The Valuation Obsession
There is an obsession with the values that are being placed on companies when they finance. There has always been one but it is worse than ever.
Every day, without fail, I read a headline that so and so company has raised, will raise, or is trying to raise capital at some eye popping valuation.
It would be easy to blame this on the media, which certainly has to shoulder some of the blame for believing that these are important stories to write day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
But the media writes what people want to read and talk about.
The problem is us, the tech sector, and the mindset that valuation is the scorecard by which we measure ourselves.
Of course, valuation matters. When GitHub exits to Microsoft for billions of dollars, that matters. It matters to Microsoft’s shareholders who paid that bill. It matters to Github founders and employees who got a pay day. It matters to the investors in GitHub who got a fantastic return on their investment. And it matters to Github users who got a signal about how important the software they are using is to the big tech companies.
You cannot cover that story without taking about the price that Microsoft paid. It is an important part of the narrative.
But interim valuations being put on startups is different. Sure the price that they can finance themselves is interesting. But not more interesting than the products and services they are bringing to market, how they are building their teams and cultures, and the underlying technologies they are using to do that.
And yet we get less and less of those stories and more and more box scores.
It leads to a culture of bragging and topping one another and an obsessive focus on valuation. I’ve heard founders say “if I don’t raise at a billion or more, we will be seen as a failure.” How ridiculous is that? And yet you can see how they can get to that place.
CEOs and their talent organizations frequently tell me that it is easier to recruit people to companies that have raised at eye popping values. This is particularly peverse because the higher the valuation, the less money the employee will make on their equity. But, it seems, the talent market is looking to the investment community to signal to them what companies are worth working for.
It should work the other way around. I like to invest in companies that smart people are joining. Capital should follow talent, not talent following capital.
I know that many will read this and roll their eyes. “Fred doesn’t like the hyper inflated valuation environment so he’s trying to pour cold water on it.” That’s true about me not liking it but we benefit from it as much as anyone.
What I don’t like about this environment is the focus on form over substance and reducing everything to a number. This could be the new normal. This may be life in startup land from now on. Maybe I just need to learn to deal with it.
But I hope not. I hope that people will come to understand that it is what underneath the covers that matters and the headline number is just that. A great way to get you to click on the link and see some ads.