Far(ther)sighted or Blind Ambition: Tech Platform Nets RIA a Big Price
Farther Finance Advisor’s Recent Capital Raise Implies a Valuation at 20% of AUM and 20x Run-Rate Revenue
We’re sometimes surprised when we hear about buyers paying 20x EBITDA for RIAs with under $1 billion in assets under management, so you can imagine our reaction to MassMutual Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, and Khosla Ventures paying an implied valuation at 20% of AUM and 20x revenue for Farther Finance Advisors, a start-up, tech-heavy RIA with $250 million in AUM. We’ll explore the logic and potential pitfalls of this valuation in this week’s post.
According to Farther’s 2020 Form ADV, the firm had $19.5 million in AUM at year-end 2020, and recent reports have client assets at $250 million, which is 12.8x the amount from eighteen months ago with little or no market tailwind. If we extrapolate this growth for another eighteen months then AUM will reach $3.2 billion by the end of 2023, and a $50 million valuation would certainly be justified (1.6% of AUM at that point). We’ve seen RIA start-ups achieve this kind of growth with the right investment performance, market penetration, and/or technology offering. Recent examples include Facet Wealth and Vise AI Advisors, which have both raised significantly more capital with a similar AUM base and trajectory. It’s somewhat rare for RIA firms to achieve this level of growth and investment shortly after inception, but investors are handsomely rewarded if the firm’s ambitious projections are realized.
Farther intends to use its proprietary wealthtech offering to enable advisors to focus on client needs and business development rather than the administrative challenges of working for a wirehouse or managing their own practice. This plug-and-play advantage likely explains how it has already recruited 27 advisors from independent channels and wirehouse firms. Farther’s technology also enables these advisors to work remotely, so there are no geographic constraints to serving clients across the country. Continued recruitment of advisors with established books of business should allow the firm to maintain its growth trajectory regardless of market conditions. Current and historic operating losses also create valuable tax shields in future periods to enhance cash flow when the business becomes profitable.
In our experience, RIA investors are generally more focused on earnings (EBITDA or net income) rather than activity (AUM and revenue) metrics since their returns are based on the firm’s underlying profitability. Recent reports state that Farther has 50 employees, so it’s probably safe to assume that it’s still losing money despite its impressive growth trajectory. Much of the firm’s future growth is contingent upon hiring additional advisors and existing advisors growing their book, but the payout to advisors goes from 50% to 75% after their first $500,000 in production, so Farther’s retention ratio declines when this happens. Management fees also start at 1% of AUM (account minimum of $100,000) and decline at higher asset levels, so it’s difficult to see Farther entering the black this year even with continued growth in client assets.
There’s also the issue of chronic dilution as advisors can gain equity in the firm, which has already completed two capital raises since its founding in 2019. Additional rounds of equity financing may be needed to fund future growth if time to breakeven takes longer than expected.
You Have to be Farsighted to Justify This Investment
Farther is effectively a long duration asset. It’s currently unprofitable and probably won’t reach breakeven for at least another year, so there’s no real prospect for interim cash flows (dividends) in the foreseeable future. There’s also no immediate market for the stock since it’s illiquid and has only a few shareholders. Farther’s current investors are banking on it to continue its recent growth and eventually hit a normalized margin, but this could take some time given its current headcount and payout structure.
We’re used to looking at these businesses through the Fair Market Value lens that focuses on the prospective returns that a hypothetical buyer would reasonably expect to achieve with his or her investment. From that perspective, 20% of AUM and 20x revenue for an unprofitable RIA doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s not how its current investors are evaluating this investment. These are sophisticated investors with a long-term horizon and willingness to assume a high level of risk for an investment with extraordinary growth (and value) potential. We hope it works for them and will definitely keep an eye on it.