Upwork: Reimagining the Future of Work Net Present Value (NPV) / MBA Resources

Introduction to Net Present Value (NPV) - What is Net Present Value (NPV) ? How it impacts financial decisions regarding project management?

NPV solution for Upwork: Reimagining the Future of Work case study

At Oak Spring University, we provide corporate level professional Net Present Value (NPV) case study solution. Upwork: Reimagining the Future of Work case study is a Harvard Business School (HBR) case study written by Feng Zhu, Rory McDonald, Marco Iansiti, Aaron Smith. The Upwork: Reimagining the Future of Work (referred as “Upwork Odesk.com” from here on) case study provides evaluation & decision scenario in field of Strategy & Execution. It also touches upon business topics such as - Value proposition, IT, Strategy.

The net present value (NPV) of an investment proposal is the present value of the proposal’s net cash flows less the proposal’s initial cash outflow. If a project’s NPV is greater than or equal to zero, the project should be accepted.

NPV = Present Value of Future Cash Flows LESS Project’s Initial Investment

Case Description of Upwork: Reimagining the Future of Work Case Study

Upwork, the world's largest freelance talent platform, was the result of a merger between the two leading online freelancing companies in 2014, Elance and oDesk. After the merger, the company operated as Elance-oDesk and continued to manage two online platforms - Elance.com and oDesk.com - independently of one another. However in 2015 the company relaunched as Upwork, with both a new brand and a new platform. The company began to migrate Elance.com members and functionalities over to the new platform, which was based on the technical infrastructure of oDesk.com. This case helps students consider the challenges and opportunities associated with such a platform merger, from strategy to implementation.

Case Authors : Feng Zhu, Rory McDonald, Marco Iansiti, Aaron Smith

Topic : Strategy & Execution

Related Areas : IT, Strategy

Calculating Net Present Value (NPV) at 6% for Upwork: Reimagining the Future of Work Case Study

Years              Cash Flow     Net Cash Flow     Cumulative    
Cash Flow
Discount Rate
@ 6 %
Cash Flows
Year 0 (10024708) -10024708 - -
Year 1 3463091 -6561617 3463091 0.9434 3267067
Year 2 3974696 -2586921 7437787 0.89 3537465
Year 3 3946094 1359173 11383881 0.8396 3313217
Year 4 3251078 4610251 14634959 0.7921 2575158
TOTAL 14634959 12692907

The Net Present Value at 6% discount rate is 2668199

In isolation the NPV number doesn't mean much but put in right context then it is one of the best method to evaluate project returns. In this article we will cover -

Different methods of capital budgeting

What is NPV & Formula of NPV,
How it is calculated,
How to use NPV number for project evaluation, and
Scenario Planning given risks and management priorities.

Capital Budgeting Approaches

Methods of Capital Budgeting

There are four types of capital budgeting techniques that are widely used in the corporate world –

1. Payback Period
2. Internal Rate of Return
3. Profitability Index
4. Net Present Value

Apart from the Payback period method which is an additive method, rest of the methods are based on Discounted Cash Flow technique. Even though cash flow can be calculated based on the nature of the project, for the simplicity of the article we are assuming that all the expected cash flows are realized at the end of the year.

Discounted Cash Flow approaches provide a more objective basis for evaluating and selecting investment projects. They take into consideration both –

1. Magnitude of both incoming and outgoing cash flows – Projects can be capital intensive, time intensive, or both. Upwork Odesk.com shareholders have preference for diversified projects investment rather than prospective high income from a single capital intensive project.
2. Timing of the expected cash flows – stockholders of Upwork Odesk.com have higher preference for cash returns over 4-5 years rather than 10-15 years given the nature of the volatility in the industry.

Formula and Steps to Calculate Net Present Value (NPV) of Upwork: Reimagining the Future of Work

NPV = Net Cash In Flowt1 / (1+r)t1 + Net Cash In Flowt2 / (1+r)t2 + … Net Cash In Flowtn / (1+r)tn
Less Net Cash Out Flowt0 / (1+r)t0

Where t = time period, in this case year 1, year 2 and so on.
r = discount rate or return that could be earned using other safe proposition such as fixed deposit or treasury bond rate. Net Cash In Flow – What the firm will get each year.
Net Cash Out Flow – What the firm needs to invest initially in the project.

Step 1 – Understand the nature of the project and calculate cash flow for each year.
Step 2 – Discount those cash flow based on the discount rate.
Step 3 – Add all the discounted cash flow.
Step 4 – Selection of the project

Why Strategy & Execution Managers need to know Financial Tools such as Net Present Value (NPV)?

In our daily workplace we often come across people and colleagues who are just focused on their core competency and targets they have to deliver. For example marketing managers at Upwork Odesk.com often design programs whose objective is to drive brand awareness and customer reach. But how that 30 point increase in brand awareness or 10 point increase in customer touch points will result into shareholders’ value is not specified.

To overcome such scenarios managers at Upwork Odesk.com needs to not only know the financial aspect of project management but also needs to have tools to integrate them into part of the project development and monitoring plan.

Calculating Net Present Value (NPV) at 15%

After working through various assumptions we reached a conclusion that risk is far higher than 6%. In a reasonably stable industry with weak competition - 15% discount rate can be a good benchmark.

Years              Cash Flow     Net Cash Flow     Cumulative    
Cash Flow
Discount Rate
@ 15 %
Cash Flows
Year 0 (10024708) -10024708 - -
Year 1 3463091 -6561617 3463091 0.8696 3011383
Year 2 3974696 -2586921 7437787 0.7561 3005441
Year 3 3946094 1359173 11383881 0.6575 2594621
Year 4 3251078 4610251 14634959 0.5718 1858814
TOTAL 10470260

The Net NPV after 4 years is 445552

(10470260 - 10024708 )

Calculating Net Present Value (NPV) at 20%

If the risk component is high in the industry then we should go for a higher hurdle rate / discount rate of 20%.

Years              Cash Flow     Net Cash Flow     Cumulative    
Cash Flow
Discount Rate
@ 20 %
Cash Flows
Year 0 (10024708) -10024708 - -
Year 1 3463091 -6561617 3463091 0.8333 2885909
Year 2 3974696 -2586921 7437787 0.6944 2760206
Year 3 3946094 1359173 11383881 0.5787 2283619
Year 4 3251078 4610251 14634959 0.4823 1567842
TOTAL 9497576

The Net NPV after 4 years is -527132

At 20% discount rate the NPV is negative (9497576 - 10024708 ) so ideally we can't select the project if macro and micro factors don't allow financial managers of Upwork Odesk.com to discount cash flow at lower discount rates such as 15%.

Acceptance Criteria of a Project based on NPV

Simplest Approach – If the investment project of Upwork Odesk.com has a NPV value higher than Zero then finance managers at Upwork Odesk.com can ACCEPT the project, otherwise they can reject the project. This means that project will deliver higher returns over the period of time than any alternate investment strategy.

In theory if the required rate of return or discount rate is chosen correctly by finance managers at Upwork Odesk.com, then the stock price of the Upwork Odesk.com should change by same amount of the NPV. In real world we know that share price also reflects various other factors that can be related to both macro and micro environment.

In the same vein – accepting the project with zero NPV should result in stagnant share price. Finance managers use discount rates as a measure of risk components in the project execution process.

Sensitivity Analysis

Project selection is often a far more complex decision than just choosing it based on the NPV number. Finance managers at Upwork Odesk.com should conduct a sensitivity analysis to better understand not only the inherent risk of the projects but also how those risks can be either factored in or mitigated during the project execution. Sensitivity analysis helps in –

Understanding of risks involved in the project.

What can impact the cash flow of the project.

What will be a multi year spillover effect of various taxation regulations.

What are the uncertainties surrounding the project Initial Cash Outlay (ICO’s). ICO’s often have several different components such as land, machinery, building, and other equipment.

What are the key aspects of the projects that need to be monitored, refined, and retuned for continuous delivery of projected cash flows.

Some of the assumptions while using the Discounted Cash Flow Methods –

Projects are assumed to be Mutually Exclusive – This is seldom the came in modern day giant organizations where projects are often inter-related and rejecting a project solely based on NPV can result in sunk cost from a related project.

Independent projects have independent cash flows – As explained in the marketing project – though the project may look independent but in reality it is not as the brand awareness project can be closely associated with the spending on sales promotions and product specific advertising.

References & Further Readings

Feng Zhu, Rory McDonald, Marco Iansiti, Aaron Smith (2018), "Upwork: Reimagining the Future of Work Harvard Business Review Case Study. Published by HBR Publications.