A favourite game of entrepreneurs, especially in the technology industry is discussing whether companies are worth the price they are bought out for. $1.5 billion for Youtube ………. Sales prices with infinite price earnings multiples (because there are no earnings, or they are loss making). Versus a company being sold for a few times it’s annual earnings with a long period of earnings history.
A more relevant discussion would be which school of business valuation was used during the transaction, and there are two:
1. Sale price representing believed potential
2. Sale price representing return on investment reality
Which is more valid? Well it depends on which side of the equation you are residing. I’d say when selling, we should be aiming for potential. When buying we should go with reality. When buying a business the simplest question to ask ourselves is this:
On current earnings, how many years will it take me to get back my original investment.
There’s no doubt certain industries are more likely to sell using the potential valuation method. Burgeoning industries like the internet, IPO’s and even railways 200 years ago are good examples. To get away with selling on ‘potential’ the industry needs to be growing, the future unknown and your company well known. If your startup ever gets enough traction to sell to an incumbent, then take what you can get – sell on potential.