During the heady days of any tech boom, nearly every founder you talk to is "crushing it." Sometimes, we all know, that isn't the whole truth. Now that it looks like a readjustment is coming and the climate is chillier, expect more of the same. Under pressure, entrepreneurs have been known to spin their numbers too.

"Bull***t has always been with us in the tech world," insists journalist Owen Thomas in a must-read Mattermark post. There's no escaping it; there's only detecting it.

In the post he proceeds to offer a fun (if slightly frightening) rundown of the most frequently used methods to dress up the facts he's encountered covering the tech industry. If you'd like to scrub the rose-colored tint off your glasses, he suggests you beware tricks like these:

Beware gross revenues

This method of juicing a company's numbers is particularly popular for marketplace businesses, explains Thomas. "They state the total value of the transactions running through their pipes as 'revenues' when they only lay claim to a tiny portion of it," he writes.

Who's the most famous example of this variety of BS? Enron. "They swapped big energy contracts, counting the total value as revenues. Enron was the most famous financial scandal of the early 21st century. Don't be like Enron," he says. Good advice.

Burn rate fantasies

There's been lots of discussion of excessively high burn rates recently. Sometimes companies respond to these sorts of pointed questions but saying they could run "X large number of months/ years on what they currently have in the bank." Don't buy it, cautions Thomas.

"Even if you're not radically understating your burn rate, a burn rate is a forecast. Your revenue might go down, or not grow as quickly as you hope. Your expenses might go up. When people talk about Twitter lasting for four centuries on its cash on hand, they're assuming that nothing will ever change in Twitter's business. That's not a safe assumption. So when someone talks about how long it will take them to burn through their cash, put on your kiln suit," he writes.

EBITDA accounting shenanigans

EBITDA is supposed to stand for earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization. Thomas redubs it "Earnings Before Insanity, Twaddle, Drivel, And Absurdity."

EBITDA is a "questionable metric," he points out, because "it allowed accountants to shift real costs into categories that somehow didn't 'count' as expenses." Basically, no one agrees what expenses you leave out of EBITDA, offering companies enough wiggle room to paint their businesses in an over-flattering light. Also, Warren Buffett hates it, Thomas notes.

What other tricks have you observed startups using to juice up their numbers?

Published on: Feb 26, 2016