When you set out to build a great company, it’s hard to know how you are doing along the way. There does come a time when you know you’ve done it. Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Salesforce, Tesla, etc got there. We know that. And the founders of those companies know that too.
But two years in, three years in, four years in, it’s hard to know how you are doing. The market moves quickly. Customers are fickle. Competition emerges. Trusted team members leave. Your investors flake out on you. And so on and so forth.
So entrepreneurs want something they can hang on to. They wants a scorecard. A number. Validation that they are getting there.
And that thing is often valuation. If the “market” says you are now worth $1bn versus $500mm a year ago and $200mm two years ago and $50mm three years ago, then you are making good progress. The numbers tell you so. And it feels good.
Valuation can also be used to compare how you are doing against your friends. Your YC classmate got $100mm and you got $200mm. You are doing twice as well as she is. That feels good, at least it feels good to you.
Valuation is an entrepreneur’s scorecard. It has always been this way in startup land, but it is even more so these days when financings and the valuations are reported every day as the most important news items in the tech blogs. Tech blogs are the stock ticker of startup land. And entrepreneurs and everyone else around them watch the ticker waiting for the next “unicorn” to be printed.
I hate the word unicorn. It’s using fantasy to describe something very much reality. But I don’t want to digress from the larger point I’m making to go down the unicorn rat hole. Just please don’t use that word around me. I will likely throw up and that won’t be pleasant.
This obsession with valuation as the thing that tells you and the world how you are doing has a dark side. And that is because valuation is just a number. Unless you sell your business for cash at that price, valuation is just a theoretical value on your company. And it can change. Or you can get stuck there trying to justify it year after year all the while doing massive surgery to your cap table to sustain it.
And the markets can move on you and one day you are worth $2bn and the next day your are worth $500mm. Did you just mess up by 75%? No. The market moved on you.
The message of this post is don’t let yourself get sucked into a world where a number is your measure of self worth. Because you don’t control that number. The market does. And some days the market is your friend and other days it is most decidedly not your friend.
Measure yourself on whether your employees are happy. Measure yourself on whether your customers are happy. Measure yourself on how much free cash flow your business is generating. Measure yourself on how your brand is known and appreciated around the world. Measure yourself on how your spouse and children feel about you when you come home from work each day. You control all of those things, at least to some degree.
But please don’t measure yourself on valuation. It might make you feel good today. But it won’t make you feel good every day.