The 5X fallacy, relying on multiples to value a business


Ever heard of the 5x fallacy?  Hint: It  has to do with business valuation. Using a multiple of X.

Try this among your peers, other business owners, and ask your CPA.

1.Ask:  What is a good multiple I should use to estimate the value of my business?
You will get all sorts of answers, 5 times EBITDA or 2 times revenue, all sorts of “benchmarks”.
2.Ask people at your industry association. What do they think is a good multiple for a quick estimation of value?
3.Next, assume you were going to buy out a competitor, similar to you in size, and profit. Ask yourself, how much would I spend my own cash for it?

Or put another way, if you were to buy a similar business like yours to grow your business thorough an acquisition, to add $ X in added profit, with a reasonable rate of return on your money, what would you be willing to pay for it, in real after tax money?

What we see, people are NOT willing to pay anywhere close to as much for another similar business as they think their current business is worth.  Even if the business is a good strategic fit. They want to get a deal, buy at a discount, pay as little as possible.

The reason is not greed. Its because you can’t really be sure of “hidden” features in the target business. You don’t know what will “pop up” after you buy it. It’s been private and therefore not transparent. Some people call this the skeletons in the closet. This is why asset sales oftentimes are a protective move for buyers. Don’t buy the business, and assume the unknown liabilities. This can help mitigate some things, but still does not fully cover the risk of buying a private business. 

So in reality there is a higher risk premium required with private business transactions and to offset this you need to pay less to cover the risk, or at least to try to offset it if you are buying or investing in a private business. Multiples don’t accurately account for this risk premium. Too vague.

Most of the unknowns ( risks)  are because private business is just that, private. The customer base loyalty is not necessarily easily transferable for example. The operations, people, staff, managers, etc. are doing things their way, not necessarily how best to manage a business as a financial investment. There are always inefficiencies in processes and management. The goal is to identify them and have a reliable way to measure the impact of these inefficiencies on the value of the business. It is not always obvious or easy to do.

Therefore using or relying on any sort of multiple of revenue, or EBITDA. or other financial metric is NOT anywhere close to giving you any real world idea what a business is worth on the open market, at time of sale or transition. 

My suggestion. Don’t ever use multiples ever. It’s not real, it will lead to bad decisions and bad long term personal planning if you are relaying on a liquidity event ( sale of some sort of cash out) to fund your retirement or other financial goal.

On the positive side, value growth can be manufactured using a formal process, over time. You can manage and control value build. Do an assessment of your business ( selling or buying it’s the same process), of the operational risks and intrinsic risks to uncover where value gaps exist in the enterprise. Use a dedicated formal process of evaluation with data that is real, and comparable.  Look deeply under the hood at how the business is managed. Do you ( or your purchase business), have things buttoned up, contracts in place with vendors, HR, and documented processes for all operational areas. Good financial reporting that ties profit to each activity is critical as well. Most private business do not do this all that well.

There are always gaps and higher risks embedded in most private business. Intrinsic risk is not easy to quantify. Using a formal process to evaluate things in terms other than a financial metric like 5X, or other meaningless ” rules of thumb”.  Value can be manufactured and realized systematically over time.

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

About the author
Brent Eugenides of BE Financial LLC is a member of XPX Fairfield County

You are anticipating the transition of your ownership interest in a business enterprise in the next 1-3 years.