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by Charlie Christopher, VP, Finance, Cirrata
NCIA’s Finance and Insurance Committee
“A prudent man must seek to satisfy himself about the means to an end.
This demands that he must revisit, again and again,
the very elemental principles of his craft independent of how others think and act.” – Tony Deden
In businesses of all sizes it is common to transact in a number of currencies other than cash. The focus of this piece is on transactions involving common equity, the most fundamental unit of business ownership. The first section establishes a framework for how to view equity as currency, and what differentiates equity from other mediums of exchange such as cash. The second section introduces the process for creating reasonable projections based on sound logic. The third section demonstrates a somewhat novel application of concepts, and provides an example of the flexibility that can be introduced into the process. The conclusion is a reminder that these concepts can easily be misused, and that nothing should replace common sense when dealing with extreme uncertainty.
Valuing any business is hard. Valuing a start-up is even harder still, not because of process, but because of the ambiguity associated with the output. When a valuation is based on multiple layers of high variance variables then the resulting distribution of value is rightfully broad. This poses a major challenge for operators and investors trying to agree on fair terms, and it can lead to irreparable damage to a young company.
Imagine for a second that you, and everyone else, have a crystal ball that can see the future with just enough variance to keep things interesting. How would that change the way you think about your equity? Would you be offering the same equity deals to your entire team? Would you be flexible with investors interested in your business? Of course not, you would look into the future every morning, update your projections and you would transact in equity in a similar manner to how you would with cash. Even though we do not have a crystal ball in the real world, it stands that to transact in equity with absolutely no opinion of value is the equivalent to being indifferent between paying $.10 or $100,000 for the same product or service.
Equity is a form of currency. It has value. However, its value has a built-in variance that rewards beating expectations, and punishes missing expectations. This is why equity awards are typically used to incentivize contributions that can increase the odds of achieving the former. The act of issuing the reward, in theory, immediately increases the value of the firm through the alignment of incentives. The common exaltation of the aforementioned qualitative attributes of the incentive over the quantitative attributes is also why the standard practice of ignoring a non-cash expense like share-based compensation is so indefensible. The value creation may be real, but to deny that a currency has transacted to create that value is to double count the benefit to shareholders.
Valuing a business begins from the top down and ends from the bottom up. Top down refers to projections based on the broader market while bottom up refers to firm specific capabilities extrapolated into the broader market. A common mistake operators make is to build up based on capabilities with no regard for how the aggregate ecosystem will react to the sum of all fundamental behaviors in the ecosystem. Starting from the top-down with a defensible position regarding both the size of the addressable market and the number of competitors participating in the market provides parameters for the business’s potential revenue.
Arguing for market share using a top-down analysis is fundamentally flawed if it does not reflect the true capacity of the business. A bottom-up analysis reflecting firm-specific capabilities should be compared to the top-down analysis for reasonableness. Ultimately, bottom-up analysis drives operating assumptions, and operating assumptions are the inputs to nearly every valuation technique.
I subscribe to the theory that posits that the variance in all of the assumptions can be quantified using an appropriate discount rate. In other words, if I’m uncertain and find my forecasted outcome to be highly unreliable I may choose to use a much higher discount rate to calculate the present value of the business than for a business with lower variance assumptions. When valuing a start-up company, I consider the corresponding ultra-high discount rate to cloud too much insight. For start-ups I first calculate a probability of firm failure in each of the forecast years and multiply my operating assumptions by the cumulative probability of success, I then use a more reasonable discount rate as if the firm was not highly speculative. This allows start-ups in the seed stage to more easily defend increases in value before launch. For example, the filling of a major executive leadership position justifies a small reduction in the probability of failure. Thus, your first executive hire has a reason to have received a higher percentage equity award than your last hire, even though the dollar value of the award might be equal. The process facilitates fair negotiations among all shareholders who may commit under vastly different circumstances and with different information. All too often this doesn’t take place, and the animosity that can develop as a result is as real as it is avoidable.
Valuation is admittedly more art than science. Many astute readers will point out that markets don’t operate in the orderly, fundamental matter I’ve proposed. Those critics are absolutely correct. It is a fair caution that not only are the trappings of certainty intoxicating, but sometimes simply observing how others are transacting is sufficient to make decisions. The market is often wrong, but it’s also often right. Remember to update your assumptions as new information becomes available.
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