(Bloomberg) – Snapchat, the photo-messaging app raising cash at a $15 billion valuation, probably isn’t actually worth more than Clorox or Campbell Soup. So where did investors come up with that enormous headline number?
Here’s the secret to how Silicon Valley calculates the value of its hottest companies: The numbers are sort of made-up. For the most mature startups, investors agree to grant higher valuations, which help the companies with recruitment and building credibility, in exchange for guarantees that they’ll get their money back first if the company goes public or sells. They can also negotiate to receive additional free shares if a subsequent round’s valuation is less favorable. Interviews with more than a dozen founders, venture capitalists, and the attorneys who draw up investment contracts reveal the most common financial provisions used in private-market technology deals today.
The backroom agreements are becoming more common as tech companies stay private longer, according to the interviews and financial documents obtained by Bloomberg Business. The practice obfuscates the meaning of a valuation, which can become dangerous down the road because private investors aren’t taking the same risks a public-market shareholder would. By the time a company does go public, the valuation it got from VCs may not align with its balance sheet. Just ask Box.