SCAPING COMPETITION will give you a monopoly, but even a monopoly is only a great business if it can endure in the future. Compare the value of the New York Times Company with Twitter. Each employs a few thousand people, and each gives millions of people a way to get news.
But when Twitter went public in 2013, it was valued at $24 billion—liters than 12 titles the Times’s market capitalization—even though the Times earned $133 million in 2012 while Twitter lost money. What explains the huge premium for Twitter?
The answer is cash flow. This sounds bizarre at first since the Times was profitable while Twitter wasn’t. But a great business is defined by its ability to generate cash flows in the future. Investors expect Twitter will be able to capture monopoly profits over the next decade, while newspapers’ monopoly days are over.
Simply stated, the value of a business today is the sum of all the money it will make in the future: (To properly value a business, you also have to discount those future cash flows to their present worth, since a given amount of money today is worth more than the same amount in the future.)
Comparing discounted cash flows shows the difference between low-growth businesses and high-growth startups at its starkest. Most of the value of low-growth businesses is in the near term. An Old Economy business (like a newspaper) might hold its value if it can maintain its current cash flows for five or six years.
However, any firm with close substitutes will see its profits competed away. Nightclubs or restaurants are extreme examples: successful ones might collect healthy amounts today, but their cash flows will probably dwindle over the next few years when customers move on to newer and trendier alternatives.
Technology companies follow the opposite trajectory. They often lose money for the first few years: it takes time to build valuable things, and that means delayed revenue. Most of a tech company’s value will come at least 10 to 15 years in the future.
In March 2001, PayPal had yet to make a profit but its revenues were growing 100% year-over-year. When it projected its future cash flows, They found that 75% of the company’s present value would come from profits generated in 2011 and beyond—hard to believe for a company that had been in business for only 27 months. But even that turned out to be an underestimation. Today, PayPal continues to grow at about 15% annually, and the discount rate is lower than a decade ago. It now appears that most of the company’s value will come from 2020 and beyond.
LinkedIn is another good example of a company whose value exists in the far future. As of early 2014, its market capitalization was $24.5 billion—very high for a company with less than $1 billion in revenue and only $21.6 million in net income for 2012. You might look at these numbers and conclude that investors have gone insane. But this valuation makes sense when you consider Linkedln’s projected future cash flows.
The overwhelming importance of future profits is counter-intuitive even in Silicon Valley. For a company to be valuable it must grow and endure, but many entrepreneurs focus only on short-term growth.
They have an excuse: growth is easy to measure, but durability isn’t. Those who succumb to measurement mania obsess about weekly active user statistics, monthly revenue targets, and quarterly earnings reports. However, you can hit those numbers and still overlook deeper, harder-to-measure problems that threaten the durability of your business.
For example, rapid short-term growth at both Zynga and Groupon distracted managers and investors from long-term challenges. Zynga scored early wins with games like FarmVille and claimed to have a “psychometric engine” to rigorously gauge the appeal of new releases. But they ended up with the same problem as every Hollywood studio: how can you reliably produce a constant stream of popular entertainment for a fickle audience? (Nobody knows.) Groupon posted fast growth as hundreds of thousands of local businesses tried their product. But persuading those businesses to become repeat customers was harder than they thought.
If you focus on near-term growth above all else, you miss the most important question you should be asking: will this business still be around a decade from now? Numbers alone won’t tell you the answer; instead, you must think critically about the qualitative characteristics of your business.
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