How do you value a startup – in the real world?

The internet is littered with stories of astounding startup valuations, achieved within just a few years of a company’s birth. I think my favourite in recent months is the aptly named Improbable, a UK tech simulation company, which raised $502 million (£390 million) in a funding round in May 2017 at a valuation of over $1 billion, making Improbable a unicorn (a business valued at $1 billion or more). The company was just 5 years old.

Are such valuations the stuff of dreams, make-believe and fairy stories? (Surely that choice of the name “unicorn” isn’t used without irony!) How do you value a startup in the real world?

“A startup needs money. It makes the dream come true.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I expect a founder to be bullish and full of optimism for their business. No one is going to invest in a business you’re not excited about. The issue here is that investment for early stage businesses is vital. It is literally the lifeblood. It is what enables you to build your prototype, test routes to market, build market understanding and provide the funds for growth. A startup needs money. It makes the dream come true.

“A “deluded valuation” can close doors before you’ve even had a chance to say ‘Hello'”

But, a “deluded valuation” can close doors before you’ve even had a chance to say “Hello, I’m Rumpelstiltskin”. Why would you close doors before you’ve even started a conversation?

Established businesses have it easy. When you’ve got predictable revenues there are numerous ways to assess and measure business value. (If you ever find yourself having trouble sleeping, take a look at this Wikipedia article listing ways to value a business. Startups and early-stage businesses are anything but predictable – they may not even have revenue. In such circumstances, the only business valuation that matters is when two parties agree to buy and sell.

“The only business valuation that matters is when two parties agree to buy and sell.”

But how do you get to that point? Where do you start? How do you evidence your valuation? How do you negotiate to reach agreement?

Startup valuation is a negotiation – but not one that exists in the founder’s head. One that is grounded in fact, displays careful planning and contains a dose of realism.

There is nothing more likely to cause a potential investor to walk away than a business valuation justified in the following was:

“I’ve looked on crowdfunding sites and another company that’s not as good as ours is valued at more”

“That’s how it’s done “in the Valley””

Instead, real world valuation starts with:

  • Facts – that demonstrate what you have achieved in the business and that there really is a market that is willing to buy what you offer
  • Financial forecasting – not “finger in the air” stuff, but grounded spreadsheets that demonstrate a founder’s understanding of market drivers, costs and diversified revenue streams
  • Strong team – the right people with the skills and experience to make the financial forecast a reality
  • Credible exit – which demonstrates not just an attractive return for investors on paper, but a believable route to selling shares so that the return can be realised.

Then, it’s a conversation between grown-ups – exploring assumptions, plans and options. The length of that conversation being tempered by the speed at which the business needs the investment!

By Hatty Fawcett, Focused For Business

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If you want to learn more about practical business valuation for startups, sign up for the live and interactive online masterclass “How to create a business valuation that gets your startup funded.”

You might also like “How to value your startup: A brief, practical guide.”

“Speaking the language of investors made it quicker to find investment” says Jason Kirk of Kirk & Kirk

Jason Kirk co-founder of Kirk and Kirk, an upmarket eye-wear brand, is a very credible founder and business owner. He and his business partner Karen built and sold a successful business prior to starting Kirk and Kirk, they both have over 20 years’ experience in their industry, their latest business has made good progress and they have raised investment before (for their first business). You might think that they would find it a breeze to raise investment. And yet, when they were looking to raise investment for Kirk and Kirk they sought external support and advice. Hatty Fawcett of Focused For Business caught up with Jason to find out why.


Hatty: You decided to raise investment from business angels rather than any other source, why was that?

Jason: We didn’t need a huge amount of money, about £150,000. We were eligible for SEIS (Seed Entreprise Investment Scheme) which I knew would make us appealing to angel investors so it felt like a logical place to start. I was also interested to see what sort of angel we might attract and whether they might bring additional value to the business in the form of contacts or skills, as well as their money.

I’d also decided against going to the banks because they tend to be slow and expensive. The amount of work involved measured against the amount of support you end up with from the banks is, at best, frustrating.

Hatty: You had raised investment before, for your previous business, so people might assume you knew what was required. Why did you decide to get external support in preparing for investment?

“I really want to ensure I was speaking investors’ language. I know how time consuming raising investment can be. I wanted to get it right first time and avoid going backwards and forwards with investors and spending too much time on it.”

Jason: Yes. I’d raised investment before but this was a different business. Enlisting the help of someone who knows how to tailor a document to the needs of a specific audience is very time efficient and should lead to better results. I really want to ensure I was speaking investors’ language. I know how time consuming raising investment can be. I wanted to get it right first time and avoid going backwards and forwards with investors and spending too much time on it. Raising investment can be a big distraction from the day-to-day running of your business if you’re not careful!

Hatty: You’re right. Raising investment is a full-time job – on top of the full-time job of running your business! Raising investment gets an awful lot easier when you have a lead investor, someone willing to back your business and say why they are doing so. How did you go about finding a lead investor?

Jason: I didn’t have a huge network of investors so I admit it was daunting knowing where to start! But having worked on what I need to say to investors with you, it gave me confidence to go out and start talking to people. I remember you encouraged me to talk to everyone! Telling them about the business, what we had achieved and what we wanted to do next. I spoke to so many people I began to get board of the sound of my own voice!

“It’s definitely easier to attract other investors once you have a lead investor.”

But it paid off, one of the people I spoke to – looking for their feedback, I wasn’t actually asking for investment – was an active angel investor and he liked what we were doing. He agreed to be our lead investor. It’s definitely easier to attract other investors once you have a lead investor.

Hatty: That’s very true. A lead investor really gets things moving. I know it worked for you and, with the support of your lead investor, you were able to complete the investment round. Thinking back on the process of raising investment, what advice would you offer to anyone preparing for investment today?

Jason: I’d use an experienced pro to help you prepare the documents and figures you need because it saves a great deal of time and makes your investment look more attractive to potential investors.

Hatty: Have there been any surprising outcomes from raising investment?

Jason: The investment has allowed us to make significant progress in a relatively short time frame. In fact, we’ve achieved the milestones we set and are ready for our next round of investment!

Jason worked with Hatty Fawcett of Focused For Business to prepare for investment, with the specific objective of developing a strong summary of the investment opportunity (in the form of a one page executive summary) and a credible business valuation.

If you would like help preparing for investment, book a free funding clinic with Hatty Fawcett or attend a live and interactive, online masterclass that gives you the tools to prepare yourself for investment.

Giving you the tools to raise investment: Online masterclasses for start-ups, founders and early stage businesses

Raising investment is a journey. It takes time, you learn and adapt as you progress – and it’s a full-time job! The online masterclasses series is designed to give you the tools and information you need in a focused, practical and actionable way:

How to write an executive summary that attracts investors
Everything you need to create an executive summary for business angels or crowdfunding investors that really sells your investment opportunity.
Find out more and book a place

How to create a business valuation that gets your start-up funded
A down-to-earth, step-by-step approach to creating a business valuation for start-ups and early stage businesses looking to raise angels investment or crowdfunding.
Find out more and book a place

How to find investors and move them from “Doubters” to “Shareholders”
A focused, methodical approach to finding, warming up and closing deals with business angels and crowdfunding investors.
Details coming soon

How to pitch your start-up to raise investment
Everything you need to prepare the different types of pitch you will need when raising angel investment or crowdfunding.
Details coming soon