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The art of burning cash & valuations
What’s up my fellow metrics wonks? This week’s post originally appeared in Secfi's newsletter, Founders + Funders. I’ve been following Secfi’s evolution as a business from afar for a while now, having worked in and around the startup community my whole career. For those who are unfamiliar with Secfi, they help startup employees get the expertise, planning, and cash to own their stock options with confidence.
And I’ve written about the highs and lows of employee stock options in the past, so Secfi’s unique approach to equity knowledge and liquidity were right up my ally.
I was pumped to partner with them on this piece. Make sure to subscribe to their newsletter to get smarter on your startup equity.
With the markets returning to a focus on profitability, valuations are no longer linked to growth at all costs.
If the past recipe for a premium valuation was three parts growth and one part profitability, the recipe seems to have shifted to at least two parts growth, two parts profitability.
Cash burn has suddenly become a “dirty word”… But perhaps we were just overdue in reassessing what “good” cash burn looks like …
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The art of burning cash
Startups usually need a financial backing (e.g., debt or equity) of some amount to get going. 15 years ago, it used to be, say, a $3M Series A for 25% of the company (meaning an investor forks over that cash for a cut of the company pie). Some companies could operate on that for quite a while.
Over the last decade, though, there have been more rounds added to the mix (e.g., “pre-seed” all the way down to Series H). At the same time, valuations have grown, as VCs formerly focused on later stages have shifted left, driving up round sizes at earlier stages ($1B valuations for Series A are not unheard of any more).
Nonetheless, the point of raising money is to focus on aggressive growth and market opportunities, without being overly concerned about profitability in the early days.
Cash burn is simply the amount of money a company is using from their bank account to subsidize the shortfall from their current operational costs.
Burn = What you bill your customers - What you spend
Cash runway: Fuel for takeoff
“Cash runway” is the number of months a company has until it runs out of money in the bank. If you’re driving a car and look at the gas tank, how many miles do you have until you hit empty? This, of course, is dependent on how fast you’re driving. The harder you push the engine, the sooner you’ll sputter out on the side of I-95.
Managing your cash runway is also dependent on your future capital strategy. Are you running the business with plans of raising again? Or do you want to become self-sustaining?
If you’re on the venture capital path, post-fundraise you typically want a cash runway of at least 18 months. This gives you 12 months to go out and make magic before coming back to the table with your coffers, plus another 6 month buffer in case the markets aren’t in great shape.
Here’s how a finance team may look at it:
# of Months @ Current Burn = Your Ending Cash Balance for period / your most recent burn rate for the period
# of Months at Forecasted Burn = A count of the number of months until you go negative if you spend to forecast
Assumptions for the exhibit above:
You raised $500K in Month 1 and it’s sitting in the bank
You’re growing Revenues 6% M / M and Expenses 20% M / M
Ending Cash becomes your Starting Cash balance for the next period
This forecast tells us we either need a cash infusion going into month 8 (fundraise time!) or we need to scale back expenses to get to a healthier run rate (snip snip).
Burning up valuations
Investors know that you can’t trade a dollar for seventy-five cents forever (unless you’re Uber… still not sure how they are making that all work). That’s why they look at a number of different metrics to validate a company is not burning cash in vain.
For businesses losing money, my top five leading indicators when attempting to forecast future business success are:
CAC payback period: How many months does it take to get back the cash you spent to acquire a customer?
Generally anything under 12 months is great for startups and under 18 months is great for larger, more mature (or publicly traded) companies.
LTV to CAC: What’s the multiple of value you get from a customer compared to what you spent to get them?
Anything under 1x means you are literally destroying value.
Anything over 3x is good.
Anything over 5x is awesome.
Net retention: How much does a customer grow after you acquire them?
Generally, anything over 110% is good and anything over 130% is great.
Gross margin: After servicing your existing customer base, how much money do you have left to invest in the business?
Top tier software companies tend to hover around 80%.
Burn multiple: How much cash are you burning for each incremental unit of growth? Unlike the metrics above, this focuses on the efficiency of the whole business, not just the go-to-market engine.
Under 1x is amazing, 1.5x to 2x is good, anything over 3x is bad.
Getting comfortable with cash burn
Valuation is, at the end of the day, as much an art as it is a science. When you’re painting a picture, it’s hard to work with just one color. The same can be said when assessing a business — you need to know more than just its growth rate. Growth is a byproduct of a company’s monetization model, not a driver of it. And growth can have both healthy and unhealthy aspects.
Yes, we are in a market correction, and maybe we have over-rotated towards prioritizing free cash flow in the short term. But burning cash is NOT suddenly a definitively bad thing. It should just come with more sanity checks.
Actually, one of the biggest beneficiaries of this change will be employees. Raising cash usually signals a company is on to something. Startups use their fundraising events as recruiting tactics all the time. But if mediocre businesses are receiving premium valuations, there’s a disconnect. When cash is better gated, fewer potential employees will receive false signals and get wrapped up in ultimately bad bets.
For employees, joining a startup is the most important “investing” decision they make. So they should ask some of the same questions a traditional investor would ask when assessing long term business viability. Use the metrics above as discussion points to form a personal investment thesis.
And pack sunblock when you choose which company to burn with — it’s never a straight line to profitability.
What I’m reading
Petcash Sports: Have Fun Getting Smart About Sports
Business of Athletes. Business of Sports. Over the last 10 years, investments in professional sports teams have outpaced the S&P 500 by over 10% annually. Several athletes have become billionaires through their investments too: For example, Kevin Durant made a 3,000% return on his Whoop investment. Petcash Sports breaks down the business of athletes/sports in a way that is both fun and educational. Heck, you might even learn of a potential investment (or if you’re really rich, what pro team to buy).
Check out Petcash Sports written by former D1 hooper Andrew Petcash.
Every week, he publishes three articles relating to the business of athletes, sports, and NIL.
To give you a sample of his work, here is one of my favorite pieces.
If you enjoyed it, sign up for Petcash Sports here!
Quote I’ve been pondering
“Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.”
-Shane Parish, mental model guru and founder of Farnam Street