By: Dan M. Smolnik

As with most transactions involving buyers and sellers, the valuation of a potential investment in a business is often a matter of perspective. The founder views the business equity as full of promise of future returns. The investor, holding cash and, therefore, access to alternatives as to where to deploy that liquidity, apprehends that same equity as opportunity cost, because his or her election to invest in a given enterprise ends access to alternatives. This opportunity cost looms larger for investors, and larger in proportion to their experience.

Reconciling this tension in valuation perspectives, especially with early stage ventures, between founders and investors is often left to a sort of ersatz market clearing mechanism of road shows and elevator pitches, leaving it to the experienced investors to apply their experienced, if subjective, valuation metrics to an otherwise unknown company. Less confident investors then step in behind the seasoned players to acquire an apparently lower risk, and lower value, portion of the equity.

Investors and their advisors should work with the information they have to evaluate their risk tolerance. Negotiations between the investor and the founder all too often focus on subjective hopes and dreams for the marketplace and overlooks objective calculation of the magnitude of the equity share that a startup investor should seek in exchange for a cash infusion. That is, the metric of equity share should be deployed as part of the discussions between the parties, as a goal, and not merely as an incident, of valuation. These calculations are drawn from the Venture Capital Method of valuation. Here, I briefly review this method.

Simply put, an investor that wants to obtain a desired return is obliged to follow a mathematical map to achieving that return. This calculation is accomplished using the functions of present value, future value, and percentage ownership. Let’s consider an investor who wants to deploy $1 million today in order to participate in a start-up’s anticipated $40 million exit value in five years.

The present value of the proposed $40 million exit va​lue is calculated by discounting $40 million at the rate of 40% per year for five years. The equation for this is:

So, to accomplish the desired return on the initial investment, an investor should obtain an equity interest calculated as the initial investment divided by the present value of the exit value, or:

In other words, the investor should negotiate for about a 13.5% equity interest in order to achieve the desired return. A common way of referring to the present value of the exit value is the postmoney value of the business. We can think of it as the present value of the potential of the business if the investment is made. The term premoney value is the postmoney value less the investment, or $7,437,377 – $1,000,000 = $6,437,377.

Observe that the target rate in our calculations should be distinguished from an expected rate of return. The target rate rests on the presumption that the business grows as planned.

Next, consider what happens to our equity expectation when we raise the exit value of the enterprise to $60M.

The higher exit value raises the present value of the exit figure and reduces the equity percentage the founder will be expected to part with in return for an early stage investment. This relationship calls for both investors and founders to be aware of the incentive to under or over-estimate the likely growth of the company.

To be sure, the valuation of a startup involves as much art as it does science. Additional methods of valuation including, but not limited to, the Berkus Method, Scorecard Valuation Method, and the Risk Factor Summation Method might be productively used in addition to the Venture Capital Method to provide a broad set of metrics for understanding the potential of a new enterprise. The proper use of these tools is necessary for the success of any venture.

These notes are intended to provide a review of general principles only and are not legal or tax advice. The reader is encouraged to discuss his or her particular circumstances with a qualified professional before taking any action.

Tags: Corporate, Dan M. Smolnik, Tax