Three years ago, Fred Wilson wrote a great blog post called When Talking About Business Models, Remember that Profits Equal Revenues Minus Costs. The point he made was both simple and profound. The simple part is summed up in the post’s title. The profound part is that high growth, early-stage tech companies often have a choice about how to become exceptionally valuable businesses: they can focus on growing revenues at the expense of margins, or margins at the expense of revenues.
Most recent successful tech companies seem to have chosen the former: growing revenues at the expense of margins. Again and again, we see S-1 filings with revenues growing rapidly but profit margins that are low to negative. The same is true for the rumored financials of private companies. I think I understand why they made this choice, but wonder if it was a mistake.
To understand why these companies made this choice, you need to look at their formative stages. Many of them raised money from VC’s at multi-hundred-million to multi-billion dollar valuations, often before the companies were profitable or had even settled on a business model. In most cases, the companies and investors were acting reasonably. But the end results might have been to unwittingly commit themselves to revenue over margin growth.
Why? Money has its own inertia and somehow always seems to get spent. Some of this spending is reasonable and even necessary (infrastructure, defensive expansion to international markets). But then there are harder choices. For example, do you invest heavily in sales and marketing to grow your revenue faster? Do you stay open and try to become a platform and therefore force yourself to experiment with new business models? Or do you become closed to “own the user” and therefore benefit from existing business models like advertising? Fast revenue growth seems to be the best way to justify your valuation. But the next thing you know you have a high cost structure that requires you to raise even more money and grow revenue even faster.
The root cause here is a deeply held belief throughout the business world that exceptional revenue growth is more likely than exceptional margins. For example, if you talk to professional public market investors and analysts you’ll often hear statements like “that’s a low margin industry” – implying that every industry has “natural” profit margins which companies can only defy for short periods of time. This belief is also reflected in public market valuations for recent tech IPOs: companies like Groupon that put revenue over margins command very healthy valuations.
The problem is that this deeply held belief in “revenue exceptionalism” over “margin exceptionalism” is a hangover from the industrial era. Unlike industrial era companies, information businesses tend to be deflationary, shrinking the overall revenue of an industry. They also tend to have network effects (and complementary network effects), making them more defensible and therefore higher margin than non tech businesses. Given this, why do companies continue seeking revenue at the expense of margins? Fred made this same point in his original post, but people didn’t seem to listen.
 Companies (like all cash generating assets) are ultimately valued at a multiple of present and projected future profits. The historical average P/E ratio of the DJIA is about 15, meaning that (on average) if a company is generating $100M in profit, it is valued at $1.5B (Fred prefers to use a 10 multiple, perhaps to be conservative?). One way to understand this is to imagine that companies dividend out all their profits every year. If you bought something for $1.5B and it dividended out $100M every year, that would be a 6.6% annual return.
 Why are these high-priced financings reasonable? From the company’s perspective: your traffic is growing so fast you need to invest millions of dollars in infrastructure. Meanwhile copycats are popping up in other countries. You don’t know if the financial markets will suddenly dry up. Someone offers you, say, $50M for minimal dilution. Seems like a reasonable hedge. From the investor’s perspective: the history of venture capital shows that almost all the returns are generated from big hits like Amazon, eBay, Facebook and Google. (As Paul Graham once put it: “The difference between a bad VC fund and a great VC fund is one big hit”).