Unit Economics 101: 7 Strategies for Improving Unit Economics


Understanding the financial foundation of your startup is crucial for long-term success. This read provides a comprehensive guide to the fundamental metrics that determine the profitability and sustainability of your business model. 

Designed specifically for startup founders, this guide simplifies complex concepts, ensuring that even those new to finance can gain a clear insight into their company’s financial health. Equip yourself with the knowledge to make informed decisions and steer your startup towards a profitable future.

What is Unit Economics?

Unit economics describes a business’s profitability by dissecting it down to its smallest, revenue-generating components, or “units”. Each unit can vary based on the type of business. It can be a product sold, a service rendered, or even a customer served.

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Unit economics helps businesses assess this on a micro-level, allowing for necessary adjustments for overall financial health.

Importance of Understanding Unit Economics in Startups

Unit Economics is one of the essential financial concepts for startups to grasp. This measure provides an X-ray vision into the fundamental profitability of your business model, helping you understand how much value each unit of your product or service contributes to your business. 

Now, let’s look into more reasons why understanding unit economics is so important for startups.

1. Profitability Assessment

Unit economics is a crucial metric that essentially tells a startup whether they’re making money on every sale or losing money. 

If the revenue per unit consistently outpaces the costs, it paints a promising picture of potential profitability. However, if the cost per unit is higher than the revenue, it’s a clear signal that the business model needs refinement.

2. Scalability Indicator

This bears closely to profitability assessment but is a little bit different, in that it serves as an indicator for when a startup is ready for expansion and growth. 

When a startup showcases positive unit economics, it’s essentially signaling a business model that’s ripe for scaling up. This means, as operations expand, the profitability pattern can be maintained or even amplified. 

3. Investor Attraction

Savvy investors understand the importance of unit economics and use it as a critical barometer when assessing potential investments. 

A startup with positive unit economics signals a viable, potentially profitable business model, enhancing its appeal to investors. Thus, understanding and optimizing unit economics can serve as a potent tool in fundraising efforts.

4. Pricing Strategy

Unit economics is a crucial factor in designing an effective pricing strategy.

Understanding the cost and revenue associated with each unit allows startups to price their offerings in a manner that covers the costs, provides a profit margin, and is still attractive to customers. 

It’s a fine balancing act that can be better achieved with a solid understanding of unit economics.

5. Decision-Making

Valuable insights from unit economics aid strategic decision-making. 

For example, if a certain product line or market segment has negative unit economics, it might signal a need for a strategy overhaul for that area – perhaps a price adjustment, cost reduction, or even discontinuation of the product or service.

6. Cost Control

It can help startups identify cash flow, areas where they can reduce costs, streamline operations, and subsequently boost their profit margins using sales and marketing efforts. 

This information can guide cost optimization initiatives and support more efficient use of resources.

7. Benchmarking

Unit economics also serves as a benchmarking tool. Startups can compare their unit economics with competitors or industry averages to gauge their performance. If a startup’s unit economics is lagging, it identifies an area for improvement, prompting strategic actions to boost competitiveness.

How to Calculate Unit Economics

There are a pair of methods to compute unit economics, the choice of which depends on your definition of a unit.

Method 1: Setting the Unit as “A Single Item Sold”

In the case where a unit is perceived as “a single item sold,” unit economics can be figured out by computing the contribution margin. This margin represents the revenue from a single sale, deducted from the variable costs linked to that particular sale. The formula is formulated as:

Contribution margin = price for each unit – variable costs for each sale

Method 2: Setting the Unit as “A Single Customer”

When you opt to establish a unit as “a single customer,” the unit economics is derived from the proportion of two distinct measures:

Customer Lifetime Value (LTV): The total revenue a company gains from a specific customer until the point where the customer “churns” or ceases to engage with the business

Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC): The expenses involved in bringing a new customer onboard

Once you have calculated LTV and CAC, you can gain insights into your unit economics by comparing these two metrics. 

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Mathematically, a LTV to CAC ratio greater than 1 indicates that the startup is recouping its investment in acquiring a customer and making a profit over the customer’s lifetime.

These calculations provide a basic understanding of unit economics, but it’s important to note that they can become more complex depending on a company’s specific business model, industry, and stage of growth. 

For example, startups might need to consider other factors like overhead costs, marginal costs, and churn rates in their calculations.

How to Model Customer Lifetime Value

There are a couple of methods to estimate one customer lifetime value: one is the predictive LTV, and the other is flexible LTV.

Method 1: Predictive LTV

The predictive LTV model is designed to help you anticipate how an average customer will behave in the future. The formula to compute predictive LTV is:

Predictive LTV = (T x AOV x AGM x ALT) / number of customers for a specific period

T (average transactions count): This is obtained by dividing the total transactions by the period of time, giving the average transaction count for that duration.

AOV (average order value): The AOV is determined by dividing the entire revenue by the cumulative number of orders, resulting in the average monetary worth of each order.

AGM (average gross margin): This is calculated by deducting the cost of sales (CS) from the overall revenue (TR) to ascertain the actual earnings. The equation to calculate gross margin is: GM = ((TR-CS) / TR) x 100.

ALT (average lifetime of a customer): The ALT is equivalent to 1 over the churn rate. The churn rate is determined by comparing the count of customers at the beginning of a specific period (CB) with the count of customers left at the end of that period (CE). The equation for churn rate is: Churn rate = ((CB-CE)/CB) x 100.

Method 2: Flexible LTV

Flexible lifetime value serves to accommodate potential revenue shifts. This is especially beneficial for startups and new businesses, which are anticipated to experience changes as they expand and evolve. The formula to compute flexible LTV is:

Flexible LTV = GML x (R/(1 + D – R))

GML (average gross margin per customer lifespan): This refers to the profit your business garners from a single customer over an average lifetime. The calculation for this involves the equation: Gross Margin x (Total Revenue / Number of Customers During the Period).

D (discount rate): The discount rate quantifies the anticipated return on investment.

R (retention rate): The retention rate is calculated by contrasting the number of customers who made subsequent purchases (Cb and Ce) with the number of newly acquired customers (Cn). The formula for calculating this is: ((Ce – Cn) / Cb) x 100.

Strategies for Improving Unit Economics

Improving unit economics is essential for the growth and sustainability of a startup. Here are some strategies that can be used to enhance unit economics:

1. Increase Customer Lifetime Value (LTV): Increasing the LTV can be achieved by boosting the average purchase value, encouraging repeat purchases, or extending the customer’s lifespan. This can be done through upselling and cross-selling, loyalty programs, subscription-based models, excellent customer service, and maintaining high-quality products or services.

2. Reduce Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC): Optimize your marketing and sales strategies to acquire customers at a lower cost. This could involve improving targeting in marketing campaigns to increase conversion rates, employing cost-effective channels for customer acquisition, or increasing organic customer acquisition through referrals and word of mouth.

3. Improve Productivity: Streamlining operations and increasing productivity can lead to lower costs per unit, thus improving unit economics. This could involve automating tasks, optimizing supply chain management, or implementing lean manufacturing principles.

4. Pricing Optimization: Pricing your products or services correctly is crucial to covering your costs and making a profit. Experiment with different pricing strategies to see what maximizes revenue without deterring customers.

5. Improve Customer Retention: It is often cheaper to retain existing customers than to acquire new ones. Implement strategies to increase customer satisfaction and reduce churn rate. This can be achieved by improving the quality of products or services, offering excellent customer service, and creating strong customer relationships.

6. Segmentation: All customers are not equal. Some will have higher LTV and lower CAC than others. Identifying these profitable customer segments and focusing your marketing and sales efforts on them can improve unit economics.

7. Cost Control: Continuously monitor and control your costs. This involves scrutinizing every expenditure, no matter how small, and seeking ways to reduce costs without compromising the quality of your product or service.

By adopting these strategies, startups can improve their unit economics, making their business models more sustainable and attractive to investors. It’s important to remember that improving unit economics is not a one-time task, but a continuous process that requires regular monitoring and adjustment.

The Future of Unit Economics

As the business landscape continues to evolve, the importance and application of unit economics are expected to grow in parallel. In an increasingly data-driven world, the ability to dissect and understand the profitability and cost-effectiveness of each unit will become more critical for businesses across all sectors. Here’s a glimpse into the potential future of unit economics:

1. Greater Emphasis on Data Analysis

The expansion of big data and analytics capabilities will allow companies to delve deeper into their unit economics. Advanced data analysis tools will facilitate more accurate and insightful analysis of individual units, enabling businesses to make more informed decisions.

2. Wider Adoption across Industries

While unit economics is currently more prevalent in industries like tech, SaaS, and e-commerce, it’s expected to gain traction across other sectors. As businesses become more customer-centric and data-driven, the insights provided by unit economics will become increasingly valuable.

3. Innovation in Metrics

As business models evolve, so will the metrics used in unit economics. Companies may develop new metrics that better reflect their unique business models and customer behaviors. For example, in a subscription-based model, metrics like churn rate and customer retention costs could be integrated into unit economics analysis.

4. Impact of AI and Machine Learning

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) could revolutionize how companies calculate and analyze unit economics. Predictive analytics could help businesses project future LTV more accurately, while AI and ML could automate and streamline the analysis process.

5. Greater Influence on Investment Decisions

Investors are likely to place even more emphasis on unit economics when making investment decisions. A company’s unit economics can provide deep insights into its long-term sustainability and profitability, which are key factors for investors.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What Is Meant by Unit Economics?

Unit economics is about figuring out how much profit you make from selling just one item or offering a single service. It’s like asking: “Is this one sale profitable?” If you sell gadgets, it’s about comparing the money you get from selling one gadget to the costs of that sale. 

For service companies, like Airbnb, it’s about looking at the money earned from one service (e.g., one night’s stay) and comparing it to the costs of providing that service. If the result is positive, it means your product or service is likely a good one.

What Are Unit Economics Examples?

Naturally, the “units” in unit economics vary based on the type of business and the industry it operates in. Here are some examples of how different businesses define their “units”:

  • Airlines: Each ticket sold
  • Coffee Shops: Each cup of coffee sold
  • Streaming Services: Each monthly subscription
  • Gyms: Each new member sign-up
  • E-commerce Platforms: Each order processed
  • Taxi company: Every ride completed
  • SaaS companies: Each software user

What Is Unit Economics for Startups?

Unit economics is pivotal for startups, offering a detailed view on financial health and potential. It aids startups in managing and communicating performance, setting and tracking goals, and making evidence-based decisions. 

By understanding their unit economics, startups can define key performance indicators (KPIs) and objectives and key results (OKRs) that align with their mission. This clarity is invaluable when reporting to stakeholders, pitching to investors, and showcasing the startup’s value proposition. 

In essence, unit economics equips startups to analyze scenarios, demonstrate their traction, and convince investors of their potential, all grounded in tangible financial metrics.

What Are Good Unit Economics?

Good unit economics are indicative of a sustainable and potentially profitable business model. Some signs of good unit economics include:

  • LTV > CAC: The lifetime value of a customer should be significantly higher than the cost to acquire them.
  • Short Payback Period: The shorter the time it takes to recover the cost of acquiring a customer, the better.
  • High Gross Margin: A high gross margin per unit indicates that the product or service is being sold at a price significantly higher than its cost of production.
  • Scalability: The ability to maintain or improve unit economics as the business scales.


In conclusion, unit economics’ role may vary across sectors like tech and SaaS, but its primary objective of promoting financial sustainability remains constant.

As we lean further into a data-driven future, unit economics’ impact on everyday operations and investment decisions will intensify. Thus, startups need to not only comprehend their unit economics, but also stay ready to adjust these measures as market conditions and business growth evolve.

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About the author: Oran Yehiel

Oran Yehiel is the founder of Startup Geek, with an MBA specializing in financial management and a background in Deloitte. As a Certified Public Accountant and Digital Marketing Professional, he writes about venture capital, marketing, entrepreneurship, and more, bringing a wealth of experience to businesses seeking growth and success.

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