The valuation game
The Venture Capital valuation is a simple game, but never an easy one. While there is little to learn, to play it perfectly takes years, if not decades of experience under the belt.
So how do the VCs arrive at that valuation figure? Market Opportunity? Product Market Fit? Strong Founder Team? Disruptive Product Offering? Extensive Network Economics?
Capital invested divided by the stake diluted. That’s it!
The VC chooses the amount of capital he is ready to deploy and the stake he wants to have in the company. Of course, the wish is to part with the least capital for the most stake. Now coming up with these two numbers, the capital chunk to invest and the amount of stake to buy, this is where experience comes in.
The winning bet in your portfolio
Most VCs have personal favorite ranges which they are comfortable with. Some VCs may like to hold only a few concentrated bets while others may want to deploy small amounts into numerous startups. The premise is the same. Each VC wishes to hold at least one winner in its portfolio, the winning bet that ‘returns the fund’.
This gets us to staging. The valuations do nothing to the VC portfolio, except increase the unrealized returns section, which, as the name suggests, are ‘unrealized’ and don’t mean anything unless the company makes an exit from that valuation.
But what if the company is not yet ready for an IPO or a buyout?
The VCs of course know this. Hence when they get together to finance a startup at some stage, let’s say series A, they are offering just enough money to take the startup to the next funding stage. This continues until the IPO or buyout.
Nowhere do the VCs use the DCF or any other model to find a fair value of the shares of the startup. Startup valuation is not a valuation game, it’s a pricing game. It is not about finding a startup trading at a lower than its fair value price and hoping the market corrects itself, the game is about finding another buyer who will be ready to pay higher. All this has nothing to do with cash flows generated from the assets held by the startup, adjusted for the underlying risks of all sorts (DCF basically). All these valuations are nothing more than exhaust fumes as suggested by Fred Wilson, an NYC based VC:
“Early-stage valuations aren’t valuations. They are the exhaust fumes of negotiation about two things — the amount raised and the amount of dilution.”
The information asymmetry
Now let’s take a look at what we have: You are a VC that is trying to get a stake in some startup. What do you do to get an idea of how much you should pay? You don’t have DCF or any other model to help. So, you look at what similar companies have been valued at. With new business models operating in diverse geographies, you realize that it is hard to say how you can define a similar company. Let’s say you came up with food delivery as one category. Despite the difference in the business models, one can hardly cobble together a list of 4–5 startups in the Indian space.
So, the VC game is plagued with opaque, inconsistent deal information. While the figures the VC arrives at are most probably wrong and have nothing to do with reality, they have nothing to worry about as long as they are able to find someone who’s ready to buy at a higher price from them.
The Indian startups in numbers
The past few years have been a gala time for the Indian startups who have managed to secure funding unabated despite the pandemic and its blues.
Startups in India managed to raise $7.8 Bn until April itself. This is a significant number almost 70% of the total $12.1 Bn raised in 2020 and more than 50% of $14.2 billion raised in 2019.
The average funding size has increased to $25.21 Mn, up from $14.94 Mn in 2020. There have been 402 funding rounds until April itself, against 1,114 deals in 2020 and 1,036 in 2019.
Overvaluation and the global landscape
The push towards absurd overvaluations has been a result of the negative interest rate environment. Post the GFC, there was heavy lending and even more borrowing. So much so that people had to pay up money just so that they could lend money. Of course, this led people to look for alternative avenues to park their money and generate juicy returns. The baseless optimism and hollow belief in spotting the next Bezos, Zuck, or Musk have led to an audacious amount of money flowing in, creating completely senseless valuations, having no roots in reality.
Tesla, more than $13 Bn in debt at the end of last year, recently had a market capitalization of $160 Bn, greater than General Motors and Ford combined. At the IPO price, Square was valued at close to $3 Bn, which is 50% below the $6 Bn valuations for which it had raised money from private investors a year before. Uber which in accounting terms stands at around 5x times its revenues, is also grossly overvalued as it is nowhere close to being the leader in the driverless car’s space. WeWork tried to go for a $47 Bn listing but ended up getting corrected to $8 Bn.
The WeWork fiasco was dubbed as a wake-up call in a Morgan Stanley report stating that the days of ‘endless cash for unprofitable companies’ were over.
Unicorns were considered rare. Today, however, the United States has a herd of more than 100 of them, with 100 more outside the US. Each worth a billion dollars or more.
Will history repeat itself?
Let’s talk about the Indian scenario and the startups which we believe are overvalued and most likely to come back to their intrinsic value as and when the markets correct themselves.
1. Byju’s: World’s most valuable Ed-Tech Company
Byju’s operates an online learning platform. It also creates a mobile app for pupils that offers a variety of learning activities. Exam preparation classes are also available. Original material, watch-and-learn movies, rich animations, and interactive simulations are all available to users on the site. The firm is having an EV/Revenue multiple of 17x.
It is the only major player in the Ed-Tech space in India, which has led the company to raise multiple rounds of funding and leading to an enormous increase in valuation. Knowledge in today’s world is free, however, Byju’s creates unique content with animation and the product often seems to be overpriced. In recent times there were a number of instances on various social media platforms where people questioned the pressure on the sales team and how Byju’s is so concerned about their sales when they try to push their offering in the market.
In the long run, the expected return from Byju’s is questionable. Below is the chart of the revenue and valuation of Byju’s over the last five years.
2. Cred — The borrower’s messiah
Losses in billions of dollars are nothing new for hyper-funded companies, especially when they’re chasing size and consumers at any cost. CRED’s metrics tell a tale in and of itself. CRED has made a profit of $71,000 in its second year of operation. CRED hasn’t been able to monetize its user base in FY20, despite acquiring a large customer base with a high propensity to spend and consume.
While the two-year-old company’s sales remained low, its total expenditure increased by more than 5.9 times to $52 Mn in FY20, compared to $9 Mn in FY19. The greatest cost center for the financial firm was advertisement and marketing, which accounted for 47.6% of total expenditure. From $3 Mn in FY19, such costs increased by 9.3 times to$25 Mn. During the fiscal year that ended in March 2020, CRED spent Rs 726.7 to earn a single rupee of operating revenue. CRED’s yearly loss in FY20 was INR 360.3 Crore, up 5.9 times from the $8 Mn it lost in FY19. The current cash burn is difficult to sustain, with an appalling EBITDA margin of -1979.5% in FY20, and the company will have to focus on its collections.
Despite registering astronomical losses it has attained a unicorn status by raising its valuation to $2.2 Bn in 2021. It is worth noting that the company is founded and led by Kunal Shah who is a known name in the start-up world for founding and leading numerous companies which may be an explanation behind the astronomical valuation of Cred. The graph below shows the valuation and losses of Cred over the years.
3. CarDekho — India’s leading car search venture
CarDekho helps users buy cars along with expert reviews, detailed specs, and prices, comparisons as well as videos and pictures of all car brands and models available in India. It has recently acquired an auto marketplace, Carmudi (Philippines) in late 2019 to expand business in Southeast Asia. GirnarSoft, the parent company of Jaipur-based automobile-related services behemoth CarDekho, has seen its losses increase by 155% to $45 Mn in FY2020. This comes after the company’s losses had already increased by 39% in the previous year.
Despite that CarDekho has managed to raise its valuation. Last year, Cars24, a CarDekho competitor, increased its consolidated revenue to $418 Mn and achieved unicorn valuation, and has a much lower EV/Revenue multiple. Let us now see the EV/Revenue Multiple of the peers in this game through the table below.
We can infer from the table that CarDekho has a huge EV/Revenue multiple which signifies that the valuation of the firm is increasing at a much faster rate with respect to the revenue that the company generates, leading to overvaluation of the company. The graph below shows the valuation and revenue of CarDekho.
Unacademy is a Bangalore-based educational technology startup in India. Unacademy lessons are available in the form of Live Classes, which are both free and available on a subscription basis. Unacademy earned $12 Mn in revenue but spent $53 Mn, resulting in a loss of INR 300 crore. Employee benefits accounted for 23.7% of the edtech start-up’s costs, while other expenses accounted for 75%.
While 2020 brought plenty of development, the corporation would need to significantly increase its expenditures to reverse the losses it had in the fiscal year 2020, which ends on March 31, 2020. Unacademy’s revenue in FY21 is estimated to be over $55 Mn. It’s worth $3 Bn or approximately 35 times the expected income. The graph shows the valuation and loss of BharatPe.
When we talk about e-commerce giants, PayTm, Amazon, and Flipkart all wanted payments to take place within their own closed networks. BharatPe’s goal was to achieve what all the large brands were afraid to do: simplify things for retailers by adopting a standardized interoperable QR code. It allowed shops, street food vendors, and tea vendors to accept payments using any UPI app (PhonePe, Google Pay, PayTM, and so on) without having to download the apps. It was a simple and cost-effective approach with an added layer of security. The payment system’s complexity was reduced by a factor of ten by combining multiple UPI apps into a single sticker.
BharatPe was able to achieve early success by keeping things simple. BharatPe’s product strategy is based on making things simple for merchants, and the company uses P2M transactions as a springboard for future services. Because BharatPe does not charge merchants a setup or transaction fee, its fundamental feature money collection using QR codes is essentially a loss-maker for the company. It must spend a large amount of money to manage the servers that process millions of transactions every day. However, this provides BharatPe access to merchants who are passionate about their products and eagerly accept their offers. Despite having no visible revenue stream and without even earning a penny, the valuation of the company is increasing, and currently, it stands at $900 Mn, very close to the unicorn status. The graph shows the valuation and revenue of BharatPe.
The apprehensive loop of growing valuations
The indications are all too familiar. With large markets, illustrious founders, rapid growth, and top early-stage VCs on your side, you have a good chance of raising the next big round, even if you don’t yet have unicorn status (the desired billion-dollar value). And when major acquisitions are made for unproven companies, and valuations double or triple in a matter of months, it begs the question: are we in a bubble? This is always a challenge because most people only realize they were in an economic bubble after it has burst in the past.
Rich valuation multiples have also spread from the typical suspects — consumer internet companies — to enterprise software providers. This is a first. SoftBank, for example, invested in Mindtickle last year, valuing it at $500 Mn based on estimated revenue of $20 Mn — $25 Mn. Even SaaS companies in the United States, including Slack, Zoom, Snowflake, and Cloudflare, have gone public in recent years with great success. Sentiment in India often comes straight from the United States, particularly in related industries and from funds that invest in both nations, including several of India’s leading venture capital firms. Startup valuations are also affected by how publicly traded firms trade if retail investors are ready to pay high prices for loss-making companies, whether banks financing a share issue can find enough at a given price, and so on. There isn’t a single bubble across the board. Because of the vast quantity of money available in the market, investors are willing to pay a premium for good business. But that should be done judiciously.
For the first time in years, it’s possible to claim that private markets are more logical than public markets. If stock markets are the yardstick, select pricey companies may not be overvalued. A closer examination of what constitutes a bubble, as well as what Indian entrepreneurs are doing, reveals a more complete picture. Growth investing has been positive in industries that have recovered quickly from the epidemic, and there has been a lot of interest in a few market leaders. At such levels, one would expect some amount of rationalization. Investors must evaluate the prospects and the future road map of a company before investing. As more investments flow into a company without a proper business model or less revenue, it results in overvaluation creating a bubble. Investors can lose a colossal sum by not choosing the right company.
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