SaaS Gross Margin: How to Calculate New and Recurring Profit Margins in SaaS

In this guide, we explore why gross margin is important for SaaS companies, how to calculate it, and some gross margin benchmarks.

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Gross margin is a vital metric for SaaS companies because it conveys profitability quickly to investors. With the typical SaaS startup averaging a gross margin of over 75% according to Software Equity Group, SaaS is a very lucrative investment for angels and VCs. 

So what is the gross margin in SaaS? Gross margin is the difference between the revenue generated from a software product and the cost of delivering that product (also called cost of goods sold or COGS) expressed as a percentage of the total revenue.

In a SaaS context, we have found that it’s easier to calculate gross margin by revenue stream, breaking it down by subscription versus services revenue. This paints a more thorough picture of profitability to investors.

In this guide, we explore why gross margin is important for SaaS companies, how to calculate it, and some gross margin benchmarks.

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Why is gross margin important in SaaS?

SaaS gross margin tells you what percentage of revenue you will retain as gross profit when you sell a single unit (depending on your pricing strategy) of your product or service. While gross margin is expressed as a percentage. 

Revenue isn't the only measure of a company's success. The higher the gross margin, the more profitable and sustainable its business model becomes. According to Key Bank’s 2021 SaaS Survey, the median gross margin for SaaS companies is 80%. High gross margins are made possible in SaaS by their typically low cost of delivering services and are what makes them extremely attractive to investors.

David Cummings, CEO of Atlanta Ventures, puts it best: “Gross margin is a reflection of how valuable a dollar of revenue is to the business… Margin is one of the main reasons a $10 million revenue company can be more valuable than a $100 million revenue company.”

However, unlike most other SaaS metrics, there’s no easy way to improve a low gross margin without radically altering your business model. This is because:

  • Your gross margin is tied to the core economics of your business model, making it difficult to control. 
  • Recurring customers expect stability in their contracts, making it difficult to tweak your pricing model as needed.

The gross margin of a SaaS business is composed of two separate components: The subscription margin and the service margin. The subscription margin is determined by the recurring revenue generated from product subscriptions, whereas the service margin is associated with the one-time revenue generated from offering professional services.

Both aspects of your SaaS gross margin play an important role in painting a valuation picture to investors. The overall gross margin level (that includes subscription and services margin) indicates whether your business is a SaaS (typically high gross margin) or a tech-enabled services company (lower gross margin and a different business model.) 

With tech-enabled companies, services are a core business offering and integral in fueling the subscription side of the company. However, for true SaaS companies, services are not core to generating or maintaining subscriptions. Therefore, the subscription gross margin is more important in this case, with the services gross margin offering additional context to the overall picture, while remaining important nonetheless.

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How to calculate gross margin for SaaS

Here is the standard formula for gross margin:

Gross margin is equal to the total revenue minus the COGS, divided by total revenue, multiplied by 100 percent.
Standard formula for gross margin.

While this formula works well enough for most industries, it doesn’t provide enough context for a SaaS company.

SaaS companies should break this formula down by categorizing their gross margins into services and subscription-based revenue streams. Note that in the SaaS context, employee salaries associated with product development and core services (such as DevOps, customer support, customer success, etc) should also be filed under COGS and not selling, general, and administrative (SG&A) expenses, since they’re part of the recurring expenses associated with the production process.

Calculating your subscription gross margin

The subscription gross margin is the most important metric for determining profitability for a SaaS business. It’s calculated by subtracting all recurring COGS associated with your SaaS subscriptions from your annual recurring revenue (ARR).

For a SaaS company, COGS might include items like:

  • Servers and hosting space for the software platform
  • Licensing for third-party integrations
  • Expenses related to onboarding new customers
  • Customer support and account management
  • Fees and commissions to various partners
  • Employee salaries related to operating expenses, broken out by core function such as DevOps, customer support, and customer success

Here is the formula for calculating subscription gross margin:

The subscription margin is the percentage of ARR that remains after subtracting the COGS from your ARR.‍
Formula for subscription gross margin.

Here’s an example calculation of subscription gross margin for a company that has an ARR of $1,000,000 and COGS of $250,000:

To calculate the subscription gross margin in this example, you take the 1,000,000 dollars dollars in subscription ARR minus the 250,000 dollars in COGS. Then you divide the result by the 1,000,000 dollars in subscription ARR and multiply by one hundred percent to get a subscription gross margin of 90 percent.
Example calculation of subscription gross margin.

Calculating your services gross margin

The services gross margin is calculated by deducting the costs associated with providing one-time services from the additional revenue generated from those services in a given year.

Here is the formula you would use to calculate the services gross margin:

The services margin is calculated by taking the difference between the revenue from service sales and one-time service costs, and then dividing the result by the revenue from service sales, and finally multiplying it by 100 percent.
Formula for calculating services gross margin.

Here’s an example calculation for a SaaS company generates $50,000 in total revenue from providing one-time services while spending $40,000 in providing those services:

To calculate the services gross margin in this example, you take the 50,000 dollars in revenue from the services provided minus the 40,000 dollars in costs for providing those services (the COGS). Then you divide the result by the 50,000 dollars in revenue and multiply by one hundred percent to get a services gross margin of 20 percent.
Example calculation of services gross margin.

Accounting for customer success

There’s an ongoing debate about how you should account for customer success when calculating your SaaS gross margin. But there’s a simple way to look at it, according to Ben Murray, the SaaS CFO. He recommends that if your customer success team is focused solely on retention, you should file any costs associated with it under COGS when calculating your subscription margin. However, if a considerable part of your customer success efforts is to generate referrals for new business, he says customer success should be filed under sales and marketing expenses. 

When looking at customer success costs, we recommend dividing costs based on objective (salaries of employees focused on retention versus expansion.) Include retention costs to COGS and expansion to sales and marketing expenses.

What is a good gross margin for SaaS? 

According to the operations team at Software Equity Group, a good gross margin benchmark for SaaS is anything higher than 75 percent. If a SaaS company’s gross margin is lower than 70 percent, that is a red flag for potential investors.

A good gross margin for SaaS is always higher than 75 percent. A gross margin lower than 70 percent is usually a red flag for investors.
Gross margin benchmarks for SaaS companies.

However, SaaS gross margins aren’t a one-size-fits-all. Here’s what Cummings has to say about this: “Early on, a startup shouldn’t worry too much about gross margin. It’s most important to find product-market fit and build a repeatable customer acquisition process.”

Further, he states that, “Over time, economies of scale will start to kick in and most SaaS companies will be able to achieve gross margins in the 70-80% range, if not higher. Gross margin, subscription revenue, and great growth opportunities all come together to drive high valuations for SaaS companies.”

When evaluating the profitability of a mature SaaS business, however, gross margin plays a vital role that trumps even revenue. 

Tomasz Tunguz, Managing Director at Redpoint Ventures, says, “Investors prize SaaS companies because providing SaaS service costs very little, and consequently these startups record very high gross margins.” However, he adds that, “The median gross margin for publicly traded SaaS companies expands from 50% in year four to just under 75% in year five… Hosting costs and customer success costs comprise the majority of SaaS Costs of Goods Sold (COGS).”

In summary, SaaS businesses shouldn’t worry too much about their gross margin early on, but most should reach a gross margin of at least 70% as the company matures. A gross margin of lower than 70% could be a concern for investors because it results in poor returns.

How to improve your gross margin

Given its impact on profitability, improving your gross margin should be a top priority. Here are a few ways to increase your gross margin:

  • Examine hosting costs - Optimize your cloud usage by examining your codebase and simplifying components that consume the highest resources. Negotiate with your service provider to reduce costs or spread them out over several years.
  • Revise your implementation model - Outsource, charge more, or switch to hourly billing when implementing your product. This will boost your services gross margin.
  • Examine your customer success motions - Compare your CSM headcount to established benchmarks. Automate more workflows to reduce workload.
  • Create tiered customer service - Consider offering standard support for free and charging more for round-the-clock support, if your customers are open to the idea.
  • Track profitability per customer - Change low margin customers’ pricing or upsell them to boost profitability.

Drivetrain simplifies gross margin analysis for SaaS businesses

When you’re trying to generate your P&L statements and track gross margin, there are two ways you can go about it.

You can manually input data from a variety of different platforms like your ERP, CRM, and PSP systems into a spreadsheet. Then, you can calculate your gross margin by hand for every single billing period.

Or, you can use Drivetrain, a purpose-built platform that automatically pulls your company’s financial and operational data from your business applications and helps you create projections to ensure that you’re on track to reach your growth goals. 

Here are a few ways Drivetrain can help you improve your gross margin analysis:

  • Connects your sales, marketing, headcount, revenue, and accounting data to provide context to your profit and loss reports.
  • Helps you develop projection models for different financial scenarios and tracks if you’re on track to reach your revenue goals.
  • Uses business language formulas to calculate gross margins across different channels, geographies, and market segments.
  • Provides alerts and notifications whenever you’re about to deviate from your pre-determined gross margin calculations.
  • Creates accurate forecasts to gauge the potential impact of your business decisions on your profit margins.

Want to learn more about how Drivetrain can simplify your financial close? Book a free demo today!


What is Gross Margin?

Gross margin is the difference between the revenue generated from a software product and the cost of delivering that product (also called cost of goods sold or COGS) expressed as a percentage of the total revenue.

What is a good gross margin for SaaS?

There isn't a single benchmark for SaaS gross margins, and it varies with the maturity of your company. However, most SaaS companies are eventually able to reach gross margins of 70-80%.

Why is gross margin important in SaaS?

Gross margin is a measure of a company's success. The higher the gross margin, the more profitable and sustainable its business model becomes, making it more attractive to investors.

How should you account for customer success in calculating your gross margin?

This is a subject of ongoing debate. However, we recommend dividing the salary costs of your customer success team based on the objectives associated with their work:

  • If their activities are focused on customer retention, those costs should be added to the cost of goods sold (COGS).
  • If their activities are focused on expansion, those costs should be treated as sales and marketing expenses.