I’ve been thinking a lot about gross profit (and gross margin) lately. Yeah, I know I can be riveting, but stay with me.
When I was in Boston a while ago (it was very cold, so it must have been January), I had a wide-ranging conversation with Eric Paley. This was before the IPO Summer of 2019 when all conventional valuation metrics have entered the land of “suspension of disbelief” which is short-term good and long-term well-we-will-see-…-eventually
One of our conversational threads was about how to value companies. We ended up talking about using Gross Profit, instead of Revenue, to do valuation analysis.
We’ve been doing this for a long time at Foundry Group. Since we invest across a number of different themes, we’ve had to deal with very different revenue and gross margin profiles since the beginning, whether we realized it or not.
For the purpose of clarity, in my world GP (gross profit) is a dollar amount while GM (gross margin) is a percentage.
Revenue is often equated with Net Sales, which is true in many cases, but Net Sales is actually more precise a measure than Revenue in situations where you have Gross Sales or Gross Merchandise Value as the “top level” revenue number. Also, I often see GM listed as GM%, which is fine. Some people also refer to GM as Gross Profit Margin.
This is regularly confused, even in accounting texts, so depending on which business class you took, you are going to call it a different thing. Oh, and if you use Quickbooks, you’ll probably refer to Revenue as Income, unless you have the current version of Quickbooks where this has finally been fixed. Isn’t accounting fun?
Even if a lot of people realize that SaaS companies have a different gross margin profile than hardware companies, many don’t acknowledge it when playing the valuation game. And, this logic – or lack thereof – applies to marketplaces where GMV is different than Net Revenue which is different from Gross Profit, or Adtech companies which have yet a different “Top Number to Gross Profit” calculation. And, it gets really exciting when a company has multiple revenue streams that include services and derivative transaction-based revenue (say, BPS in a fintech company.)
Today, I’m seeing almost all entrepreneurs and investors in growth companies talk primarily about revenue and growth rate. They tend to adjust the multiples to try to align with a group of comparison companies, but these comps rarely have a similar supply/demand economic associated with the equity of the company in question. And, when the comps are mature cash flow positive public companies, the multiple math diverges even more from anything particularly rational.
I’ve started encouraging the companies I’m involved in to focus on Gross Profit and the growth rate associated with their Gross Profit, rather than Revenue. Try the exercise and see how you compare to the companies you think you should compare to. And think about how much more value you could be creating with the same Revenue number but a higher Gross Margin percentage …
Over the weekend, Mark Suster and Fred Wilson each put up awesome posts discussing the idea of profitability in startups. Mark’s is a master class about how to look at the financial characteristics of a startup and Fred’s discusses what he’s been working on with some of his more mature companies.
They are both worth reading right now. I’ll be here when you get back.
Between the spring of 2000 and the end of 2001, I had the worst, most stressful, and most painful business period of my life. While I’m sure the financial crisis of 2008 was worse for many people, for me it paled in comparison to the misery of this 21-month stretch.
A very simple thing happened that year in my world. The market shifted from rewarding (and funding) growth to rewarding (and funding) profitability. It happened over a few quarters, but with the perspective of time and age, it feels like it happened overnight. I remember the trigger point being a 3/20/2000 article in Barron’s titled Burning Up: Warning: Internet companies are running out of cash — fast. I was on the board of several companies on their list of 100 public companies that would be out of money by the end of 2000 and remember that my reaction to the article was anger, frustration with being maligned, and incredulity that Barron’s would write such an irresponsible article.
My reaction was stupid and immature. Instead, I should have paid attention to the message, thought about it, and taken appropriate action. Instead, I, like many of my colleagues (investors, board members, founders, and CEOs), operated in a state of blissful denial until everything blew up.
I learned that the markets reward growth until they don’t. Then they reward profitability. The trick is to be in a position to make the switch when you need to. Lots of CEOs and boards fantasize about this, but don’t actually have a plan in place to do this as they expect the future – where the switch from growth to profitability – will never come. Or, they hope the exit will happen before this moment.
I was too inexperienced in 2000 to understand this. Given the exuberance, many of my mentors, who had been through other financial cycles, chose to ignore this. The phrase “it’s different this time” echoed broadly throughout the land. I succumbed to the siren song of growth at any cost and paid the price – both literally and figuratively.
Now, I have zero prediction for when the markets will shift from rewarding growth to profitability. Instead, I operate under the assumption that this can happen at any time, and the best companies can grow quickly and either be profitable or be able to become profitable by making manageable modifications to the cost structure within whatever cash constraints they currently have.
Some version of this was on my mind when I wrote the post titled The Rule of 40% For a Healthy SaaS Company in 2015 and the post titled Is 2017 The Year Of Flat Headcount? earlier this year. While I think about this regularly, Mark and Fred’s posts prompted me to pile on to their point and write about it.
There’s a special bonus in Mark’s post, which is in the section titled Revenue is Not Revenue is Not Revenue. He does a nice job of discussing the importance of understanding gross margin and has a line that made me smile.
If you’re shaking your head and thinking, “duh” I promise you that even some of the most sophisticated people I know get off track on this issue of “gross revenue” versus “net revenue.”
I’d add that this includes getting confused about GMV and MRR when talking about revenue and amazingly occasionally confusing revenue with income. It keeps going, when one asks the question “does profitability mean being EBITDA positive, cash flow positive, or net income positive? Or something else?”
If you are a CEO of a company and any of this makes you nervous in any way, I encourage you to grab a few of your investors who have been investing in startups for at least 20 years, take them out to lunch, and talk through these issues with them to understand them better and figure out whether or not to care about this in the context of your company.
I’m seeing an endless stream of hardware-related companies these days. In our world, we are focused on software wrapped in plastic, a line I think I first used some time in 2012. If you understand our themes, it fits squarely within human computer interaction for us.
There was a point in time – probably less than six years ago – where very few VC firms would even consider an investment in a hardware related company that was aimed at consumers. Every financing for every company we’ve invested in this area has been extremely difficult. We were not the first, nor are we the only, but in 2010 it was a very large, very dusty, and very dry desert landscape.
Suddenly, hardware related startups are all the rage.
While there has been more clarity on the core long-term economics of a hardware business, I continue to be baffled about the lack of understanding – by both VCs and entrepreneurs – of the core economics of a business like this at scale. A few folks, like our friends over at Bolt, have written great blog posts on this, but I fear that they are being overlooked, unlike the 3,671 blog posts on SaaS software, especially around SaaS metrics.
I was listening to a panel recently where several hardware entrepreneurs were discussing their businesses. I asked a simple question: “How do you think about your gross margin?”
The answer was all over the place. There was a lot of focus on current gross margin %, vagueness about how to compute gross margin, and discussion on subsets of cost inputs. There was no consistency in definition or view, especially at different scale points of the business. I could tell the panelists were uncomfortable with the discussion and the audience seemed to want to just move on and talk about something else.
I expect over the next year there will be 174 VC-based content marketing posts about how to build a successful hardware business. If they emulate the 3,671 posts about SaaS-based businesses, there will be plenty that discuss gross margin and how to think about it. Hopefully they’ll include a bunch of derivative metrics around pricing, BOM, shipping, and channel mix. Maybe they’ll even include information at different scale points of the business and tie the metrics to marketing and sales expense.
For now, if you are a founder building a hardware-based business, I encourage you to get to know other founders who have built successful hardware-based businesses at scale and go deep on the financials of their journey. You might be surprised how little equity is actually required to build a marketing-leading, cash flow positive, high growth, hardware related company.