Public vs private markets…and WeWork

Fred Wilson recently wrote a great post on how WeWork’s botched IPO exhibits the stark differences between public and private markets.

As a founder, my major takeaway from the post was that one needs to be crystal clear on the type of company one is building. That should reflect in how you build, take it to market, price, capitalize, grow and eventually exit. North Star Metric reflecting all these being (gross & operating) “margins”.

Fred’s post also offers some critical insights for tech investors. It’s imperative that investors understand what is really the “type” of business being evaluated — differentiation, pricing power, cost of customer acquisition, scalability etc, all ultimately getting reflected in gross & operating margins. Smart investor behavior dictates peeling the onion significantly on all these issues.

Any business solving a real problem for the world, and if executed on well, has “value”. It isn’t about Uber, WeWork or Peloton being good or bad. They are solving a problem and that’s why customers use them. The key is to value them appropriately, based on fundamentals.

As Graham/Buffet say — “any company can be a good buy at the right price”. That’s why people invest in junk bonds, distressed assets etc. The challenge is in figuring out this “right price” in private markets, where information availability is significantly lower. At these stages, there is no perfect pricing mechanism, no feedback loops, no liquidity to correct mistakes.

Unlike public markets, private markets are driven by a bunch of individuals and not “Mr Market”. They are full of irrationalities, driven by emotional drivers like FOMO, personal passions, vision-over-fundamentals etc. Private market valuations aren’t driven by sound financial theory like DCF, Comparables etc. There just isn’t enough data!!

Imagine as a VC, a solid founder coming to you with a disruptive vision but not much execution. Your instinct (“heart”) says this could be big. How do you value this company? In absence of data, your estimate of value will have no choice but to be driven by 1) your “heart”: conviction and how badly you want it, 2) “buy-sell” dynamics: how much are others willing to pay relative to you and 3) comps from past experience. Though sub-optimal, this isn’t particularly bad as, in absence of data, you need some basis to value these companies, so they get funded and execution continues. That’s how game-changing companies will be built.

To summarize,

  1. Valuing assets in public vs private markets is drastically different.
  2. Due to lack of data, private markets value companies based on emotion+past experience+buy-sell dynamics.
  3. Therefore, a valuation reset when IPOs happen should be expected more often than not.
  4. The best private market investors get it right more often, despite playing at the mercy of emotional drivers and market externalities.
  5. This public-private valuation contrast will always exist.
  6. Sustainable, well-run businesses will withstand, adapt & survive.

Author: Soumitra Sharma

Operator-Angel I Product Leader I US-India corridor I Believer in Power Laws I Love building & learning

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