What to Include in SaaS COGS

What to Include in SaaS COGS

As the Software as a Service (SaaS) business model continues to dominate the technology industry, understanding the key financial metrics for them becomes increasingly important. One such metric is the Cost of Goods Sold (COGS). Traditionally applied within a manufacturing or product-oriented businesses, COGS is being redefined in the context of SaaS companies, reflecting the unique cost structure inherent to delivering software services.

Identifying and accurately calculating these costs is essential for assessing a company’s financial health and profitability. The unique structure of SaaS COGS can significantly influence strategic decision-making, profitability assessments, and business scalability, which we will explore further in this article. 


Understanding COGS in SaaS


In the context of a SaaS business, COGS refers to the direct costs associated with delivering a software service to customers. These costs typically include cloud hosting expenses, customer support costs, and any other direct costs attributable to providing the service. The primary characteristic of these costs is that they scale with the company’s user base, increasing as more customers use the service. 


Contrary to traditional businesses, SaaS COGS does not include the costs associated with producing a physical product. Instead, it accounts for the variable costs directly linked with the provision of a software service. This is a crucial distinction as these costs are incurred regularly and increase proportionally with customer growth, directly impacting the company’s gross margins and profitability. 


COGS in SaaS differs from operating costs and overheads. Operating costs refer to the ongoing expenses involved in running a business, such as administrative and office expenses, utilities, or legal fees. Overheads, on the other hand, are the indirect costs that cannot be directly tied to a specific business activity. These costs remain relatively stable irrespective of the number of customers served. 


Understanding COGS in SaaS and differentiating it from other types of expenses is essential for financial reporting and strategic planning. It forms the basis for calculating gross profit and gross margin, two metrics that provide insights into a company’s financial health and its efficiency in generating profit. By accurately identifying and managing COGS, SaaS companies can better align their pricing strategies, manage resources, and ultimately drive profitability. 


Direct Costs: The Building Blocks of SaaS COGS


Direct costs form the backbone of COGS in a SaaS company. As the name implies, direct costs are those directly tied to delivering a SaaS product or service. They increase as the user base grows and decrease when customer numbers fall, reflecting the variable nature of these costs. 


In a SaaS business model, typical direct costs include:


  • Software License Fees: These fees are a major component of the SaaS COGS. Many SaaS companies rely on third-party software or platforms to deliver their service. Therefore, the fees for these software licenses are a direct cost that scales with usage. 
  • Cloud Hosting and Server Costs: Cloud hosting costs are another significant part of the SaaS COGS. As more customers utilize a SaaS service, server usage and data storage costs increase. Providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, or Google Cloud charge based on usage, making these costs directly proportional to the scale of operations. 
  • Customer Support Costs: Customer support forms an integral part of service delivery in SaaS companies. It includes costs related to staff salaries, support software tools, and related infrastructure. As a company acquires more customers, it invariably needs to scale its support resources, making customer support a direct cost. 
  • Account Management and Customer Success Costs: Account management and customer success are crucial to customer retention in SaaS businesses. These departments ensure customers successfully use the product, resulting in higher customer satisfaction and reduced churn. Costs related to these teams – including salaries, training, and tools – are part of COGS since they are directly related to service delivery. 


Identifying and accurately categorizing direct costs is important to understanding SaaS COGS. SaaS companies must be careful to distinguish between direct costs and other business expenses, for example, research and development costs, marketing expenses, and overheads should not be included as they do not directly contribute to the delivery of service.


By fully understanding the components of direct costs, SaaS companies can gain a more accurate picture of their cost structure. This, in turn, enables more accurate pricing, financial forecasting, and strategic planning. Moreover, by controlling direct costs, SaaS companies can increase their gross margins, setting the stage for improved profitability and financial health. 


Sales and Marketing Costs in SaaS COGS


While traditionally, sales and marketing costs are classified as operating expenses rather than a part of COGS, it is not so straightforward in the SaaS landscape. The blurred lines are due to the subscription-based business model of SaaS companies and the direct impact these costs can have on service delivery. 


Sales and marketing costs in a SaaS context primarily include expenses related to customer acquisition. These encompass sales team salaries, commissions, marketing campaign expenses, advertising costs, SEO, PPC, and events. Customer acquisition cost (CAC) is a key performance indicator for SaaS businesses, reflecting the resources needed to acquire each new customer – it directly affects the company’s profit margin and, hence, overall financial health. 


Now, here is where it gets nuanced. Sales and marketing costs are only included in SaaS COGS when they are tied to existing customers, not to future or potential customers. For example, sales commissions earned from renewals or upsells, or the costs of marketing campaigns specifically targeted at current users to increase their usage or purchase add-on services can be included in COGS.


However, expenses associated with acquiring new customers, such as advertising or promotional campaigns to attract new users, are not part of COGS. They are instead classified as customer acquisition costs (CAC) under operating expenses. This distinction is critical for accurately calculating and understanding SaaS COGS. 


It is worth noting that there is an ongoing debate among SaaS financial experts about how to classify sales and marketing costs, given the recurring revenue nature of SaaS. Some argue that these costs are essential for maintaining and expanding the user base, so they should be included in COGS. However, the prevailing convention is to only include costs directly linked to COGS production and delivery of services.


Determining whether to include sales and marketing costs in SaaS COGS is not an easy decision, as it requires an understanding of each company’s specific circumstances and financial strategy. Nevertheless, it is essential to consistently classify these costs to maintain accurate financial reporting and analysis. By doing so, SaaS companies can better strategize their resource allocation, optimize CAC, and drive profitable growth. 


Customer Success and Account Management in SaaS COGS


In the Software as a Service (SaaS) world, customer success and account management play pivotal roles in retaining customers and driving service delivery and overall profitability. These are, therefore, critical components of the Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) for SaaS businesses. 


Customer success refers to the department that ensures clients achieve their desired outcomes while using your product or service. It focuses on building relationships, reducing churn, and promoting upselling and cross-selling. The costs associated with this function typically include salaries of the customer success team, training costs, costs associated with customer success platforms, and other related overhead costs. 


On the other hand, account management in a SaaS context is related to managing the company’s relationships with specific customers. While customer success aims for overall customer satisfaction, account management is strategic, focusing on individual high-value clients. Account management costs can include the salaries of account managers, software or tools used by the team, and any costs related to client meetings or communications. 


Including customer success and account management costs in SaaS COGS is crucial because of the subscription nature of SaaS businesses. Unlike traditional businesses where products are sold once, SaaS companies rely on recurring revenue. This model necessitates acquiring customers and retaining them and ensuring they continue to find value in the product. Therefore, customer success and account management costs directly impact the service delivered to existing customers and are considered a part of COGS.


However, as is the case with sales and marketing costs, it is important to distinguish between the costs associated with maintaining existing customers and those for future or potential customers. Only the costs related to the former should be included in COGS.


Including customer success and account management in COGS provides a more accurate picture of the company’s financial health and cost efficiency. It also aids in better understanding the company’s cost structure and strategizing to improve profitability. 


Distinguishing Direct Costs from Indirect Costs in SaaS COGS


In SaaS businesses, distinguishing between direct and indirect costs in calculating COGS is an important exercise. The distinction is not just important for accurate bookkeeping but also for gaining an insightful understanding of the company’s profitability and financial health.


Direct costs, also known as costs of sales, are those costs that are directly tied to the production or delivery of a specific product or service. In the context of a SaaS business, these typically include associated software license fees, cloud hosting costs, customer success and account management costs, and third-party software services that directly contribute to the delivery of the service to customers. 


Indirect costs are those costs that cannot be directly tied to a specific product or service but are necessary for the overall operation of the business. These are often referred to as overheads and can include costs like office rent, utilities, marketing and advertising expenses, and the salaries of employees not directly involved in service delivery. 


While both of these costs are crucial for the operation of a SaaS business, it is important to distinguish between them when calculating COGS. This is because COGS is intended to reflect the direct cost of producing the goods or services sold by a company. Including indirect costs in COGS could result in an inaccurate gross profit margin calculation, leading to flawed financial reporting and potentially poor strategic decision-making.


Moreover, the distinction between direct and indirect costs can also aid in understanding the cost efficiency of a company’s operations. A high proportion of direct costs in COGS could indicate that the company is cost-efficient, while a high proportion of indirect costs could suggest areas for operational improvement. 


The classification and accurate allocation of costs not only affect the company’s reported profitability but also provide valuable insights into operational efficiency and cost structure. By correctly distinguishing between the two, SaaS businesses can make more informed strategic decisions and optimize their financial performance. 


The Impact of COGS on SaaS Business Financials


The Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) holds the utmost importance in shaping a SaaS business’s financial performance and strategic direction. It is not only a critical component in the calculation of key financial metrics but also an important indicator through which investors, stakeholders, and management gauge the company’s economic health. 


COGS directly influences the gross profit margin, one of a SaaS business’s most scrutinized financial metrics. The gross profit margin, computed as the difference between revenue and COGS as a percentage of revenue, reflects the fundamental profitability of a company’s core business operations. A lower COGS equates to a higher gross profit margin, signifying more efficient production or delivery of services and, ultimately, greater inherent profitability.


An accurately calculated COGS also contributes to the transparency and accuracy of financial reporting. This not only assists management in making strategic decisions but also provides investors and stakeholders with an accurate representation of the company’s operational efficiency and profitability. Inflated or deflated COGS could result in distorted financial statements, misleading the company’s actual financial position and hampering informed decision-making. 


Furthermore, understanding COGS can lead to actionable cost control and price-setting insights. By dissecting COGS, companies can identify cost drivers and potential areas for cost reduction, allowing them to improve operational efficiency and increase profit margins. It also provides a basis for setting pricing strategies that ensure profitability while remaining competitive in the market. 


In the SaaS business model where recurring revenues and long-term customer relationships are paramount, the significance ot COGS extends beyond mere accounting – it’s an operational compass, guiding cost management, pricing decisions, and long-term strategic planning. As such, a comprehensive understanding of COGS and its accurate computation are critical to a SaaS business’s financial and operational success. 
















The Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) is more than just an SaaS accounting figure. It is an essential tool in assessing the company’s profitability, guiding strategic decision-making, and informing pricing strategies. Understanding what to include in SaaS COGS – direct costs such as software license fees, sales and marketing expenses, account management, and customer success costs – is fundamental for accurately portraying a company’s financial health. Distinguishing these direct costs from indirect costs further ensures precision in COGS calculation.


Maintaining accuracy in COGS computation helps safeguard the company’s financial integrity and empowers management to make informed decisions for a company’s future. By fully understanding the elements to include in SaaS COGS and their implications on financial reporting and financial health, SaaS companies can position themselves for more efficient operations, improved profitability, and long-term sustainability. 


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 


What does COGS include for a SaaS company?


COGS for a SaaS company includes direct costs related to service delivery, such as software license fees, account management costs, and customer success costs. 

What should be included in COGS?


COGS should include all direct costs associated with producing or delivering a company’s product or services. For SaaS companies, this may include software costs, support staff wages, and costs related to customer success. 

What is COGS in SaaS customer success?


In SaaS, COGS related to customer success encompasses all direct costs associated with maintaining and improving customer relationships, such as the wages of customer success staff and the cost of customer success software tools.

What is part of COGS for a software company?


For software companies, COGS often includes costs related to software development, licenses, hosting, support staff wages, and customer success and account management costs. 

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