Business Angels – What Would Warren Do?

Warren Buffett on a visit to Kansas University Business School

Warren Buffett on a visit to Kansas University Business School

Have you ever asked yourself what would Warren Buffett do if he were a Business Angel?
Well, it might be a bit hard to ask Mr Buffett along to attend our investments seminars, so instead we have attempted to summarise the rules Warren Buffett applies to his investments to see if we can apply that to business angel investing?

Yes, we can. With a few adaptations.

From Buffett’s many rules and ideas our take on his work is that it can be summarised very briefly as follows

  • lose no money (nor shareholder value)
  • buy franchise business (with pricing power)
  • align incentives (between management and shareholders)

Lose no Money

Buy at fair price (neither too much nor too little). Too much and you’ll never make a return, too little and the sellers (who will probably remain in or retain an interest in the business) will resent your presence and are likely to undermine the financial outcome for everyone. What is a fair price? It has to be based on the likely throw-off of cash (net of capital reinvestment required to maintain the business, its assets and its brand) over the next 20 years. It is difficult to assess early stage business values, but that is no reason not to try and Buffett’s method is as good as any and provides a clear starting place.

There are two tricks when assessing future cashflow returns

  1. Firstly, most start-up business plans predict steady growth over years one to three and then exponential profit growth. This just means that future costs are unknown, not that the business is likely to experience 80 or 90% profit margins. Nearly all businesses, especially if they wish to maintain growth, will revert to profit margins at or below 30% of revenue. Many mature businesses will have much lower profit margins but are much more stable and reliable. Therefore, use the industry standard profit margin for future returns and never above 30%.
  2. Secondly, most businesses forget that they need to re-invest a given amount of cash into the business simply to maintain its value. A good example is brand advertising, which does not have a direct cash generative benefit, but without it the long term ability of the business to grow revenue will be harmed.

Lose no Money

also means
Don’t speculate – but place your money on sure bets at good prices. However, this is not the environment of the business angel investor – who is in early investment sector. The truth is that the early stage investment market is not a sector that Buffett works in. However, the principle can still be applied – albeit that you accept that you are in a speculative environment. iBusiness Angel has written before on how to reduce the chances of losing your money– and it is important to keep these ideas at the front of your mind before making any investment. So Business Angels need to consider reducing the risk of a loss whilst Buffett can focus on ‘Lose no Money’.

Lose no Money

also means
Invest in businesses that you understand. That means that if your knowledge is based on retail businesses, don’t invest in a tech start up, unless it has specific application to the sector that you know about. Buffett famously didn’t invest in Microsoft nor the tech boom. He made his money by sticking to what he knew well so that he could judge a good opportunity clearly and avoid the bad investment options.

Franchise business means
The business must be able to maintain its price position. Hence, it must be creating and delivering a product or service that is unique and protected by intellectual property rights or geography. Without this protection, whatever the business offers is vulnerable to´’cheap immitators’ or ‘me too’ competitors which might not put the firm out of business but will prevent the business maintaining its margin and therefore damaging shareholder value (see point 1 above).

Aligned incentives means
The incentives of the shareholders must be the same as the investors. This is often the case at the beginning of the start up, but if the management start paying themselves large salaries, then their incentive will no longer be to sell the shares but to hang onto the job. The control of future remuneration by shareholders – independent of the management – is critical for any start-up in its middle years. This control needs to be set up right (ie to ensure that shareholders can keep the incentives balanced or have an option to sellout) and it needs to be set up before the business angel invests.

Early Stage investors who can adapt Buffetts rules and principles and apply them to Business Angel Investing stand a far greater chance of success.

This approach does, of course, require a more systematic approach to investing – some might call it ‘professional’ – but the evidence is that this steady handed and cool headed approach is the most successful. And, for the epitome of a cool headed investor, we need look no further than Warren Buffett.

Ps. We’d strongly recommend you keep a copy of Mr Buffett’s thoughts and essays.

There are many books on Buffett, but there is nothing like going directly to the source yourself. The best of the bunch has to be The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Investors and Managers.

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