Gross Margin In A Nutshell: Gross Margins vs. Moats

The gross margin is a financial ratio metric, which helps assess the profitability of a business and also its operational efficiency. Indeed, as gross margins take into account the cost of goods sold (the cost incurred to deliver the software to the customer) it’s a measure to assess the value of a business.

DefinitionGross margin is a financial metric that measures a company’s profitability by evaluating the relationship between its gross profit and revenue. It is expressed as a percentage and represents the portion of each dollar of revenue that remains as gross profit after deducting the cost of goods sold (COGS). Gross profit is the difference between revenue and COGS and reflects the direct profitability of a company’s core operations. Gross margins are essential for assessing a company’s pricing strategy, production efficiency, and the cost-effectiveness of its products or services. A high gross margin indicates that a company retains a significant portion of its revenue as profit before accounting for operating expenses, interest, and taxes.
Key ConceptsGross Profit: Gross profit is the total profit a company generates from its core operations, calculated as revenue minus COGS. – Cost of Goods Sold (COGS): COGS represents the direct costs incurred in producing or providing goods or services. – Percentage Form: Gross margins are expressed as percentages, making them easily comparable across different companies and industries. – Profitability Indicator: Gross margins indicate how efficiently a company converts its revenue into gross profit. – Pricing and Cost Management: They reflect the effectiveness of a company’s pricing and cost management strategies.
CharacteristicsPercentage Form: Gross margins are always presented as percentages, typically ranging from 0% to 100%. – Direct Profitability: They measure the profitability of a company’s core operations without considering operating expenses, interest, or taxes. – Pricing and Efficiency: Gross margins provide insights into the effectiveness of a company’s pricing strategies and production efficiency. – Comparative Analysis: Companies use gross margins for comparative analysis within their industry and against competitors. – Profit Retention: Higher gross margins indicate a greater ability to retain profit from revenue.
ImplicationsProduction Efficiency: High gross margins suggest efficient production processes and effective management of production costs. – Pricing Strategy: Gross margins help companies evaluate the impact of pricing decisions on profitability. – Competitive Advantage: Companies with higher gross margins may have a competitive advantage in cost management or product pricing. – Investor Confidence: Healthy gross margins can boost investor confidence in a company’s profitability. – Financial Health: Consistently high gross margins are often associated with financial stability.
AdvantagesCore Profitability: Gross margins focus on the profitability of a company’s core operations. – Comparative Analysis: They enable easy comparisons between companies and industries. – Pricing Strategy: Gross margins help companies make informed pricing decisions. – Cost Management: Identifying areas with low gross margins can guide cost-cutting efforts. – Investor Attraction: Healthy gross margins can attract investors seeking profitable opportunities.
DrawbacksLimited Scope: Gross margins do not provide a comprehensive view of a company’s overall financial health. – Industry Differences: Comparing gross margins across different industries can be misleading due to varying cost structures. – Short-Term Focus: Overemphasizing short-term gross margins may lead to neglecting long-term growth strategies. – Manipulation: Companies may manipulate gross margins through accounting practices. – External Factors: Economic conditions and market dynamics can impact gross margins.
ApplicationsPricing Decisions: Companies use gross margins to determine appropriate pricing levels for their products or services. – Cost Management: Identifying low gross margins can help companies focus on cost-cutting and process improvements. – Investor Analysis: Investors assess a company’s profitability and efficiency through gross margins. – Competitive Analysis: Gross margins are vital for comparing a company’s performance to industry peers and competitors. – Production Efficiency: Monitoring gross margins aids in improving production efficiency.
Use CasesRetail Industry: Retailers often have low gross margins due to competitive pricing, making efficient cost management critical. – Manufacturing Sector: Manufacturers aim to maintain healthy gross margins by optimizing production processes. – Software as a Service (SaaS): SaaS companies rely on gross margins to assess the cost-effectiveness of delivering cloud services. – Restaurant Chains: Restaurants evaluate gross margins to manage food costs and pricing strategies. – Automotive Manufacturing: Car manufacturers focus on gross margins to optimize production efficiency and pricing.
AspectGross MarginsEconomic Moats
DefinitionGross Margins represent the percentage difference between a company’s revenue and its cost of goods sold (COGS). It is a financial metric that reveals how efficiently a company produces and sells its products or services. – It indicates the profitability of a company’s core operations before accounting for operating expenses, taxes, and interest.Economic Moats are sustainable competitive advantages that allow a company to maintain long-term profitability and protect its market position. Moats create barriers to entry, making it difficult for competitors to replicate a company’s success.
FocusGross Margins primarily focus on a company’s short-term profitability and operational efficiency. They help assess how well a company manages its production costs and pricing strategies.Economic Moats focus on a company’s long-term competitive advantage and its ability to sustain profitability over time. Moats consider factors beyond immediate financial performance.
CalculationGross Margins are calculated using the formula: Gross Margin = (Revenue – COGS) / Revenue * 100%. – COGS includes direct costs associated with production, such as raw materials, labor, and manufacturing overhead.Economic Moats are not calculated but are identified through a qualitative assessment of a company’s competitive position and the durability of its advantages. Common moat types include brand, network effects, cost advantages, regulatory protection, and switching costs.
Key MetricsGross Margins are a key financial metric used by investors, analysts, and businesses to assess the profitability and efficiency of a company’s core operations. – They are often compared across industry peers to gauge relative competitiveness.Economic Moats are a strategic concept rather than a specific metric. Analysts and investors use various qualitative indicators to identify and evaluate the strength of a company’s moat, including market share, customer loyalty, intellectual property, and competitive landscape.
TimeframeGross Margins provide insight into a company’s current profitability and efficiency. They are calculated on a quarterly or annual basis and may fluctuate due to short-term factors.Economic Moats focus on the long-term sustainability of a company’s competitive advantages. Moats are assessed over extended periods, considering the ability to maintain profitability over years or even decades.
Competitive PositionGross Margins reflect a company’s ability to compete on price and cost efficiency in the short term. A high gross margin suggests a competitive advantage in the present.Economic Moats evaluate a company’s ability to maintain competitive advantages over the long term, even as market conditions change and competitors enter the market.
Factors ImpactingGross Margins can be influenced by various short-term factors, such as changes in input costs, pricing strategies, and production efficiencies. They are sensitive to shifts in demand and supply chain disruptions.Economic Moats are influenced by strategic factors that create durable competitive advantages. These can include strong brand recognition, high customer switching costs, proprietary technology, economies of scale, and legal protections.
Investment DecisionGross Margins are a valuable tool for short-term investment decisions and operational management. They help identify companies with efficient operations.Economic Moats are essential for long-term investment decisions. Identifying companies with sustainable competitive advantages is crucial for investors seeking stable, long-term returns.
Example– Company A has a gross margin of 40%, indicating that it retains 40% of its revenue as profit after covering production costs. – Company B has a gross margin of 25%, suggesting it retains a lower proportion of revenue as profit due to higher production expenses.– Company X has a strong economic moat due to its extensive network effects. It operates a social media platform with millions of users, making it challenging for new entrants to compete. – Company Y has an economic moat built on its patented technology, which gives it a significant cost advantage in manufacturing a popular consumer product.
Impact of CompetitionGross Margins are directly impacted by competition, as pricing pressure and changes in production costs can affect a company’s profitability in the short term.Economic Moats are designed to withstand competition by creating barriers to entry or by establishing a unique position in the market that competitors struggle to replicate.
Dynamic NatureGross Margins are dynamic and can change frequently due to market conditions, consumer preferences, and shifts in supply chain dynamics.Economic Moats aim to be enduring and resistant to change, with the goal of maintaining competitive advantages over extended periods.
Strategic ImplicationsGross Margins inform tactical decisions related to pricing, cost management, and short-term profitability.Economic Moats guide long-term strategic decisions, including market positioning, product development, and efforts to strengthen competitive advantages.

Gross Margin Calculator

Gross margin in a nutshell

This is the relationship between Gross Profit and sales, and it is expressed in percentage:

(Gross Profit (Revenue – CoGS) / Sales) x 100%

Imagine, company XYZ had $100K in Gross profit and $250K in Sales, for Year Two, therefore:

(100/250) * 100% = 40%

It means that 60% of your income is used to cover the cost of goods sold.  This ratio is critical, since for many organizations, in particular, manufacturing, most of the costs are associated with CoGS (Cost of Goods Sold). 

For example, if you have to produce an Ice cream, you have to buy raw materials to make it. Also, someone has to “assemble” the Ice cream before it can be sold. 

Well, the raw materials and the work needed to produce the final product are considered CoGS. In other words, those are the costs required before the Ice cream can be sold.  

Therefore, this measure can be beneficial to assess the operational profitability of the business.

Why gross margins matter

David George and Alex Immerman, partners at the venture capital firm a16z highlighted, “A high gross margin is a preferred business feature. Higher gross margins allow for more percentage points of revenue to be spent on growth and product development.”

This is a critical element to understand, as software companies, while usually carrying higher gross margins than traditional organizations are more focused on physical infrastructure.

Those same software companies’ products also might become outdated quickly, as technology evolves.

In addition, in order to distribute software and enable its continuous growth, it requires massive investments in marketing and sales.

For instance, Salesforce, among the most valuable software companies, in terms of market cap, in 2020 spent more than 46% of its revenues on sales and marketing.

Compared to 25% in total for the cost of goods sold, and 16% for product research and development (FourWeekMBA Analysis).

As David George and Alex Immerman, further pointed out “higher gross margins also tend to translate to higher cash flow margin, and in a world where ‘how much runway do you have’ has become an (if not, the) preeminent question, cash is paramount. For these reasons, high gross margin companies typically have higher revenue multiples than their low gross margin counterparts.

Less risk aversion more gross margins

As Fred Wilson, from AVC, pointed out in “The Great Public Market Reckoning,”

If you look at the class of companies that have come public in the last twelve months, many of the stocks that have performed the best are software companies with software margins. One notable exception to that is Beyond Meat.

He mentioned examples like Zoom, Cloudfare, and Datadog. Where other companies, like Uber, Lyft and Peloton were losing value.

In short, he pointed out how in times when investors are more risk averse gross margins become secondary.

However, where there is more market risk aversion, gross margins become extremely important.

Gross margins vs. moats

David George and Alex Immerman also point out how looking at gross margins alone are misleading, as it makes you forget what really drives business value.

As they further point out “business quality is about defensibility. Defensibility comes from moats.”

In short, if a company is focusing on higher gross margins at the expense of business defensibility that might over time translate into a

loss of competitiveness of the business.

As they point out, companies like Apple, Walmart, Netflix, and others, have much lower margins compared to software companies, and yet, those are among the most valuable brands in the world.

But what makes up a moat? There are several ways to build moats and some of them are:

Economies of scale

External economies of scale describe factors beyond the control of a company that is present in the same industry and that lead to cost benefits. These factors may be positive or negative industry or economic trends. External economies of scale, therefore, are business-enhancing factors occurring outside a company but within the same industry.

Which enables companies to improve efficiency and profitability as the company scales (beware though of diseconomies of scale).

Differentiated technology

In a software world where hundreds of new products are launched to the market every day, building up differentiation (in terms of features, technology, and value proposition) is a key element.

Network effects

A platform business model generates value by enabling interactions between people, groups, and users by leveraging network effects. Platform business models usually comprise two sides: supply and demand. Kicking off the interactions between those two sides is one of the crucial elements for a platform business model’s success.

This is true for platform business models.

Where in economies of scale the company gains in efficiency and profitability as it grows (it lowers its per cost unit).

In network effects, the platform becomes more valuable as its per-user value grows as more users join (beware of negative or reverse network effects).

Direct brand

One of the most powerful business defenses is the brand or the direct access to your customer base.

For instance, if you take Facebook, it’s still among the most valuable websites on earth, because people recognize its brand.

There is no intermediary, people access their Facebook app, or go directly to the Facebook login page.

This is critical, as over time it defends against disintermediation.

If let’s say, Facebook depended solely on traffic coming from Google, the day Google had launched its social network, it would have killed Facebook.

Yet, as the product and brand were recognized and people got straight to the source, it didn’t need any intermediary.


A distribution channel is the set of steps it takes for a product to get in the hands of the key customer or consumer. Distribution channels can be direct or indirect. Distribution can also be physical or digital, depending on the kind of business and industry.

Strong products and brands can draw directly from their user or customer base.

Having a strong distribution network is also a key element. As highlighted in the Google TAC and if we look at the costs associated with the money invested into the distribution of some of the most valuable brands, this goes in the multi-billion dollar mark.

The traffic acquisition cost represents the expenses incurred by an internet company, like Google, to gain qualified traffic – on its pages – for monetization. Over the years Google has been able to reduce its traffic acquisition costs and in any case, keep it stable. In 2021 Google spent 21.75% of its total advertising revenues (over $45.56 billion) to guarantee its traffic on several desktop and mobile devices across the web.

Value proposition and perception

A value proposition is about how you create value for customers. While many entrepreneurial theories draw from customers’ problems and pain points, value can also be created via demand generation, which is about enabling people to identify with your brand, thus generating demand for your products and services.

Understand what’s the killer use case that makes your product value in the hands of several types of customers is another key ingredient.

While this might go beyond the engineering world, and as such it might seem foggier, it is though one of those elements that make a long-term difference.

In short, are you willing to test, and experiment with your product to find value propositions that fit the market?

If so, your product will evolve contextually, to create moats.

Those factors combined are all part of your business model recipe, and it often becomes evident only in hindsight.

And it takes years to build. What’s left is a lot of business experimentation, and a strong long-term vision.

Key Highlights

  • Gross Margin and Operational Efficiency:
    • Gross margin is the relationship between gross profit and sales, expressed as a percentage.
    • It’s calculated as (Gross Profit / Sales) * 100%, where Gross Profit is Sales minus Cost of Goods Sold (CoGS).
    • Gross margin indicates how much of the income is used to cover the cost of goods sold, and it’s crucial for assessing operational profitability.
  • Importance of Gross Margins:
    • Higher gross margins are preferred as they allow more revenue to be allocated for growth and product development.
    • Software companies, despite having higher gross margins, require investments in marketing and sales due to rapid technological changes.
    • Gross margins influence cash flow margins and higher gross margin companies tend to have higher revenue multiples.
  • Gross Margins and Risk Aversion:
    • During times of market risk aversion, gross margins become more important in evaluating business stability.
    • Software companies with high gross margins have shown better stock performance in comparison to traditional ones during such periods.
  • Gross Margins vs. Moats:
    • Gross margins alone may not fully reflect business value as defensibility (moats) is also crucial.
    • Moats are factors that contribute to a business’s long-term competitive advantage and value.
  • Moats and Business Defensibility:
    • Moats ensure business defensibility and long-term competitiveness.
    • Low-margin companies like Apple, Walmart, and Netflix possess strong moats that contribute to their value despite lower gross margins.
  • Types of Moats:
    • Economies of Scale: Cost benefits due to industry trends or factors beyond the company’s control.
    • Differentiated Technology: Building unique features, technology, and value proposition.
    • Network Effects: Generating value by enabling interactions between users, leading to a more valuable platform as more users join.
    • Direct Brand: Strong brand recognition and direct customer access.
    • Distribution: Effective distribution channels, both physical and digital.
    • Value Proposition and Perception: Creating value for customers and generating demand through brand identity and perception.
  • Building Moats and Business Model:
    • A combination of moat-building factors contributes to a strong business model.
    • Moats become evident over time and require experimentation, long-term vision, and business experimentation.

Connected Metrics

Profit Margin

The profit margin is a profitability financial ratio, given by the net income divided by the net sales, and multiplied by a hundred. That is expressed as a percentage. That is a key profitability measure as combined with other financial metrics, it helps assess the overall viability of a business model.

Balance Sheet

The purpose of the balance sheet is to report how the resources to run the operations of the business were acquired. The Balance Sheet helps to assess the financial risk of a business and the simplest way to describe it is given by the accounting equation (assets = liability + equity).

Business Analysis

Business analysis is a research discipline that helps drive change within an organization by identifying the key elements and processes that drive value. Business analysis can also be used in Identifying new business opportunities or how to take advantage of existing business opportunities to grow your business in the marketplace.

Cash Flows

The cash flow statement is the third main financial statement, together with the income statement and the balance sheet. It helps to assess the liquidity of an organization by showing the cash balances coming from operations, investing, and financing. The cash flow statement can be prepared with two separate methods: direct and indirect.

Comparable Analysis

A comparable company analysis is a process that enables the identification of similar organizations to be used as a comparison to understand the business and financial performance of the target company. To find comparables you can look at two key profiles: the business and financial profile. From the comparable company analysis, it is possible to understand the competitive landscape of the target organization.

Cost Structure

The cost structure is one of the building blocks of a business model. It represents how companies spend most of their resources to keep generating demand for their products and services. The cost structure together with revenue streams, help assess the operational scalability of an organization.

Financial Moat

Economic or market moats represent long-term business defensibility. Or how long a business can retain its competitive advantage in the marketplace over the years. Warren Buffet who popularized the term “moat” referred to it as a share of mind, opposite to market share, as such it is the characteristic that all valuable brands have.

Financial Statements

Financial statements help companies assess several aspects of the business, from profitability (income statement) to how assets are sourced (balance sheet), and cash inflows and outflows (cash flow statement). Financial statements are also mandatory for companies for tax purposes. They are also used by managers to assess the performance of the business.

Connected Video Lectures

Read next:

About The Author

Scroll to Top