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 …
Yesterday, at The Calloway Way event at MIT, I ran into Joe Caruso. I’ve known Joe for a while – we met through Techstars Boston, where he’s been a great mentor and very active angel investor.
He had just read my post on being uncomfortable with the phase of the current cycle and told me an anecdote from the great Internet bubble of 2001 that I hadn’t heard.
A guy came up to me and said “I just sold my dog for $12 million.”
I responded, “WTF – who would ever buy a dog for $12 million? That dog must have gold plated teeth!”
The guy responded, “Nope – but it’s a normal dog. But I was able to get two $6 million cats for it.”
When I got back to my room last night, I noticed Fred Wilson’s post from yesterday Averaging In And Averaging Out. In it, he talks about how he handles public company stocks that he ends up with either via an IPO or a sale of a company he’s involved in to a public company. We have somewhat different strategies, but we each have a strategy, which is key.
This morning I woke up to an email thread from a founder of a company I’m an investor in. He’d gotten a random note asking about his valuation when we invested relative to another financing that was just announced. When we made our investment, the company got about 3.5x ARR. The other company, which was much smaller at the point of investment, got an 11x ARR valuation.
My response to the specific situation was:
Valuations have increased on a relative basis.
They raised relatively little so probably had supply / demand on their side – which drove competition and enabled a higher price.
VCs are currently living in FOMO land so they’ll overpay for aspirational value in the future if they see growth.
There’s a lot of inefficiencies at these price levels.
A “good price” is when you have a willing buyer and a willing seller, both happy, and willing to work together on whatever path you are on!
Each of these examples got me thinking about the relative valuation trap.
In the first case, we’ve got a dog and two cats. Who knows what they are worth – you can get a dog for free at the pound and as far as I can tell cats believe they belong to themselves and do whatever they want. But trading one dog for two cats, where the person owning the cats values them at $6 million each, means you can “mark your dog to market” which is currently $12 million. Now, if you can find someone to give you $12 million in cash for the dog, you have a $12 million dog. But you can carry it at a value of $12 million for as long as you want if you don’t want to sell it. Granted Rule 157 says that you need to mark it to market every quarter, but that’s a different messed up issue.
In Fred’s example, he does a great job distinguishing between optimizing and satisficing. Two weeks ago Twitter stock hit $54 / share. Today it is trading at $42 / share. Should you have sold it at $54? How about $52? How about $49? Or, now that it’s fallen to $42, maybe it’s time to sell it at $42. If you have it at $42 and believe you should hold it because it was recently worth $54, you are falling into the relative value trap. You should hold it because you think it will be worth more, but not because it was recently worth $54. It could be worth more or it could be worth less – making your decision on what it used to be relative to what it is today is a trap.
In the financing discussion, it’s easy to look back in time and say “wow – we got too low a valuation.” It’s just as easy to look at valuation in current terms and say “that’s not high enough” because you heard of someone else, relative to you, that got a higher valuation. Or it’s easy to feel smug because you got a higher valuation than someone. Unless we are talking about the final exit of the company for cash or public company stock that is fully tradable, this is a trap. It’s like the $6 million cat and the $12 million dog. How did someone come up with the valuation?
A simple answer is “well – public SaaS companies are currently trading at 6x average multiples so we should get a 6x ARR valuation.” There are so many things wrong with this statement (including what’s the median valuation, how do it index against growth rates or market segment?, what is your liquidity discount for being able to trade in and out of the stock), but the really interesting dynamic is the relative value trap. What happens when public SaaS companies go up to an 8x average valuation? Or what happens when they go down to a 3x valuation? And, is multiple of revenue really the correct long term metric?
As I said in my email this morning, A “good price” is when you have a willing buyer and a willing seller, both happy, and willing to work together on whatever path you are on! I deeply believe this – my goal is not to get the best price, but a fair price. I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that both parties should feel slightly bad about the terms of the deal, meaning that each had to compromise on things they didn’t want to in order to get the deal done. Instead I’m a deep believer that both parties should feel great about the deal – the terms, the participants, and the dynamics.
Ultimately, whatever stage you are in, you should be focusing on building long term value. It’s always a mistake to optimize for the short term, and when you do, you’ll often confuse relative value as justification for specific behavior.
Some of my favorite VC posts are ones that say what the VC posts that say what the VC thinks about how it all works. And – importantly – how it impacts the entrepreneur, his choices, and the dynamics between the entrepreneur and the VC.
Fred Wilson does this regularly. For example, see his post today on Valuation vs. Ownership.
My partner Jason Mendelson does the same. See his recent post The “VC Bargain”. Of course, Jason and I aspired to do the ultimate version of this in our book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist.
You don’t have to agree with them. That’s what the comments are for. But they each say what is on their mind, why, how they think about it, and what the implications are for them.
If you want another example, take a look at my partner Seth’s post from last year titled I’m getting sick of the bullshit. And then reflect on the post from the anonymous entrepreneur that I highlighted yesterday titled My Startup has 30 Days to Live.
This shit is really hard and really complicated. It’s easy to have a surface view of it, to romanticize it, or to fall in love with the idea of it. Don’t. Do it because you love it. And find partners who want to go on the journey with you.
I’m going to hang out in the comments on Fred’s Valuation vs. Ownership post and Jason’s The “VC Bargain” post today. Come join me and tell me, Fred, and Jason what you think.