VC FAQ: Venture Capital Valuation

Posted by on April 21, 2008 at 10:05 am.

I received a couple more VC FAQ questions. This time from an entrepreneur and investment banker who saw Angie’s List close a $35M round with Battery Ventures. That large funding, and others in the social media space, left her wondering how value is measured and created in online businesses.

Her site, roxiticusdh.blogspot.com, appears to be an early step towards a “Best of” site for various cities around New Jersey and elsewhere. I say “early step” with no details, because the name and domain are clearly ripe for improvement. Her questions were:

How do VC’s value an online venture?
The “valuation question” is probably the most often asked question I hear directly from entrepreneurs or on venture capital panels. Entrepreneurs are either trying to understand how crazy high valuations in the news are justified or how crazy low valuations (in their eyes) offered by early-stage VCs are justified. I’ve been on the entrepreneur side of the table and now the VC side and I know the answer, but it’s rarely satisfying for entrepreneurs to hear.

First, there is no one way to value a company. Different funds use different methods, and when you’re talking about M&A time it’s highly dependent upon the synergies a specific acquirer is trying to buy. Approaches also differ based upon the stage of a company. Because I focus on seed and early-stage companies, any suggestion by entrepreneurs of discounted cash flows makes me run the other way — the future is way too uncertain for such calculations.

So, if there isn’t one way, what can I expect on the fundraising trail? A mix of Art, Science and Voodoo. The Art of valuation takes into account your Market, Management, Magic and plenty of other soft factors to create a spectrum of investor excitement. The Science of valuation takes into account private and public comparables (what price are similar companies commanding in the marketplace), and some spreadsheet work with future revenue/income potentials. The Voodoo of valuation brings in such factors as fund size, typical/expected ownership % and the termsheet competition. At the end of the day, it comes down to getting multiple funding offers so you can actually reach a “market price” — zero or one offer does not a market make.

I’ve even created a short presentation that reviews the Art, Science and Voodoo of Valuation and included it below:

Applying all of this to an online venture doesn’t change the process much. One oddity in online ventures is the value placed on eyeballs (by some), with the potential of a freemium revenue model (most users are free, pro users pay). Because of these oddities, I’d put more weight on the Voodoo elements — divide your round size by the typical ownership expectation of the fund you’re speaking to, and you’ll get pretty close to the valuation they will offer (if they offer anything).

Do you have any advice on short, medium, and long-term strategies to maximize the value of a blog or online business?
For a blog, I’d start with the First Commandment of blogging: frequent quality content = traffic. Frequent content isn’t enough alone and quality content isn’t enough alone. It may be heresy, but I’d suggest frequency is even more important than quality — assuming some periodic quality a reader can expect. Readers aren’t expecting every blogger to be a professional writer, but they are looking for unique access or unique perspectives on information.

I’d also say that pro blogging is a contact sport. It’s hard to do it well if you don’t live the blogosphere life of social networking, bookmarking and engaging your readers. Just reporting information isn’t enough.

Then, assuming traffic comes, the question becomes how do you make a business from your efforts. There are thousands of get-rich-blogging pundits, but I’d focus on the networks or marketplaces that help you earn by doing what you already love. If your blogging has to change significantly for monetization then I’m not sure it’s sustainable. Write the way you enjoy and find marketplaces that will bring advertisers to you, from a variety of topic/product areas so you and your readers don’t tire of the sponsors.

Last, for blogs, I’d suggest setting your expectations appropriately. Getting rich blogging is unlikely. However, there are thousands of bloggers paying a mortgage, buying new cars or taking extra vacations with their earnings. Consider anything beyond that just icing on the cake.

For non-blog online businesses, it’s hard for me to give one set of value-creating actions. It really depends upon the business. As an investor who has been around viral businesses since HotMail first pioneered the approach, I encourage every online business to 1) find ways for new customers to learn about your business specifically because current customers use it and 2) streamline your referral/signup process to remove every barrier to adoption.

So there you have it, valuation and value-creation in one handy-dandy blog post. I really only scratched the surface, but I hope you find a nugget of interest. If nothing else, I must have prompted another question…if so, blog me another VC FAQ.

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