SaaS Basics. What Is SaaS, and How Does It Work? An In-Depth Guide.

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The Software as a Service (SaaS) business model has become very popular over the last 20 years. However, there are still a lot of misconceptions out there about how it works. That's why I decided to write this article - to break it down for you.

In this article, you will learn how SaaS works, the basics of SaaS, the key parts and components of the SaaS business model, its challenges and benefits - all in simple terms, without complicating anything.

Let's dive right in.
What is SaaS
SaaS stands for Software as a Service
SaaS is a cloud computing model where software applications are delivered over the internet on a subscription basis

What is SaaS and what does it stand for?

SaaS stands for Software as a Service. It is a cloud computing model where software applications are delivered over the internet on a subscription basis. Instead of buying and installing software on individual computers, users can access and use the software through a web browser.

SaaS is one of the three main categories of cloud computing services, along with Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS).
What are some popular examples of SaaS applications?
2 popular SaaS examples

What are some popular examples of SaaS businesses?

SaaS has become increasingly popular in many industries. Two popular examples of SaaS applications are Netflix and Spotify.

Netflix is a globally recognized SaaS platform that provides on-demand streaming of movies, TV shows and documentaries to subscribers. It operates on a subscription model.

Another example of a popular SaaS application is Spotify, which provides on-demand music streaming. Like Netflix, Spotify operates as a SaaS platform with features such as subscription-based access, cross-device compatibility, and personalized recommendations.
How does the SaaS model work?
Subscription based
Cloud hosting
Automatic updates

How does the SaaS model work?

SaaS works differently to traditional software distribution models. Here are some of the differences:
Subscription-based access
In the SaaS model, users or organizations subscribe to the software, typically on a monthly or annual basis. Instead of purchasing a perpetual software license, they pay a recurring fee to use the application.
Cloud hosting
The SaaS application is hosted in the cloud, which means it runs on the provider's servers and infrastructure. So, you don't need to install the software on your local device or maintain server hardware to run it.
SaaS stands for Software as a Service. Software applications are delivered over the internet on a subscription basis.
Automatic updates
SaaS providers are responsible for maintaining and updating the software. This includes applying security patches, fixing bugs and adding new features. You don't have to worry about updating the software manually.
SaaS solutions are often designed to be easily scalable. Organizations can add or remove users as needed, and the software can accommodate increased usage or additional features without the need for major infrastructure changes.

Evolution of SaaS

The concept of SaaS has evolved over time to become what it is today. Its roots can be traced back to the 1960s, when computers were much more expensive to own and operate than they are today. To address this challenge, IBM and others introduced the idea of "time-sharing computing", which allowed multiple users to access and use computers efficiently.

The aim of time-sharing was to provide large organisations with computing power and data storage through global data centres. With the advent of the Internet in the early 1990s, this model was replaced by Application Service Providers (ASPs), which offered hosting services to many small and medium-sized businesses. However, the ASP system is widely regarded as a failure because the ASPs made commitments that they did not fulfil. Some of these promises included

• affordable pricing
• seamless implementation
• trouble-free upgrades

In the late 1990s, companies like Salesforce took advantage of technological advances such as cloud scaling and virtualisation. This marked the birth of what we now know as SaaS. Since the early 2000s, SaaS has grown significantly, evolving from standalone systems to modern SaaS suites that combine multiple solutions and tools.
The kez components of the saas business model
Value proposition
Software development
Revenue model and pricing
Customer support

What are the key parts and components of the SaaS business model?

When we talk about the key components of the SaaS business model, we're referring to the important building blocks of a SaaS company's business. Here are the main ones:

Value proposition

The value proposition answers the question "Why should customers choose this SaaS product over others? It highlights the specific problems the software solves and the benefits it brings to users.

For example, a SaaS company might offer project management software that helps companies streamline their workflows, collaborate more efficiently and track progress. The value proposition of this software would be that it saves time, increases team productivity and improves overall project management.

The value proposition is the core component of the SaaS business model because it communicates the key benefits and reasons why customers should choose a particular SaaS product.


Infrastructure is the technical foundation that supports the delivery and operation of the SaaS product.  It includes servers, data centres, networks and other hardware and software components required to ensure that the SaaS application runs smoothly and is accessible to users.

The infrastructure component is critical because it ensures that the product is available to customers when they need it. It also enables the SaaS company to handle large numbers of users and data without interruption or performance problems.

Software development and maintenance

SaaS software development refers to the initial creation or building of the SaaS application. It involves designing, coding and testing the software to ensure it meets the desired functionality.

Maintenance, on the other hand, is the process of regularly updating, improving and fixing the product. It involves monitoring the performance of the SaaS application, identifying and resolving issues, and incorporating customer feedback to improve the software over time.


Marketing refers to the activities SaaS companies undertake to promote their products, attract customers and generate revenue. Effective marketing involves understanding the target audience and their needs, creating the right messages, and choosing the right channels to reach potential customers.

SaaS companies use various marketing channels such as online advertising, content marketing, social media campaigns, search engine optimization (SEO) and email marketing to raise awareness of their product and drive customer acquisition. To learn more about SaaS marketing, check out this Ultimate Guide to Marketing Channels.

It's important to remember that marketing channels can vary in effectiveness depending on the SaaS business and its target audience. What works for one SaaS company may not work for another, especially considering differences in the length of the sales cycle.

Therefore, marketing teams should continually analyze and adjust their strategies based on data-driven insights. This approach will help them refine their marketing efforts, optimize channel selection, and maximize their chances of success in converting prospects.


SaaS companies typically have a sales team that is responsible for contacting potential customers, understanding their needs, demonstrating the value of the software, and helping them make a purchase.

SaaS companies may use a variety of sales strategies, including direct sales, where the sales team engages directly with customers, or self-service sales, where customers can register and purchase the software online without direct sales interaction.

Sales activities also include customer retention and upselling. Once a customer is onboarded, the sales team can continue to nurture the relationship, providing support and identifying opportunities to upsell additional features or upgrade to higher-priced plans.

If you already have a SaaS business and are struggling with user onboarding, here's my guide to SaaS user onboarding.

Revenue model and pricing

The fifth key component of the SaaS business model is the revenue model and pricingSimply put, it's how SaaS companies make money and how they decide how much to charge their customers. SaaS companies typically use subscription-based revenue models, where customers pay a recurring fee to access and use the software. These fees are often charged on a monthly or annual basis.

There are different SaaS pricing models within the subscription-based approach, such as tiered pricing, where customers can choose from different plans with different features and prices. SaaS companies may also offer usage-based pricing, where the cost is based on the customer's usage or number of users.

To determine pricing, SaaS companies consider factors such as the value and complexity of the software, market demand, competitor pricing, and the willingness of the target customer segment to pay.

If you want to get an overview of the different SaaS pricing options, download this free SaaS pricing cheatsheet.
To determine pricing, consider factors  such as the value of the software, market demand and competitor pricing.

Customer support

The final key component of the SaaS business model is customer support. It's a given that users will have questions, problems or need help as they use the software. Customer support teams are responsible for addressing these needs and providing solutions. Customer support can take several forms:
Technical support
Assisting customers with technical issues, troubleshooting problems, and resolving software-related bugs or errors.
Training and onboarding
Training and onboarding: Providing training materials, tutorials and guidance to help customers understand and use the software effectively.
Account management
Building relationships with customers, understanding their needs and providing personalised guidance.
Help documentation
Create and maintain comprehensive documentation, user guides, FAQs and knowledge bases to enable customers to find answers independently.
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7 major advantages of the saas business model
Recurring revenue
Lower upfront cost
Continous access to the latest version
Targeted features
Customer loyalty

7 major advantages of the SaaS business model

Below are the 7 key benefits of the SaaS business model that make it a compelling choice for companies in a variety of industries.
1. Accessibility
SaaS applications are typically cloud-based, allowing users to access them from any device with an Internet connection. This accessibility enables remote working and collaboration, providing flexibility and increasing productivity.

With SaaS applications, you can seamlessly switch from your office workstation to a mobile device while on the move, with no loss of data or functionality.
2. Recurring revenue
In the SaaS model, customers typically subscribe to the software on a recurring basis, often through monthly or annual subscriptions. This subscription-based pricing model provides companies with a predictable and stable revenue stream.

In other business models, your sales team has to start from scratch every month. With SaaS, instead of relying solely on one-off sales or sporadic purchases, SaaS providers can count on regular revenue from their customer base. This predictability helps businesses plan and forecast their finances more accurately, providing greater financial stability and making them more attractive to investors.

As customers continue their subscription with a SaaS provider, there are opportunities to upsell or expand the relationship. SaaS providers can introduce higher tier subscription plans with additional features or offer complementary services to existing customers.

This enables companies to generate additional revenue from their current customer base, increasing the lifetime value of each customer.
Instead of relying on one-off sales, SaaS providers can count on regular revenue from their customer base.
3. Lower upfront costs
In traditional software models, potential customers typically incur significant upfront costs when purchasing and implementing software solutions. These costs include the purchase of software licences, server infrastructure, hardware upgrades and IT personnel to install and maintain the software.

In the SaaS model, however, customers avoid these upfront costs. Instead of purchasing software outright, businesses subscribe to SaaS applications on a pay-as-you-go basis.

This subscription-based pricing model allows businesses to access and use the software without a large initial investment.
The biggest advantage? The lower up-front cost of the SaaS model allows organizations to start using the software quickly and without delay, reducing the barrier to purchase.
4. Continuous access to the latest version
In the SaaS model, the provider manages software updates and upgrades. This means that customers automatically have access to the latest version of the software, without the need for manual installations or updates - resulting in a better user experience.
5. Targeted features
Different user groups often have different preferences. With the ability to customise the solution, a SaaS provider can add or modify features to meet these specific needs.

For example, accounting software might offer additional inventory management functionality for retail businesses, while providing advanced reporting capabilities for financial service providers. This targeted approach increases the value proposition for each user group, improves their overall satisfaction and increases customer retention.
6. Customer engagement and loyalty
SaaS providers are constantly updating and improving their solutions. Providing a roadmap to show customers what features are coming next, or creating a forum where customers can discuss and interact with other users, can create a sense of community.

Building a community around a SaaS solution fosters deep customer engagement and loyalty. When users feel a sense of belonging to a community, they are more likely to stay connected and even develop a strong affinity for the product.
7. Flexibility
Another advantage of the SaaS business model is its flexibility. Initially, when only a small number of users are using the service, the infrastructure doesn't need to support millions of users.

However, as the user base grows, SaaS providers can easily upgrade their infrastructure to keep the service running smoothly. This flexibility helps to keep costs down in the early stages, and to upgrade only when the product has the necessary market fit.
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9 challenges of  the saas business model
Potential downtime
Pressure to innovate
Customization limitations
Dependency on partners
Hiring the wrong people
Data compliance and security
Lack of funding
Infrastructure cost
Customer acquisition and retention

9 challenges of the SaaS business model

With advantages come disadvantages. Let's take a look.
1. Potential downtime
Because SaaS solutions rely on servers and cloud infrastructure, there is a possibility of downtime that may impact customers who rely on the software.

Downtime can occur for a number of reasons, including scheduled maintenance, server upgrades, hardware failures or unforeseen technical issues. During maintenance periods, SaaS providers may need to take the software offline temporarily to perform updates or optimize performance.

While these maintenance windows are usually planned in advance and communicated to users, they can still disrupt business operations and prevent access to critical software functionality.
2. Pressure to innovate
We know the SaaS landscape is competitive. And companies are under constant pressure to deliver innovative solutions to stay ahead of the curve and to meet evolving customer expectations.

Different industries have specific needs and challenges. The challenge for SaaS providers is to understand these industry-specific needs and tailor their solutions accordingly. This may involve customizing features, integrating with industry-specific tools or providing specialized functionality.

But there is an upside: By addressing the unique needs of different industries, SaaS vendors can attract niche customers and establish themselves as industry leaders.
SaaS companies are under constant pressure to deliver innovative solutions to stay ahead  of the curve.
3. Customization and integration limitations
SaaS providers often offer a range of configurable settings and options to allow customers to tailor the software to their specific needs. However, there are practical limitations to addressing each customer's unique use case. The limitations on customisation can manifest themselves in a number of ways.

For example, while SaaS providers often offer integration capabilities with popular third-party tools, it may not be possible to integrate with every application a customer may require. Integration limitations can create challenges when trying to connect the SaaS solution to existing systems, resulting in reduced efficiency or the need for manual workarounds.
4. Dependency on partners
SaaS businesses often rely on third parties for billing, payment processing and hosting services. This dependency creates potential risks and difficulties in effectively managing business operations, as any disruption on the partner side will directly impact the SaaS business, leading to service interruptions.

Here's an example. If the billing partner has recently suffered a security breach, this will delay billing to SaaS customers. Similarly, if the hosting service provider is experiencing downtime or is not providing adequate infrastructure, this can lead to service outages and inconvenience customers. Believe me, these are red flags in the eyes of product users or customers.
5. Hiring the wrong people
When companies lack the right skills for their roles, people can struggle to get the job done, leading to lower quality work and slower progress. What's more, hiring people who don't fit in well with the team dynamic can disrupt the overall harmony within the organisation.

Hiring the wrong people can be a costly mistake. The recruitment and onboarding process takes a lot of time and resources. If an employee isn't a good fit and needs to be replaced, the company incurs additional recruitment costs and lost productivity during the transition period.

This is not a problem unique to the SaaS space, however, as it affects all business models equally.
6. Data compliance and security
SaaS providers often handle and process sensitive data on behalf of their customers. This data can include personal information, financial records, intellectual property and other confidential or regulated information.

As a result, organisations need to ensure that their systems and processes meet these compliance requirements. This includes implementing appropriate security measures, obtaining the necessary consents and permissions, and providing customers with visibility of their data.

If you offer your SaaS solution internationally, it becomes even more complicated, as you may need to comply with different data sovereignty and privacy regulations. This can add to the cost and complexity of compliance.
7. Lack of funding
The lack of funding poses several serious challenges for SaaS companies. First, it hampers product development and innovation. Building and maintaining a high-quality software platform requires ongoing investment in research and development.

Without the necessary funding, a SaaS company may struggle to improve its product, address customer needs or keep up with evolving market trends. This can lead to stagnation, loss of competitiveness and a diminished customer value proposition.

Scaling a SaaS business means expanding the customer base and operational capabilities, which can be challenging when faced with limited financial resources.

To learn more about SaaS funding, check out this article on the stages of raising capital for SaaS startups.
Lack of funding is one of the main reasons why SaaS companies or new start-ups fail.
8. Scalability and infrastructure costs
SaaS companies need to have the infrastructure in place to support their software and to accommodate growing numbers of users and data volumes. Initially, when the user base is small, this may not be costly. But as the user base grows, so do your costs. Having a large number of users is great, butkeepin mind that this can result in significant infrastructure costs and maintenance requirements.
9. Customer acquisition and retention
In the SaaS model, customers subscribe to the software on a recurring basis, often through monthly or annual subscriptions. The advantage is that you can expect a predictable and stable revenue stream. The downside is that you have to deal with customer churn. Customer churn - also known as customer attrition - is when customers stop using your service. Every lost customer therefore means lost revenue.

Due to the competitive nature of the SaaS industry, companies need to invest heavily in marketing, sales and customer service efforts to acquire and retain customers.

Here are some tips and tricks to reduce your churn rate.

4 Frequently asked questions about SaaS

1. How can SaaS companies effectively differentiate themselves in a competitive market?

You need to do a lot of market research and understand the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors to identify gaps in the market. In addition, I always recommend talking directly to your target audience to fine-tune your offering and tailor it to their needs.

2. What role does UX and UI design play in the success of a SaaS business?

UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) design have a significant impact on a SaaS business. If your UI or UX is outdated or simply not usable, you are out. No second chances. To ensure a solid UX and UI design, make sure you test it directly with users (e.g. through usability testing).

3. How do customer acquisition and retention strategies affect the sustainability of a SaaS business?

Getting customers is the first step in building a successful business. But the second step, and arguably the more important step, is customer retention. This is because most startups that fail do so because of poor customer retention, not because they fail to attract new customers.

So make sure you have a strong retention strategy in place, such as regular emails or push notifications that show people the value of your product.

4. Why is pricing strategy crucial for SaaS businesses, and what are common mistakes to avoid?

Pricing is more than just a number. It communicates value, differentiates you from the competition and attracts the right customers. The most common mistakes are under-pricing, over-pricing and ignoring customers' willingness to pay. In the end, as always, it all comes down to your Personas.

If you know who your target audience is, you can set the right price. If you don't know who your Personas are, you'll have to guess what the right price might be (but you should never leave something this important to chance!).

What’s next (proven worksheets & templates)

If you want to learn more pro tips, or even start your own SaaS business, check out my SaaS bundle. Packed with proven frameworks and practical worksheets, it provides a comprehensive toolkit for building a successful SaaS business. Whether you're a first-time founder or a seasoned SaaS professional, this bundle will give you solid insights to help you avoid common pitfalls right from the start.