No matter what your reasons for selling your business, finding a buyer requires a careful and strategic approach. Many sales processes never complete so choosing the right type of buyer is one of the critical steps.
There are so many more options available to business owners these days. With new financial instruments and lenders, more funding options, and an explosion of different private equity funds, it’s just a matter of being fit to be acquired.
Buyers might be:
- Employees of competitors
- Investor groups (private equity, venture capital, angel investment funds etc.)
- People looking to be an owner/operator
- Family or friends
In an earlier chapter we discussed a buyer acquiring for one of three reasons – capacity, capability, and access to customers. Potential business buyers also fall into three categories – strategic, financial and operators.
Strategic buyers are looking to join your business with an existing or curated portfolio of businesses that results in greater market share, synergies, or economies of scale, for example. It’s all about building something that is greater than the sum of its parts and generates growth opportunities that can be leveraged. Strategic buyers are usually experienced and proficient at acquiring businesses.
Financial buyers are looking for investment gain usually through acquiring, improving and then selling businesses. This gives them a capital gain on the initial investment and the investment in improvements. Financial buyers such as private equity and venture capital are also proficient and savvy business acquirers.
Operator buyers acquire a business that they can operate and they usually own, direct, and work in the business they acquire. This includes employees looking to buy out through management buy-out or employee ownership vehicles such as Employee Ownership Trusts.
Finding the RIGHT buyer is very different from finding the buyers who pay the highest price. In the same way that not all potential house buyers are equal, not all business buyers are equal either. Qualifying a buyer before opening up your books to them is an important part of the journey.
Their offer is always going to be more than just the price.
- What do I want out of the sale?
- How long will it take (i.e., what’s the buyer timeline)?
- When will I get the money?
- Will I be tied in to an earn out?
- Can this buyer complete the deal (where’s the evidence)?
- How serious is the buyer about completing the deal?
There are dozens of other questions you can ask depending on what you want out of it. Qualifying potential buyers in or out of the process early on is always worthwhile. Anyone really interested in buying filters you in or out of their process too.
Money is not the only thing you look for from the sale, you also want to consider other factors, such as:
- Your team – is the buyer providing opportunities for your company and your team to grow and improve?
- You – if you are on an earn-out and are staying in the company, do you like and trust the buyer. Do you see yourself working with them after the sale has completed?
- Your legacy – how would you feel if your buyer was going to break up your business and sell the assets?
- Employee ownership – Have you considered selling to your employees or having a management buyout?
Occasionally a direct approach is made by a potential buyer that just fits everything you want from an acquirer, and you are a good a fit for them. This is a very rare occurrence and if it happens to you, then take the time to really celebrate.
There are also rare occasions where a buyer has been sitting in the background patiently waiting for you to make the decision to sell. They’ve made their intentions clear and just waited for the invitation to step forward and start the process. And along similar lines in family companies there is often a natural succession and transfer of ownership. Though from experience the transfer of ownership rather than management is often a contentious issue in family businesses. A subject for a completely different book, I think.
Finding a match
If none of these scenarios fit, then you need professional help finding a buyer. There are plenty of buyers out there but finding the one that’s right for you is going to take research, time, knowledge, and energy. If you get it wrong, you end up with no buyer and your business reputation in tatters as your competitors get wind of the sale and start sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of your customers, suppliers, and staff.
Having successfully sold businesses by private invitation, through professional partners, I can recommend this route. You can use this method if you are doing it yourself. If you are industry aware then there are directories, trade press and information portals that allow you to research the market and reach out to prospective buyers to test their appetite. This is always best done through 3rd parties who find it infinitely easier to maintain your anonymity than if you are doing this on your own.
A good business broker or corporate finance advisor is worth every penny in fees. They handle every aspect of the sale for you including finding a buyer without you losing your anonymity until it’s necessary. With professional support and advice, brokers act in your best interest and without emotional attachment. Most work on a fee plus commission basis, but it’s worth every penny if they get your deal across the line with less pain, stress and usually for better terms than you would have negotiated for yourself.
Brokers find you a buyer through their own networks, research, and knowledge. They maintain confidentiality and manage the disclosure of your details when it’s the appropriate time. They filter out the people who aren’t committed buyers. Most of all a broker stops you becoming distracted from your business and avoids you getting embroiled in a potentially emotionally driven transaction.
Of course, you can find a buyer yourself. It’s a lot like selling your own house. You think it will be easy, and you can save a lot of money. You get distracted from your business, you take a lot longer and you end up leaving more money on the table than you save. At a minimum, it’s advisable to get your business valued so that you know how much to sell it for. If it’s under-priced you lose thousands (if not millions), if it’s overpriced you just won’t sell.
Getting a 3rd partythird-party valuation gives you more confidence in your sale process by validating your offer to buyers. Sadly, most business owners have no idea how much their business is worth, and they never spend the time (or money) to find out.
98% of business owners have never had their business valued.
If you don’t have an idea of your valuation, how do you know if a buyer is giving you the best value or not? A buyer is always going to undertake their own valuation before they part with their hard-earned cash.
If you have a lot of network connections, have been in your industry for a long time and have great insights or are well-known in your industry, you’ll have a ““black book” full of potential buyers.
Putting your head above the parapet and letting people know you are for sale is a challenge that is going to unsettle some people, including yourself. When your key stakeholders are nervous or uncertain this has a detrimental impact on the business. It’s a tough dilemma.
You can’t sell without letting people know you are available to buy. Equally keeping quiet guarantees no sale. With a 3rd partythird party marketing your business confidentially you maintain some distance from the process in the early stages.
If your staff hear rumours of a sale, they become unsettled. There are different thoughts on telling staff about future sales. I have my own opinions on this. Telling them sooner rather than later is always going to build trust.
I advocate telling them as soon as you start planning and get them involved in the process of getting exit ready. This means you are sharing the message 3 or more years before the sale process starts and it becomes part of their internal dialogue and communication patterns. They keep it more confidential because it’s just part of the daily routine and nothing to worry about.
A D-I-Y Approach
Selling your business yourself is ill-advised. If it fails, the impact can reduce your value and make your business harder to sell on better terms in the future. Especially if you end up selling your business under time pressure. If you choose this route always advertise “blind” (no company names etc) in the first instance to weed out the looki-loos.
Are you stuck in the day-to-day of your business with no time to plan for the future? A Professional Business Mentor is just the leverage you need to get out of the rut and flying. Discover how you can make your business worth more AND avoid leaving money on the table when you finally leave your business. Click here to contact Christine by email alternatively you can book a call with the Business Mentor of the Year 2020, author and speaker. Who helps business founders get their businesses exit ready so they can enjoy a happier, richer future. She saves them THOUSANDS and increases the value of their businesses by MILLIONS.