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37signals is one hell of a profitable business

[UPDATE]: Based on a number of comments below, via e-mail, and through additional research I’ve updated my original estimates.  I think 37signals had revenue of ~$4million in 2007 and ~$8million in 2008.  Please read my new post for details and to download the updated spreadsheet to play with the model on your own.

Inspired by a recent post on 37signals’ Signal vs. Noise blog, I decided to play around and see if I could try and figure out exactly how much money they’re making. Though my analysis is crude (as they obviously won’t release key figures), I think I’ve got a pretty decent handle on their turnover. Based on my calculations, they made around $3.5 million in 2007 alone, and look to make over $5 million in 2008.

So how did I come to this? Let’s dig a little deeper…

Data

37signals clearly doesn’t talk about specific numbers much at all. They’re private and close-held, so there’s no reason to. That said, they have provided some numbers in three key posts that I’ve seen:

What’s making money and how much had some initial discussion and a datapoint for number of Basecamp projects.
Ask 37signals: Numbers had key data for all of the different products.
The New Backpack’s first 24 hours provided a few new numbers on Backpack.

To complete the analysis I took pricing data from the various pricing pages and other data from the overall 37signals website(s).

General Model

There were a few different ways that I could have modeled 37signals’ revenue. I decided to look at the data the same way that 37signals charges for their products: month-to-month. Each month, a certain number of people sign up for accounts. A large majority of these are free accounts, so the use of these accounts are limited. (And some people will just register and try them out, never to return.) A slice of these accounts will be (or will turn into) paying customers.

Each subsequent month, a new group of accounts are registered. However, this time a certain number of accounts are carried over (except for those that cancel the service), and these are added to the new paying accounts for that month.

What 37signals provided in their “Ask 37signals: Numbers” post was not the number of accounts, but instead they posted:

  • Basecamp: # of projects
  • Backpack: # of pages
  • Campfire: # of rooms
  • Highrise: # of contacts

They posted more information, but I decided that I would try to create a model that would match these datapoints.

Essentially I use this model with assumptions on how each pay and free account generate new projects/pages/etc., play with the numbers within general assumptions of growth and ratio of free/pay accounts, match the data provided, then calculate monthly revenue based off an assumed revenue per pay account times the number of current pay accounts. Simple!

General assumptions

I had to make some assumptions to use the model above:

  • Only 1-3% of new accounts are pay accounts
  • Each free account creates a certain # of projects, rooms, pages, etc. over the lifetime of the account
  • Each pay account creates a certain # of projects, rooms, pages, etc. per month while a pay account
  • Between 1-10% of pay customers cancel their service each month
  • The growth of people registering for new accounts has been growing steadily since each service launched

More on each application

Basecamp

Basecamp is clearly the main revenue generator for 37signals. It’s been going the longest, and so has built up a good number of pay accounts and people who really value the service. I estimate that at the beginning of 2008, 37signals is making nearly $300k per month from about 5k pay accounts.

Backpack

Backpack is the second oldest application for 37signals, and with the recent changes to make it multi-user, I think this is really set for a lot of growth in 2008. Up until now, I estimate that 37signals is making about $35k per month from about 2300 pay accounts.

Campfire

Campfire was released in early 2006. This is a hard product to estimate, but based on my (rather wild-ass) guesses, I believe they are making about $9k per month from 600 pay accounts.

Highrise

Highrise is the new kid on the block, and competes with more sophisticated CRM software. (I’m sure Jason and Co. would describe their competition as needlessly complicated CRM software.) I estimate that over the past year Highrise has grown to contribute $30k per month to 37signals from 1100 pay accounts.

Other streams

37signals doesn’t just make money from their web applications. There are three other streams that should be taken into account:

  • Job Board (and Gig Board)
  • The Deck
  • Getting Real book sales

Since each Job Board ad runs for 30 days and costs $300, I just counted the number of current advertisements to guess their revenue. From this alone it looks like 37signals is making nearly $40k per month! The Gig Board adds to that, but it looks to be negligible. Please note the sampling error… to make a more accurate measurement I would need to count the number of ads every “x” many days and average them all out. My version is quick and should at least be in the right ballpark.

The Deck is an advertising network that runs on the 37signals blog. I calculated the total revenue for the Deck based on the cost of an ad and the number of advertisers, divided by the number of blogs on which Deck ads appear, and added in a factor that represents a somewhat larger share of the revenue for 37signals since it’s one of the most prominent blogs in the network. Based on all of this, I estimate that they earn about $6k per month from The Deck.

Finally, they have certainly made some money from selling copies of Getting Real. 30k copies of the PDF version sold for about $19 each, and the book version sells for $25. I estimate that they earn about $10k per month from these sales (PDF and hard copies).

Grand Total

All together, I believe 37signals currently generates revenue of approximately $400k per month from a diverse stream of applications and other revenue sources. If this continues, they are on track for yearly revenues of almost $5 million. This makes them incredibly profitable. They have 9 employees, plus some other help from time to time (it appears.) Jason Fried and DHH (and Jeff Bezos) must be doing quite well.

Think I’m full of s**t?

Well, I don’t blame you. To quote a great Radiohead song, I might be wrong. This analysis is a bit crude because of a lack of data. You may have very different assumptions that you would use in this analysis would could dramatically change the figures here. My growth model might be quite a way off.

Here’s the Excel file I used to calculate everything; try it out for yourself.

Right-click this link to download the 37signalsRevenueModel.xls

Just plug the assumptions into the relevant boxes and see how the figures line up for you.

Summary and why?

Let me make it clear that I’m both a big fan of 37signals and a user of their applications. I did this partly for my own edification and partly to better understand the industry of SaaS. (I’m working on an app of my own, but since I’m not a professional developer it’s taking quite me a while.)

Clearly 37signals has be incredibly successful, and I’m very happy for them. They clearly give back, through Ruby on Rails, thoughtful blogging, etc. And if they’re making $5 million a year, it’s no wonder why Jeff Bezos wanted to invest!

That said, 37signals clearly laid out in Getting Real that “Outside money is plan B.” With revenues of $3-5million and a small team, that fits completely with Furqan’s thoughts on early-stage venture capital funding. They could probably scale their apps a lot larger, but by maintaining a clear and consistent focus, they’re able to do what they do best and keep their quality and craftsmanship at the highest levels.

  • http://www.centraldesktop.com Isaac Garcia

    I think you are off by a factor of 2. Just a hunch.

  • Kenley

    That's why we call them 37$.
    I expect we will see this growth slow if 37$ stays with their current model of bad customer service. There are many many alternatives now, some of them are actually legitimate competition.

  • http://blog.jedchristiansen.com jedc

    That could be very true. I'd be interested if anyone could play with the numbers substantially and have them still match up to what 37signals has released publically.

  • Hugh Hovards

    Basecamp is popular and I wonder why. Most probably, cause they have been there for a long time now. However, now there are better apps availble. Like Wrike.com for projects, for example. Wrike has Gantt charts, customizable reports, due dates for tasks, email intergration and so on. Project management is not just about communication, that's what I think.

  • http://blog.jedchristiansen.com jedc

    Overall, I find it interesting that the people who have posted so far are plugging their own project management software solution (whether directly or indirectly).

    I'm curious if anyone has more substantial comments about if/how my analysis is biased in one way or another. (I do believe it is conservative.)

  • http://meyerweb.com/ Eric Meyer

    There's one thing missing here: their costs. I don't know what they are, but you'd need to subtract them to determine how profitable 37s truly is.

    Costs I can think of right away: office space rental, utilities, equipment, co-location fees, bandwidth, servers, contract-worker payments (if any), health insurance costs, and 401(k) contribution matching. If they have set salaries as opposed to straight profit sharing, then those would have to be subtracted as well. If there is an administrative assistant or two, or any other employees who aren't part of the listed gang of nine, then those are also costs.

    Not that I disagree with your basic conclusion that 37s is profitable, but I think the title would have been more accurate as “37signals is one hell of a revenue-generating business”.

  • http://blog.jedchristiansen.com jedc

    From what they've written on their blog, their only office space is a few desks sublet from Coudal Partners in Chicago. Everyone else works from wherever they want to.

    True, there's likely a substantial cost to Rackspace per month for servers, but I doubt it's a big percentage of my projected $400k per month.

    In the end, their costs are (I believe) an order of magnitude below their revenue.

  • http://johnherr.net John

    I think you're off.

    I personally, for at least 3 clients, have set up 3 accounts (people) with at least 1 project each.

    Here at work we have an account — it has 1 project, but 25 people.

    So I think they probably make about half to a third of that, based on my gut.

  • http://blog.jedchristiansen.com jedc

    Hi, John.

    My analysis ignored the number of users; it only deals with the number of projects. (It assumes that only 2% of accounts pay for the service, but that those accounts regularly generate new projects.) Obviously 37signals doesn't release a whole lot of data, so I've had to go with what they've provided.

    Download the spreadsheet and play around if you think I'm wrong!

    Cheers,
    Jed

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  • http://www.bizacquire.com ed

    Uhh….thanks for your great post. Absolutely very useful for me. Very Excellent. Thanks.

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  • http://the-complete-man.blogspot.com Nikhil Kulkarni

    I have taken the liberty of uploading this sheet on google docs … find it here

    http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=pAVZB7af

  • jano

    Wouldn't this data be available as the Annual Sales (sales, not profits) figure of the D&B Company Profile Report?

    https://smallbusiness.dnb.com/webapp/wcs/stores

    This report is available for $19.99. However, it's only available for US cutomers (that's not my case).

    According to the example report, the Annual Sales figure is a required field for producing a Company Profile Report.

    https://smallbusiness.dnb.com/webapp/wcs/stores

  • http://blog.jedchristiansen.com jedc

    Hmmm… I didn't know this was centralized anywhere. (It is in the UK, but I didn't know anyone went state-to-state in the US to get this information.)

  • jano

    In fact, I checked first http://www.einforma.com/ (probabaly the most comprehensive bussiness information database in Spain).

    einforma.com queries the D&B database for USA based business,

    http://www.einforma.com/servlet/app/portal/ENTP

    so I thought more options would be available searching the source directly.

    I wouldn't mind donating some $ for the Company Profile Report.

  • http://tynerblain.com/blog/2009/02/24/freemium-model/?utm_campaign=sm&utm_medium=blog&utm_source=jedchristiansen Scott Sehlhorst

    Thanks for the great analysis! I approached the same analysis from a couple different directions (citing other people's work & interviews with 37signals) and estimated that both of those, plus your analysis puts things in the ~ 1% of users are paid users range. Granted, there is not enough data to do an analysis of 37signal's profitability, it is useful anecdotal data to think about economic models, generally, for saas products with freemium models.

  • http://blog.jedchristiansen.com jedc

    Hi, Scott. Thanks for your note, and I'm glad our respective analyses are similar. I've updated mine a bit, and think that 37signals is doing a better job than I posted here. The new link is here:

    http://blog.jedchristiansen.com/2008/12/04/esti

  • sharoncfejes

    Hi scott

    Let me make it clear that I’m both a big fan of 37signals and a user of their applications. I did this partly for my own edification and partly to better understand the industry of SaaS. (I’m working fidelity 401k on an app of my own, but since I’m not a professional developer it’s taking quite me a while.)

    Clearly 37signals has be incredibly successful, and I’m very happy for them. They clearly give back, through Ruby on Rails, thoughtful blogging, etc. And if they’re making $5 million a year, it’s no wonder why Jeff Bezos wanted to invest!

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