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Putting Sky-High Startup Valuation Into Perspective



We have all seen statements such as “Uber is worth four times more than Hertz, and it doesn’t own a single car.” While there is a kernel of truth to this statement–Uber’s latest round valued the company at $40B while Hertz’s current market capitalization is $10B–the difference between startup valuations (so-called “unicorns” with valuations of $1 billion or more) and publicly held companies’ market capitalization is so profound that the two are hardly comparable. Understanding the distinction is vital if we want to cut through hype, understand risk and assess the market changes underway.

It Is Important To Put The Hype Into Proper Perspective

To be clear, I am a big fan of digital, mobile, Internet of Things (IoT), big data and collaborative economy opportunities, and I believe they will continue to grow and challenge traditional forms of business. That does not mean, however, that I believe every startup will win or that VC valuation decisions are a valid yardstick for comparing financial worth between VC-funded firms and public corporations.

While the hype around new these nascent businesses can benefit established firms by forcing them to take notice, it can also hurt by setting unrealistic expectations. Back in the dot-com era, established companies were spooked by all the e-commerce hype and leapt without considering the hard work and long road ahead.

In the late 90s, the buzz about Silicon Valley valuations and the focus on gaining new users rather than revenue models created an environment for silly decisions. Acting fast was more important than devising the right strategy; having a website was the goal rather than retooling the organization for a digital world; and patience was in short supply. When companies’ new ecommerce programs did not instantly deliver profits, many companies diminished investment in digital efforts, only to reinvest years later to match growing consumer demands and competitive threats. Some firms even opted out of the ecommerce race altogether–Borders sealed its fate when the company got frustrated with dot-com losses and turned over its soon-to-be-vital online business to Amazon.

Valuation hype encourages short-term rather than strategic thinking. How can it not as headlines continue to trumpet Uber’s rise from $60 million in 2011 to $300 million later in 2011 to $3.5 billion in 2013 to $17 billion early in 2014 to $41 billion before the end of 2014? That means from February 2011 to December 2014, Uber increased its valuation by almost $30 million per day. There’s gold in them thar hills, and just like every other gold rush, there will be more losers than winners.

This is why a more sober view of IoT, big data, mobile and sharing economy opportunities would be beneficial. Established companies need to be less impressed with billion-dollar valuations and more concerned with consumers’ changing habits around media consumption, mobile adoption, wearables and collaborative consumption. While Uber’s, Slack’s, Snapchat’s and Sprinklr’s $1 billion+ valuations make it seem the brass ring can be snagged on the next turn of the merry-go-round, the fact is that real, defensible, consistent success will require years of hard work for these companies–and yours.

Startup Valuations And Corporate Market Caps Are Fundamentally Different

Both startup valuations and publicly held companies’ market capitalizations begin with a dollar sign. Beyond that, the two have little in common.

Market cap is set by millions of investors buying and selling shares in an open market based on information the company publishes adhering to stringent SEC rules that ensure a fair marketplace. You can find a company’s market cap on any finance site (Apple’s is $740 billion), or you may easily compute it yourself using public data (Apple’s share price of $127.10 multiplied by its 5.82 billion shares outstanding).

Startup valuations are set by a much different process–secret backroom deals between a very small number of parties. The company and its VC partners do not make their negotiations, financial information or terms of the deal public. In fact, even the valuations themselves are not really part of public record but instead are announced (or not) by the parties involved.

The differences between the two are evident:

  • Value determination: Market caps are set by a vigorous marketplace that is as close to an economically “perfect market” as exists on the planet. On an average day, investors buy and sell 48.5 million shares of Apple stock, and this is the mechanism that determines the corporation’s value (or market cap). Startup valuations are set behind closed doors based on the evaluations of a small number of deep-pocket venture capitalists, and unlike liquid shares of stock, once the funding round is complete, startup investors have limited and complicated ways in which to divest themselves of their investment.
  • Available information: You and I may come to a different decision as to the future opportunities for a publicly held corporation, but by law, we both must have access to the same information disseminated by the company. Thanks to SEC filings and annual reports, we can see the same detailed information about company performance, from revenue to profit/loss and even management’s assessment of potential risks. For example, in Facebook’s recent 10-K filing, it acknowledges, “We believe that some of our users, particularly our younger users, are aware of and actively engaging with other products and services similar to, or as a substitute for, Facebook.” Compare that to what we know of Airbnb’s and Uber’s performance, growth, risks and management assessment (which is, essentially, nothing).
  • Performance history: Another obvious difference is that publicly held companies generally have well-established business models that demonstrate a track record. By comparison, the business models of startups are new, untested and evolving rapidly. We know Uber for its ride-sharing service, but the company is also testing new ideas like UberRush, a package delivery service, and UberFresh, a Seamless competitor for food delivery. Whether these two services catch on and produce profits is uncertain, but it is apparent Uber is still figuring out its business model.
  • Known versus unknown risks: Along with more performance history comes a strong sense of the known risks faced by publicly held companies. While established companies face new laws and lawsuits every day, leaders and shareholders understand the type of legal risks the company faces. In comparison, the risks inherent with startups like Uber and Airbnb are poorly understood and rapidly developing. From labor laws to legal liability to taxation to compliance with state and local regulation, the future profitability and growth of these startups is less certain due to the unknown risks.
  • Special deals: The final reason public corporations’ market caps are profoundly different than startup valuations is that VC firms don’t invest millions (or hundreds of millions) without negotiating special conditions to protect their interests. According to Bloomberg, startups offer incentives for big-number late-round investments, such as guarantees that the VCs will get their money back first if the company sells or will earn additional free shares if a subsequent round’s valuation is less favorable. By contrast, an individual shareholder in a corporation cannot ask for special consideration outside of rare special circumstances, such as when one accumulates a significant portion of shares (Carl Icahn forced Ebay to consider splitting Paypal from the rest of the company) or bands together with other activist shareholders (such as when the Humane Society attempts to force a change in Kraft policies by engaging shareholders via SEC filing.)

Bombs Versus Screen Passes–The Risk/Reward Continuum

The mechanisms, information, marketplace and bargaining power of parties is profoundly different for the funding rounds that determine startup valuations than for the stock market that determines corporations’ market caps, but it all comes down to one thing: Risk.

Headlines about startup valuations promote just one concept–value–while ignoring the other equally important attribute that drives all investing and pricing decisions–risk. To simply compare the (supposed) value of two wildly different organizations (or any dissimilar assets) without also considering questions of risk makes the two dollar amounts seem equivalent, but they are far from it.

To draw an analogy from the world of football, the average screen pass earns a little over 5 yards per attempt while a “bomb” pass attempt delivers an average 12-yard gain. Given this data point, why do teams ever run or throw for short yardage when each deep pass averages a first down? The answer, of course, is risk–a long pass is a low percentage play, so even though the average completion delivers over 50 yards for the offense, fewer than one in four passes of 40 yards or more are completed. By comparison, the completion rate for screen passes is 79%.

Football coaches do not assess the relative value of one play over another based solely on average yardage. This is why teams tend to stick to higher percentage and safer short plays most of the time, turning to the more risky, lower-percentage plays when they trail late in the game.

In the same way, venture capital firms are in the business of making lower-percentage, high-risk investments with the hope that, across a wide portfolio of similar long-shot investments, a few will pay off handsomely, even though most will fail. In fact, just like deep passes in football, three out of four startups fail. Meanwhile, like a screen pass, an investment in a NYSE listed stock may not yield spectacular gains, but it is not likely to fail outright, either.

The Unicorn Population Explosion And What’s Ahead

In times when money is cheap, a great deal of cash gets invested into innovative startups, elevating valuations and making headlines. Once money gets tighter, as it inevitably does, many of those startups suffer.

We saw this back in the dot-com era, when firms like Webvan were briefly valued at over $1 billion–what we today label a “unicorn”–before going under within a year. They were hardly alone– made a splashy IPO in 1999 and liquidated just 268 days later, and eighteen months after eToys was valued at more than $8 billion, KB Toys bought its intellectual assets for just $3.4 million. Even the companies we know today as successes took an enormous hit when the dot-com bubble burst–Amazon lost more than 80% of its market cap from 1999 to 2001 and required six more years to return to its pre-crash value.

Today, cheap money is again flowing into startups. Business Insides notes that, “The use of the term ‘unicorn’ began with a blog from investor Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures in late 2013, when there were just 39 of the creatures and an average of four ‘born’ each year. The number created in 2014 rose to 38, according to CB Ventures.”

Some say today’s VC investments are different from those during the dot-com hysteria; that today’s valuations are more justified and less risky. There may be some evidence they are correct. Collaborative startups such as Uber and Airbnb have business models (and probably even net income) in a way that many of the startups in 1999 did not. Still, other unicorns have a long way to go–Snapchat’s last funding round valued the company at $15 billion (a 50% increase from nine months earlier) despite the fact the company was rumored to have virtually no revenue (much less profit) prior to launching its untested advertising program this year.

While established firms worry about competition from the startups, the startups themselves also have some unique competitive threats. Many folks who watch the collaborative economy space love to crow how the collaborative economy firms have established huge valuations despite owning virtually no assets. They are correct–Airbnb owns no rooms yet soon will rent more rooms than the world’s largest hotel chains, and Uber owns no cars and is about to overtake taxis, limos and airport shuttles in the expense accounts of American business travelers–but this may be as much a problem as a benefit. Owning few assets allows for incredible leverage of cash, but it also means that barriers to entry and customer switching costs are incredibly low, as well.

Airbnb and Uber excel at providing a terrific customer experience, so neither is in imminent danger from competitors, but we should not forget that Myspace was once praised in the same way as today’s collaborative startups. Insiders used to point out Myspace created and paid for no media, unlike the NY Times or NBC. Just like today’s collaborative startups, Myspace enjoyed extreme leverage on its assets because consumers created content for each other at no cost to Myspace, and just like today’s startups, Myspace owned nothing and had low barriers to entry, so it could not stem the loss of users once Facebook attracted critical mass.

It is hard to imagine the same thing happening to Airbnb or Uber, but then it was impossible to foresee that Myspace would crash when, in 2006, it surpassed Google as the most visited website in the United States. In fact, compared to the challenges of creating a profile and moving your entire social graph from Myspace to Facebook, the ease of installing a new app on your phone to order a car or reserve a room seems like child’s play.

Social Media stocks vs. NASDAQ, YTD

So what is ahead for these startups? Silicon Valley analysts are voicing concern, and we have already seen some newer firms stumble. As recently as 2013, Fab was valued at nearly $1 billion, but in March, the remains of Fab were acquired for just $15 million. Meanwhile, I have been tracking the performance of a dozen US social media stocks that are post-IPO, and in 2014 they under-performed the market. Thus far in 2015, that trend has continued–NASDAQ is up 5.7% as of April 11 while a portfolio of social stocks (including Facebook, Twitter, Marketo, Jive, LinkedIn, Zynga, HomeAway and Groupon) is up just 0.5%.

Becoming A Unicorn Is Not A Reward–It’s A Challenge

We would all be better off if we viewed billion-dollar valuations not as accomplishments but as challenges. Having a VC with an appetite for high risk assess your company at $1 billion is one thing, but it is quite another to reach a future state where that valuation is justified in a transparent and open market based on mature and recurring profitability.

Today, growth, opportunity, optimism and high risk propensity are driving startups’ valuations, but in a few years–after the VCs claim their return and the firms go public–these companies’ values will be determined more by stable business models as measured by revenue and net income. For Uber to justify its $40B valuation, it must someday deliver a stable or growing bottom line of between $1 billion and $2 billion.

If we all kept startup valuations in the right perspective, it would help us to appreciate the hard work ahead, both for firms like Uber and Airbnb, but also for our own companies. Ecommerce hype elevated startup values in the dot-com era and caused many companies to act out of panic, yet it has taken 15 long years for ecommerce to account for just 7% of total US retail sales.

Just as Kodak, Borders, Circuit City and others lost out by not acting quickly enough, your firm needs to establish its strategy in mobile, IoT, big data and collaborative economy business models sooner rather than later. But be careful not to buy into the hype so much that you think acting fast will deliver rapid bottom-line results. The future is here, but it will not drive your business results for many years.


About the Author

This article was written by Augie Ray of Angie is the Director of Global Voice of Customer Strategy for a Fortune 100 financial service company. His background includes more than 20 years of experience in digital, brand, customer experience and social business. See more of his work.


“When Adam Draper does Crypto Standup, Singapore listens”



I live and work in Singapore and Santa Monica. Yes, I am blessed. However, my life has been by design, I think of what I want and so I make my life choices and make them happen in my life. Hence the bi-continent living and that comes with bi-continent and now global community living, being and ecosystems building. So I am now never surprised when one part of my world meets another.

I went to Wavemaker Partners venture capital event this evening, keen to meet Adam Draper, who is one of the many great presenters at Crypto Invest Summit, April 30- May 2 in Los Angeles.

Since I actively support leaders who are building scalable, sustainable businesses and movements for the betterment of many; of course I am learning about Blockchain and Cryptocurrency. I had been keen to report on the Crypto Invest Summit as I would be back in May to LA for my PhD programme. I was in communications with the organizers. However, I am being awarded an award at the Women Economic Forum in Delhi that same week and could not be physically present.

Still I wanted to report on the event, somehow.

I wanted to listen to the speakers and support some of the speakers who are already friends and experts I rely on for greater insights on cryptocurrency. I like learning and sharing with the greater audience, I have in Asia what I am learning from the US and vice versa. So I feel I had my chance tonight to do a bit of that.

I could not help but smile as Adam Draper shed light into his world of investing in more than 85 crypto related products because he was such a breath of fresh air to the last few Blockchain and Financial conferences I have been reporting on; especially here in Asia.

He just says it like it is.

He kept stopping the audience when they said Blockchain and he said, “You know you really mean cryptocurrency.”  He hit the nail on the head because I have seen so clearly how this phrase had been said in Singapore time and again – “I am not into cryptocurrency but I believe in Blockchain.”

When he said how there was an incongruity as he sat across bankers who personally invested in cryptocurrency and when faced with an inbound of requests from their clients on the same investment; are tied by regulations and are unable to respond.

Here’s some of his best lines. If you don’t laugh or “ah-ha” the way I did, you probably just had to be there. The truth is funny because it calls out for something we all see but sometimes just do not want to admit.

There is a growing understanding of the underlying thematics that the cryptocurrency world has been experiencing as the interface between centralize; de-centralize and personal autonomy becomes more and more apparent and lines get drawn.

Adam Says:

1) The newest phenomenon is that some of the ICO founders are now just so rich from their ICOs that they really don’t need to work on the project they asked for money for.

2) For the crypto-world, money doesn’t matter anymore!
They need talent

It’s so founder friendly now.

3) What Bitcoin made us ask is “What is money?”

The next question is “What is government and governance?”

He highlighted if an entrepreneur is looking for a problem to solve., then the entrepreneur is always looking for horrible industries with poor services and high costs. So yes – Governments are those horrible industries and they need to be disrupted.

4)  Any company who comes to an investor and leads with how much ICO has raised; is a red flag. Leave immediately and go read a Harry Potter book instead.
If they are leading with value and not the problem they are solving. Beware. (read more here

5) If you are going to invest in where the brains are. It’s in crypto.

6) Philosophically, Coinbase is against ethos of what Bitcoin and the cryptocurrency movement is trying to do. However to do such a move from fiat to digital currency, there would need a way to do that. So Coinbase acts like a browser does for internet. One day there will be no need to cash in or out as everyone is already there on digital. Cryptocurrency is the exchange of value. His advice and we know his bias as he is invested in  Coinhako; is to hold onto an exchange for 3-5 years since onboarding of all users to the new digital currency will take some time.

Adam met with many banks and government bodies on his trip to Singapore – I hope they got his truths.

I ended the night by thanking Adam for making me laugh. He reminded me of how much I miss LA.

Want more of this?

If you are in LA on April 30 – May 2.



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Callum Connects

Adrian Reid, Founder of Enlightened Stock Trading



Adrian Reid escaped the rat race and became a knowledgeable trader. He now shares his trading knowledge and empowers others to take control of their stocks.

What’s your story?
After working 12-16 hour days in the corporate world for many years I had a moment of realisation on the 1 hour bus ride to work. It was here at this moment in time, I realised that I felt trapped, desperate and isolated. Trapped in a job I hated, and a life I had not designed. I had long been interested in investing, but I made the decision at that point to become the best trader I could possibly be and escape the rat race.
My dream was to be free; free of the 9 to 5, the commute, the stress and the exhaustion. I threw myself into my stock trading research and study and emerged 3 months later with the trading rules that would ultimately buy me my freedom. I am now retired from the corporate world, I trade full time and share my knowledge with other aspiring traders through my online education program which puts them in control and empowers them to take control and accountability for their trading results.

What excites you most about your industry?
So many people are trapped in jobs they don’t like or are feeling immense financial pressure in their life. Trading education is typically done extremely badly today because of the conflicts of interest in the industry. Fund managers want to hold onto your money forever; brokers want you to trade more frequently; forex brokers want you to use more leverage. Why? Because that is how they make their money.
By teaching traders how to develop and test their own stock trading systems I am able to empower them to find trading rules which fit their own personality, objectives and lifestyle. This is the only way for new traders to be successful. This process transforms people’s financial future, their relationship with money and wealth and gives them hope. I love that!

What’s your connection to Asia?
I recently spent 3 years living in Singapore which I absolutely loved. This put me in a good position to observe the other Asian markets. As a stock trader I am interested in many markets and economies around the world, however the Asian markets have some of the best potential for trading profits. I have traded stocks in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo and I have developed trading systems that work in many other Asian markets as well.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
My favourite city is Singapore. After living in Singapore for 3 years my family fell in love with the city. Life is great in Singapore for the whole family and the pro-business and investing policies of the government make it a wonderful place to build your financial future as well.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
On a personal front: Find something you love, throw all your energy and passion into it.
On the wealth front: Spend less than you earn and invest the difference. Take control of your finances and always accept 100% responsibility for your investment decisions.

Who inspires you?
My wife Stephanie inspires me. Her commitment to everything she does, her compassion, her insights into people and her ability to uplift those around her, make me want to be a better person.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
No matter what we think we know, there will always be a different perspective that can change our opinion. In my own trading, I continually find that the truths I cling to are not absolute and they can be misleading if held onto dogmatically. Striking a balance between taking a stance and knowing when to change that stance based on new information is critical in all areas of life.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more action earlier on. My fear of mistakes (which still limits me on occasions, like most people) has always proven to be baseless. Playing small to avoid the embarrassment or pain of mistakes is very limiting and I would have taken more action earlier, if I had my time again.

How do you unwind?
To unwind I like to read, meditate, run and ride my mountain bike in the forest.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I just love the small island resort at Batu Batu. It is beautiful, isolated, quiet and surrounded by clean water, full of sealife. After a week at the resort I felt like a different person.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto. This book teaches the art of clear and structured communication. My time working as a business strategy consultant gave me a great appreciation for the importance of communication in business. Clear and effective communication can solve a myriad of challenges in your business and professional life, and as a strong communicator your employment prospects, business relationships, team performance and family life are all dramatically improved.

Shameless plug for your business:
Enlightened Stock Trading ( is the only stock market trading education business that empowers you, as an individual trader. It shows you how to design and test your own unique stock trading system that fits YOUR Personality, Objectives and Lifestyle. We have no conflicts of interest and we are focused on teaching you how to trade stocks profitably in a way that fits your life.
After working through the Enlightened Stock Trader Certification Program you will find yourself confident and empowered with your own battle tested trading system and trading plan to guide you through the markets.

How can people connect with you?
Email me directly at [email protected] or through my Facebook Page (

Twitter handle?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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