Category Archives: Valuation

Looking for Investment? Understand Startup Valuation

How much equity do I have to give to angel investors? If you’re a startup founder looking for angel investment, you need to understand valuation. It’s a buzzword that people use in other contexts, too, which adds to the confusion. But it’s ultimately what determines how much of your company your investors will get, and how much you keep, if you manage to land an angel investment deal. So it’s a critical question that comes up a lot.

Equity means ownership. So 25% equity is 25% of the ownership of the business. Usually that’s a matter of shares. The math is fairly simple, but important: Logically, if an investor gives you $250,000, on a valuation of $500,000, that means half your company. The investor owns half, you own half. If the investor gives you the same $250,000 on a valuation of $1 million, then that means the investor gets 25%, you keep 75%. (Technically that’s what they call pre-money valuation, and there is also post-money valuation, but I’m not going to deal with that here. You get the point.)

Startup valuation in practice

What I’ve seen in practice, in nine years of membership in an angel investment group, is that valuation is an agreed-upon guess. There are no formulas commonly accepted formulas (although there are some formulas, such as you’ll see in this post from the angel capital association; it’s just that I rarely see them used in practice). In my experience, what really happens is all about saying no. Investors say no to valuations that are too high, startup founders say no to startup valuations that are too low. When the startup needs $250,000, the founders are rarely going to accept valuations of less than $1 million, because they need to maintain substantial ownership. When investors aren’t comfortable with valuations that high, they most often simply pass on the investment. I don’t see discussions in detail of components of valuation, like one sees in home buying transactions when buyer and seller go into details of square footage and comparable deals in the neighborhood.

Angel investment deals often postpone valuation by using convertible notes. The note is debt, supposedly to be paid off; but convertible means both sides intend to convert that debt to equity shares later, so that it should never be paid off, just converted to shares. In that case, angels are saying essentially, “we believe in you enough to give you this money, but we’re not sure of your valuation, so we’ll postpone that for later.” What both sides want is a follow-on investment, they hope for more money, from venture capitalists, to set the valuation later.


Five things you need to know about valuations

  1. The word has vastly Different meanings: don’t you hate it when the same words mean different things? Valuation means at least three different things:
    1. What a business is worth to accountants for legal purposes, such as divorce settlements, inheritance taxes, and gift taxes. A certified valuation professional, usually a CPA, makes a guess. Most of them use financial statements and analyze financial details.
    2. What a business is worth to a buyer. Small businesses go up for sale with  business  brokers. Hardware stores, for example,  get about 40-50% of annual sales plus inventory, as a starting point. Plus a bonus for growth and special strengths, or a discount for lack of growth and special problems.
    3. The pivot point in an investment proposal: it’s simple math, but tough negotiations. If you say you want to get $1 million for 50% of your company, you just proposed a valuation of $2 million.
  2. What’s anything worth? Like your car, your house, and a share of IBM stock, something’s worth what somebody will pay for it. The valuation in A is theoretical, hypothetical, but legal. With B and C, though, valuation is as real as agreeing to buy a house. It’s not what the seller says it is; it’s what the buyer is willing to pay. And this cold hard fact drives many entrepreneurs crazy.
  3. For Small businesses, there are guidelines and rules of thumb. If you do a good search, or work with a business broker, you can find general rules of thumb for what your long-standing small business is worth. For example, a hardware story is worth roughly half a year’s sales plus inventory, with bonuses for positive factors like  recent growth,  and discounts for negatives like lack of growth.
  4. For Startups, it’s what founders and investors negotiate. Startups and investors and culture clash over valuation.  Investors care about valuation. Founders often misunderstand valuation. And never the twain shall meet. I’ve seen these kinds of problems many times:  Founders walk into the valuation discussion full of folklore and fantasy like stories of Facebook and Twitter. They want lots of money for very little ownership. Investors see two or three people with no sales history thinking their dream startup is already worth $2 or $3 million.
  5. Irony: sometimes traction, and revenues, make things worse. It’s easier to buy the dream than the reality. The same investors who’ll seriously consider a $2 million valuation for a good idea, business plan, and a credible 3-person management team – but with no sales ever — might just as easily balk at a valuation of $600,000 for a company with three years history, 20% growth, and annual sales of $300,000.  Despite the irony, it makes sense: few existing businesses are worth more than a multiple of revenues, but, still, before the battle, it’s easier to dream big. Or so it seems. I’ve been on both sides of this table, and I don’t have any easy solutions to offer.

If it hasn’t come up yet, it will. Every business deals with valuation eventually. The place any business sees it is during the early investment phases; but most businesses don’t get investment, so they can ignore it at that point. But then if it survives, or grows, valuation comes up again, because even if the business is immortal, the people aren’t: so eventually you either sell it or pass it on to a new team, an acquiring company, or your own family. And there’s the divorce and estate planning elements that require valuation. So every entrepreneur and business owner should have some idea what it is.

(Image: courtesy of

Video: Startup Funding. Bootstrap. Then “Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”

I stumbled on this brilliant video of an after-hours startup funding event at the Stanford business school, a panel discussion putting two of the best-known, most influential, and most successful investors (Marc Andreessen and Ron Conway) together with another successful entrepreneur (Parker Conrad, founder of Zenefits), a moderator, and a group of interested entrepreneurs. The video format is perhaps less than optimal, unless you like the rapid-access panel on the left (I do, actually) … but the content is outstanding.

Make sure, please, that you hear Ron Conway suggesting “bootstrap as long as you can.” You can find that with the navigation on the left.

And also, what both investors say about how they choose investments, what makes them successful, and valuation. And Marc Andreeson quoting Steve Martin on “be so good they can’t ignore you, and then, adding:

“Focus on making your business better, not making your pitch better.”

The original for this is on Sam Altman’s online course. Click here for that.

Some excellent quotes:

Marc Andreessen on startup funding as hit or miss:

The venture capital business is one hundred percent a game of outliers, it is extreme outliers. So the conventional statistics are in the order of four thousand venture fundable companies a year that want to raise venture capital. About two hundred of those will get funded by what is considered a top tier VC. About fifteen of those will, someday, get to a hundred million dollars in revenue. And those fifteen, for that year, will generate something on the order of 97% of the returns for the entire category of venture capital in that year. So venture capital is such an extreme feast or famine business. You are either in one of the fifteen or you’re not. Or you are in one of the two hundred, or you are not. And so the big thing that we’re looking for, no matter which sort of particular criteria we talked about, they all have the characteristics that you are looking for the extreme outlier.

Ron Conway on bootstrapping before startup funding:

Bootstrap for as long as you can. I met with one of the best founders in tech who’s starting a new company and I said to her “Well, when are you going to raise money?” “I might not,” and I go, “That is awesome.” Never forget the bootstrap.

Some Hard Advice on Working for Sweat Equity

I just posted Why Sweat Equity Often Stinks on the blog for startups and angel investors. It’s quite cynical, I’m afraid, but it also reflects what I’ve seen for years.

istockphoto ball and chain

Sweat equity is a dangerous concept. It’s way too easy to misinterpret and misunderstand. And whether it’s intended to be or not, it’s way too often used as a lure to get people to work for less than they are worth. 

The good side of sweat equity is what startup founders earn by building their business. You create, work, develop, grow … and your business is worth more than it was. And you own the upside. 

The bad side of sweat equity is that it’s so often just thinly-disguised exploitation. 

Here’s my advice: if you’re getting paid less than your fair market value in a startup because you’re working for so-called sweat equity, understand that …

  • unless the equity deal is in writing somewhere, 
  • and defined with real numbers including percent of ownership, shares and total shares outstanding,
  • and real conditions such as vesting, and work expectations, what happens if you want to sell out and quit, what happens if they want to buy you out, and what about termination …

… then it’s probably not worth as much as you think. 

And what makes it worse, quite often, is that the people making the empty promises don’t intend to exploit you. They mean it when they say it, early on. But then the money starts flowing, investors come in, the board changes, and promises can’t be kept. Unforeseen circumstances are very common. So what you get is an apology. 

Some more advice: when I say get it in writing, I don’t mean a formal legal contract; at least, not necessarily. I’m a great believer in simple English signed by both parties, laying out what they think they’ve agreed to. Warning: I’m not an attorney. The attorneys are often valuable for pointing out all the issues to consider. But the big contracts usually end up in mediation anyway. Just make sure you have something written to remind everybody of what was promised. 


Sticky Questions on Startup Ownership and Buy-Sell

I received this interesting detailed question from the ask me form on my website. I’ve decided to answer it here. I think my answer might be useful for others with similar questions. I’m putting the question in quotes, paragraph by paragraph, and adding my response directly where it comes in the question. 

It starts like this:

A person ‘X’ owns 15% stake in a startup company – not by investing money but purely by virtue of having dedicating hours for building a product for the company. No salary was to be paid as per an initial agreement. The 15% stake was deduced by a simple calculation: (value of company) / (number of hours worked) x (dollars per hour).

Was it clear in the initial agreement that the formula here was to be used in future buy-sell transactions? Was that agreed to by all? 

The question continues: 

The value of company is therefore, sum of [(number of hours worked) x (dollars per hour)] and [hard cash invested by a person ‘Y’, also taking into consideration year-on-year appreciation of this hard cash]. Lets call that VC.

No, it’s not. The value of the company is what somebody pays for it when they buy it. And if nobody is buying it, then the value of the company is an estimated value. There are lots of formulas for estimating it, and estimates will vary widely. I’ve got more on that below, in my specific recommendations. 

However, it could be valued like you propose, for purposes of a buy-back transaction, if there was a buy-sell agreement that set that formula in the beginning. That’s if and only if. Issues like these are the reason experts recommend that partners and cofounders talk about the eventualities and agree, before the business starts, on how they’ll be handled. You have to agree beforehand or you’re stuck with arguing and negotiating the valuation afterwards. And when you try to pull it apart afterwards, without the benefit of an agreed-upono buy-sell formula, then many formulas might apply. 

And here’s the heart of the question: 

The company is not profitable yet. Person ‘X’ decides to give up his 15% stake of the company. My questions:

– How much is ‘X’ entitled to receive as the value for 15% stake? 
– Calculating backward, would X receive as much as [(number of hours worked) x (dollars per hour)]? 
– How does this change if the only buyers of the 15% stake are also two other stake-holders within this company, one of them by virtue of cash invested in the company, and the other by virtue of hours spent working for the company?

Normally, unless otherwise specified, owning 15 percent of a company means you own some shares that amounted to 15 percent of the total shares issued when they were issued. Ownership privileges are defined in company documents. You might have a seat on a board of directors, or not. You might get dividends when that’s relevant. And you’ll be able to sell those shares subject to securities and exchange regulations. 

Just hypothetically, as an example, say you agreed two years ago that you got 15% because you had put $15,000 worth of work on it for free and the founders agreed then that it was worth $100,000. If it’s launched and very successful now, with sales of $1 million annually, then it’s worth something like one or two times revenues, less a discount for debts, less a discount for not being liquid. In that case your 15% is worth something like $100,000. On the other hand, if it launched, has no sales, no profits, and has spent all its money, then your 15% is worth about zero. Companies are almost never worth a formula based on hours worked. 

So unless you have that buy-sell agreement stipulating the formula you’re using, then it doesn’t apply. Here’s what I recommend. 

  1. Agree on an estimated valuation. The formula you’re suggesting seems like it might be one-sided and self-serving. Good luck with it because it’s going to be hard. Expect disagreements. Depending on how much money is at stake and how severe the disagreement, you might need to work with an attorney and a valuation expert you can agree on. Here are some posts on this blog about valuation. This one is particularly relevant: 5 things business owners need to know about valuation. Sales, sales growth, profitability, and scalability and defensibility make it worth more. Debt, and not being liquid shares, low growth, and losses make it worth less. 
  2. Take 15% of that valuation and negotiate with your cofounders based on that value. I hope for your sake and the sake of your cofounders that things are going well for this business and they’re happy to buy you out. If they aren’t, then you’ll have to keep discounting until you get to an amount they’ll pay you. Or just keep your 15% of the shares, stop working for the company, and hope that someday they’ll be worth something. 

The moral of the story: please, the vast majority of business marriages (partnerships, startups with founders, etc.) end in divorce. Do a business pre-nuptial agreement, which is what they call a buy-sell agreement. 



Greatly appreciate your response and all your help!