Consumer subscription software 2022
The view from GP Bullhound
About us
3 articles
Market update
9 articles
GP Bullhound key CSS insights
7 articles
Expert views from venture builders
5 articles
Current CSS ecosystem
5 articles
CSS metrics to watch
4 articles
Past CSS insights
6 articles
About GP Bullhound
1 articles
This report is intended for professional investors only; see the back of the report for important disclosures. GP Bullhound Corporate Finance Ltd and GP Bullhound Asset Management Limited are authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. GP Bullhound Inc is a member of FINRA. GP Bullhound Luxembourg S.à.r.l. is regulated by the CSSF in Luxembourg.
The view from GP Bullhound
Eric crowley, Partner, investment banking
The CSS ecosystem continues to mature as consumers demand high-quality digital services and entrepreneurs continue to integrate user generated content, social and sensor features to drive value and increase organic interest and retention.”
Alec dafferner, partner, Investment Banking
We believe that the CSS business model enables companies to rapidly scale with attractive margins while also providing a compelling consumer value proposition. We are excited to help guide CSS companies through the next chapter of their evolution.”
about us
Market update
key css insights
A leading technology advisory and investment firm, providing investment banking and transaction advisory services and venture capital investment 
GP Bullhound’s CSS Index, the first to track how public CSS companies are valued, underscores the market turbulence. M&A and private financing remain robust 
Community drives winner takes all dynamics while entrepreneurs begin to shift away from App store payments. Data highlight retention rates across different app types while Web3 encroaches on CSS apps 
What CSS leaders and investors have to say about the ecosystem, their business environment, and what they expect for the future  
Expert views from venture builders  
Entertainment sees strong growth users, Fitness / Recreation lead in converting to paid users, EdTech is in the hybrid classroom, and Family / Dating see uptick in use  
Current CSS ecosystem 
css metrics to watch 
What investors focus on and the key nuances: Enterprise SaaS vs. consumer subscription, and the six key bench markers    
past css insights
Getting the fundamentals right: insights taken from our previous reports and still relevant today  
Joakim Dal, Partner, investment Management 
To build your position as a partner with the user, your relationship can't just be transactional. You need to provide a utility that drives engagement over many years and an organic re-activation of users. The subscription model fits perfectly with this use case, but it can be monetised in a variety of ways. Amazon Prime, Netflix, Spotify, Strava, Vivino, YouTube, Whoop, and Patreon are examples of this.”
About GP Bullhound’s CSS team
GP Bullhound’s CSS team
GP Bullhound’s CSS team leverages decades of collective experience, proprietary intelligence, deep industry relationships, and leading data sources to identify and communicate what you need to know to stay ahead of the curve.

Our CSS practice is led by our San Francisco-based Partner, Eric Crowley, who has over 10 years of investment banking and private equity experience. 
eric crowley
Alec dafferner
okan inaltay
Vice President
gerry kelliher
Daniel Roberts
Adam Segall
Senior Analyst
Eren yagmurlu
Kyle Yu
yinzheng Liu
Business Development Manager
Jade williams
Vice President,
Head of Insights
jennifer eller
maria lazareva
Deep domain expertise in the consumer subscription sector
Featured in TechCrunch, 2021 

“I believe CSS is still in the early stages of its growth – perhaps where B2B SaaS was a decade ago. The beauty of the CSS model is the complete alignment between the business and its customers. CSS companies don’t have to please advertisers, and they can design purely for their users.”

Eric Crowley, Partner 
Consistently serving as a contributor and guide to the CSS ecosystem and entrepreneurs
First investment bank with a CSS focus
Our recent CSS reports
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Our celebrated news articles
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GP Bullhound’s recent CSS activity
GP Bullhound continues to lead in the CSS sector from both an advisory and an investment perspective
Completed transactions
Market update
US App Store revenue from non-game applications has topped games for the first time ever
The consumer subscription model for non-gaming continues to thrive in the US. With strong CSS tailwinds headed into 2023, we expect the margin between non-game and game spending to increase. 
By comparison, games accounted for more than two-thirds of total spending on the US App Store just five years ago.

Subscriptions are the major revenue growth driver, with non-game apps growing at a rate of nearly double (40% CAGR since June 2014 with less than 20% for games).

Huge value has been unlocked for non-game applications; in Q2 of 2016 the marketplace had one application with over $50m in consumer spending. As of Q2 2022 there were 12 apps and counting. 
Sources: GP Bullhound Insights, SensorTower, and TechCrunch (1 September 2022)
US App Store mobile app consumer spending, games vs. non-games
Non-game apps with $50m+
 In Q2 2022 consumer spending 
The true impact of iOS 15 is now clear
With traditional customer acquisition strategies losing efficiency, many CSS companies have shifted spend towards the Apple store, with Apple reporting an estimated $4bn in ad revenue in 2021.

Branch reported that Apple’s in-house ads were responsible for 50% of app downloads in 2022, up from 20% in April 2021 Apple will continue to expand its services revenue, which includes advertising and now makes 25% of quarterly revenue up from 13% five years ago.

Apple is likely to follow Amazon’s path, leveraging its dominant platform to add additional advertising inventory and potentially launch its own Advertising Demand-Side Platform (DSP).  
With the release of iOS 15 and Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) starting in 2021, Apple’s search ads business has eaten dollars previously reserved for Meta, Snap and other ad networks, like ironSource. 
Sources: GP Bullhound Insights, Business of Apps, and Axios (1 September 2022)
Apple booms...
While others burst...
Channels with increased spend after the launch of SKAdNetwork 
Consumer Subscription Software…Security
Heightened awareness of data protection, collection, and usage has prompted consumers to rethink the security and privacy measures they take, necessitating the development of mobile apps that mirror the functionalities of their desktop counterparts. 
Subscription antivirus and cybersecurity software offerings have existed for many years and taken many forms. However, the focus has historically been on desktop platforms and enterprise environments.

App stores have strict criteria for admission that include screenings to prevent data exfiltration or other malicious software from being inadvertently distributed on the platform, making mobile security apps superfluous in the past.

Increased expectations for online security in the CSS ecosystem have signaled:

  • Consumers no longer unconditionally trust developers and publishers and have taken supplemental security measures into their own hands

  • Consumers are willing to pay for apps that function entirely in the background, without any direct interaction or benefit

  • Consumers worldwide are subscribing to personal VPN software for uses ranging from bypassing region locks on popular CSS streaming platforms, to circumventing restrictive government censorship
 Noteworthy transactions  
Consumer subscription
security landscape 
Sources: GP Bullhound Insights
The effects of inflation
on CSS companies 
Inflation has a direct impact on consumer spending patterns while raising costs for the companies.

There were a total of 46 million cancellations in the last year. Young consumers have been the first to cancel subscriptions with the following rates of cancellations:
  • Generation Z at 17%
  • Millennials at 16%
  • Bridge Millennials at 14%
  • Generation X at 11%

People who unsubscribed from a subscription service cited “the cost” as the most important reason why they did not enroll with a new subscription. 
Due to inflationary pressures on price, consumers have begun to cut subscription-based services as they continue to see price hikes and additional service charges. 
Sources: GP Bullhound Insights, Bloomberg, and (1 September 2022)   
With inflation taking a larger bite out of paychecks, consumers are more conscious on how they spend their discretionary income 
As Covid-related restrictions wind down, consumers are eager to get off the couch and focus on life beyond the TV screen  
Competition in the subscription streaming market has increased as Apple TV, Disney Plus, Hulu, and others continue to capture additional market share 
Netflix lost 600,000 subscribers after a price hike in January of 2022 due to a combination of inflation, consumer preference, and competition. 
Inflation and consumer spending patterns
case study
Share of nonsubscribers citing cost as the most important reason why they cancelled subscriptions
March 2022
October 2021
iOS 15 and effects on industry growth: continued momentum for privacy
Short-term: CSS ecosystem growth is hampered by the adoption of iOS 15 as companies were forced to re-tool. Long-term: this should benefit the CSS industry by forcing companies to build new methods of tracking customer data and driving growth while keeping privacy in mind. 
With the release of iOS 15 in October 2021, consumers can now block their IP addresses, turn off pixel tracking, and hide email addresses.

This privacy change has widely impacted email and mobile phone marketing by hiding traditional attribution statistics, like email openings and conversion levels.

All this leads to less data on customers and required workarounds, leading to adoption issues in the short-term.
Sources: GP Bullhound Insights, Fetch & Funnel, and CMSwire
Companies will develop new tools that will help mitigate the impact of social advertising email marketing on iOS platforms.

Reduced marketing efficiency will force CSS businesses to:
  • Focus on acquiring customers organically through clever organic marketing and referrals, engineering, and unique value propositions
  • Run more effective and targeted marketing campaigns, driving higher retention and growth

Combined with the Apple Tax, iOS 15 might push businesses to drive consumers to sign up through web interfaces, resulting in improved margins. 
Near term, many CSS businesses are seeing an impact on growth and incurring higher than expected losses as the ROI on marketing spend declines.

With social advertising and email marketing becoming more difficult on iOS platforms, CSS advertisers will look for other avenues of advertising, impacting traditional channels. 
Connected TV (CTV): the new playground for consumer subscription apps 
CTV has become the ultimate video/audio advertising platform. The CSS ecosystem is expanding into CTV with custom extensions and add-ons and benefitting from the migration of consumers from these platforms. 
Media dollars spent on CTV are growing faster than any other channel. Given its high ROI qualities combined with interactive UI/UX compared to traditional TV, CTV is an ideal platform for Freemium business models and ad revenue focused CSS companies.

With CTV entering almost every home, it has become an abundant source of data for complex audience targeting, customer trend identification and more.

CSS companies can ride the CTV wave by:
  • Creating CTV extensions
  • Benefiting from mobile funneled

CTV exposure through AirPlay CTV can unlock huge potential for CSS companies, especially in video/audio-based segments like education, fitness & wellness, music, streaming, and more.
Sources: GP Bullhound Insights and Statista (1 September 2022)
Most popular stationary digital entertainment platform
Gen Z and millennial CTV users in the US (m) 
CTV-driven software usage is growing 
CSS players that have launched
CTV extensions
Connected TV (CTV)
Smart TVs
Streaming Devices
Game Consoles
Turbulence for public CSS valuations
GP BulLhound's CSS Index
Sources: GP Bullhound Insights and CapitalIQ (1 September 2022) 
Our CSS index, the first to track how public CSS companies are valued, includes:
M&A activity remains robust 
Sources: GP Bullhound Insights, Capital IQ, and Pitchbook (1 September 2022) 
noteable deals since our previous report
Private financing continues to surge
Sources: GP Bullhound Insights, Capital IQ, and Pitchbook (1 September 2022) 
noteable deals since our previous report
GP Bullhound key CSS insights 
CSS flywheel attributes to drive premium valuation
Source: GP Bullhound Insights
We advise buyers on CSS opportunities using our flywheel
A key valuation driver for investors is the concept of winner-takes-all in CSS apps; if the company has the potential to dominate a niche or a broader market through network effects, investors will pay up.
It is important for entrepreneurs to understand their competitive positioning and be able to define their market niche.
Shift to web payments from Apple and Google Stores
Developers are shifting to Web Stores due to low commission rates and high dollar retention.

As illustrated below, Web Stores allow developers with a smaller customer base to see a higher return in year two than App Store developers with a larger base. 
Note: GP Bullhound sample illustration using data example 
  • Direct relationship with customers (emails and reviews)

  • Consumer trust (app store approval and ranking)

  • Save on app store taxes Improve retention of subscribers through direct emails 
  • Struggle to make the shift and lose consumer trust

  • May need to offer discounts

  • Can create difficulties with tracking Lose Apple/Google Pay and auto credit card updates

  • Long-term issue of angering “App Gods”  
Illustrative approach*
“At Asana Rebel we've successfully done the shift towards web subscribers because we believe it's a long-term strategic value to own the relationship with a customer without any middleman. However, all of this comes at a cost; you need to manage the subscription and communication, you need to process and handle the payment, and you need to maintain and build trust with your own checkout experience.” 

Pascal Klein, Co-founder, Asana Rebel 

The power of community in CSS
Many CSS companies have broken the traditional one-to-one relationship between application and subscriber to one-of-many, driving higher retention rates through community.

Consumers continuously adopt subscription-based products, enabling CSS companies to secure higher retention rates, earn greater revenues, and develop a strategic agenda to scale the CSS market.

Higher community engagement also has the tendency to lower CAC. 
The methods of communication within the CSS network 
selected Expert companies operating in the space 
Reviews & tips 
Community as a Service 
Providing an opinion allows users to build a bond with the platform and helps create “power users” who find validation through each interaction with others 
Reviewing content on various topics allows users to get inspired (“planning a trip” or “studying for a test”) 
Communicating about similar interests creates a sticky platform, that is the go-to place to consume content about each others' interests
In-app chat messaging and activity feeds give users the tools to build a community 
Source: GP Bullhound Insights
Data never lies
Many CSS market participants are aware that subscriber renewal rates differ by the type of subscription. 

Now, RevenueCat is providing the data to back that up. 
Generally, the average rate of first-year subscription renewal for CSS companies is ~30% with best in class at >60%.

RevenueCat’s data shows that most apps have first-year renewals between 17% and 40% with Productivity tools and Lifestyle tools outperforming Fitness and Photo & Video editing.

45%+ represents the top quartile of apps and those generally attract the most investor interest.

First renewal rate of
annual subscriptions 
First renewal rate of
monthly subscriptions 
Sources: GP Bullhound Insights and RevenueCat
The importance of subscription pricing
Subscription pricing models have been an effective way to drive customer retention and growth. It is important to determine the value that is being provided when creating a subscription pricing model instead of using an arbitrary price, such as the standard $29.99 per year offering.

Focusing on weighing a tiered pricing model versus a usage pricing model is important in providing a consistent path of upselling and driving up customer lifetime value. 
Source: GP Bullhound Insights
Paddle acquired ProfitWell on the back of its $200m raise. ProfitWell offers tools to provide analytics and retention data to companies using subscription models. This acquisition provides Paddle with a larger platform to supplement its core payments business. 
case study
Representative AB testing pricing companies 
AB testing pricing focuses on multiple methods to find the correct price for new offerings of products and services.  
Subscription pricing considerations 
  • OnX and Tinder are prime examples of tiered pricing based on the value provided

  • Both offer discounts for annual pricing compared to monthly pricing, with Tinder offering a 66.6% discount and OnX offering a 44.4% discount

  • The companies also differentiate their annual offerings based on the number of services provided. OnX expands area coverage with its annual offering and Tinder adds additional features, such as messaging, before receiving a “like” in its platinum offering   
Web3 comes for CSS 
CSS companies are looking to Web3 as a new ecosystem that can enable them to capture market share and grow their user base through new incentives and offerings. Web3 puts the power of the internet in the hands of the user instead of the legacy companies who run it.

The jury is still out on Web3 consumer companies, though they have proven to quickly scale. Retention and long-term viability remain to be shown. 
Web3 will allow customers to benefit from unique memberships and offerings based on contributions to a network
Current companies can use token offerings which can be redeemed for discounts on memberships, dividends or even equity 
Growing companies can grow and scale by bootstrapping users through PayPal-like financial incentives 
The best CSS and consumer services companies already integrate customer feedback, data and UGC without consumers being financially compensated 
Web3 offerings can increase retention rates for CSS businesses through unique incentives. Here are examples of how Web3 can be used in CSS:
Genopets, a mobile game that integrates a user's physical activity into digital in-game upgrades, raised $8.3m in October 2021 
Apex Optimizers provides its NFT owners with access to deals with brands like Eight Sleep and Bioloop, signed merchandise from athletes, and in-person training experiences
Sweatcoin and Clinicoin, early entrants in the wellness rewards ecosystem, have attracted dedicated and active users for many years  
IRONDOGS and GYMBROs have built gym ecosystems using NFTs as exclusive memberships to access competitions, seasonal merchandise releases and trainers 
Source: GP Bullhound Insights
Femtech and family-focused apps
Femtech (female-focused apps) and family-focused apps have broken into the CSS space in a large way. A variety of apps are improving how women and future parents communicate and plan their families. Categories include fertility, baby KPIs, childcare support, and family management. We expect to see significant growth in this category over time as app adoption increases and increasingly busy parents look for solutions to everyday problems. 

However, there are major privacy and health information concerns that need to be discussed, especially given recent rulings on abortion in the US and the potential impacts on individuals. 
Source: GP Bullhound Insights
Those pregnant now have a wide range of tools to measure their body rhythms to increase the chance of a successful pregnancy, communicate with their doctors, and learn about their newborn’s progress.
Key verticals within Femtech space
selected Companies operating within each vertical 
Once a child is born, parents are rapidly turning to tools to measure food intake, health, and wellness. This information can easily be shared with partners, including doctors, nannies, and daycares. 
Baby KPIs 
Childcare support 
Parents with limited family support are quick turning to consumer subscription offerings to supplement their childcare plans or find local parenting organisations. 
Streamlining what was previously sticky notes, paper calendars, or text messages into automated apps, digital calendar reminders and trackable offerings. 
Family management 
Expert views from venture builders
Amy Thomson 
Health and wellness products serving the community of women
Moody Month supports women with solutions to common moods and symptoms 
Provide a portfolio of commercial products to better serve user habits and trends 
Leverage product development from trend data, properly targeting the US market 
It all started from my personal experience. I burned out in 2016 and my periods stopped. I had no idea that stress could have such a physical effect on my body, including extreme anxiety and panic attacks. My doctor at the time told me to keep a diary tracking my moods, as this was all hormonal. The medical answer to my stress was wellness and health routines in nutrition and exercise, specifically designed to bring down my cortisol levels. I quickly realised tracking emotional symptoms and dates is an algorithm. At the time, I was working with Nike on global health tech for running and training when the convergence of both personal health issues and work served as the inspiration for an app that personalised mental health and wellness for women. There was a $17.5bn+ market opportunity in front of me and I wanted to capture it.  
Our focus is to properly serve the highest spending age cohort and design all media and content around them. We pursue three avenues of marketing to drive traffic to our site. The first is through organic word of mouth. With no paid media, we add roughly 2,000 new users per month, converting the organic user to paid subscriptions at a rate of 4.8% in our target age demographic of 35-44. The second and third avenues include authentic influencer advocates that share Moody on social media as well as targeted paid campaigns and partnerships that we launched in July of 2022, allowing us to acquire users to for $1.50. 
Accuracy of data predictions, design, and the companionship of a daily check-in app. Our focus is on daily and weekly active users, not on weekly or monthly menstrual cycle or fertility tracking. Moody focuses on daily mental and physical health, not just on menstruation or ovulation. We are a daily wellness companion, which helps women build health habits and stick with them. Retention in our paying cohort is 70% post 3 months – we have built a product that allows users to stick with mental and physical health routines. 
We use churn data to show who does not fall within our acquisition strategy, allowing us to tailor it specifically to audiences who retain the longest, engage the most and spend consistently. Moody’s product-market fit came from seeing almost 10% variability between those over and under the age of 30. Splitting our cohort in two, those above 30 and those below, we see 35% and 26% retention after six months, respectively. It's also the audience who will migrate into menopause within 10-20 years, so there is new content and commercial opportunity at this stage.  
In 2019, year two of our tech build, we failed to raise sufficient funding – forcing us to scale back the entire team and product focus. In order to retain our talent, we used equity to keep them onboard, further preventing us from focusing on long-term B2C opportunities. This setback realigned us towards a B2B revenue model, re-packaging Moody as a women’s health data and trend consultancy, and securing global contracts with RGA Insurance and Nike. Over a span of three years, B2B became our revenue focus for funding our tech-stack build and working capital. This restructure for the short-term allowed us to keep building the product and in 2022 be able to launch the full revenue model for B2C.  
Expert view: RavenPack
Tamsin Todd 
Findmypast connects people to their family stories 
Emotive experiences for anyone interested in their family history, leveraging sophisticated data engineering and rich, person-centric contextual content 
Employ the dynamics of a large, connected family data network to grow engagement and retention 
The fascinating combination of an extraordinary trove of 14 billion genealogy records, coupled with a very human mission to help change people's lives. The company had been an early digitiser of historical archives in the UK and had long served an audience of advanced researchers. The technology challenge was to productise the data to make it far easier for everyday consumers to use the product. Over a period, we worked on making onboarding and searching more accessible. Today we push personalised recommendations to customers, rather than expecting them to become expert searchers. Our family tree – a huge network of connected family data – is intuitive to use, and in just a few clicks our customers start discovering family stories. With changes like these, we moved from a broadly transactional relationship with our customers to a long-term relationship, where subscribers stay with us for many years, continually adding new discoveries to their family stories. 
We know family history is a deeply engaging hobby and renewal rates and customer lifetime values are high. Yet it takes time and effort to get started, to collect your family information, and start building a family tree. Therefore, we believe it’s important to give customers time to test the product and ensure it’s right for them. We offer our customers a free trial with plenty of help available from our experts, and we see high conversion to subscription from the free trial period. Our subscription packages are based around customer insight, with different packages tailored to different kinds of behaviours. We continuously experiment to determine the optimum price points. 
Our main retention strategy is to continuously develop intuitive and valuable experiences for our customers. We have built strong data engineering and data science teams to understand our customers and improve our recommendation engine. Alongside this, we market through a variety of digital channels and have seen excellent growth in new customers. Some growth is organic – as more customers join and add content to the network, the whole experience improves. Many customers find us through our social community where like-minded hobbyists help each other. This year we are experimenting with podcast content and launching a brand partnership with the UK National Trust centred on house history.
The market for family history is significant – because everyone in the world has a family and the ability to contribute to a family tree. We’re one of only a few commercial companies in a category with high barriers to entry, as it takes time for a new entrant to build a sizeable family history network. We were lucky to get started in the world’s most penetrated genealogical market. One in six adults in the UK has used our service. Partnerships with prestigious cultural organisations like the British Library have enabled us to offer our customers access to genealogical records they can’t find elsewhere. Around the world, hundreds of millions of British and Irish diaspora descendants use Findmypast to connect to ancestors. 
For me, this industry is still early in its development, with significant opportunities ahead. There are so many people who want to know about their families but haven’t used an online family history service. I want to see family history become easier, more personalised, and incorporate richer content from a variety of data sources so that people can build a fuller picture of the lives their ancestors lived, and find inspiration for their lives today. 
Andy Robinowitz 
Help millions of people make better memories in RV travel through online knowledge-sharing communities
Continue to grow existing products and potentially take on investors or join a larger portfolio in the future 
Over 1.85 million members*
- 185k pro subscribers
- Over 750k trips planned
- Over 5.5 million park visits
- Over 1 billion miles of travel

*10% subscribers
Our roots trace back to fostering online communities. Historically we were an ad-supported digital media company. We rolled up dozens of niche forums, blogs, and directories to create the largest media company in our industry. Being close to the community provided us insight into what tools were becoming popular with our members. We then started our journey to acquire those tools and built a subscription business. 
Online knowledge sharing that makes rv travel simple 
Ad-supported businesses can be finicky. You are at the mercy of algorithm updates and various other factors out of your control. Diversifying our revenue stream by growing our subscriber base has allowed us to invest across our entire platform. Our goal is to convert our organic traffic into subscribers.  
Obviously, macro changes to acquisition channels throw you curve balls every year. For example, iOS 14.5 privacy features reduced the effectiveness of Facebook ads. At the same time, Google changed App Ads providing some refuge. As a bootstrapped business, resources haven't always been available to grow as fast as we would like. We focus on targeting very low funnel opportunities – people with a high product market fit. This has provided us with a growing subscriber base and the benefit of reduced churn. As our product matures and broadens, we'll be ready to go wider funnel. 
We operate in a very nuanced niche. So nuanced, that even within our niche, the various competitors serve slightly different customers. If "Big Tech" decided to copy us, they would likely do so in a more generalised and self-serving way. Consumers are very smart, and they pick up on the subtleties. Our moat is built by the nuanced data that our community collects, it can't be replaced in a generalised way.
Right now, it feels a little bit like we are awkward teenagers. Some of our teams are more mature than others and, in some cases, we haven't even built a team yet. Slowly we are chipping away at the list. I have a feeling we'll be very proud of our company, our products and the fact we help millions of people make better memories. From a financial perspective, we expect exciting growth ahead. We might remain bootstrapped, take on investors to speed up growth, or maybe join someone else's portfolio. 
Brian Kidwell 
Co-founder and CEO
To help people travel and experience the world
To build a world-class digital experience that helps people travel
Increase monthly active users through new touch points such as mobile apps that unlock new value for members
In 2013, Scott Keyes wanted to travel more, but his income at the time was preventing him from doing so. In his free time, he looked for cheap flights – and got really good at it, even finding a $130 roundtrip flight from New York to Milan. He told a few friends and family members, who asked to be notified the next time he found a cheap flight. Scott created an email list as a hobby and periodically sent out deals. In August 2015, he started charging $2 per month to cover the cost of sending emails. After talking for a couple of months, we realised our skillsets were complementary and decided to partner up to grow the email list. Over the next four months, we grew it from $2,000/mo to $20,000/mo in revenue and quickly realised this had far more potential than a fun side project. In May 2016, we filed the paperwork to turn it into a  business, launched, and both went full-time on the new company. 
We started off at $2 per month but quickly realised that between the 30 cents per transaction fee and the 2.9% fee that Stripe charges, we were losing almost 18% of our revenue to credit card processing fees. Due to this, we switched to quarterly, semi-annual, and annual pricing. After a while, we had enough data to see that the annual plan had the highest LTV, so we eliminated the quarterly and semi-annual plans for new customers. Throughout this time, we increased the price as we improved the experience. Our annual pricing went from $29 to $39 to $49 for our Premium tier. We’re confident that if our customers book just one ticket due to an alert we send out, it will pay for their subscription many times over. We’re saving people hundreds of dollars per ticket, so if they’re traveling with others and are booking more than one ticket, the savings really add up. 
It’s been more of a natural progression than a pivot. Our mission is to help people travel and experience the world. We believe that Scott’s Cheap Flights can fulfil that mission much better with our own software, rather than being limited to the experience we can create within an email. Almost all other companies in the travel industry are built on commission models, which aren’t always aligned with helping travellers. We want to be the company that is truly on the travellers’ side. The consumer subscription model perfectly aligns incentives between the company and our customers.
We’re super excited about where the company is going. We continue investing significantly in product development, engineering, data, and design capabilities to transform this into a world-class product experience. We’ll be launching a mobile app in 2023, which will enable our members to interact with the experience in an entirely new way. While emails will continue to be an important part of the experience we provide, I believe people will come to see this as much more than an email newsletter in the coming years. 
Ben Futoriansky
Investment mandates for css businesses
Cobalt Capital invests to improve the customer experience across application and enable software

Its investment strategy focuses on high growth sectors through technology like interactive media, web3/crypto and more
We have seen many examples of companies raising capital at 100x ARR struggle to grow into their valuations. In the current environment where interest rates have come up and capital has progressively become more expensive, the trading multiples will be lower, forcing companies to grow ARR at a faster rate for a longer period in order to justify its most recent valuation. Founders who have recently raised capital at lofty valuations are now finding it difficult to hire executives who are valuing the equity portion of their potential compensation bearishly. Companies are either having to lose out on good talent or pay stock-based compensation at higher levels than they would have historically.

More notably, we launched the Cobalt Consumer Index in 2021 and have watched multiples fall considerably. Companies within the index have suffered a drop in average valuation multiples in the last 18 months. The top 10 consumer internet companies by EV/NTM went from a median of ~17x to ~6x, while the overall median EV/NTM went from ~6x to ~2x at the end of July 2022. Simultaneously, enterprise software valuations have gone from 15x-25x forward to 5x-7x forward, trading at a premium to consumers. 
A high growth rate alone is no longer enough. We are carefully analysing the efficiency of growth and understanding what the costs associated with scaling are. The burn multiple – the ratio of dollars of incremental burn relative to incremental ARR generated – has become more actively scrutinised. A burn multiple greater than two requires justification of such growth. Furthermore, if gross margins and retention are low, flowing through to a compelling LTV, then we won’t incentivise that type of burn. Sales efficiency is important, so we often look at the rate that the customer acquisition cost is repaid by the customer. This falls under the bucket of CAC payback. If we see companies not paying back S&M spend in 12 months, we will want to understand the rationale and whether S&M efficiency will improve over time.  
The adoption of Web3 by institutions, creators, and users alike, is dependent on reducing the overall friction when interacting with crypto applications. It is about creating solutions that abstract the complexity of onboarding, purchasing, engaging with, and off-ramping fiat to crypto and crypto into fiat. For the future of Web3 to succeed, the foundational bridges between the crypto and non-crypto worlds need to exit. This all resides on education, accessibility and onboarding, to enable commerce via on-ramps, wallets and marketplaces. For consumers, user ownership of data and interoperability between distinct applications is essential.  
Cobalt believes that growth is a balancing act between customer acquisition cost, retention, and unit economics. More specifically, we benchmark many KPI’s to industry standards we have gathered across LTV/CAC, trial conversion rate, renewal rates and overall engagement to give us a better picture. Organic growth tied to word-of-mouth referrals creates an attractive growth engine. We ask ourselves, when consumer discretionary spending goes down, will the user churn from the service or continue paying given the importance? At Cobalt, we are looking for essential services that the user can’t live without and assessing opportunity for counter-cyclicality with macro-proof industries. 
Current CSS ecosystem
Entertainment continues to see strong growth users but large incumbents such as Netflix are looking for new ways to attract users to platforms.  
Source: GP Bullhound Insights  
The Fitness/Recreation space continues to be a leader in converting freemium users to paid users. The CSS model has started to gain traction with these companies as free models are shed. 
Fitness / Recreation 
Source: GP Bullhound Insights  
These categories have continued to see an influx of users as they enhance productivity and provide unique insights into finance, health and work.
Personal Finance
Health & Mindfulness
Prosumer, Health & Mindfulness, and Personal Finance 
Source: GP Bullhound Insights  
Edtech, Family / Dating, and Other
As students returned to the classroom, EdTech tools found a new place in a hybrid classroom environment. Additionally, popular dating spots opening has drastically increased the use of family and dating CSS apps.
Source: GP Bullhound Insights  
Premier CSS financial investors
The pool of CSS investors continues to grow.
Source: GP Bullhound Insights  
CSS metrics to watch
Enterprise SaaS versus consumer subscription
Source: Nico Wittenborn at Adjacent (@Adjacent on Twitter)
Investors look at many of the same investment metrics as SaaS companies. However, key nuances are important to recognise, and CSS businesses will have a different definition of success.
Higher early user churn is typically the biggest hurdle for traditional investors to overcome. However, entrepreneurs can highlight low customer acquisition cost (CAC) and long-term retention to illustrate the staying potential of their CSS business.
Investor benchmarking criteria
CSS investors evaluate each business based on its own unique attributes as well as sub-industry nuances.
There are industry standard metrics that help investors differentiate good businesses from great businesses.
Source: GP Bullhound Insights  
Investor dive into key CSS metrics and KPIs
  • Investors will look closely at users – including the free users, active users (MAU) and most importantly the paid users

  • CSS top-line revenue can be measured in several ways: 

  1. Cash bookings: Amounts received each month in upfront subscription payments
  2. Monthly recurring revenues (MRR), annual recurring revenue (ARR), and GAAP revenue

  • Important to show continued efficient growth in top-line metrics
Top-line growth metrics –
user growth & bookings MRR/ARR
LTV / CAC ratio
  • Customer lifetime value = number of months or years the average customer stays with the company multiplied by the ARPU times the gross profit margin (%)

  • CSS businesses have the unique attribute in that they typically have high churn after the first pay period or trial period ends Companies typically see churn of first-time users anywhere between 20% and 70% of total sign-ups

  1. Consequently, investors are looking for retention of users AFTER the first pay period - typically the 3rd, 6th or 12th month. High retention in those periods indicates that users are discovering the value in the service and are likely to be retained long-term, building the ‘CSS cohort layer cake’
  2. Exceptional CSS businesses renew 50%+ of each annual cohort and 40% of Year 2

  • Customer acquisition cost (CAC) payback period is typically stated in months. Represents the time taken to fully pay back sales and marketing investment to acquire a single customer

  • CAC payback of <3 month is critical to counter the high churn of initial users

  • 50%+ of users coming through organic channels is generally considered great
Free to paid conversion rates
  • Free users: Number of users using the platform or business. Typically measured monthly or MAU

  • Paid users: Number of users paying for a subscription (typically monthly or annually)

  • Free to paid conversion rate: The ratio of users who start as free users and convert to paying users. This number varies by industry and type of business as well as how the benefits behind the paywall are structured and accessed
Gross margins
Free cash flow / burn rate
  • Growth is of paramount importance, with excess cash being used to fuel growth

  • Important, therefore, to understand the cash burn in the business and planning for capital-efficient hyper-growth
Source: GP Bullhound Insights  
  • The type of service or content being provided can vary between CSS industries. For example, exercise apps develop fitness classes at a high cost while a hiking app may be leveraging user-generated content (UGC) to enhance its offering

  • Typically companies leveraging UGC have higher gross margins and a sustainable competitive advantage as their product and service is influenced and improved by the content and data users are generating

  • Investors have been proven willing to pay up for CSS businesses leveraging UGC to provide a unique service
Key CSS definitions and formulas
definition & formula 
  • Normalised measurement of recurring revenue, most frequently measured with a constant value in each month of the subscription period.
acquisition cost (CAC)
  • All S&M expenses for new customers. Sometimes excludes personnel management S&M costs.
  • Typically measured over a month or quarter.
  • Includes users acquired through free and paid channels.
lifetime value (CLV)
  • Amount of gross profit a customer is calculated to deliver to the company over the lifetime of the customer.
Payback period
(gross & net)
  • The number of months a company requires to pay back its cost of customer acquisition.
  • Gross churn is the number of customers lost in a given period or cohort regardless of account expansion or growth.
  • Net churn is the number of customers gained or lost in a given period or cohort after taking into consideration new, reactivated, or expanded accounts.
Top-line growth metrics – user growth & bookings MRR/ARR
Source: GP Bullhound Insights  
Past CSS insights 
Taken from our previous reports and still relevant today 
The truth about LTV
Debunking the issues of customer lifetime value
Definition of LTV
(lifetime value) 
LTV captures a user’s gross profit that is ‘scheduled’ to be delivered to the company over the lifetime of the user  
LTV issues
The LTV formula has several issues that need to be understood: 
  • The formula assumes that all users eventually churn at an even percentage each year or average

  • It does not take into consideration factors such as upsells and re-subscriptions 

LTV does not account for fundamentally different user profiles – discounts the ‘locals’ that stay for LIFE and over-emphasises the high ‘tourists’ churn
To estimate LTV in early-stage companies: Find the locals
LTV captures a user’s gross profit that is ‘scheduled’ to be delivered to the company over the lifetime of the user  
  • LTV engagement – comments, photos, shares, posting activity, connecting data sources, and logins 

  • Track auto-subscribe from Apple/Google

  • Web-users versus app only

  • Tools to measure engagement – e.g. RevenueCat, AppsFlyer, and Recurly
Measurement solutions 
  • Divide users into ‘locals’ vs ‘tourists’ cohorts by looking at engagement metrics

  • Estimate the value of ‘lifetime users’ in the local cohort and then calculate each cohorts’ LTV

  • Focus on the acquisition of ‘locals’ and optimise marketing not for just sign-ups and return on advertising spend (ROAS), but for long-term usage

  • Discuss your average LTV, as it's important for your customer acquisition cost (CAC) payback, but ensure you highlight the potential of your ‘locals’
Source: GP Bullhound Insights
1 ARPU: average revenue per user; GM: gross margin 
The new era of customer acquisition is organic
Organic customer acquisition strategies are critical for CSS companies

Generating a sustainable, low customer acquisition cost (CAC) delivery model is crucial to ensuring a sustainable, profitable subscription business

Successful, new-age CSS enterprises leverage low-cost or free channels to find and attract customers
Source: GP Bullhound Insights
Each CSS business must choose a strategy to find new customers and integrate that into its services as a feature or integral part of the offering

The customer acquisition method is then organic or less invasive to the consumer, resulting in higher conversion and retention
Internet browser extensions can be big businesses
Source: GP Bullhound Insights
1 Debugbear; and 2) Statista – Global desktop Internet browsers market share 2015-2021 
Browsers typically allow a variety of extensions, including user interface modifications, ad-blocking, and cookie management
A browser extension is a small software module for customising a web browser
Connected hardware has become a trojan horse for a recurring software subscription but consumers are smart – the software must enable a better service and constantly keep the experience refreshed – a true symbiotic relationship
Once users commit to the hardware purchase, the expected retention rate for the subscription is high
This trend began with connected fitness,
but hardware-enabled software has expanded into many new verticals 
Source: GP Bullhound Insights  
Hardware unlocks the modern-day subscription
Western CSS versus Eastern micropayments
  • Western users focus on discrete, specialised apps that address specific use cases

  • While Western users are often willing to subscribe to different apps, too many can add up, be hard to keep track of, and lead to fatigue

  • As a result, developers are opting for options that allow them to capture ad revenue from free users who choose to build their own stacks
  • Micropayments through tipping, donations and pay per episode has become widespread

  • Users prefer comprehensive ‘super apps’ for all their app-based needs, including messaging, personal finance, and entertainment

  • Users can quickly connect their profiles to a variety of services using existing Alipay or WeChat payment platforms
Use cases where users only want limited engagement can still be monetised to encourage them to subscribe
‘Pay per engagement’ platforms are rapidly expanding in the West, led by Patreon, Cameo, and OnlyFans
Customised and exclusive offerings involving customised messages, photos and limited merchandise are attracting more users to digital experiences
Rapid expansion of subscriptions given the benefits for both the user and businesses
Source: GP Bullhound Insights
(1) Tencent 20-F, 2021
Chinese media giant Tencent reported that nearly 3x more revenue came from CSS than online advertising in 20201
Essential building blocks of subscription development 
Companies are quickly building the ‘pick-axes and blue jeans’ companies of the CSS gold rush
Omnichannel tools are becoming market ready to allow niche consumer subscription companies to launch quickly
Source: GP Bullhound Insights  
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