Entrepreneurs often ask me how to value the sweat equity invested in their start-up. I used to offer a quick and easy response: Its worth whatever your investors tell you its worth. But over the years, I have come to realise that sweat equity isn’t the same thing as market value for your start-up. Investors have no idea how to value sweat equity, and I now believe it’s a bad idea to let them tell you how to do it. At a minimum, they could use this as a negotiating tool to undervalue your start-up.
When you’re getting started, sweat equity is often a critical component of your negotiating leverage with co-founders, early stage employees and others who aren’t paid market wages to help you grow your business. As the business owner, you should be the expert on valuing sweat equity, not your investors, accountants or lawyers. Here are some tools for tackling the challenge.
When determining the value of the sweat equity provided by an employee or potential co-founder, first assess these three characteristics of the person in question:
- Commitment. Is he or she committed to being a founding partner for the long haul?
- Unique contribution. Does he or she bring specialised knowledge, skills, leadership ability or experiences that you don’t have?
- Hopes and dreams. Are his or her hopes and dreams for personal wealth, business success and autonomy the same as yours? If not, are the differences substantial enough to pull the company apart? Then, start thinking about the numbers.
1. Market value doesn’t equal the sum of sweat equity invested by you and your partners.
If you have invested R100 000 worth of your time in writing a business plan, and your partner, a young engineering student, has invested R25 000 worth of her time in building a prototype, it doesn’t mean the market value of your start-up is R125 000. In fact, it could be worth much more. Sweat equity is just one component of early-stage valuation.Valuing a start-up is driven by market conditions, comparable companies, exit potential, future capital needs and many other factors.
2. Foregone wages for an engineer aren’t the same as foregone wages for a prototype designer.
In the example described above, the R25 000 estimated by your business partner is likely to be based on wages that she could have earned in a full-time job. This is the typical way that a founder determines sweat equity: foregone wages. However, your partner could just as easily have argued that her sweat equity is worth R250 000 since that’s what a prototype would have cost you to make had you hired a prototype development firm. Or she could argue that the prototype is so critical to the business that she should get 50% of the company’s stock.
In my experience, this is the basis for much of the negotiation that CEOs will have with their early-stage employees and co-founder. You need to determine the principle applied for valuing services invested in a nascent business. Foregone wages tends to be the anchor that keeps valuation negotiations from sailing into oblivion. Don’t be tempted to dole out equity to everyone who helps you found the company – even if it makes you feel good to have co-founders. (Being an entrepreneur is lonely, but there are better ways to make friends or build a community of credible supporters than by giving early-stage equity to people who make small contributions to your business.)
One simple solution is to “pay” a slight premium for sweat equity to early-stage employees. For example, when valuing the sweat equity invested by your prototype designer, use R30 000 rather than R25 000 as a valuation figure and explain that you’re paying a 20% premium because of the risks associated with being paid in equity rather than cash.
3. Employees and founders are motivated by different things.
How should you decide if your prototype designer should be a co-founder who deserves 50% of your company or deserves R30 000 in sweat equity for her work as an employee or consultant? Too often,
I see entrepreneurs making this critical decision by trusting the opinion of their investors – or potential investors – rather than determining what their business will actually need. First-time entrepreneurs often think “If I approach a VC with a chief technology officer or chief prototype designer in place, then I’m more likely to get funded.” So they end up getting a co-founder and parting with 50% of their company, even if their CTO is really a young prototype designer who will get discouraged or fired a few months later. Using a restricted stock agreement, you can mitigate risk, building in a buy-back right for the partner’s equity grant. Ultimately, it’s up to you. You get to decide what you need to give up to keep or get an invaluable partner on board.
Alan Knott-Craig Answers Your Questions On Finding a Funder To Managing Your Staff
What you really need to know to land an investor.
Focus on one customer at a time. Make that customer happy. Move to next customer. Aim for ‘1 000 true fans’, then keep them happy.
The rest will come.
1. How do I find an investor?
You have 4 options:
Applicable if you only have an idea, and you need cash to make your idea a reality. Usually between R500 000 and R1 million. You need to milk your network: Parents, friends of parents, colleagues, parents’ friends, friends. If you have no network, you need to build a network or use your savings. There is no math to these investments. You get money because they believe in you, not because they seriously expect a return.
2. Early-stage VC
Applicable if you already have a working product with traction, ie: users and/growth, and you need cash to build out. Usually between R1 million and R2,5 million. There are a number of early-stage VC’s in South Africa, just ask around. Knife Capital are amongst the best. Ideally you want an introduction from a trusted party. Failing that, just email them directly. Give a simple pitch. They’re looking for 15X return on investment.
3. Late-stage VC
Applicable if you have a critical mass of users and meaningful revenue, ie: R10 million a year, and you need cash to grow. The late-stage VC’s are the likes of 4Di, hard to get access without an introduction from a trusted third party, usually one of your existing investors. They are looking for a 5X return on investment.
4. Private equity
Applicable if you have a cash-generative business that requires capital to either exit a shareholder, or to grow profits exponentially. Looking for 25% IRR.
There are also state-sponsored sources of capital for entrepreneurs from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, for example the Technology Innovation Agency. This is ‘soft’ money, requiring no equity or personal surety. If you can get it, take it.
Investors are looking for return on capital. If I invest R100 in an early stage company, I want to get R1 500 (15x) back within a reasonable period of time, ie. no longer than five years.
The key metric is Total Addressable Market (TAM). The size of the market you’re targeting determines the potential size of your business.
Assume you target a market with a TAM of R100 million (profit), and you assume you can get 10% of that market by 2020. That means your business will have R10 million of profits in 2020.
A private company is valued at a maximum of 7x profit, so your company will be worth R70 million in 2020. If you ask me to invest R1 million today, I need 21% of your company in order to realise a 15x return (R15 million) by 2020.
Start with TAM, work from there. Remember, every assumption you make will be questioned. Minimise your assumptions. Maximise the evidence for your assumptions.
2. If you are a start-up, what’s the most important thing you can do to grow?
Focus on one customer at a time. Make that customer happy. Move to next customer. Aim for ‘1 000 true fans’, then keep them happy.
The rest will come.
For consumer products, always make it easy for your customers to share. Friction-free sharing is the easiest marketing tool you can have.
Feature-creep is a big risk and can be a big distraction. You need one single value proposition that is enough to get customers. Having fifteen cool features will never compensate for the lack of one killer use case.
3. Our staff is growing, more than 20 now. Any tips on management?
Having four or five staff is not hard. You don’t need to be a good manager or leader. You can muddle along. It’s when your team starts growing past the twenty number that management becomes a skill rather than a word.
There are hundreds are articles written on the art of management, but Jack Welch (former GE CEO) broke it down to this:
- People want to know who they report to.
- People want to know how they’re being measured.
- People what want to know how they’re doing.
- That’s it.
- One boss. Clear KPIs. Regular feedback sessions.
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Do you have a burning start-up question?
XPRS Capital Africa Bridges Funding Gap Faced By South African SMEs
XPRS Capital Africa answers local SMEs call for funding.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are a vital component of the South African economy. However, there is a substantial portion of the country’s estimated 650,000 SMEs that have no access to funding to assist in their continued growth
In response to an increase in demand for reliable and easily accessible capital for businesses like these, XPRS Capital Africa opened its doors in South Africa. The specialist business funding provider is geared towards rapidly vetting and approving short-term business funding ranging from R50,000 to R500,000. In addition, XPRS Capital Africa specialises in extending funding to SMEs that may not qualify for funding from traditional lenders.
Simon Leps, CEO of XPRS Capital Africa explains that XPRS Capital has its roots in the US, having been founded in 2013. “The company is a renowned and established alternative online business-to-business lender. Together with a team of data scientists and using thousands of data points, XPRS Capital has developed a proprietary credit vetting algorithm and packaged product set.”
“The technology and approval processes developed by XPRS Capital has a massively successful track record overseas and the experience that our company has gained over the years will help many more SMEs in South Africa to reach their potential,” says Leps.
“The XPRS Capital platform has processed over $1b worth of loans and has a proven track record of funding thousands of businesses across hundreds of industries,” he continues.
Leps adds that the company’s sophisticated algorithm allows XPRS Capital Africa to provide funding to many South African SMEs that are usually denied loans on the basis that their owners have less than ideal credit records. “Traditional lenders are often reluctant to lend capital to SME owners whose credit histories place them in higher risk categories. This has created a massive challenge for many promising SMEs. At XPRS Capital Africa, we focus on the health of the SME, and use state-of-the-art technology to provide businesses the cash flow they need to grow and flourish.”
Using the unique algorithm that we have optimised for the South African market, we are able to accurately assess any SME that has been in business for over a year, to rapidly provide a 3 to 12-month funding solution, notes Leps. “The online application takes less than 10 minutes, allowing SME owners to spend less time filling in forms for funding, and more time on their business.”
XPRS Capital Africa provides funding directly, working closely with SMEs to offer the fastest approvals, best possible repayment terms and most accurate risk profiles for any business.
“Cash flow is the lifeblood of every single business. Our mission is to provide this quickly, affordably and reliably,” Leps adds.
He notes that, given the high number of businesses that have trouble accessing financing, SME owners should also know how to maintain their own positive credit records. Thereby they can ensure that their businesses have access to as many options as possible.
“Ensure that all areas of your company are looked after to the same degree as most funding providers want to see that all aspects of a business are well managed. Up to date, audited financial statements and management accounts, well managed bank accounts, and good budgeting and forecasting show that the owners are attentive. Owners also need to know their businesses inside and out and be able to answer questions about their cash flow and deal pipeline.”
Related: The Investor Sourcing Guide
In addition to this, Leps says that the customer’s experience when dealing with the business could also have a measurable impact. “Any touchpoints that are available to your customers will be looked at by potential funders, so all customer facing assets should look professional and be kept up to date. This goes for websites, online portals and social media accounts.”
“The ability to access additional funds when your company needs it is the key to long-term survival. That’s why it is paramount to maintain the best possible credit record. However, it is also important to remember that, whatever the financial state of your business, business owners are never completely out of options,” Leps concludes.
The Dangers Of Crowdfunding With Coolest Cooler Founder Ryan Grepper
Crowdfunding is about more than simply raising quick cash for your business idea.
In 2013, Ryan Grepper launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter for a product he called The Coolest Cooler. Ryan described The Coolest Cooler as a “party disguised as a cooler,” and he equipped it with things like a cutting board, blender, Bluetooth speaker and USB charger.
The campaign was a failure. Ryan had set his goal at $125 000, but the campaign only made around $100 000. According to the entrepreneur, there had been a couple of reasons for this failure. He felt that he had set his goal a little too high, and he also thought that it had been a mistake to launch in winter when people weren’t thinking about beach parties and picnics. Most importantly, though, his product hadn’t quite been ready. The prototype he based the campaign on wasn’t ready for market.
Related: Equity Crowdfunding In SA Explained
So, in July 2014, he went back to Kickstarter with a more polished version of his cooler. His target this time around was also a more modest $50 000. The campaign was an immediate success. Less than 36 hours after launching, he hit his goal, and astonishingly, a day after that the campaign hit $1 million. By the end of the campaign, The Coolest Cooler had raised more than $13 million — 20 000% more than its $50 000 target.
Sadly, though, this story doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. The Coolest Cooler became a victim of its own crowdfunding success. Ryan had a clever product idea, but nothing much more than that. In return for all that money, he had promised funders a reward in the form of their very own Coolest Cooler, and he now faced the daunting prospect of fulfilling $13 million in orders. As many product-based start-ups also do, he had grossly underestimated the cost of building his cooler. During the campaign he had priced the Coolest Cooler at around $175, but it quickly became clear that he would need to sell it at $400 to make a profit.
Eventually, Ryan had to demand that funders send in an additional $100 to get their coolers, and he also started selling the product on Amazon before all the funders had received their coolers. Two years after the campaign, 36 000 people were still waiting. The Oregon Department of Justice eventually started investigating Ryan’s company and reached a settlement in 2017 that will hopefully see funders receive a portion of the company’s future profits. Thousands of backers, however, will probably never get their Coolest Coolers.
If done correctly, crowdfunding can offer more than a capital infusion into your business — it can also allow you to test the market and find out if there’s an appetite for what you’re offering. A successful campaign won’t just help fund the business, but will also help you create a loyal and vocal group of customers who can help you spread the word.
As Ryan Grepper’s story shows, though, there are dangers. Given the very public nature of crowdfunding, you won’t be explaining problems to your investors behind closed doors — instead, you’ll have to answer to annoyed funders on social media.
For this reason, it’s important to understand exactly what crowdfunding is, and what the expectations of potential funders are likely to be.
Watch Ryan explain what the Coolest Cooler is below:
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