All the hype in the press about people getting rich from their equity in small new companies makes people suddenly start to ask, 'Hey, I wonder what my company's worth?" says Patrick Hurley, a partner at Howard & Co., in Philadelphia, specializing in business appraisal. So much curiosity has set off what James Schilt, editor of Business Valuation News, calls an "explosion" of appraisers entering the business-valuation field. In 1980, there were 51 certified members of the business valuation section of the American Society of Appraisers (ASA); today, there are more than three times that number. John Bakken, the section's elected chairman, expects 250 people to show up in November at the society's seminar on business appraisal in New Orleans. Three years ago, there were only 80.

But how do you put a dollar value on a closely held enterprise that no one (so far) wants to sell, and no one (as yet) wants to buy? Not easily. The books provide only part of the answer, the tangible assets only another part. The appraiser often has to go on from there to such questions as the business's future in a changing market, the quality of its personnel, and the character of the boss's heir. To do this job anywhere near accurately requires the wariness of a lawyer, the fastidiousness of an accountant, the market acumen of an MBA, and the street smarts of a long-time entrepreneur.

Bakken says the credentials of ASA business appraisers are getting better every year. Dennis O'Connor, however, is professedly cynical. A Lexington, Mass., business lawyer with extensive experience among wishful equity-holders in small companies, O'Connor believes that business appraisal is a "validation process, not an educational one." He will send a client to an appraiser to get a fix on a tax-related issue, for example. "But," says O'Connor, "if the client really wants to know what his business is worth, let's find a willing buyer and see what that buyer's willing to pay."