The expression “elephant in the room” (usually “the elephant in the room”) is a metaphorical idiom in English for an important or enormous topic, problem, or risk that is obvious or that everyone knows about but no one mentions or wants to discuss because it makes at least some of them uncomfortable or is personally, socially, or politically embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory, or dangerous.
It is based on the idea/thought that something as conspicuous as an elephant can appear to be overlooked in codified social interactions and that the sociology/psychology of repression also operates on the macro scale. Various languages across the world have words that describe similar concepts.
I love this expression because it’s so obvious…how could you NOT notice something so big within a confined space… and yet, sometimes we do ignore it, or at least fail to acknowledge it; When it comes to pitching your company, it’s not unusual for you to have an ‘Elephant in the Room’ and, funnily enough, it’s often easier to ignore it (out of fear) rather than confront it head on.
Why is this important?
Frequently, your ‘Elephant’ is something that’s perhaps awkward to be up front about, such as a like-for-like competitor already in market; or that several companies like yours have failed in the past, or that there is a big player out there who owns most of the market.
I’ve received many presentations over the years and also observed how others hear and perceive them and what inevitably happens is when you ignore that ‘Elephant’, it grows in your audience’s mind. It grows to the point where it consumes their entire mind space and the points you are trying to make get lost because the audience is actively trying to suppress their desire to counter with ‘how about xxx” which has been festering in their minds all this time!
Whether you address it directly or indirectly, you need to address it sooner rather than later. The solution is simple: you have to realise that this elephant isn’t real. It’s merely a blow up Elephant and one you can deflate easily if addressed early on in your presentation. People will either agree with the way you deflated it or not but you’ll at least be able to move past it.
How do you identify your Elephant?
Unless you are willing to delude yourself, you likely already know what it is. It may be a question investors or friends have repeatedly asked you when you explain what you are working on. It usually starts with something like ‘isn’t that like…’ or ‘didn’t that…’ or something like that. In short, if you are feeling uncomfortable about something, most likely that’s your Elephant.
How do you deflate your Elephant?
Through logic. The fact is, you would not have started working on your business if you didn’t have good reason to believe this ‘Elephant’ was not going to hurt you in the long-run. If it’s a competitor everyone asks you about, you can simply talk about how you feel you are tackling things differently and serve a different need/customer. If it’s a sector that has had many deaths in the past, perhaps talk about how the timing is different now vs. then, and really delve deep into why that is the case. For example, one of our companies, Thriva, helps you take control of your health and find out what’s happening inside your body with a simple finger-prick blood test. When they went out to pitch, it was around the time Theranos was imploding, and there was enough ‘perceived’ similarities, that pitching without addressing that case as specifically different (and how) simply led to the eventual burst later by someone with the obvious question. Naturally, the founder was on to this, and addressed all the key points of differentiation early on.
In conclusion, to move past an Elephant, you simply need to have a sound logic as to why the Elephant doesn’t apply to you; any reason is better than no reason at all!
In a previous blog post, I covered how an early stage investor values a startup, but felt like there is likely more that can be said on the subject so consider this a ‘part 2’ to that blog post if you will. With the focus of this ‘part 2’ around how you can maximise your valuation and what are the drivers behind the boundaries of possible valuations for your company.
In my previous post, I covered how macro and geo contexts, amongst several factors, determine the relativistic value of a company to an investor on exit, and how traditional finance-driven valuations methods (DCF, etc) were inappropriate for early stage startups even if some of the elements that drive those finance-driven valuation methods were still applicable, such as expected revenues. I also covered how several factors about your company can influence what valuation you might be able to achieve. To kick off, let’s revisit those points.
The key drivers for maximising your valuation possibilities are:
Excellent metrics. As different types of businesses have different types of metrics, the general point here is that numbers talk and.. Well you know how that expression goes. Do your numbers show strong customer interest? Do your numbers show a sustainable business? Do your numbers show your ability to bring in cash (within the timeframe that’s expected of your industry)?
Excellent FOMO. What generates “fear of missing out”, or FOMO, is hard to pin down, but can usually be traced to elements that the founding team has, which when combined with what they are tackling, creates plausible ‘magic’. Whilst I believe most people that have the ability to create FOMO in others intrinsically, it is an art-form in understanding how others will perceive what you are working on and generating an honest trust in you and your team rather than relying on simple theatrics to try and achieve the same effect.
Positive Macro-economic sentiment and confidence. As discussed in the previous blog post, these affect if investors will pay higher valuations now.
Sector ‘hotness’. In effect, investor demand for what you do: the higher the demand the higher the valuation. Conjure up images of x.coin companies back in 2017 and you’ll know what I mean.
The size of your raise: the bigger the raise the higher the valuation may need to be to avoid washing out the existing shareholders.
As I’ve written on metrics and FOMO before, I want to focus on the last three for this blog post.
In previous chapters I touched upon the basic fundraising equation:
[Money Raised / Post Money = % Dilution] or alternatively [Money Raised/% Dilution = Post Money], and “valuation” is typically used interchangeably used with “pre-money valuation” which is equal to [Post money — the Money Raised].
The key element to consider with the above equation is that it’s not static. The variables that make up the equation change with time. These changes create higher and lower ranges that are acceptable for investors and founders, and below, we’ll cover how those come into play in more detail.
As covered before, It all starts with macroeconomic conditions and general sentiment in public markets. When things are going well, all companies rise, the index of stocks in a country rise, valuations rise, and the tolerance for buyers and investors to invest more and at higher valuations also rises. With all of that on the rise, at the earlier stages, this manifests itself by investors being able to tolerate increasingly more ‘expensive’ rounds, as in, rounds where they have to pay a higher valuation, because they see a possibility of selling their share of the company at a higher valuation in the future.
So, that’s the first point to make: in good times, investors are willing to increase post-money valuations. In bad times, this will no longer be the case, and if you want to read more on how to brace for that, I’ve covered it on how to weatherproof your business.
Secondly, the more mature the ecosystem, the more capital there is at play. As well as greater volume of money, there will be more specialised and sophisticated investors who can better judge the potential and therefore may pay more. The more investors and money around the table, the more competitive deals get, which will affect your valuation for the better. This is why it is easier to raise money at a higher valuation in California vs. an emerging ecosystem.
These two factors above imply that there is no ‘static’ view of valuation, rather, it’s dynamic, as it is affected by externalities.
Taking the above into consideration, the more constructive way of thinking of valuation is by thinking of it as an ‘acceptable’ or ‘probable’ range relative to the amount of capital you are raising.
This range has an upper and lower boundary, which bookend what your valuation could be. From an investor’s point of view:
The UPPER %-dilutions boundary- no early-stage investor is looking to take a majority stake of your business as that would likely constitute an acquisition, so you can easily remove taking 50% of your company at a round off the table. Therefore, your ‘real’ upper boundary is usually imposed on the investor by a few factors out of their control, including the competitiveness of the local ecosystem, the options of capital available to the founder, and how much the investor cares about how they could be perceived by other investors (some investors don’t care if they come across as predatory).
The LOWER %-dilution boundary -no investor is likely to give you money for free. As investors compete for your deal, they will be more keen on offering your more money for less dilution to you, but there is a limit. As investors do internal calculations on what is the minimum they need to return an investment to their investors (based on macro-conditions and expectations of the future of your company), there is a point where they simply can’t make the numbers work for them and they usually opt-out of offering you a deal if an alternative offer at a higher valuation (lower dilution) comes into the offers the founders are considering. Investors that understand your industry better will naturally have more tolerance towards higher valuations (eg, lower % dilution) as they can see the future potential of the company more clearly.
From a founder’s point of view, therefore, it’s about pushing towards a lower boundary through the variables you can control, eg. metrics, fomo, and round size (more to cover later).
Even though the boundaries above seem like they provide an endless amount of options, it actually sets the stage for a way of thinking of your company’s value… as a ‘range’ of options relative to the amount of capital you are raising instead of as a ‘fixed’ value.
So what’s an acceptable range then? Well if the range is dictated by macro conditions, then surely there is some sort of rule-of-thumb? Luckily there is, but it’s confusing as its different for angels vs. institutional investors and with new types of investors coming online (eg. pre-seed investors) that just adds more to the mix. However there is still a ‘range’ that you can use.
If you look at that gap (the tighter bit of it) and you say that it’s between 12% and 3.5% at the pre-seed stage and 25% to 12% to at the seed stage, you see that on average the ‘spread’ between the lower and upper boundaries on average is about 10%. To put that in context, if you were raising a 1m seed round, that would be the difference between a 3m valuation and a 7m valuation. Yes, it means a lot, but it also helps provide you with a workable range, and helps you contextualise what might be possible within ‘the norm’ (excluding crazy metrics or FOMO).
However, the 5th point I brought up that affects your valuation is the round size you go out to raise. As you can see, if I take the same range of dilution of 25%-12%, then a 2m round would generate a valuation range of 7m-15m. Quite the jump right? Simply put, as you can’t control the macro factors that determine the range you operate in, as a founder, you have total control over your round size, which is your primary tool in changing your valuation, along with showcasing strong metrics and developing the factors that can generate FOMO for your industry.
But It’s not simply about increasing your round size to exact the valuation range you want.. You will be evaluated for investment on what you’ve achieved and how you will effectively use the funds raised, so there is a point, where investors may very well think you’re raising too much for where you are, and that will be subjectively up to the discretion of the investor relative to your industry (and the implied valuation that that amount of cash will imply for them, more on that below).
In conclusion, you can’t control macro-economic conditions nor can you control how upper and lower boundaries change over time for investors, but you can control how much you are raising, and that affects your valuation just as much.
Extra Geek Math on how to find a round size range based on the above — If you want to figure out what a probable round size for your company could be, AngelList host a valuation range by $ here — https://angel.co/valuations Mapped with the % dilution range from Seedlegals, you can backwards solve for what acceptable ranges might be. For example, for London, AngelList’s calculator says that the average valuation is $3.3m. If you assume that represents the pre-money and you solve for round-size, assuming the range of between 25% and 12% as per the above examples, and with some algebra to solve for round size, you end up with a viable round size of between $680K and $1.6M on average as per the data. Can you do better than that? For sure, but now you know how to calculate it!
Recently, I had the chance to catch up with Mridula, CEO of Peppy Health* and we spoke about the real cost of lost human capital at work and beyond, the future of insurance that employers provide their teams and everything in between.
*For some background about what Peppy does, it gives employers a totally new range of employee benefits that have a huge impact on staff attraction, productivity and loyalty — benefits that people actually want. Their first products support new parents and women dealing with the challenges of menopause, with more in the pipeline.
We often forget that throughout someone’s life, there can be massive changes in their home circumstances that impact their happiness, well-being and career prospects. From their employer’s point of view, this can radically change that person’s productivity and engagement at work, as well as driving attrition and the gender pay gap.
Peppy was born out of the desire to support people during these challenging times and Mridula, during our chat, shared her views with me during our conversation, which we’ve transcribed below:
When I first met you, and before we invested in Peppy, I remember you telling me that there are two or three major points in someone’s life that can fundamentally change their outlook, the economic opportunities open to them, and their wellbeing.
For our readers, what are those points?
Three obvious ones are going through fertility treatment, becoming a parent and going through the menopause. Anything that causes somebody to sit back and re-evaluate their working life — hours, location, the kind of career or career track they want. There are more than you might think, and they’re typically less to do with what’s happening at work and more about what’s happening in your personal life. In their own ways, each of these events changes you and often you need extra support.
The question is what happens at these inflection points? You might be lucky enough to get the right support at the right time. But the reality is that all too often you’re left on your own and your physical, mental and emotional health can spiral downwards, affecting your decisions about work.
So what’s interesting is that, to date, a lot of that was dealt with privately, right? Why are employers starting to care now?
Historically, yes, these were considered ‘private’ matters for the individual to deal with. But we now have an ageing population, smaller families and all forms of public healthcare are stretched to the max. The result is that people feel isolated and unsupported when they go through these transitions, while still working in demanding jobs. Supporting them just makes good business sense.
The bulk of the life transitions we are talking about are not covered by either private medical insurance, employee assistance programmes or occupational health. There’s a gaping void — which we conservatively value at £6b in the UK alone — and women are penalised disproportionately, resulting in absence, attrition and ultimately the gender pay gap.
So if the government and existing benefits providers don’t provide much support, what do employees do now?
This might sound shocking but our users tell us that they relied on Google and Facebook before finding Peppy. That’s probably the worst solution in the history of healthcare!
Wow, that’s not good.
It really isn’t. And on top of this we’re all working for longer, so as you said earlier, it all comes down to the cost of human capital for employers. Take the menopause as an example, in 1900 a woman would typically go through it at 45 and yet back then life expectancy was only 50 or 60. Whereas today a British woman typically goes through the menopause at 51, and lives until 88 on average. She can expect to be working for at least another decade, maybe two. Suddenly this becomes a workplace issue and we need support like never before.
We have a war for talent right now, across a whole range of skills. This is true whether employees are data scientists or nurses. If you’re not able to support and retain them, then you lose access to a huge chunk of your critical workforce capacity. Or consider housekeeping staff at a hotel chain. We’re in a particular situation right now in the UK, where employers cannot attract and retain that workforce from the EU, leaving a big gap.
Even losing one person can be hugely disruptive and costly. You can easily incur costs up to 12 months of salary by the time that person’s had time off, made the decision to leave, you advertise and fill the position, and train the next person up.
… and you lose obviously the technical expertise and the relational expertise these people bring, which is tricky, right? Ultimately it comes down to managing people and when key people leave you, your organisation ends up in flux.
Now when it comes to the services specifically, maybe you can walk us through what are the services that are required? If now’s the time for employers to engage, what are the services that are actually necessary to engage?
Before becoming a parent for the first time, or going through menopause, most people don’t think too much about the realities of life on the other side of that transition. There are a lot of taboos around these topics (for example, postnatal depression in dads), so first of all, there is a need for trusted information. Secondly, people want reassurance on what is and isn’t normal. Should I be worried that my newborn baby only sleeps 2 hours at a stretch? Will this eventually pass? You don’t feel like yourself, there’s something not quite right, but you don’t know what it is. Thirdly, there’s a huge need for signposting you towards your options, so “What you’re describing is X and therefore you can try Y or speak to your GP about Z.”
Put simply, Peppy is like having an expert best friend on hand to answer any questions you might have, to direct you to trustworthy sources of information and to connect you to the specialist practitioners you might need access to — a lactation consultant, a menopause nurse, a fertility specialist, etc, etc….
Chat is the backbone of our services: direct access to a certified expert who understands what you are going through. Our users are busy and they love the convenience it offers. It’s how they communicate with their friends.
Our experts also understand what issues might be coming up and can help people prepare for them. Right now our weekly average user rate is 80%. This compares to <1% for conventional products.
Connecting with experts is always great but it sounds like it would get expensive very quickly? How do you make that work?
This is another reason why chat works so well. Somebody will have a question, maybe five or six interactions back and forth and then maybe nothing for the next 5 days.
So basically, a small team of experts can service a large number of people. We allow for a certain level of support that we know the typical person needs. Some people need more, some people need less, but the result is that we can offer incredibly generous employer benefits packages for very reasonable fees.
We also have an incredible potential to improve the productivity of our experts by leveraging the chat data to drive smart content. The journeys that users go through are remarkably similar. There are outliers of course but we can already see how we deliver a personalised care with incredible efficiency.
Insurance is evolving and InsureTech players are offering new products and services. Is this ultimately something that insurance providers will do, or is this a new category of insurance that employers will engage with, in addition to any existing insurance products or to their detriment?
Peppy is effectively a new category of insurance. Current medical insurance is about diagnostics and medical treatment for a serious injury or disease. These are low probability, very high intensity/cost events. We’re dealing with higher probability events, but with lower cost interventions that have a big impact when it matters the most for employers, employees and their families.
Insurance providers also provide services such as mental health support but it’s totally general. A 21 year old with suicidal thoughts will be given the same therapist as a 38 year old mum with postnatal depression or a 51 year old woman who is anxious while going through menopause — and that last example is likely to be a misdiagnosis! We offer highly specialised mental health support with deep experience in the transitions that our users are going through. We expect this to be a huge source of growth in the future.
What do you think will be the biggest HR challenges for organisations in the next 5 years?
Fortunately for us the answer to that is 100% clear: get ‘inclusion’ right in its broadest sense. We’ve spoken to literally hundreds of people professionals and everyone is struggling to work out how to attract and retain the best employees as the expectations of the workforce shift dramatically. Talent of all ages, different backgrounds, gender and abilities is more valuable to employers than ever before.
Increasingly, all employees have different needs at different stages of their lives — whether it’s someone who’s trying to conceive, a dad or a mum with small kids who wants to be more involved in child-rearing, a midlife woman who is experiencing menopause, or anyone who is caring for an elderly or sick relative. Today, women take a disproportionate hit on all these fronts. As we live and work for longer, both men and women are realising that our working lives are a marathon, not a sprint. They want to bring their whole selves to work and are less and less willing to tolerate workplaces that don’t support them at the right points in their life.
The role of HR and managers is to create an environment where people can thrive and feel supported to do their best work. The successful companies of the future will be the ones that get this right and Peppy enables them to do that.
Thanks Mridula. You’ve certainly given me lots to think about. All of this ties in to big investment themes like the future of work and women’s health. Considering the size of the opportunity it’s still an untapped space. I’m really excited to see Peppy continue to grow.
Before sharing Daniel’s thoughts on culture itself, it’s likely worth sharing a little bit about his rationale behind focusing so strongly on culture within UIPath. In his own words, he admits having committed so many mistakes early in his career, that in some ways, UIPath today is simply the manifestation and implementation of lessons learned over those years; mistakes he wishes to avoid for himself and his team in the future. He felt that in order to work somewhere where others could also feel like they could develop, and for him to enjoy working there for his career, he’d have to place his company’s culture front and centre.
His first insight on company culture was that you can’t have too many values/culture KPIs in a company; you have to boil it down to just a few. Whilst it might be tempting to have many, by not focusing on a few, you run the risk of not only confusing your team, but likely not providing enough clarity for them to anchor core decisions around.
At UIPath, for example, he anchors their culture around a core value that works for them: Humility. This Humility is authentic and born out of their roots as founders. They put humility at their core because not only did they see an industry fraught with competitors that didn’t approach customers with humility and consideration, but also because in his words, and from experience: “Engineers can tend towards being prideful in their work, so we needed to encourage them to listen to our customers, thus we evangelise it internally.”
However, UIPath‘s implementation of ‘humility’ as a core value of their culture isn’t limited to just the obvious benefits stated above, but also it helps them hire better and weed-out potentially toxic employees who are only driven by money or other variables that are not relevant. It also helps them make better decisions because no one is trying to save face in meetings… “if you are constantly trying to be the smartest guy in the room, you’re likely not to want to hear when you are wrong”, but by creating an environment anchored around humility, you effectively encourage people to speak up and share+receive feedback.
Lastly, as with everything that is a goal, Daniel shared that they measure the impact of adhering to this cultural value with soft KPIs like the perceived “psychological safety” of employees. In effect, this KPI represents how comfortable employees are in speaking their mind with you as manager.
In conclusion, a strong, clear, and simple culture centered around core values can be be a huge win in many more ways than simply making your company a place you want to work in (although that should be reason enough)!
Ivan, thank you for reaching out, reading it, and providing feedback, always great to hear from a fellow alumni!
One risk of ‘going deeper’ on something that is more of a framework than ‘do this’ kind of advice, is that then it will border on the very thing I’m trying to avoid, which is being prescriptive. I’d rather the reader think of these rules as a framework upon which you can personalise a configuration that works for your community.
For example, you mention that a way to test this advice is to look at the opposites, but that doesn’t work when the advice is about nuanced permutations within a spectrum. It’s not about hiring a good vs bad team, rather, is it a relevant team vis-a-vis your stated culture. Also, it’s not about having a good or bad culture, rather what variant do you want for your community (eg. How is the Harley Davidson community different than say the GiffGaff community when it comes to attitudes, values, etc and how would you hire to address the community members genuinely?).
My hope is that these 5 rules, guidelines, or whatever you want to call it, allows you to engage in a conversation about not only how they are interrelated, but also how they ultimately face trade-offs.