Feature Article: What is the Difference Between Creating and Capturing Value?

Article first published in Venture CFO on January 22, 2015.

What is the Difference Between Creating and Capturing Value?

I recently heard an entrepreneur speak about the founding and growth of his company. It was a fascinating and instructive story overall, but he mentioned one concept that I’ve been mulling over since. He talked about the difference between creating value and capturing value. 

This topic came up when asked how he decided when to take outside capital and how much. He described how he, as a founder, is focused on building value in his company. As he was looking for capital, he found that most potential investors, including venture capitalists, were more focused on capturing value. He found this to be a problem because he believed that capturing value too early would inhibit their ability to create value.

I’ve been thinking about how VC’s and other investors can help entrepreneurs both create and capture value.

First, what does it mean to create value?

The activities that make up the economy are not a zero-sum game. Gains in one area do not have to come at the expense of losses in other areas. The economy grows, and value is created, when entrepreneurs create outputs more valuable than the sum of the inputs.

The process of creating value can include focus on the following:

Creating a network effect. Some products become exponentially more valuable with more users. The classic example is the telephone. One telephone in the world is worthless, but that one phone becomes more valuable as more phones are placed into service. More recent examples include Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. Some of these companies created billions of dollars of value even before turning a profit because of the number of users they have been able to attract.

Building brand strength. The stronger the brand, the more a customer is willing to pay for a product. A brand is built over time through marketing and a reputation for high quality and good service. Apple is a good example of value created through brand strength. Consumers are willing to pay more for Apple products than comparable products because they trust the brand.

Developing efficient operations. Manufacturers create value by selling a product for more than the cost of the materials, labor, and equipment needed to produce the product. The more efficient the operations, the lower the cost of production. The lower the cost of production, the more value is created. Value can be considered both the profit to the manufacturer and utility for the customer relative to price.

Second, what does it mean to capture value?

Agriculture easily illustrate the difference between creating value and capturing value. Farmers create value by planting and growing crops. However, creating a valuable crop doesn’t do any good unless the crop is harvested and sold.

Value-capturing activities include:

Monetizing users. Social media companies often struggle with capturing value. Twitter created enormous value by rapidly building a large user base, but they have struggled to capture the value through monetization. Facebook’s stock has been surging because they have found effective ways to monetize through advertising.

Pricing effectively. The value of a strong brand and efficient operations can’t be captured if the product isn’t priced appropriately. Again, Apple is a great example. They earn high margins because of their brand strength and quality product, and they protect these margins by controlling their high pricing carefully across all distribution channels. It is difficult to find lower than usual price on Apple products.

Providing liquidity to shareholders. A company can capture value by monetizing users and pricing appropriately, and then they can pass on that value to shareholders by providing the ability to sell the more valuable shares. This can be done in many ways. Profits can be distributed through dividends. Private companies often raise money at higher valuations and allow new investors to buy out existing investors. The goal of public companies is to allow investors to capture value by increasing their stock price.

Real Value Must Be Created Before Being Captured

Both creating and capturing value are necessary, but it’s important to recognize where to place your focus at a given stage in your company’s growth.

In general more focus should be placed in the early stages on creating value, and as sustainable value is created, some attention can be turned to capturing that value. Even while capturing value, management should stay continually focused on creating value, or the ability to capture value will be short-lived.

Beware of artificial value, such as that created by financial engineering. Failure to recognize this distinction is one of the causes of the housing bubble and subsequent economic collapse. Low interest rates and creative financial products led to a flood of capital into the housing market. This caused housing prices to artificially inflate, creating the illusion of value creation.

Banks allowed homeowners to capture that “value” by borrowing against the inflated value of their homes. The illusion was eventually exposed, leaving behind severely underwater mortgages and general economic disaster.

Entrepreneurs and investors should work together to recognize the distinction between activities that create and capture value and prioritize their resources effectively. As they do so, they will be able to maximize both the value created and the value captured.

Question: What are other value creating and value capturing activities?
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