Companies are sold for many reasons: founders break up or burn out, investors force a sale, money runs out or sometimes the dollar signs are just too attractive to ignore.
When my college boyfriend (now husband) and I launched our first business out of law school, we weren’t necessarily thinking about our exit plan. But fast-forward less than a decade later, and we found ourselves approached by Intuit. The money the company offered to buy our business was too good to pass up, so we sold.
If you’ve been approached to sell your business or are considering looking for buyers, it’s an exciting time. Incredible opportunity, both personal and professional, can come from a sale. But you’ve also got to be prepared for what lies ahead. Based on our experience, here are six things I tell any business owner who is thinking of selling his or her business:
1. Determine if you’re ready.
Before you begin the process, ask yourself one simple question, “If someone gave me X dollars for my company, would I walk away today?” Your answer will reveal how passionate you still are about your business. If you answered yes without hesitation, then you know you are mentally ready to move on and should seriously consider selling. Keep in mind that some business owners love what they do so much, no amount of money would entice them to sell -- and that’s OK.
2. Find an advisor you trust.
By the time we were approached to sell, my husband and I had become very skilled at running a business, but we were complete amateurs when it came to things such as multiples and determining a valuation. Fortunately, we had a trusted financial advisor to provide an outside perspective on our balance sheet and valuation.
Some businesses turn to an investment banker or mergers and acquisitions adviser. You can typically expect to pay a fee of about 1 percent of the transaction amount here -- although exact figures vary. It may seem expensive, but many business owners consider this a sound investment to maximize value, keep the buyer honest and speed up the negotiation and due-diligence process.
3. Find a buyer who shares your vision.
After dedicating years of hard work and emotional energy to the business, it’s hard to just turn it over to anyone. This is particularly true if you have employees that will be staying with the business. The easiest way to overcome the twinges of guilt and doubt is to find a buyer who shares your vision, is willing to invest in the business, and has the ideas and resources to take it to the next level.
4. Make sure your books are in order.
If you think that bankers split every hair when evaluating your mortgage or business-loan application, just wait until you’ve got a potential buyer looking at your business.
You’ll need an up-to-date balance sheet, quarterly statements and at least two to three years of solid tax returns. The more profitable your tax returns are, the more you can typically get for your business. But this can be tricky, since you probably structured your revenue and expenses to minimize your tax bill each year.
In addition, be prepared to answer questions such as how much it costs to acquire a new customer, what’s the average lifetime value of a customer and what’s your market penetration rate, along with details about your back-office infrastructure.
5. Don’t assume anything until the last contract is signed.
The old saying, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” may be cliché, but it’s particularly wise here. In his book Walk Away Wealthy, Mark Tepper shares the story of a small-business owner who thought he had an $11 million deal to sell his company, only to find that the seller completely disappeared at the last minute.
In our case, the sale went through but involved more than six months of intense due diligence before Intuit was ready to close the deal. Getting interest, even a signed letter of intent, is a great first step, but there’s still a long road ahead of you, with many possible outcomes. My advice? Keep your business chugging along as usual until the very last minute.
6. Figure out what’s next.
When you are in the midst of the process, it’s natural to focus all your emotional energy on closing the deal, and you forget to think about what happens the day after the paperwork is signed. Overnight, everything changes: You suddenly go from having a major mission of growing a business to having no mission at all.
In our case, my husband and I both went to work for Intuit after the sale, but we quickly realized there’s a big difference between being a small company and being a small division within a large corporation. Some business owners can make this transition gracefully -- we couldn’t.
Think long and hard about what you want to do. If you plan on staying on, make sure you’ll be OK giving up your autonomy. If you don’t plan on sticking around, come up with a game plan for what to do with the cash. For example, you can start a new business, get involved in volunteer work or invest in other entrepreneurs. Just make sure you have a reason to be excited to get out of bed each morning.