10 Tips for Succeeding in a Startup Accelerator Program

Seedcamp

Article originally published on the SiliconRoundabout on July 4th, 2013

Accelerators come in all different shapes and sizes. With many new Accelerators coming into existence within the last few years, the job of selecting one to join and getting the most out of your chosen accelerator program isn’t always obvious. Some programs, like Seedcamp, cater to high ambition & high growth companies spread across various industries, whereas others focus on specific verticals such as clean energy or healthcare to name a few.

We all have different approaches, but with over 90 companies forming the Seedcamp family we’ve had a chance to see many different industries and what it takes to get those companies to the next level.

Below are Seedcamp’s top tips for succeeding before you enter a accelerator programme:

1) Asses Program Fit – Research what an accelerator’s deal is regarding investment and terms before applying. perhaps your company isn’t ready yet or is too mature for the program you are considering.

2) Do your Due Diligence – Get in touch with founders or mentors that are part of the program, read blog posts from the Accelerator’s team to see what is important for them. This will help you get a better feel for the program but also how the program leaders think.

3) Rehearse your Pitch and prepare to answer questions – Be transparent, confident, and open. If your pitch isn’t ready or you are defensive in your approach, it’ll be a huge red flag.

 Once you enter the program:

4) Be Proactive – Don’t wait for the Accelerator’s team to chase after you, you should chase after them and if you can, be as physically close to the team as possible..

5) Understand your startup is more than just techFinding Product-Market-Fit is crucial at this stage of the game. Don’t focus entirely on tech, embark on a mission to learn and master all the commercial aspects of your startup as well.

6) Attend as many of the curriculum events as possible – They are there to help you. Don’t skip valuable content.

7) Network as much as possible – email all the people you meet and get to know as many of the Accelerator’s mentor base as possible.

8) Build a board of advisors from your networking efforts early. They will be of incredible value

9) Start developing your fundraising strategy after the first week of being in the program

10) Lastly, don’t be afraid to experiment and ask questions – You will have lots of people supporting you. Your mantra should be ‘test test test’ – and that applies to all aspects of your company.

 

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The Basics, Pros & Cons, Points to Consider, and The Modelling of Convertible Notes

birds on a wire

note

Special thanks to Dale Huxford from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP for edits and additional legal review.

UPDATED (Nov 11, 2013) – Notes added on: Conversion Triggers section & attached Cap Table in folder updated to v2 to fix some bugs.

The “Convertible Note” gets lots of attention in the blog-o-sphere as an alternative to traditional equity financings; some of this attention is good and some of it bad. Some investors refuse to use them, while others love them as a quick way of getting a company the capital it needs.

Convertible notes are sometimes viewed as a “best of both worlds” compromise from both a company perspective as well as from an investor’s perspective: on the one hand, a note is a loan, so the investor enjoys more downside protection than would an equity holder in the event the company is forced to wind up or dissolve for whatever reason; on the other hand, if the company eventually raises money by selling shares to later investors in a typical early stage financing round, then rather than pay back the outstanding amount in cash, the principal and interest are “converted” into shares of stock in the company (usually at some sort of discount off the price offered to new investors – I’ll discuss that below). In other words, the investor enjoys the downside protection typically associated with debt lenders, but is also positioned to enjoy the upside opportunity typically enjoyed by equity holders.

As with any tool, before you use it effectively, its best to understand the pros and cons of each of its features and how they can be used for your individual circumstances. Fortunately, convertible notes typically have fewer moving pieces than do equity instruments (which explains, in part, why they’re sometimes favoured by early stage companies and investors – the negotiation and documentation for a convertible note round is likely to be far less time-consuming and costly than for an equity round), but before we proceed any further in dissecting this tool, let’s look at the headline basics of a convertible note:

1) Total Amount Raised by the Note – This amount does have a natural limit. Think about it this way… you have an amount ‘outstanding on your cap table’, that will be part of an upcoming round. If a new round in the future isn’t particularly big, having too much money outstanding can create a problem with your convertible note holders taking up too large a portion of that round. Example: a 300K convertible which converts as part of a total 600K seed round would loosely mean that the convertible note holders would have 50% of the round. If the round was supposed to be for 20% of your equity, that means your new investor will only get 10%, an amount that may not excite him that much… and also you only get 50% new money in the door. To limit the extreme cases of this being done, investors usually create a ‘qualified round’ definition within the Note’s terms for conversion (see bullet #5 below) which reduces the likelihood of this amount being disproportionally larger than a new investors amount as part of a new round.

2) Discount Percentage – Simply put, if shares are worth $1 a 20% discount percentage would mean that an investor would get the shares for 80 cents. For cases where the next round’s valuation is below your convertible note holder’s cap as set in point #3 below, a discount factor will yield the convertible note holder a marginally cheaper price for having taken a risk on you. Typically this discount percentage is likely to be between around 15-25%. Another Example: a round closes at 3M. Your cap is at 5m. Your convertible note holders have a 20% discount, so they get to convert into the next round at a valuation of 2.4M.

3) Limit On Company Valuation At Conversion (the so-called “Valuation Cap”) – In order to calculate the number of shares into which the outstanding balance on a convertible note will convert, you must know the price at which the next round’s equity securities are being sold. Price per share, as you may or may not know, is calculated by taking the company’s pre-money valuation (negotiated at the time of the equity financing between the company and the investors) and dividing that number by the total number of outstanding shares in the company (the company’s “fully diluted capital”). Recall, however, that convertible notes are typically entered into in anticipation of an equity financing round – thus, at the time a convertible note is issued, no one knows what the negotiated pre-money valuation will be if/when the company undertakes an equity financing. Consequently, no one knows exactly what the price per share will be at the time the notes are issued. This creates uncertainty and is a cause for some investor anxiety, particularly for those investors concerned that that the number of shares into which their note may convert may be insignificant relative to the other shareholders, particularly in the event the pre-money valuation at the time of conversion is especially high.

The valuation ‘cap’ is intended to ease investor concerns by placing a maximum pre-money valuation on the company at the time of conversion. with the use of a cap, an investor can effectively set the minimum amount of equity an investor is willing to own as part of having participated in your convertible note round. For example, if you have a 200K note on a valuation 5m cap, then the worst case scenario for that convertible note holder, would be 4% equity after the new round is over. A typical valuation cap for very early-stage companies will be around $4m – $6m, with most companies at the Series A level settling on $10m valuation caps or more. For more statistics on caps and other components of a convertible note, I have included a link at the bottom of this post to an article with additional stats.

One thing to note, is that in the USA, there is a rising prevalence of uncapped notes. Clearly this is a founder friendly outcome, and if possible, always nice to get. The flip-side, is that for the investor, the may feel a bit ‘unprotected’ in the case of where the company does exceedingly well and thus their amount converts to a much smaller percentage than originally hoped.

4) The Interest Rate on a Note – A convertible note is a form of debt, or loan. As such, it usually accumulates interest, usually between 4-8% between the point when you sign it and when it converts. This amount is usually converted as part of overall amount at the next round. For example, if you have an annual interest rate of 8% and you have a Loan Note of 100, then you’d convert 108 after a year.

Note: In the US, it’s highly advisable to include an interest rate, even if it’s simply a nominal amount equal to the applicable federal rate (most recently at less than 1%), b/c if not, then any amount that could have been earned via interest is taxed to the company as gain. So it’s not really an option to exclude it in the USA. In the UK, you don’t necessarily need to include it should you wish to omit it.

5) Conversion Triggers – The point of a convertible note is for it to convert at some point in the future, not for it to stay outstanding indefinitely. As such, it will likely have a series of triggers for conversion. One I mentioned earlier is the next ‘qualified round’. Basically this means that the round is big enough to accommodate the amount in the note (without washing out new investors) and also is the type of round that is typical for the next step in the company’s growth and will give the note holders the types of rights they’d expect for their shares once converted from loan to equity. Another conversion trigger is an expiration maturity date, whereby the note holder typically can either ask for their money back (although this rarely happens) or basically seek to convert the outstanding amount at that point. There are more types of conversion triggers that note-makers can add to a note, but these are the basic ones. Update: upon a change of control event in the future and before the convertible is converted, investors can sometimes ask for a multiple of their loan back as payment in lieu of converting to ordinary shares prior to the completion of the change of control event. You can see some examples of this in the wording of the attached examples later in this post.

Again, these are the headline terms of a convertible note, and not representative of all the terms. However, for early discussions with potential investors, you’ll rarely have to talk about anything more than 1-4. Beyond that, you usually start having to involve lawyers (or experienced deal drafters) to help you finalise the document.

Now that we’ve reviewed the basics of a Convertible Note, take a look at a recent report that has statistics of what common terms have been given to Valley based companies. If you are not in the Valley, you will likely have a different set of averages, so be mindful of that.

http://www.siliconlegal.com/reports/seed-financing-report-2010-2012

Now, let’s look at the headline pros and cons of using a convertible note.

Pros –

  • Typically less involved and less paperwork than equity rounds; can cut down on time and legal fees
  • Investors enjoy downside protection as debtholders during the earliest stages of the company when company is at critical growth stages
  • Company can defer the negotiations surrounding valuation until later in the company’s lifecycle (i.e. for very early stage companies at the earliest stages of planning and preparation, valuations can be more difficult to define)
  • At conversion, note holders typically receive discounts or valuation caps on converting balance, thereby rewarding the earliest investors appropriately for their early investment in the company but without causing valuation issues for the company

Cons –

  • If a convertible note is made to be too large, it can negatively impact your next round because it’ll convert to a disproportionally large portion of your next round, effectively crowding-out your next round’s potential investors from having the equity stake they may desire.
  • If a convertible note’s cap is made too low, in order to accommodate a larger round later, the Founders may need to take the additional dilution that would happen if they exceeded the convertible’s cap.
  • Because a convertible note can be made to be quite versatile, sometimes investors can add clauses in there that have greater implications down the road, such as being able to take up more of a future round than the actual amount they’ve put in, for example.
  • If not careful, you can accumulate various too much convertible debt which may burden you at a conversion point
  • Doesn’t give your investors (in the UK) SEIS tax relief, thus making it less attractive than an equity round. There may be some workarounds, but generally SEIS and Convertible notes are not seen as compatible.
  • Notes give convertible note holders the investor rights of future investors (say in a future Series A Preferred Shares), which may include more rights than those they would take for the amount of money they put in had they simply done an equity deal on Ordinary Shares with you today.
  • If the convertible note automatically converts at the next equity raise (i.e. the investor has no choice), investors may wind up being forced to convert into securities shares despite not being happy with the terms of the equity financing. The note holders may unfortunately have less influence in negotiating the terms of the equity financing, which partially explains why some investors are reluctant to invest with convertible notes.
  • Finally, while convertible notes allow the company to defer the valuation conversation until a later time (see discussion under “Pros” above), any inclusion of a conversion cap will raise a similar conversation, which defeats some of the purpose for why companies and investors alike originally favoured the convertible note as a quick-and-easy financing solution to begin with.

Now let’s explore a few more core concepts in detail.

Seniority – A convertible note is a form of debt or loan. Although its not too common to hear about investors asking for their money back, they in fact, do have that right… additionally, one of the privileges that having the Note act like debt is that it acts senior to equity in the case of a liquidation. What this means in practice, is that Loan holders will get their money back first.

Subscription Rights – Some investors like to have more equity than their invested amount would likely yield them upon conversion. So one thing to look out for is how much they want to take up of the next round as part of having been in the convertible note. Example: An investor gives you 50K, which converts at your next round of 1m on 2m Pre at 1.6% -> next to nothing for the convertible investor. However, that investor had a Subscription Right for up to 30% of the new round, so that allows him to participate on the 1m round with up to 300K thus affording him a larger ‘seat at the table’ in excess of the 1.6% he would just have without this right.

To conclude and to provide you with some practical examples, in the following Google Drive Folder I have added an excel sheet with an example cap table as well as UK & USA termsheet templates from Orrick* that are uberly simple, for review purposes only (they may not be fit for what you need, but give you an idea). A comment on the example cap table – it isn’t designed to be ‘fully realistic’ per se, as in, your cap table will likely not look like this in terms of founders and shareholders and number of rounds before a convertible comes in, but it serves well for you to play with the variables that make up a convertible note so you can see how they affect your fully-diluted stake after a round.

I hope this helps you decide what the best options may be for you. As usual, please give me feedback on all these materials as with software, there are likely bugs somewhere!!  Thanks in advance!

*Regarding the Convertible Note Documents, a disclaimer from Orrick: The linked documents have been prepared for informational purposes, and are not intended to (a) constitute legal advice (b) create an attorney-client relationship, or (c) be advertising or a solicitation of any type.  Each situation is highly fact specific and requires a knowledge of both state and federal laws, and anyone electing to use some or all of the forms should, prior to doing so, seek legal advice from a licensed attorney in the relevant jurisdictions with respect to their specific circumstances.  Orrick expressly disclaims any and all liability with respect to actions or omissions based on the forms linked to or referenced in this post, and assumes no responsibility for any consequences of use or misuse of the documents.

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How does an early-stage investor review your financial plan?

Finances

You are about to go meet an investor… you’ve read on the web and heard differing views from people on whether you need a financial plan… some say you don’t, it’s a waste of time as its all made up numbers anyway… others say, you absolutely need a financial plan… so you walk into an investor meeting full of anxiety as to whether not having something is going to reflect poorly on you or if what you’ve created (if you did create something) will be crap in the investors eyes… so what to do?

The financial plan, for most tech-focused early-stage founders, is probably one of the most dreaded bits of the investment pack to send your prospective early-stage investors. The variety of opinions online don’t help either as they just confuse the matter…

  • Do I need one or do I not need one?
  • If I build one, how do I know it is ‘right’?
  • If I build one, surely the investor will know that my numbers are all “fake” and just slash them all in half?

Let’s face it, as much as we’d like to think we can predict the future with all sorts of fancy extrapolations on growth rates… but we can’t… Considering that most people create financial projections based on assumptions of what needs to happen for an upcoming month’s worth of operating events to happen and then project from there for x number of months or years, you effectively create a series of increasingly improbable chronological events with the last event (month) in the series being effectively a function of the compounded set of decreasing probabilities, all of which are asymptotically approaching zero percent in their likelihood of happening “according to the plan”.

What’s my point? Well, that your financial plan isn’t worth much from an accuracy perspective.
So what then? If my numbers are crap, why bother with whole financials nonsense?

It is in its forensic analysis of your thinking behind the model, however, where an early-stage investor really gets a feel for how you think and how you want to direct your company in the near future. Next, it is in how your cash will be used efficiently to accomplish the mutually agreed goals.

Before we continue further, I want to clarify that I’m not going to discuss how it is that you should format your financials, or explain basic accounting principles, or how financial statements work. There are plenty of resources online that can help you with that. Rather I want to explore how an early-stage investor (well, at least myself) forensically reviews the financial plan of an early stage startup (vs. a later-stage startups where there is a historical performance record already there and with multiple years of budgets and actual figures).

So what do I mean by conducting a forensic analysis of company’s financials?

Well, I certainly don’t mean it in the sense of reviewing the financials of the startup from a post-mortem basis, but rather reviewing them with the same level of scrutiny on ‘reasons’ why things may have occurred or may occur as one sees on TV shows like CSI. Effectively, I’m looking for what are the cause & effects of each of the numbers and what are the key assumptions behind them, with emphasis on the word “assumptions”. The verbal discussion with the entrepreneur’s financials will focus entirely on their assumptions and the reasoning behind them.

When an investor is discussing numbers (which may be entirely wrong from a future-perspective) with an entrepreneur, if the entrepreneur shows a solid understanding on why the numbers are there, having a clear view of the market dynamics in which their company operates, with realistic customer acquisition assumptions, realistic hiring plans, effective use of marketing budgets, appropriate expenses for a growing company, it can have a HUGE impact on establishing the necessary credibility of competence an entrepreneur needs to inspire confidence in the investor. The opposite, seeing a financial plan with current month revenues/expenses projected five years into the future assuming linear or exponential growth in all aspects of the organization and then stated with a confidence of ‘this is what we realistically expect to happen’ can be both demoralizing for an investor if not outright humorous.

Let me share with you a little secret: With a few exceptions, you will always know your industry and its numbers better than any investor will. However, an experienced investor will ask you the right questions to ascertain whether or not you know your industry well enough to increase the probability of your own company’s success. As such, really do your homework… by homework I mean, don’t just go out and build a product and hope there will be customers. If you take the Lean Methodology approach, for example, as soon as you have customer validation, make an effort to understand the market dynamics of that customer… how many of them are there? What is their concentration? How do you reach them? Are they locked in with a competitor with some sort of monthly or annual contract? Do they buy in a cyclical pattern? Do they prefer to buy online or only from salespeople? Do they need help with setting up your product or can they use it as is? What are they generally willing to pay for other similar services? How is the market growing? Mind you that in some circumstances the ability to ‘charge’ money of your customers may not be deemed the real potential for revenues at first (think Twitter 3 years ago), but again it is how you articulate the future value that matters.

If you take all those questions and research them, what you will find are key components of what will make up the assumptions on your future revenues (or value creation objective). Perhaps your customers are only willing to buy your product during the holiday season, so you will have a hard time with cash coming into your company during the off-season. Financials that didn’t take that into consideration would look to an investor as somewhat unrealistic, not in the numbers, but in the market dynamics of your product. Take other assumptions for example, if you can only reach your customers via another party (perhaps a distributor?)… As in you aren’t directly selling to your end customer, how does that affect the time until you get cash, and the amount of customers you get all at once (or lose all at once)? How long are your customers likely to stay within your service (churn)?

Again, all of these examples are about doing your homework on how your company will operate within its industry and how it will acquire customers. The better you can explain the reasons why a number in your financial model is based on a realistic set of assumptions, the better off you will be. But look at it another way… while you are doing this exercise, you will realize whether there is actually a business that can make money (or other method of value creation) or not. For example, if you do the analysis and find that in the sector you are exploring people aren’t willing to pay and that many other competitors are giving the product away for free, and that there aren’t many opportunities to inject ‘advertising’ as a supplementary source of revenue, you may have just saved yourself a serious amount of wasted energy!

Which brings us to the next part of the homework: the understanding of your company’s expenses. If you have found a market where your product is actually capable of generating some sort of value (note again that I’m not necessarily focusing on “revenues” because there are many ways investors define what “value creation” is, whether it be a growing user base or actual sales) the next part is how do you spend your money to match that customer growth. When do you hire new sales people (and how many sales people do you need relative to a customer sale?),  when do you bring new servers online, spend on marketing, spend on new offices, laptops, etc..  Obviously the types and amounts of expenses vary from company to company, but what matters here is how they map to what you are trying to do and whether that mapping is realistic (what is your customer acquisition cost?). For example, if you have a marketing charge of $500 one month, is it realistic to expect that next month your customer sign ups will increase by 500%? Well, as I said before about the “little dirty secret”… I have no flippin’ idea, but I will expect you to tell me how the $500 will equal 500% in customer growth and I will basically evaluate the credibility of your answer. If you answer, I will buy $500 worth of flyers and pass them out, you can rest assured that I will not believe your 500% figure, but if your team’s background has a track record of low-cost viral marketing campaigns, and your answer is basically a version of that… well guess what, I might just find it plausible. I may be exaggerating the bit about having ‘no flippin idea’ as most investors will have seen enough of what works and doesn’t work to call BS, but again, if you can walk an investor credibly through your assumptions, it will do wonders for the confidence you create.

Lastly and most importantly, is the review of how the expenses map to the revenues as far as cash flow is concerned. The lifeline of a company is how much cash it has before it either dies or needs to go fund-raising again. As such, investors not only want to know how much a company needs in terms of cash to execute its vision (perhaps the subject for an upcoming post), but also on how that cash is being used. If there is a huge mismatch here or there isn’t enough time for you to reach your company’s next point of tangible progress (a validation point), this may be a point worth discussing. Much is joked about how an investor will take your revenues and cut them in half, actually an investor may outright eliminate your revenues from the overall sensitivity analysis he is doing to get a feel for how much cash your company would burn on a monthly basis at time x in your plan (you should know your current monthly burn number by heart, by the way). This is because if your company has to do a pivot or something else goes wrong, this will not only accelerate the cash drain relative to your plan, but also have an effect on when the company needs to go fund-raising again and an investor needs to take all of that into consideration as part of the investment analysis.

In summary, do your homework before you build your financial model, but definitively go through the exercise of building one. It will be hugely helpful in helping you identify how your business may need to grow in order to adapt to the sector in which it operates and how you may need to spend money in order to achieve your goals. Most importantly however, by being prepared with a thorough understanding of why everything is there within your model, the less anxious you will be when meeting potential investors… and remember, you may not know all the answers, such as how much money will it cost you to acquire a new customer, but even if you at least start with a reasonable assumption, confess that you aren’t sure about it, and then play around with a range to see if things work, that is also helpful to the investor for them to get a feel for how you can evaluate uncertain circumstances and adapt accordingly.

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Additional Notes on Early-Stage Startup Valuation

English: Diagram of the typical financing cycl...
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In my recent post on how an early-stage investor values a startup, I talk about how market comparables were the closest guide to how early-stage investors value a startup vs. any other methodology. However, I feel like I left one question unaddressed. Namely, why are there valuation discrepancies for comparable companies across the world (more specifically at investment stage rather than exit stage)?

The answer has to do with liquidity of deals, the localized risks for investors, and the supply of investors.

As I mentioned in my last post, there are various factors that can come into how an investor values a startup, but using market comparables from deals done in the USA doesn’t always incorporate all the risks that are prevalent in the specific geography where the company and investor in question operates. Furthermore, the availability of capital in any geography will also affect how an investor gauges his own risk/reward ratio when pricing deals.

I’m going to talk about this point abstractly and without incorporating the argument of the global nature of internet-based businesses (they do have some localization risk still, but less so). So, for example, startup exits for investors in certain developing economies will happen less often than say, in Silicon Valley. This has to do not only with the number of companies coming out of the country, but the universe of potential buyers for these companies in that geography.

This affects that risk an investor takes, as he is less likely to get that 10x that I mentioned in my previous post. Therefore an investor seeks a ‘discount’ to take on a deal in order to have a portfolio of deals where there is the possibility that one will be able to exit in spite of whatever market conditions exist locally. Add to that the fact that the investor may be one of very few investors, and therefore can command this discount more forcefully than if more competition existed (once enough investors exist, market pricing becomes more stable and in parity with other larger markets).

Think of it this way… If you’ve been on tourist holidays to resorts abroad, you’ll have noticed that things that are generally cheap(er) back home are notably more expensive at the resort store. This higher cost is due not only because of the transport cost to the resort, but also the cost of holding them there in inventory without knowing if anyone traveling to the resort will buy them. If the seller doesn’t include a higher premium on these items, he will not break even considering the high scrap-age risk he must take on inventory not-bought, and if there aren’t any other stores around, the store doesn’t have to compete on price either, but can continue to seek profit under the circumstances.

So, the point of this post is only to highlight why in certain parts of the world financing can be more difficult to get, but also why it can be priced differently than equivalent deals elsewhere.

 

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How does an early-stage investor value a startup?

English: Diagram of the typical financing cycl...
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One of the most frequently asked questions at any startup event or investor panel, is “how do investors value a startup?”. The unfortunate answer to the question is: it depends.
Startup valuation, as frustrating as this may be for anyone looking for a definitive answer, is, in fact, a relative science, and not an exact one.

For those of you that want to cut to the summary of this post (which is somewhat self-evident when you read it) here it is:

The biggest determinant of your startup’s value are the market forces of the industry & sector in which it plays, which include the balance (or imbalance) between demand and supply of money, the recency and size of recent exits, the willingness for an investor to pay a premium to get into a deal, and the level of desperation of the entrepreneur looking for money.

Whilst this statement may capture the bulk of how most early stage startups are valued, I appreciate that it lacks the specificity the reader would like to hear, and thus I will try and explore the details of valuation methods in the remainder of my post with the hopes of shedding some light on how you can try and value your startup.

As any newly minted MBA will tell you, there are many valuation tools & methods out there. They range in purpose for anything from the smallest of firms, all the way to large public companies, and they vary in the amount of assumptions you need to make about a company’s future relative to its past performance in order to get a ‘meaningful’ value for the company. For example, older and public companies are ‘easier’ to value, because there is historical data about them to ‘extrapolate’ their performance into the future. So knowing which ones are the best to use and for what circumstances (and their pitfalls) is just as important as knowing how to use them in the first place.

Some of the valuation methods you may have have heard about include (links temporarily down due to Wikipedia’s position on SOPA and PIPA):

While going into the details of how these methods work is outside of the scope of my post, I’ve added some links that hopefully explain what they are. Rather, let’s start tackling the issue of valuation by investigating what an investor is looking for when valuing a company, and then see which methods provide the best proxy for current value when they make their choices.

A startup company’s value, as I mentioned earlier, is largely dictated by the market forces in the industry in which it operates. Specifically, the current value is dictated by the market forces in play TODAY and TODAY’S perception of what the future will bring.

Effectively this means, on the downside, that if your company is operating in a space where the market for your industry is depressed and the outlook for the future isn’t any good either (regardless of what you are doing), then clearly what an investor is willing to pay for the company’s equity is going to be substantially reduced in spite of whatever successes the company is currently having (or will have) UNLESS the investor is either privy to information about a potential market shift in the future, or is just willing to take the risk that the company will be able to shift the market. I will explore the latter point on what can influence you attaining a better (or worse) valuation in greater detail later. Obviously if your company is in a hot market, the inverse will be the case.

Therefore, when an early stage investor is trying to determine whether to make an investment in a company (and as a result what the appropriate valuation should be), what he basically does is gauge what the likely exit size will be for a company of your type and within the industry in which it plays, and then judges how much equity his fund should have in the company to reach his return on investment goal, relative to the amount of money he put into the company throughout the company’s lifetime.

This may sound quite hard to do, when you don’t know how long it will take the company to exit, how many rounds of cash it will need, and how much equity the founders will let you have in order to meet your goals. However, through the variety of deals that investors hear about and see in seed, series A and onwards, they have a mental picture of what constitutes and ‘average’ size round, and ‘average’ price, and the ‘average’ amount of money your company will do relative to other in the space in which it plays. Effectively, VCs, in addition to having a pulse of what is going on in the market, have financial models which, like any other financial analyst trying to predict the future within the context of a portfolio, have margins of error but also assumptions of what will likely happen to any company they are considering for investment. Based on these assumptions, investors will decide how much equity they effectively need now, knowing that they may have to invest along the way (if they can) so that when your company reaches its point of most likely going to an exit, they will hit their return on investment goal. If they can’t make the numbers work for an investment either relative to what a founder is asking for, or relative to what the markets are telling them via their assumptions, then an investor will either pass, or wait around to see what happens (if they can).

So, the next logical question is, how does an investor size the ‘likely’ maximum value (at exit) of my company in order to do their calculations?

Well, there are several methods, but mainly “instinctual” ones and quantitative ones. The instinctual ones are used more in the early-stage type of deals and as the maturity of the company grows, along with its financial information, quantitative methods are increasingly used. Instinctual ones are not entirely devoid of quantitative analysis, however, it is just that this “method” of valuation is driven mostly by an investor’s sector experience about what the average type of deal is priced at both at entry (when they invest) and at exit. The quantitative methods are not that different, but incorporate more figures (some from the valuation methods outlined) to extrapolate a series of potential exit scenarios for your company. For these types of calculations, the market and transaction comparables method is the favored approach. As I mentioned, it isn’t the intent of this post to show how to do these, but, in summary, comparables tell an investor how other companies in the market are being valued on some basis (be it as a multiple of Revenues or EBITDA, for example, but can be other things like user base, etc) which in turn can be applied to your company as a proxy for your value today. If you want to see what a professionally prepared comps table looks like (totally unrelated sector, but same idea), go here.

Going back to the valuation toolset for one moment… most of the tools on the list I’ve mentioned include a market influence factor , meaning they have a part of the calculation that is determined by how the market(s) are doing, be it the market/industry your company operates in, or the larger S&P 500 stock index (as a proxy of a large pool of companies). This makes it hard, for example to use tools (such as the DCF) that try and use the past performance of a startup (particularly when there is hardly a track record that is highly reliable as an indicator of future performance) as a means by which to extrapolate future performance. This is why comparables, particularly transaction comparables are favored for early stage startups as they are better indicators of what the market is willing to pay for the startups ‘most like’ the one an investor is considering.

But by knowing (within some degree of instinctual or calculated certainty) what the likely exit value of my company will be in the future, how does an investor then decide what my value should be now?

Again, knowing what the exit price will be, or having an idea of what it will be, means that an investor can calculate what their returns will be on any valuation relative to the amount of money they put in, or alternatively what their percentage will be in an exit (money they put in, divided by the post-money valuation of your company = their percentage).  Before we proceed, just a quick glossary:

Pre-Money = the value of your company now
Post-Money = the value of your company after the investor put the money in
Cash on Cash Multiple = the multiple of money returned to an investor on exit divided by the amount they put in throughout the lifetime of the company

So, if an investor knows how much % they own after they put their money in, and they can guess the exit value of your company, they can divide the latter from the former and get a cash-on-cash multiple of what their investment will give them (some investors use IRR values as well of course, but most investors tend to think in terms of cash-on-cash returns because of the nature of how VC funds work). Assume a 10x multiple for cash-on-cash returns is what every investor wants from an early stage venture deal, but of course reality is more complex as different levels of risk (investors are happy with lower returns on lower risk and later stage deals, for example) will have different returns on expectations, but let’s use 10x as an example however, because it is easy, and because I have ten fingers. However, this is still incomplete, because investors know that it is a rare case where they put money in and there is no requirement for a follow-on investment. As such, investors need to incorporate assumptions about how much more money your company will require, and thus how much dilution they will (as well as you) take provided they do (or don’t ) follow their money up to a point (not every investor can follow-on in every round until the very end, as many times they reach a maximum amount of money invested in one company as is allowed by the structure of their fund).

Now, armed with assumptions about the value of your company at exit, how much money it may require along the way, and what the founding team (and their current investors) may be willing to accept in terms of dilution, they will determine a ‘range’ of acceptable valuations that will allow them, to some extent, to meet their returns expectations (or not, in which case they will pass on the investment for ‘economics’ reasons). This method is what I call the ‘top-down’ approach…

Naturally, if there is a ‘top-down’, there must be a ‘bottom-up’ approach, which although is based on the ‘top-down’ assumptions, basically just takes the average entry valuation for companies of a certain type and stage an investor typically sees and values a company relative to that entry average. The reason why I say this is based on the ‘top-down’ is because that entry average used by the bottom-up approach, if you back-track the calculations, is based on a figure that will likely give investors a meaningful return on an exit for the industry in question. Additionally, you wouldn’t, for example, use the bottom-up average from one industry for another as the results would end up being different. This bottom-up approach could yield an investor saying the following to you when offering you a termsheet:

“a company of your stage will probably require x millions to grow for the next 18 months, and therefore based on your current stage, you are worth (money to be raised divided by % ownership the investor wants – money to be raised) the following pre-money”.

One topic that I’m also skipping as part of this discussion, largely because it is a post of its own, is “how much money should I raise?”. I will only say that you will likely have a discussion with your potential investor on this amount when you discuss your business plan or financial model, and if you both agree on it, it will be part of the determinant of your valuation. Clearly a business where an investor agrees that 10m is needed and is willing to put it down right now, is one that has been de-risked to some point and thus will have a valuation that reflects that.

So being that we’ve now established how much the market and industry in which you company plays in can dictate the ultimate value of your company, lets look at what other factors can contribute to an investor asking for a discount in value or an investor being willing to pay a premium over the average entry price for your company’s stage and sector. In summary:

An investor is willing to pay more for your company if:

  • It is in a hot sector:investors that come late into a sector may also be willing to pay more as one sees in public stock markets of later entrants into a hot stock.
  • If your management team is shit hot: serial entrepreneurs can command a better valuation (read my post of what an investor looks for in a management team). A good team gives investors faith that you can execute.
  • You have a functioning product (more for early stage companies)
  • You have traction: nothing shows value like customers telling the investor you have value.

An investor is less likely to pay a premium over the average for your company (or may even pass on the investment) if:

  • It is in a sector that has shown poor performance.
  • It is in a sector that is highly commoditized, with little margins to be made.
  • It is in a sector that has a large set of competitors and with little differentiation between them (picking a winner is hard in this case).
  • Your management team has no track record and/or may be missing key people for you to execute the plan (and you have no one lined up). Take a look at my post on ‘do I need a technical founder?‘.
  • Your product is not working and/or you have no customer validation.
  • You are going to shortly run out of cash

In conclusion, market forces right now greatly affect the value of your company. These market forces are both what similar deals are being priced at (bottom-up) and the amounts of recent exits (top-down) which can affect the value of a company in your specific sector. The best thing you can do to arm yourself with a feeling of what values are in the market before you speak to an investor is by speaking to other startups like yours (effectively making your own mental comparables table) that have raised money and see if they’ll share with you what they were valued and how much they raised when they were at your stage. Also, read the tech news as sometimes they’ll print information which can help you back track into the values. However, all is not lost. As I mentioned, there are factors you can influence to increase the value of your startup, and nothing increases your company’s value more than showing an investor that people out there want your product and are even willing to pay for it.

Hope this helped! Feel free to ask questions in the comments.

UPDATE: I wrote some additional notes on early-stage startup valuation because I felt I didn’t quite cover all parts in the above summary. You can ready those by clicking here.

Other Pieces on the subject

http://www.quora.com/How-do-VC-firms-value-a-start-up
http://www.quora.com/Internet-Startups/How-do-investors-value-a-consumer-internet-start-up
http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/72384

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