Big fish eat small fish. It’s a familiar narrative in the startup world. If your business is worth $2 million to $50 million, your list of prospective buyers probably comprises companies that are bigger versions of your business.
But just because your startup falls into the “small fish” category, doesn’t mean you should think small. To achieve the valuation your startup deserves, you need a better understanding of the types of buyers interested in your startup and the key value drivers that will reel them in.
Expand your list of potential buyers.
Big fish aren’t your only potential buyers. Sea lions and grizzly bears also devour small fish; they just hunt differently.
Financial buyers such as private equity firms or VCs looking to invest will evaluate your startup primarily on its financial performance. They’ll look at your growth history and management team to determine the risk associated with investing in your company.
Strategic buyers, on the other hand, may be looking to buy your business so they can a) sell your products to their customers, b) sell their products to your customers, c) leverage something of yours, such as intellectual property, to make their companies better or d) acquire key employees who will make them more competitive.
Your larger competitors may be interested in acquiring you, but they probably won’t pay premiums because your business won’t significantly increase their company's value. You’re more likely to get a bigger valuation from a buyer looking to gain a strategic market advantage and/or boost valuation (i.e., a company in an adjacent market looking to break into your market).
Sometimes, it makes sense for small fish to eat other small fish. For instance, one of my clients ran a small family business that owned a significant share of the market in Richmond, Virg. After 20 years of running up against the same three competitors, my client realized his business’s growth was limited by his capacity. He didn’t have the bandwidth to take on larger clients. But by buying up his smaller competitors, he was able to leverage the companies’ combined resources to create an innovative new product. He now owns the entire market -- including the largest, most influential key clients -- and his business is worth 15 to 20 times its original value.
Whether your ideal buyer is a big company in an adjacent market or a small company in your market, you should begin formulating your exit strategy from day one. But even if you’re late to the game, here are a few steps you can use now to position yourself for acquisition:
1. Identify a high-valuation market.
Entrepreneurs often assume their startups have intrinsic value set by the marketplace. In reality, a company is worth what a buyer will pay, so it’s in your best interest to identify big spenders in adjacent markets who have the most to gain by accessing your market.
2. Understand key value drivers.
Companies buy startups for all kinds of reasons: customers, technology, employees or innovation, the list goes on. Just as you know why your customers buy your product, know why a specific company would buy your business and what you can do to maximize the perceived value of it.
3. Identify weaknesses that kill valuation.
Once you understand what your prospective buyer is looking for, you can work to eliminate weaknesses that will have the largest negative impact on valuation and invest on growing or expanding those high-value factors that are important to the highest-paying buyer.
Another of my clients ran a business driven entirely by personal referrals. He didn’t have a sales and marketing plan. because he didn’t need one. Unfortunately, it was a major drawback for potential buyers, because they wouldn’t have access to his personal relationships. Creating a documented sales and marketing plan was a necessary step to reduce buyers’ risk and to maximize the price (value) of the business.
Most entrepreneurs looking to exit are perfectly happy to throw themselves in front of a big fish, hoping to be its next meal. But the big fish/little fish scenario isn’t the only exit strategy that makes sense, and this narrow view of the animal kingdom could be limiting your startup’s valuation.
To get the exit your startup deserves, expand your definition of your ideal buyer and understand what makes you the perfect catch, so you’ll know where to invest your time, money and attention.
Related: Make Your Own Luck and Get Acquired