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Business Valuation Basics: Four Key Questions

Business valuation can be complex but the underpinning of any good valuation assessment is the answers to four simple questions:

What is being valued?FourQuestions

The first step is to clearly define what is being valued. If it’s a going concern – i.e. an ongoing trading business - then it is the income stream of the business that is being valued.

A business is nothing more than a group of assets – people, ideas, processes, products, intellectual property (especially in technology companies), and equipment that together produce an income stream.  If there are any assets not used in the generation of profits, they get excluded from the valuation (and added back separately if you’re valuing the shares of a company for example).  A good example might be a surplus investment property held in a company.  Conversely if there are assets not owned by the business but used in generating profits, they must be contributed to the business by the owner or the cost of acquiring the assets needs to be taken off the valuation.

You also need to clarify if you’re valuating the assets or the equity of the business. An assets valuation assumes the seller retains all non-working/non-interest bearing liabilities of the business and, in a hypothetical sale, pay them off with cash received from the purchaser of the business. If the equity of the business is being valued, it is assumed the hypothetical buyer would get all assets of the business and assume all liabilities as well.

Value to Whom?

The answer can be an individual, investment group or another company. Once this question is answered, all the factors adding to or detracting from the valuation need to be factored in.   So a strategic buyer who sees potential in the business will value it at more than a similar buyer without any special reason to be interested in it.   I’ve seen some Cambridge technology businesses valued for well above their asset value, or any reasonable assessment of an income multiple – simply because their technology had true strategic value to the purchaser.   For example we advised on the sale of a pre-revenue business where the North American purchaser had decided to invest in a particular area, and purchasing my client meant that they would save around 2 years “time to market” over developing the technology in-house.   They thus had a pretty well developed idea of what they were prepared to pay for it.

What Definition of Value?

An alternate value definition is fair market value. Selling a business for maximum value can be a frustrating task. First, what is the maximum value of a business? Actually nobody knows – and any broker, corporate finance house, or M&A adviser who offers you a guaranteed price needs to be challenged.  How will the seller know if a particular offer he receives is the best he can get?  And would he get more if he waited?

This can be a difficult judgement for business owners who are thinking of selling – and it really helps to have an experienced M&A adviser giving input to what would be a realistic price given the nature of buyer, seller and the market.  Add the possibility that the maximum value might include some vendor financing, in some form of earnout perhaps, then the seller needs to consider, assuming the buyer’s ability to pay will in part come from future profits of the business, whether the buyer will do a good job of running the business once he takes over.  Faced with the “what is maximum value” dilemma, in practice sellers need to make a reasoned assessment of fair market value before embarking on a sales process.  We always invest time and resource in helping business owners to reach a thoughtful assessment of what would be a realistic “price expectation” ahead of a sale process.

Fair Market Value

What is “Fair Market Value”?  It’s the price at which an asset would change hands between a willing buyer and willing seller, both of whom are suitably knowledgeable of the facts and neither are forced to do the deal.  It’s a simple definition, but of course the technical process for estimating fair market value can be pretty complex – it’s an art AND a science.  

Value as of What Date?

The fourth question to be answered before a business can be valued is “value as of what date?” And it’s not always “valuation as of today” that’s relevant.  In litigation or tax driven valuations we’re often asked to produce a valuation opinion as at a particular date in the past. Conversely, in finance it’s often a requirement to predict what the value will be at some date in the future, perhaps as part of a strategic planning exercise.

If you'd like to know more about business valuations have a look at PEM Corporate Finance Business Valuations - valuing businesses in Cambridge, East Anglia, London and beyond.


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