The Current State of ASC 606 and Revenue Recognition in B2B SaaS

Adolphus McKoy

It’s been a few years since the new Accounting Standards Codification Topic 606: Revenue from Contracts with Customers (perhaps better known as simply ASC 606) revenue recognition standard took full effect for both public and nonpublic entities.

To recap, public entities had to comply with ASC 606 for annual reporting periods—including interim reporting periods in between—beginning December 15, 2017. Meanwhile, the effective date for private entities was December 15, 2018.

ASC 606 had been conceived as part of a joint effort by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) to:

  • plug inconsistencies in the financial reporting of revenue under the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and International Financial Reporting Standards, and
  • develop a common standard that could be applied across industries, jurisdictions, and capital markets.

Developing the new guidance was a major undertaking, spanning years of consultations with stakeholders in numerous industries from technology to pharmaceutical, freight and logistics, and more. Eventually, the discussions crystallized into one core revenue recognition principle:

Businesses can recognize revenue from customer contracts in their income statements only after the revenue has been earned, which is not necessarily when the cash is received.

And certainly, such a principle caused chaos for some SaaS businesses when it was first revealed. But now that it’s been in effect for a few years, let’s take a look at ASC 606’s effects on the B2B SaaS finance world—both the bad and the good:

How has ASC 606 impacted the SaaS and subscription business space?

The introduction of new ways of doing things inevitably creates friction in businesses’ established routines. And when ASC 606 compliance became mandatory, SaaS businesses faced quite a few headaches.

Potentially more difficulty with compliance

ASC 606 requires businesses to adopt the accrual basis of accounting to recognize revenue. Also known as accrual accounting, this approach involves recording revenue when it has been earned (even if the business hasn’t received the cash for it yet). For SaaS businesses, however, doing so is not that easy.

That’s because SaaS businesses collect payment from customers upfront before delivering their software as a service over a time period. As a result, they can’t recognize the revenue from the payment right away. Instead, the revenue has to be recognized incrementally until the end of the customer’s contract.

While the customer’s contract is running its course, however, the customer may upgrade its plan, downgrade, or even purchase additional plans. All these introduce added revenue recognition complexity that SaaS businesses will have to grapple with when adhering to ASC 606. And with such additional complexity comes…

Increased compliance costs

To ensure ASC 606 compliance, SaaS businesses likely had to incur costs to set up new systems and modify their processes. For instance, a SaaS business might have had to procure a piece of software that supported the ASC 606 revenue recognition requirements.

Adding to the bill, the higher costs of maintaining ASC 606 compliance may also be recurring ones—such as an increase in annual audit fees due to the complexity of SaaS transactions.

Undertaking a cost-benefit analysis, however, the digital transformation spurred on by ASC 606’s introduction could have benefited SaaS businesses in other ways.

As an example, upgrading to a powerful subscription billing system could have enabled a SaaS business to not only automate its revenue recognition, but also roll out more flexible pricing, generate detailed reports, and automate its dunning management, for enhanced growth.

How has ASC 606 improved SaaS financial accuracy and accountability?

For all the challenges it caused, ASC 606 also raised revenue recognition standards (pun not intended) in the SaaS industry by…

Facilitating greater consistency in revenue recognition

Before ASC 606, previous revenue recognition standards weren’t the most consistent on how certain revenue transactions should be recognized. As a result, businesses used their own judgment to recognize revenue appropriately.

However, with a little too much freedom in this area came room for differing revenue recognition practices and uncertainty in the accuracy of revenue reports.

For instance, two SaaS businesses may have each reported making $10 million in annual revenue for a certain year. But behind the scenes, one of them may have applied creative practices to smooth over gaps in revenue recognition rules—and inflate its revenue at the same time.

But with ASC 606, adopting such dubious accounting methods is no longer possible. The gaps in previous revenue recognition standards have been plugged, facilitating greater revenue recognition consistency among businesses.

Requiring more detailed financial disclosures

In a move that improves financial accountability, ASC 606 calls for stricter disclosure requirements than its ASC 605 predecessor. For instance, businesses now have to disclose quantitative financial information such as the:

  • amount of revenue recognized,
  • total contract value of performance obligations that have yet to be satisfied by the end of the reporting period, and
  • disaggregation of revenue.

Assumptions made when allocating transaction prices also have to be disclosed, among other qualitative disclosure requirements.

And to ensure businesses abide by not just the letter of ASC 606’s disclosure rules but also their spirit, ASC 606 specifies the objectives for disclosure. Reviewing these objectives, subscription businesses can assess whether they have provided enough information—in terms of both quantity and quality—to sufficiently fulfill their disclosure obligations.

Empowering the making of more informed financial decisions

Increased revenue recognition consistency and more comprehensive disclosures under ASC 606 both enhance the reliability of businesses’ financial statements. In turn, financial statement users will be able to make more informed financial decisions.

Leaders reviewing their SaaS businesses’ financial reports to understand their revenue and cash flow positions can have more assurance that they are getting an accurate picture of their business’s financial health. They can then safely rely on the data to make key decisions for the business’s long-term interests.

Separately, investors will be able to better compare the financial statements of different SaaS businesses. Afterward, they can make a sound judgment call on whether to increase their shareholding in a certain business, or park their money in a different business instead.

ASC 606: advancing revenue recognition in the SaaS industry

While there was an initial scramble to understand the ASC 606 revenue recognition principle and implement it, the chaos gradually faded as SaaS businesses adapted. They hired consultants to advise on compliance. They trained their staff on ASC 606 methodology. They invested in subscription billing software that can accurately recognize revenue following ASC 606 principles in real-time.

And the costs involved in doing so weren’t incurred for naught. They paved the way for improved revenue recognition consistency, as well as greater accountability and higher confidence in SaaS financial reporting as a whole.

That said, ASC 606 still has room for improvement. Some commentators have pointed out unresolved flaws of using it to recognize SaaS revenue, for instance. How will revenue recognition standards evolve further to address such issues? Only time will tell.

FAQs about ASC 606

Q: What is ASC 606 and how does it impact revenue recognition?

ASC 606, or Accounting Standards Codification Topic 606: Revenue from Contracts with Customers, is a revenue recognition standard developed jointly by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). It requires businesses to recognize revenue from customer contracts only after the revenue has been earned, regardless of cash inflow. This is particularly relevant for B2B SaaS companies that collect upfront payments from clients.

Q: Why was ASC 606 introduced? 

ASC 606 was introduced to address inconsistencies in financial reporting under the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and International Financial Reporting Standards. The aim was to establish a universal standard that could be applied across various industries and capital markets.

Q: How does ASC 606 affect B2B SaaS companies?

B2B SaaS companies faced significant changes due to ASC 606 because they often collect payments in advance before the service delivery. Under ASC 606, they can’t acknowledge the payment as revenue immediately but have to recognize it incrementally until the customer’s contract is complete.

Q: What were the challenges faced by SaaS businesses due to ASC 606?

Implementing ASC 606 led SaaS companies to revise their established routines. The complication of recognizing revenue incrementally introduced complexities, especially when customers changed their plans or added new services. These changes often meant increased costs for businesses— in terms of new systems or process modifications necessary to maintain ASC 606 compliance.

Q: What benefits have SaaS businesses enjoyed as a result of ASC 606 compliance?

ASC 606 brought about advantages like enhanced revenue recognition consistency and greater financial accountability. With stricter disclosure requirements, revenues needed to be reported more responsibly, thereby improving the reliability of businesses’ financial statements. This allowed stakeholders to make more informed financial decisions.

Q: How do SaaS businesses ensure ASC 606 compliance?

To adhere to the ASC 606 principle, businesses have hired consultants, trained staff, and invested in subscription billing software capable of recognizing revenue as per the ASC 606 guidelines. These proactive measures have led to improvements in revenue recognition consistency and higher confidence in SaaS financial reporting.

Q: Are there flaws in using ASC 606 for SaaS revenue recognition?

Some critics highlight unresolved issues in using ASC 606 for SaaS revenue recognition. The standard is still under evolvement to address such concerns. However, the specific flaws and potential improvements remain as areas for future discussions.

Q: Does ASC 606 compliance differ for public and private entities?

Yes. ASC 606 became effective for public entities from December 15, 2017. For private entities, the rule was applicable from December 15, 2018.


Written by:

Adolphus McKoy
Adolphus McKoy
Account Executive, Stax Bill