Valuation Questions, Web 2.0, Real World

I think valuation is fascinating. What is a company worth? With the larger publicly traded companies you can easily calculate a valuation using the wisdom of the crowd, the market itself, by multiplying shares outstanding times price per share. But in the real world of small business, gulp, this is much harder.

Concretely: how much is your business worth? How much could you sell it for? How would you decide? What formulas would you use? More importantly, what formulas would your hypothetical or theoretical buyers use?

Ultimately, like it or not, just about anything is worth what somebody else will pay for it. Your business is worth what you could sell it for.

And what would that be? Well, that's really hard to know, until you go to the market. Some people talk about 5 or 10 or more times profits, but then face it, in small business, in the real world, profits is a very vague number, an accounting conceit. Some people talk about 1 or 2 or more times sales, which eliminates a lot of the accounting fiction. Others talk about valuations based on book value, or assets.

I'm amused at how much of this stuff is loosey-goosey, even though it's in the realm of finance, which is supposed to be mathematical and exact. And isn't.

I posted here last Fall about, Tom Taulli's really intriguing site that's attempting to create a database of first-cut estimated valuations of businesses all over the United States. I talked to Tom last month after the big meltdown, and found, happily, he's still optimistic about the long-term value of the BizEquity site. They're working on it. I suggested he take his September data and multiply it by about 0.5 or so; and I was only partially joking. Tom knows this area very well, but of course the whole volatility burst has been a challenge. Last summer might not have been the most opportune time for Tom and his backers to start.

So I was interested yesterday Monday morning as I soaked in coffee and I noted — thanks to Ann Handley in Twitter — Advertising Age's Simon Dumenco's angry analysis of the Huffington Post's recent venture capital infusion at a valuation of $100 million.

His title, unfortunately, is What's $200 Million Divided by 2009 Reality. That's too bad, because the $100 million (or less) estimated valuation was widely publicized when Oak Investment Partners announced the investment last November. Simon doesn't enhance his argument by referring to the twice-as-large-as-fact figure, $200 million, that actually appeared much earlier, last Spring. The phrase "straw man" comes to mind. 

That glaring error aside, he seems offended by the VC's reported valuation. He has references to the big Internet bubble of the late 1990s. It should be only $2 million, according to him.

I think he exaggerates his point, not just by doubling the figure, but also by lowballing his real estimate. The Huffington Post has made huge (and well reported) gains in traffic. Furthermore, unlike a lot of the Web 2.0 sites he wants to knock, this one has an actual revenue model. For better or worse, the Huffington Post is almost like old-fashioned media. It generates readers with news and opinion, and it sells advertising. So somewhere in the numbers — which are not public — is a number for revenues, and a valuation based on (among other things) revenues as well as traffic.

And it all goes to illustrate my point, today: valuation is hard to figure. It's also important. And, in the end, a company is worth what buyers will pay for it. In the case of Huffington Post, it's not a vague theoretical guess. The VCs who invested in Huffington set a price, and, with that, a valuation.

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