Q: At a pub in Los Gatos, CA a casual conversation with some young, first time entrepreneurs lead to an interesting comment:
"…the business plan outlines our estimated (operational) expenses but how do I know an investor is not going to look at these numbers and say…’are you f’ing kidding me’ and right then and there we can loose this guy (his interest)…"How can an entrepreneur build these projections most accurately and in a way that will maintain credibility with potential investors? What could be defined as the "best practice" for entrepreneurs dealing with this subject?
A: (Brad) As I’ve said in the past, I’ve never met a financial plan for an early stage company where the revenue side was correct. However, I’ve met plenty where the cost side was correct (or – at least – appropriate). The key here is simple – you want to have a cost structure that makes sense, covers all the bases, but doesn’t assume a big revenue ramp to be supportable.
If you are in the very early stages (e.g. a few people and an idea), recognize that your investor is likely going to be funding you for about 12 months to see how things play out. The biggest mistake first time entrepreneurs make is that they fall prey to the idea that they need to put together a five year P&L forecast and cash flow projection. I can guarantee – with 100% certainty – that this model will be wrong. As an investor, I don’t really care about this; rather I want to see how you are thinking about getting to “the next stage” of your business. You get to define the next stage, what it’ll cost you to get there, and what things will look like when you get there.
If you are a first time entrepreneur, go find an experienced entrepreneur to act as a mentor. She can be a first line of feedback your cost model and likely will know a few “financial people” that can help you put together a simple, yet credible model. In addition, when you spend time with potential investors, don’t try to bluff. Tell them it’s your first time building a model like this and that – while you had help – you know you lack experience and are looking for feedback. Try to engage the investor in the process. Listen the potential investors feedback and iterate on your model.
Simple message – don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Q: At RealNetworks we always expensed (vs. capitalized) engineering expenses (as does MSFT). What is your philosophy on this engineering accounting practice.
A: (Brad) Subject to approval by the auditors, I always encourage companies I invest in to expense their engineering costs.
Regardless of the accounting treatment, I think it’s a bullshit practice to capitalize engineering expenses. In an early stage company, this simply serves to obfuscate the reality of the P&L by transferring real expenses to an asset on the balance sheet which is subsequently depreciated over a multi-year period of time. The result – investors and managers have to work harder to understand the P&L and the real economic dynamics of the business. It gets even worse in a mature company, especially one that is public.
However, our good friends the auditors get in the way on this one and encourage some engineering (and R&D expenses) to be capitalized. Oh well – we need to follow the rules. But that doesn’t mean we have to like them.