Estimating Initial Market Size for Business Planning Purposes

Estimating the size of the market you want to enter is the first critical step in testing the feasibility of your business idea. This is a lot like cliff diving. If you are going to jump off a cliff into a pool of water far below, it’s a really good idea to know beforehand just how deep the water is. If you jump without finding out (or at least making an educated guess based on objective facts), you run the very real risk of getting hurt. Bad.

The first order of business in determining the sizes of the various market types for your business idea’s value proposition(s) is to correctly define the parameters of the market types you are trying to measure.  This may sound rather simple, but it is honestly the hardest and most frustrating part of this process. Estimating a market size is the epitome of the phrase “garbage in – garbage out.” If you incorrectly define the boundaries of the type of market you are trying to size up, your entire estimate (and the basis for all of your future financial projections) won’t really be worth the paper it is printed on.

So, creating a quality market size estimate that’s based upon good, logical assumptions, is the first step in determining if your business idea can support a potentially successful business model. To make a quality market size estimate, you should roughly measure the size of each relevant market type for your business idea’s value propositions. By understanding the rough size of each of these market types, you can roughly gauge how much revenue (based upon your market share assumptions) your business idea could generate in the present and going forward into the future. Determining which market types to estimate the size of depends upon the type of market your business idea is attempting to serve. These general market types are Defined Exiting Markets, Cloned Markets, Re-segmented Markets, or a New Markets.

Defining Market Type Boundaries

A market is a group of customers that have the willingness to buy a particular type of value proposition. When determining the size of the markets for your proposed business idea’s value proposition(s), you may use all or some combination of the following market type definitions.

  • Total Industry Market (TIM) is the total market demand (measured in units or revenue) for the aggregate value propositions of an entire industry.
    • Examples: the car market (supplied by the car industry), the personal computer market (supplied by the personal computer industry), and the athletic shoe market (supplied by the athletic shoe industry).
  • Total Addressable Market (TAM) is the total market demand for your proposed value proposition and value propositions similar to it. The TAM can be measured in either people, units, revenue… etc.  The TAM measures the total possible market demand for the value proposition, regardless of competition or customer reachability, or a group of similarly differentiated value propositions offered by firms within the same industry (often these are defined as value propositions that belong to the same industry strategic group).
    • Examples: the total market for electric cars, the total market for tablet computers, the total market for running shoes.
  • Serviceable Available Market (SAM) is the total portion of the TAM that a value proposition offered by your business idea would actually reach through your proposed sales channels. In other words, it is the part of the TAM that your proposed value proposition will actually reach.
    • Examples: the market for electric cars in the United States sold through dealerships, the market for android compatible tablet computers sold through big box stores, the market for athletic shoes sold through e-commerce websites.
  • Target Market (TM) is the aggregate group of customers that a value proposition of yours is designed to appeal to. Also, the TM is the total portion of the SAM that equals the sum total of your value proposition’s customer segments.
    • The TM is comprised of one or more customer segments, each of which are offered a unique value proposition by your proposed business idea. For a comprehensive explanation of what comprises a customer segment, please refer to the following section.
    • The TM is a measurement dependent upon the definition and size of the SAM (because it is a portion of the SAM), but independent of the SOM. Both the TM and the SOM are portions of the SAM that measure different things.
    • Examples: Upper-middle class, educated, ecologically conscious automobile customers, early adopter electronics consumers who use their personal computers and laptops mostly for entertainment and not work, high school and college athletes who buy high performance running shoes to gain an edge on their competition.
  • Serviceable Obtainable Market (SOM) is the percentage of the SAM that a value proposition offered by your proposed business will realistically capture. The serviceable obtainable market can also be defined as the share of the SAM revenues that a competitor expects to grab from other competitors that offer similarly differentiated value propositions.
    • Like the TM, the SOM is dependent upon the definition and size of the SAM, but is independent of the TM. Both the TM and the SOM are portions of the SAM that measure different things.
    • Examples: the portion of the market for electric cars sold in the United States through dealerships that your business idea can realistically capture, the portion of the android compatible tablet computer market in the United States sold though big box stores that your business idea can realistically capture, the portion of the market for high performance running shoes for athletes in the United States that are sold through ecommerce websites that your business idea can realistically capture.

To Recap:

For practical purposes, you can think of both the SOM and TM as a portions of the SAM, the SAM as a portion of the TAM, and the TAM as a portion of the TID. Both the SOM and TM are separate concepts that measure different things. The SOM estimates your proposed value proposition’s penetration of the SAM. The TM estimates the size of the group of people for whom your proposed value proposition is specifically designed for.

The Importance of the TIM, TAM, SAM, TM and SOM

I know, it’s a lot of acronyms to keep straight. But estimating the sizes of the TIM, TAM, SAM, TM and SOM are important for determining if the market size for your business idea’s value proposition(s) can support your entrepreneurial ambitions and business goals. The following are three generalizations – rule-of-thumb explanations – of what market sizes are necessary to support a particular business type, development path and outcome.

Scalable, High Growth Company

This type of company is usually entering a cloned, re-segmented, blue ocean or new market, or a defined existing market with a new product. They usually seek traditional angel investor and venture capital funding. Rapid scalability an achieving high market share is the key to this type of company. Often the founders of scalable, high growth companies have either an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or the sale of the company to a Fortune 500 corporation as their exit strategy.

These companies require a SAM large enough to support potential company EBITDA (after the company has successfully scaled its operations) of at least somewhere between $10 million to $20 million per year. Publically traded companies, on average, often trade for 10x their annual EBITDA or greater. This, depending upon the company’s industry and whether or not its founders and investors want it to have an IPO, would probably put the company’s valuation at greater than $100 million. A $100 million valuation is a safe rough estimate for whether a company will be able to both afford to go public and financially benefit from an IPO.

So, armed with these rough guidelines, to create a scalable, high growth company that proposes to enter an industry with a 10 percent average EBITDA and capture 10 percent of that industry’s market share, would need to at least generate $100 million per year in revenue ($10 million per year in EBITDA divided by the industry EBITDA average of 10 percent). To achieve this annual EBITDA target and a 10 percent SAM penetration, the overall SAM size would need to be $1 billion ($100 million per year in revenue divided by a 10 percent penetration of the market by the company).

Successful, Mid-Sized Privately Held Businesses

This type of company can be entering a Defined Existing Market, Cloned Market, Re-segmented Market, or Blue Ocean Market. They do not enter New Markets with New Products due to the incredible amount of time, business risk and resources that would be required. These businesses usually seek capital from the founders, founders’ friends and family, non-bank lenders, bank and institutional lenders, and some angel investors. Rapid scalability is usually not a primary goal for these business ventures. They often prioritize strong, stable profits and cash flow for their owners above all else. Exit strategies for these companies’ founders include selling the company to a third party such as another privately held business or private equity group, passing on the business to heirs, or simply holding on to the business. These types of businesses often make excellent cash cows.

Successful, mid-sized privately held businesses are usually valued between $5 million and $50 million. These businesses, as a rough rule of thumb and depending upon the industry, are usually valued at 3x to 5x their average yearly EBITDA. So, a $30 million dollar privately held business would need an average yearly EBITDA of between $6 and $10 million per year ($6 million per year if the business valuation ratio would be 5x; $10 million if the business valuation ratio would be 3x).

Lifestyle Businesses

Lifestyle businesses are undertaken by entrepreneurs who want to create their own jobs and/or to support the conscious lifestyle choices of the entrepreneur (hobbies, schedules, living location…). This type of company usually solely enters Defined Existing Markets. Many, if not most, of the entrepreneurs who start lifestyle businesses do not begin their business ventures with any particular exit strategy in mind. Instead, the primary financial goal of these entrepreneurs is usually to generate enough cash flow to support their lifestyle needs. These businesses usually seek capital from the founders, bootstrap financing, and the founders’ friends and family. Rapid scalability is usually not a primary goal for these business ventures.

The market size necessary to support a lifestyle business really depends upon the needs and wants of each individual entrepreneur. The variables used to determine a rough estimate of the minimum market size needed to support a lifestyle business are: 1) the entrepreneurs’ desired minimum yearly EBITDA (include the entrepreneurs’ salaries in with EBITDA), 2) the average EBITDA ratio for a firm competing within the industry you are proposing to enter, and 3) the entrepreneurs’ assumption of how much of their proposed business idea’s SAM they will be able to capture.

For example, if an entrepreneur’s goal is to earn at least $120,000 (in EBITDA and salary) from the lifestyle business per year, the average EBITDA ratio for the proposed business idea’s industry is 15 percent of annual revenue, and the entrepreneur assumes she can capture 10 percent of the SAM she proposes to enter, then the minimum necessary SAM size needed to support the business venture would be $8 million ($120,000 divided by a 15 percent EBITDA ratio divided by a 10 percent SAM penetration equals $8,000,000).

The following chart summarizes the rule-of-thumb market size needs of the business types analyzed above:


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Nate Nead
Nate Nead is a licensed investment banker and Principal at Deal Capital Partners, LLC which includes InvestmentBank.com and Crowdfund.co. Nate works works with middle-market corporate clients looking to acquire, sell, divest or raise growth capital from qualified buyers and institutional investors. He is the chief evangelist of the company's growing digital investment banking platform. Reliance Worldwide Investments, LLC a member of FINRA and SIPC and registered with the SEC and MSRB. Nate resides in Seattle, Washington.
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