There is no shortage of motivated buyers on the lookout for great online businesses. While the stock market is highly volatile, there is increasing enthusiasm for investment or purchase of online businesses. So, the potential appetite for buying is enormous. However, by far the major brake on buyers committing to a final purchase decision is their uncertainty about pricing. There is little understanding of sound valuation principles and buyers are wary of what they see as pricing based on an arbitrary multiple of net profit. Not to put too fine a point on it, buyers believe that sellers generally over-value their businesses and they find it hard to define a reliable and objective valuation method. The outcome is that too often an enthusiastic and highly motivated buyer fails to follow through with a final purchase because of the understandable anxiety about paying more than the business is worth.

How to value an online business

Typically with an online business, there will be little or no inventory to value and only a very limited if any physical asset base. Accordingly, the business will generally be valued almost entirely on the projected profits, calculated on the basis of current and relatively recent past profits.

While there are various alternative techniques for valuing an online business, including the traffic valuation method for sites with high traffic as a business asset but with no or incomplete monetization, many of these methods are highly technical and yield disputable outcomes. They are often suitable only in highly specific situations, depending on a precise definition of the particular revenue model, current and projected OR you are the next Facebook which is highly unlikely.

For that reason, online businesses are almost always sold on a negotiated value based on an earnings multiple or a price to earnings ratio. While it is very common to define the ratio in terms of a multiple of average net monthly profit, it is simpler for most purposes to quote the ratio as a multiple of annual net profit. Using this basis, average asking price multiples have increased from 2.4 in 2010 to around 3.4 now (sourced from our good friends at Centurica), with final selling prices typically at around a 10% discount to the asking price. This suggests that generally speaking sellers who value their businesses realistically can expect to achieve a sale outcome within reasonable range of the asking price. But putting a realistic value on the business is complex and there is an understandable tendency of business owners to over-value their business.

The average net profit multiple varies markedly from one kind of online business to another and also depends greatly on the specific market niche. However, the absence of highly consistent profit ratios can cause buyers to be both surprised and sceptical about the valuation proposed by a vendor. On objective grounds SaaS and e-commerce businesses sell for a significantly higher profit multiple than content-based or media businesses, because of the higher reliability of recurring income in the former models and the generally much higher operational time demands in the latter cases.

As an example, a currently listed relatively small SaaS business (not on Flippa) with a claimed $55k net annual profit has an asking price of $250k, a hefty earnings multiple of 4.55. You would expect that ratio level to make any buyer hesitate. Let’s assume it doesn’t have rocket ship growth (doubtful because they are selling) a buyer simply will not pay that amount.

Vendors who are seeking to sell at an earnings multiple above the prevailing average need to factor in the understandable buyer nervousness and be sure that the audited income and expenses figures are going to stand up to serious interrogation. While there is never an absolutely guaranteed success in any investment decision very few buyers overall, and virtually none in the six and seven figure range, are interested in taking a wild gamble on getting value for money.

The valuation factors that buyers will weigh up

Because it goes without saying that buyers generally regard sellers’ asking prices as inflated, it’s important that the vendor has realistically priced the business having regard to all the considerations which the prospective buyer will be factoring in.

The income figures must be accurate and cover the duration of the business operation, including only those income streams which will fully transfer to the new owner with the sale. Gross and net income trends will be crucial to the buyer’s assessment. All expenses must be transparently declared in detail, including all payments made to service providers and suppliers of goods and expertise. It is vital to new owners that they will be able to maintain all of the necessary business operations within the same cost structure, or ideally achieve some savings where possible. Any outstanding expenses or other debts transferring with the business obviously must be declared.

Absolutely all operating expenses need to be disclosed, not disguised, by the seller and discoverable by the buyer. Often overlooked, the full value of any unpaid work which has been invested in the operation of the business will be accounted for in the buyer’s own valuation of the business. The predicted cost of the new owner’s time, and any specific technical expertise required, will significantly affect the buyer’s business valuation. It is absolutely essential to the prospective buyer to be able to rely on an honest declaration of the time and expertise required to manage the business, as the new owner will need to put a dollar value on this expense.

The prospective buyer will need to analyse all the financial indicator trends over the longest time frame for which the figures can be produced. Sources of customers and the cost of gaining them will be important factors for the buyer, as will the effects of any changes to attracting traffic such as Google algorithm changes or even penalties which may affect search traffic.

The buyer will need to assess how competitive the niche is and whether there are barriers to the entry of competitors, which raise the business valuation, or the likelihood of increased competition in the absence of any significant barriers to entry, which will lower the valuation. It is crucial to the buyer to ensure that any licences required are fully transferable, or readily obtainable by the new owner, and that any branding, trademarks or other unique advantages will transfer with the sale.

The seller needs to appraise the business through a buyer’s eyes

The seller will be keenly aware of the time, energy, money and vision which has brought the business to its current status and positioned it for a successful sale. Naturally the vendor wants to achieve the highest possible price. However, seller over-valuation is the prospective buyer’s biggest turn-off. It really enables the sale process if the current owner evaluates the business using the same valuation indicators that the buyer will be applying.

It is worth mentioning that some buyers will apply a discounted cash flow (DCF) measure in their valuation. This is a somewhat less relevant consideration in an era of low inflation as at present, but put simply the principle is that a dollar of profit now is worth more than a dollar will be in the future, so a formula is applied to compensate by lowering the notional future profit value, given that the buyer will be paying in advance the equivalent of some years of projected net profit.

The bottom line for the buyer is that the online business acquisition must be fully transferable, it must be sustainable, it must have scalability, and above all it must be purchased at a reasonable earnings multiple. While it is still relatively unusual for an online business to be bought using funds from an institutional lending source, lenders may place a ceiling on the multiple, determined by the actual business model and specific market niche.

Overall, to achieve a reasonable pool of potential buyers interested in undertaking onerous due diligence and finally negotiating a fair sale price, sellers need to keep their initial asking price close to buyer expectations. Avoid ambit claims with the view that eventually you will negotiate down. The process of carefully considering a purchase is time-consuming for the prospective buyer. The factors outlined above will determine where the buyer expectation sits in terms of an earnings multiple. There are so many variations in play that the ratios will vary between around 2 and 4. There would have to be exceptional circumstances taking a selling price outside this already wide range.

Know exactly why you have decided on your own seller valuation, and understand what the buyer will be factoring in. Your initial asking price should not be more than 10% higher than you believe on reasonable grounds the buyer will consider fair after all due diligence and consideration of all the factors covered here.

It is very clear that a reasonable seller valuation is always the key to a successful sale.