Startup Pre-money Valuation: The Keystone to Return on Investment

For decades, experienced angel investors have intuitively used the following rules of thumb for investing in seed and startup companies:

  • Home runs provide all the return on investment. In a typical angel investor’s portfolio of 10 investments in seed/startup companies, half the companies perish with no return to investors, and an additional three or four return some capital or a modest return on investment. Investors hope these three or four companies will at least return the capital for the entire portfolio—all 10 investments. Ultimately, only one or two of 10 investments will strike it big and bring virtually all of the return on investment to the portfolio.
  • A large, diversified angel portfolio should provide an IRR of at least 25 percent per year. That’s because an angel portfolio is high-risk investing. Rather than track IRR (internal rate of return), however, most angels look at ROI—return on investment or cash-on-cash return. Over five to eight years, angels expect an ROI of 3x to 5x for their portfolios, which is essentially what one would expect for a 25 percent IRR.
  • Angels must invest only in high-growth companies. Again, because of the poor odds of success, angels look for companies that can scale—that is, companies that show promise of growing 10, 20, or even 100 fold in value over a typical five-to-eight-year investment. Companies without the opportunity to show such scalability need not apply!
  • Reducing scale does not reduce risk. Investing in restaurants that offer 2:1 ROI is just as risky as investing in software companies that scale to a 10x or greater return.

Angel investors cherish their privacy, so there is little data available on the performance of their seed and startup portfolios. Recently, however, one of the authors (Luis Villalobos) assembled and analyzed the portfolios of four experienced angels who have collectively invested in 117 companies and harvested many of those investments. While not statistically significant, the investigation showed interesting results.

A total of 117 ventures received total investments of just under $10 million and provided a total return for the portfolio of just over $50 million. The average time to exit was four years. Significantly, “home runs” took more than twice as long to mature—8.6 years—than the average for the complete portfolio.

Thirty-one ventures receiving $2.3 million in total investment lost everything in an average of 2.6 years. Twenty-six companies returned less than all of the invested capital to investors.

Especially important are the following observations:

  • While the average time to exit was four years, the home runs took an average of 8.6 years to harvest. Lemons sour quickly but plums take longer to ripen.
  • The average home run yielded 33.3x return to investors. This data support the assumption that angel must invest in companies that demonstrate high scalability of 10x, 20x, or even 100x.
  • The total cash return from the companies showing less than 10x return on investment was less than the total invested. This data confirm the empirical assumption by angels that the best that can be expected from investments that are not home runs is that, in total, they will essentially return the capital for the entire portfolio.

Message for Entrepreneurs

Investing in seed and startup companies is high risk: Perhaps 10 percent of portfolio companies will provide all the return.

Valuation Axiom #1: Angel investors seek only scaleable investments—companies that can grow revenues to $50 million or $100 million or more within five to eight years.

Valuation Axiom #2: Building companies with revenues sufficient to create $100 million in market value in five to eight years requires much more capital than is normally invested in seed/startup rounds and substantially more cash than can be generated from earnings. Consequently, the ownership of early investors will be diluted substantially as the company raises the capital necessary to fund growth.

Valuation Axiom #3: Seed and startup investors learned an important lesson during the internet bubble: Placing a high pre-money valuation on seed and startup ventures limits upside and increases the likelihood of a down round as the company raises the capital necessary for growth.

Valuation Axiom #4: The first professional investment rounds in seed and startup companies should be made at a valuation of between $1 million and $3 million, depending on the quality of the management team and the size of the opportunity.

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