A company’s valuation commonly has little relation to how many people actually work there.
Startups with a staff that could fit into a single bus can be valued in the billions. Take WhatsApp, the poster child for high value-per-worker startups. The messaging company employed just 55 people when Facebook bought it four years ago for $19 billion. That works out to nearly $350 million in valuation per employee.
On the other hand, companies with a lot of workers can have comparatively minuscule per-capita valuations. Look at beleaguered meal kit company Blue Apron. It employed 3,000 employees per its most recent disclosure. The company’s market cap is around $240 million, which works out to $80,000 per employee.
While those companies are extreme examples, wide disparities in valuation-per-employee are actually pretty common among venture-backed companies. Those disparities also extend to recently public companies, which are required to disclose precise employee counts.
So how wide are those valuation-per-employee gaps? In an effort to answer that question, Crunchbase News put together a dataset of employee counts at higher valuation U.S venture-backed companies that went public in the past year, most in the past six months. We then looked at their market caps and applied simple division to figure out valuation-per-employee, as you can see below:
Here are some other key findings.
Most Unicorns Are A Far Cry From WhatsApp In Staffing
First, it’s worth repeating that WhatsApp was very, very much an outlier. Typically, software companies that launched successful recent IPOs have a per-employee valuation in the single-digit millions. The number tends to be a bit lower for more mature companies, and a bit higher for those who tapped public markets earlier in their growth cycle.
In the Crunchbase News dataset, for instance, the software company with the leanest staff relative to valuation was search tools provider Elastic, a six-year-old company with a valuation that works out to $4.8 million per employee. Meanwhile Eventbrite, founded 12 years ago, has a valuation-per-employee of $2.4 million.
This ties in with expectations. Younger, faster-growing companies get higher per-person valuations at first, but those figures will likely drop as more people get hired.
It’s also worth noting that companies often dramatically scale up staffing in the year or so prior to an IPO. For instance Pluralsight, a provider of online workforce training, went from just over 500 employees to nearly 900 in the five quarters preceding its IPO this year. We saw many similar, sharp staffing increases in other recently-public tech firms.
Pre-Revenue Biotechs Are The Exception
As one would expect, recently public companies with the highest per-employee valuations tend to have fewer workers. That’s why we see pre-revenue biotech startups topping the list.
It makes sense. Biotechs still in the clinical trial or early product development phase typically employ a few dozen research scientists and a handful of other staff. They scale up (if they’re not acquired first) when it’s time to bring a treatment to market.
Of all the companies on our list, cancer immunotherapy startup Allogene Therapeutics had the highest valuation-per-employee number: $50 million. The Silicon Valley company doesn’t make money yet, but it has the advantage of operating in a hot sector and getting to a multi-billion-dollar valuation with a staff of just 78 people. (That said, Allogene isn’t a typical startup, with a short operating history and a pipeline built around intellectual property acquired from Pfizer.)
Valuations Around $2M Or More Per Employee Are Typical For Successful IPOs
If you work at a tech or biotech startup that recently had a good IPO, it’s likely the per-person valuation of your company is greater than the salary you’ll earn over the next few years.
That’s because per-person valuations are most commonly a couple million dollars or more at venture-backed companies that carry out well-received public offerings.
High per-person valuations are possible in part because, generally speaking, venture-backed tech and biotech companies keep staff numbers pared down by limiting payroll to core positions. They tend to use outsourcing services, contractors or freelancers for non-core functions. Investors also have a preference for funding startups that can scale with a lean staff, though such companies are hard to find.
There are exceptions to the lean staffing preference, of course. For instance the e-commerce company Stitch Fix, which employs personal stylists to select clothing for customers, had a staff of 6,600 as of July. Of those, over 3,900 are stylists.
While the valuations per employee diverge widely, the dataset does point to some commonalities in the staffing levels of software companies tapping the public markets.
Overall, we found that newly public software companies that sustained valuations close to or above a billion dollars had staffs somewhere between a few hundred and a couple thousand people. To visualize, that’s roughly the size range of most American high schools. These companies aren’t hugely staffed, but they’re not small operations either.
Whether recent, relatively high valuations per employee hold up is anyone’s guess. For now, however, valuations remain historically high.