Hypothetical Value To Real Value

I remember when my son came home one day in high school and told me he wanted to “day trade” along with some friends who were doing it. We opened a TD Ameritrade account and staked him with a small amount of money, enough to trade but not enough that if he lost it all it would be an issue. And off he went.

A few weeks later he asked me “Dad, what is a PE ratio?” So I said to him “you know that deli that you stop in every morning and get a bacon egg and cheese on the way to school?” He said “yes”. I said “let’s say tomorrow the owner says to you, I’m selling the business, do you want to buy it? We make $1mm a year in profits and have for the last thirty years.” Then I said, “how much would you pay him for it?” My son thought about it and said “Four to five million dollars.” I asked him why. He said, “Because I would get my money back in four to five years and then make a million dollars a year after that.” I said, “you offered to pay a PE of 4 to 5.” And he said, “Oh, I get it.”

I like to call that kind of valuation “real value”. You pay $4-5mm for a business and you get your money back after a few years and then cash flow after that. While nothing in life is guaranteed, real value is tangible. You can see your way to realizing it. It’s right there in front of you.

Then there is what happens in early-stage investing. We offer $1mm for 20-25% of a company and value it at the same $4-5mm. But there is no cash flow. There is no revenue. There are no customers. There is no product. Just a few people and an idea. That is hypothetical value. We think “if this becomes worth a billion dollars, we might hold onto half of our initial ownership and end up with $100 million or more”. And we plunk down the money and go.

Here is the thing. A startup becomes a company and eventually, that company gets valued on real value metrics. Someday it will have customers, and revenue, and profits. And investors will think “how many years of profits will I be willing to pay for that company?” A PE ratio will be applied and it will be valued on the business fundamentals and not what can or could be.

Venture capitalists and seed funds and angel investors make or lose money on the journey from hypothetical value to real value. And when the spread between the two narrows, the money we make is less. When the spread increases, the money we make is more.

It is easier to drink your own Kool-Aid in the world of hypothetical values. You handicap the odds of winning more aggressively. You trade ownership for capital at work. You accept the new normal.

Real value doesn’t move so fast. Because it is right in front of you. You can see it. So it is not prone to flights of fancy.

I try to keep this framework front and center in my brain as we meet with founders and work to find transactions that work for everyone. I find it to be a stabilizing force in an unstable market.