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Valuing young or start-up firms

Valuing young or start-up firms

Many of the firms that we take into consideration in our articles are publicly traded firms with established operations. But what about young firms that have just started operations? There are many analysts who argue that these firms cannot be valued because they have no history and, in some cases, no products or services to sell. In this article, we will present a dissenting point of view. While conceding that valuing young firms is more difficult to do than valuing established firms, we will argue that the fundamentals of valuation do not change. The value of a young, start-up firm is the present value of the expected cash flows from its operations, though estimates of these expected cash flows may require us to go outside of our normal sources of information which include historical financial statements and the valuation of comparable firms.

Information Constraints

When valuing a firm, you draw on information from three sources. The first is the current financial statements for the firm. You use these to determine how profitable a firm’s investments are or have been, how much it reinvests back to generate future growth and for all of the inputs that are required in any valuation. The second is the past history of the firm, both in terms of earnings and market prices. A firms earnings and revenue history over time lets you make judgments on how cyclical a firms business has been and how much growth it has shown, while a firms price history can help you measure its risk. Finally, you can look at the firms competitors or peer group to get a measure of how much better or worse a firm is than its competition, and also to estimate key inputs on risk, growth and cash flows.

While you would optimally like to have substantial information from all three sources, you may often have to substitute more of one type of information for less of the other, if you have no choice. Thus, the fact that there exists 75 years or more of history on each of the large automakers in the United States compensates for the fact that there are only three of these automakers. In contrast, there may be only five years of information on Abercombie and Fitch, but the firm is in a sector (specialty retailing) where there are more than 200 comparable firms. The ease with which you can obtain industry averages and the precision of these averages compensates for the lack of history at the firm.

There are some firms, especially in new sectors of the market, where you might run into information problems. First, these firms usually have not been in existence for more than a year or two, leading to a very limited history. Second, their current financial statements reveal very little about the component of their assets – expected growth that contributes the most to their value. Third, these firms often represent the first of their kind of business. In many cases, there are no competitors or a peer group against which they can be measured. When valuing these firms, therefore, you may find yourself constrained on all three counts, when it comes to information. How have investors responded to this absence of information? Some have decided that these stocks cannot be valued and should not therefore be held in a portfolio. Others have argued that while these stocks cannot be valued with traditional models, the fault lies in the models. They have come up with new and inventive ways, based upon the limited information available, of justifying the prices paid for them. We will argue in this chapter that discounted cash flow models can be used to value these firms.

New Paradigms or Old Principles: A Life Cycle Perspective

The value of a firm is based upon its capacity to generate cash flows and the uncertainty associated with these cash flows. Generally speaking, more profitable firms have been valued more highly than less profitable ones. However, young start-up firms often lose money but still sometimes have high values attached to them. This seems to contradict the proposition about value and profitability going hand in hand. There seems to be, at least from the outside, one more key difference between young, start-up firms and other firms in the market. A young firm does not have significant investments in land, buildings or other fixed assets and seem to derive the bulk of its value from intangible assets.

The negative earnings and the presence of intangible assets are used by analysts as a rationale for abandoning traditional valuation models and developing new ways that can be used to justify investing in young firms. For instance, internet companies in their infancy were compared based upon their value per site visitor, computed by dividing the market value of a firm by the number of viewers to their web site. Implicit in these comparisons is the assumptions that more visitors to your site translate into higher revenues, which, in turn, it is assumed will lead to greater profits in the future. All too often, though, these assumptions are neither made explicit nor tested, leading to unrealistic valuations.

This search for new paradigms is misguided. The problem with young firms is not that they lose money, have no history or do not have substantial tangible assets. It is that they are far earlier in their life cycles than established firms and often have to be valued before they have an established market for their product. In fact, in some cases, the firms being valued have an interesting idea that could be commercial but has not been tested yet. The problem, however, is not a conceptual problem but one of estimation. The value of a firm is still the present value of the expected cash flows from its assets, but those cash flows are likely to be much more difficult to estimate.

Following figure offers a view of the life cycle of the firm and how the availability of information and the source of value change over that life cycle.


Start-up: This represents the initial stage after a business has been formed. The product is generally still untested and does not have an established market. The firm has little in terms of current operations, no operating history and no comparable firms. The value of this firm rests entirely on its future growth potential. Valuation poses the most challenges at this firm, since there is little useful information to go on. The inputs have to be estimated and are likely to have considerable error associated with them. The estimates of future growth are often based upon assessments of the competence of existing managers and their capacity to convert a promising idea into commercial success. This is often the reason why firms in this phase try to hire managers with a successful track record in converting ideas into dollars, because it gives them credibility in the eyes of financial backers.

Expansion: Once a firm succeeds in attracting customers and establishing a presence in the market, its revenues increase rapidly, though it still might be reporting losses. The current operations of the firm provide useful clues on pricing, margins and expected growth, but current margins cannot be projected into the future. The operating history of the firm is still limited and shows large changes from period to period. Other firms generally are in operation, but usually are at the same stage of growth as the firm being valued. Most of the value for this firm also comes from its expected growth. Valuation becomes a little simpler at this stage, but the information is still limited and unreliable, and the inputs to the valuation model are likely to be shifting substantially over time.

High Growth: While the firms revenues are growing rapidly at this stage, earnings are likely to lag behind revenues. At this stage, both the current operations and operation history of the firm contain information that can be used in valuing the firm. The number of comparable firms is generally be highest at this stage and these firms are more diverse in where they are in the life cycle, ranging from small, high growth competitors to larger, lower growth competitors. The existing assets of this firm have significant value, but the larger proportion of value still comes from future growth. There is more information available at this stage and the estimation of inputs becomes more straightforward.

Mature Growth: As growth starts leveling off, firms generally find two phenomena occurring. The earnings and cash flows continues to increase rapidly, reflecting past investments, and the need to invest in new projects declines. At this stage in the process, the firm has current operations that are reflective of the future, an operating history that provides substantial information about the firms markets and a large number of comparable firms at the same stage in the life cycle. Existing assets contribute as much or more to firm value than expected growth and the inputs to the valuation are likely to be stable.

Decline: The last stage in this life cycle is decline. Firms in this stage find both revenues and earnings starting to decline, as their businesses mature and new competitors overtake them. Existing investments are likely to continue to produce cash flows, albeit at a declining pace, and the firm has little need for new investments. Thus, the value of the firm depends entirely on existing assets. While the number of comparable firms tends to become smaller at this stage, they are all likely to be either in mature growth or decline as well. Valuation is easiest at this stage.

Is valuation easier in the last stage than in the first? Generally, yes. Are the principles that drive valuation different at each stage? Probably not. In fact, valuation is clearly more of a challenge in the earlier stages in a life cycle and estimates of value are much more likely to contain errors for start-up or high growth firms, the payoff to valuation is also likely to be highest with these firms for two reasons. The first is that the absence of information scares many analysts away, and analysts who persist and end up with a valuation, no matter how imprecise, are likely to be rewarded. The second is that these are the firms that are most likely to be coming to the market in the form of initial public offerings and new issues and need estimates of value.

Venture Capital Valuation

Until very recently, young, start-up firms raised additional equity primarily from venture capitalists. It is useful to begin by looking at how venture capitalists assess the value of these firms. While venture capitalists sometimes use discounted cash flow models to value firms, they are much more likely to value private businesses using what is called the venture capital method. Here, the earnings of the private firm are forecast in a future year, when the company can be expected to go public. These earnings, in conjunction with a price-earnings multiple, estimated by looking at publicly traded firms in the same business, is used to assess the value of the firm at the time of the initial public offering; this is called the exit or terminal value. Alternatively, you could forecast revenues for the firm in a future year and apply a revenue multiple to estimate terminal value.

For instance, assume that you are valuing InfoSoft, a small, software firm that is expected to have an initial public offering in 3 years and that the net income in three years for the firm is expected to be $4 million. If the price-earnings ratio of publicly traded software firms is 25, this would yield an estimated exit value of $100 million. This value is discounted back to the present at what venture capitalists call a target rate of return, which measures what venture capitalists believe is a justifiable return, given the risk that they are exposed to. This target rate of return is usually set at a much higher level2 than the traditional cost of equity for the firm.

Taken from Investment Valuation by Aswath Damodaran (Second edition)

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