV is the total revenue you can expect from a customer over their lifetime. Strategies to maximize CLTV include upselling, cross-selling, and improving customer loyalty.

By taking these steps, you can transition from a focus on ARR to a focus on NRR, allowing your SaaS business to navigate today's challenging market, optimize growth, and maximize profitability.

In the conclusion, we will wrap up and summarize why this strategic shift is vital in the current economic landscape.

Conclusion: The Imperative Shift from ARR to NRR

The SaaS industry is experiencing a pivotal moment. As we navigate the seismic shifts in the macroeconomic landscape, with record inflation rates, declining tech valuations, and sweeping layoffs, it's becoming abundantly clear: the traditional levers of growth we once relied on are no longer sufficient.

This changing reality necessitates an urgent shift in perspective. Focusing on Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) has been the norm for SaaS companies, but it doesn't fully encapsulate the potential for growth or the reality of customer value. As we've discussed, ARR can paint a rosy picture of a company's growth while overlooking significant issues like churn or the inability to expand within the existing customer base.

Net Revenue Retention (NRR), on the other hand, is a comprehensive indicator of growth, combining factors like churn, expansion, upselling, and cross-selling. This metric gives us a much more holistic view of a company's health, potential for growth, and actual value derived from customers.

But making this shift isn't as simple as deciding to do so. It requires a strategic shift, a new focus on customer-centric strategies, and a commitment to data-driven decision-making. And, as we've highlighted, it's not something you have to do alone. Tools like Parative's customer data engine are here to help.

Parative's approach to NRR focuses on the power of predictive scoring to forecast NRR. By unifying data from various sources and leveraging key customer signals, Parative can help SaaS companies navigate the shift from ARR to NRR, manage churn, identify expansion opportunities, and ultimately, secure their growth in a challenging market.

Indeed, the pivot to NRR is about more than surviving the challenging economic times; it's about thriving despite them. By focusing on NRR, SaaS businesses can turn adversity into opportunity, transforming their approach to growth in ways that ensure longevity and prosperity in the face of changing market dynamics.

We hope this exploration has shed light on the value and necessity of shifting focus from ARR to NRR. If you're interested in learning more about leveraging predictive scoring to forecast NRR, we invite you to download our ebook, "Scoring for NRR: Leveraging Predictive Scoring to Forecast Net Revenue Retention." This comprehensive guide goes into even greater depth about the strategies, techniques, and tools, like Parative, that can support your SaaS business in this critical transition.

The future of SaaS growth may look different than what we're used to, but with the right tools and strategies at our disposal, we're not just ready for the future; we're poised to define it.

By embracing NRR as our new guidepost, we're choosing to adapt, grow, and thrive. And that's a choice worth making.

Predictive Scoring Automation
Mark Lerner

Head of Marketing @ Parative, the Customer Behavior Platform. SaaS enthusiast, B2B Marketing Specialist, Startup Survivalist. Dad x2.

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