As a startup founder, there will be three scenarios in which you’ll need to understand how to properly do a quality of earnings (QofE) if you want to maximize value.
The first scenario will be when you decide to raise a Series A and subsequent VC rounds, followed by when you do a strategic acquisition, and lastly, when you sell your company.
This post is a framework for how to think and organize your QofE and go through the most common items that you’ll want to keep top of mind for every M&A and private equity transaction you may be part of.
Why perform a QofE?
The goal of a QofE is to adjust the reported EBITDA to calculate a restated EBITDA that best reflects the current state of the company on an ongoing basis. It also presents a historical adjusted EBITDA that is comparable throughout the last two or three years.
QofE can have a significant impact on a company valuation for three main reasons:
- The adjusted EBITDA will be used by a buyer/investor as the basis for valuation (for companies valued based on an EBITDA multiple).
- The adjusted revenue will be used to recalculate the effective growth rate.
- The adjusted revenue and EBITDA will form the basis of forecasts.
With that in mind, every entrepreneur must understand how to properly form a view of what is the proper adjusted EBITDA and adjusted revenue of your company. It is common for founders in an M&A process to be unfamiliar with the notion of QofE and leave value on the table.
When performed by a professional transaction service advisory team, the quality of earnings is a result of a thorough review of all the documents generally available in a data room.
This breakdown aims to ensure that you won’t be that founder and that you’ll be armed to negotiate your company valuation on equal ground with your investors. If you are in the seller’s shoes, you will get the advantage of understanding how an experienced investor or buyer thinks. If you’re in the buyer’s shoes, you’ll benefit from understanding and valuing your acquisitions better.
How is a QofE professionally performed?
When performed by a professional transaction service advisory team, the quality of earnings is a result of a thorough review of all the documents generally available in a data room. These include, but are not limited to: Legal documentation, financial statements (P&L, balance sheet, cash flow), audit reports, management presentation and contracts.
When doing a QofE analysis, it’s key to consistently ask yourself: “Can or should this information translate into an adjustment of revenue or EBITDA, net working capital (NWC) or net debt?”
Why did we include NWC and net debt? That is because they often have an indirect impact on adjusted EBITDA. Think of an adjustment to the historical level of inventory. Less inventory likely means fewer storage costs. So if you adjust historical inventory, you’ll want to also impact your adjusted EBITDA.
On top of reviewing all the aforementioned documents, your QofE analysis will heavily rely on interviewing management. No matter how long you look at the financials, if you can’t have management confirm information or explain trends, you won’t be able to draw proper conclusions and understand the numbers.
Principles for efficiently building your QofE
- Automatically link everything you read and hear to potential QofE adjustments. This has to become second nature during the engagement.
- Always think about all the ways an event or item that qualifies for an adjustment impacts the financial statements overall. For instance, if the event impacted revenue, did it impact costs in some way as well?
- Make sure that the cost you are adjusting was not already offset by another accounting entry (i.e., had no impact on EBITDA).
- Make sure that the cost you adjust for was classified above EBITDA in the first place.
- Make sure that you can quantify each adjustment in the most objective and rational way. This is sometimes not possible and you may have to come up with a range.