Mainsail conducted the Bootstrapped Sentiment Survey for the 5th consecutive year at the end of 2015*. The survey is intended to measure the shifting sentiment of bootstrapped entrepreneurs on a number of topics, including the U.S. economy, momentum of their own businesses, and the most important areas of investment in their companies. This year the survey asked business owners several additional questions related to the structure of their sales organizations and their most effective marketing channels.
Mainsail has been conducting the survey since 2011 which covers a dynamic timeframe as companies recovered from the recession and began to invest more aggressively in their businesses. The results of the survey provide a unique perspective into the shift in confidence bootstrapped entrepreneurs have expressed in the economy and their own businesses during that period. This segment of business owners is uniquely focused on growth and profitability, and therefore can serve as an early indicator of trends in the broader market.
For the first time in four years, survey results indicate that entrepreneurs are less bullish on the economy than they were in the previous year. In fact, for the first time since 2012, less than 50% of business owners felt the economy would be “better” than it was in the previous year. The change was relatively dramatic, dropping from 60% in 2014 to 43% in 2015. While the results of the survey show signs of a reversal in the trend of entrepreneur sentiment, it is worth noting that the overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs remain either positive or neutral on the economy with only 15% indicating they expect the economy to get worse in 2016.
Do you expect the economy to be better or worse next year (2016)?
Mirroring the trend in sentiment on the overall economy, the percentage of respondents that believe their business would grow more quickly in 2016 also declined for the first time in four years. Despite the disruption in the trend, entrepreneurs remain extremely bullish on their own businesses with only 4% expecting to grow more slowly in 2016.
What best describes your expectations for your business in 2016?
INVESTMENT PRIORITIES IN 2016
Product Development still rules. Each year Mainsail asks entrepreneurs to name their top priorities for investing in their businesses in the coming year and for five consecutive years the number one response has been “Product Development”. While the percentage of respondents selecting “Product Development” was relatively flat from the previous year (from 57% in 2014 to 56% in 2015), other key areas such as “Hiring People” and “Marketing and PR” saw meaningful declines (from 39% to 32% and 55% to 51% respectively).
This is the first year “Customer Success” was included as an option in this question about investment priorities. Despite the fact Mainsail has seen an increased focus on building customer success organizations and implementing best practices, only 25% of respondents selected “Customer Success” as one of their most important areas of investment. This is an indication that many companies still have not made the shift to leveraging customer satisfaction, retention and upselling as opportunities to grow their business.
What are your most important areas of investment in 2016?*
CHALLENGES IN 2016
Sales and marketing top the list. Each year Mainsail asks entrepreneurs to highlight the biggest challenges they face heading into the new year. This was the first year “Sales/Marketing Execution” was included in the list of potential options and it was by far the top response. Nearly 60% of respondents selected “Sales/Marketing Execution” as one of their top three challenges with the next highest response being “Hiring Quality People” at 44%. This is consistent with the experience Mainsail has had investing in bootstrapped companies. Creating a repeatable and scalable sales and marketing process is the single greatest area of opportunity at most companies that have funded their own growth.
What do you expect the biggest challenge(s) for growing your business in 2016?*
Hiring less of a priority. While “Hiring Quality People” was still the second most cited challenge entrepreneurs expected to face, the percentage of people highlighting hiring as a challenge was down from 57% the prior year to 44% this year. Despite the fact that the job market continues to favor employees for jobs in technology, it is possible that management teams are viewing hiring as less of a challenge because they plan on hiring fewer people in the coming year.
This is the first time in three years that the percentage of respondents saying they were going to hire more people than the previous year actually declined. In last year’s survey 67% of respondents said they would hire more people in the coming year with that number dropping to 62% in this year’s survey.
Will you hire more people in 2016 than you did in 2015?
More favorable business environment? Results from the survey reveal business owners have become less concerned with regulations and increased expenses related to running a business. In the four years Mainsail has been asking entrepreneurs to highlight the biggest challenges they face in the coming year, only two responses have consistently declined each year. The percentage of managers citing “Increased Regulations” declined from 19% in 2012 to 8% in 2015, while the percentage of managers selecting “Increased expenses” declined from 26% in 2012 to 14% in 2015. As noted in last year’s survey and report (2014 survey report), the beginning of this time frame is the height of the implementation of new financial regulations as a result of the financial crisis and just after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law.
KEY FACTORS IN SALES AND MARKETING EXECUTION
Each year the survey takes a deeper dive into a specific category that Mainsail has identified as an area of interest for bootstrapped companies. This year the survey covered several questions related to sales and marketing organizations and their go-to-market approach. The responses highlight the importance of alignment between sales and marketing.
When respondents were asked to name the top 3 most critical factors in the performance of their sales team, not surprisingly “Quality leads” was the number one answer at 56% of respondents. The number two response was “Having a good process (stage definitions, pipeline management, etc.)” at 48%, followed by “Having the right sales leader” at 39%. The order of the second and third selection is interesting given that having the right sales leader in place often dictates whether a company has a good process or not.
What are the most critical factors in performance of your sales team?*
Given the importance of quality leads, Mainsail wanted to better understand the most common sources of these highly qualified leads. “Referrals” (55%) was by far the number one response to the question “What is your best source of qualified leads?”. There are plenty of statistics and data to support the idea that leads generated by referrals convert at a higher rate and tend to churn at lower rates. The next two responses cited most often were “Website/Content” and “Partner Channels.”
Coming in at the bottom of the list of best sources of leads were “Paid advertising” and “Social Media” with 8% and 9%, respectively. Based on Mainsail’s experience working with dozens of B2B marketers, the consensus is that paid advertising is becoming less effective, while for many companies social media is still an unproven channel for lead generation.
What is your best source of qualified leads?*
MORE SALES AND MARKETING DATA
The most interesting insights from this year’s survey come from trends in the sentiment of bootstrapped entrepreneurs over the past several years. For the first time in four years, bootstrapped business owners are less optimistic about the coming year than they were in the previous year.
Entrepreneurs continue to highlight product development as their highest priority for investment and believe execution in sales and marketing is their biggest challenge in the coming year. And finally, despite heading into an election year there appears to be less anxiety related to regulatory issues and healthcare expenses which have moved down the list of concerns for business owners.
Overall, as always, entrepreneurs remain relatively optimistic about their success in the coming year – as do we. We hope you found this valuable and look forward to continuing to provide you with this unique perspective on the outlook of entrepreneurs who have built their businesses by bootstrapping
ABOUT THE BOOTSTRAPPED SENTIMENT SURVEY
The survey was conducted between December 8 – 28, 2015 and resulted in 417 completed and qualified responses. This is the fifth annual Mainsail survey and is intended to help us continue to understand the needs and perspectives of companies that Mainsail invests in and helps to grow. The survey was conducted via an online survey sent to entrepreneurs and senior executives at U.S. based companies.
For the purposes of this survey, “bootstrapped companies” are defined as businesses which have taken no previous capital from venture capital firms, private equity firms, or other institutional investors. Qualification as a bootstrapped company was verified through prior conversations or in some cases via a qualifying question.
ABOUT MAINSAIL PARTNERS
Mainsail Partners is a growth equity firm focused on investing in growing, bootstrapped businesses with an emphasis on software, technology-enabled services and healthcare. Our firm maintains relationships with thousands of entrepreneurs and executives at these companies.