There are few businesses, and even fewer business owners, who last for ever. Whether you’re considering retirement or you simply need a fresh challenge, you will need a well thought-out plan for handing over the reins.
Better still, if you’re a start-up, you’ve got the opportunity to design an exit-friendly model from the outset. The sorts of features which make a business easy to buy can be built-in from day one, and starting with the end in mind is a really smart way to ensure future wealth.
For example, I know ventures that have been founded deliberately to antagonise a competitor, provoking them with loss-leaders or guerrilla marketing to make an offer to “take them out”. Less aggressive, yet equally effective strategies can include:
- Become an essential supplier to a bigger firm. They may worry about what would happen if you ceased trading, and buy you out to secure their own future
- Offer complimentary products/services to those of your target purchaser, and approach them to discuss a “joint venture”. These can often mature to full-blown takeovers
- Choose a niche which is relatively un-crowded, so your presence is easily visible to potential competitors and suitors
- Build your business around a handful of products (maybe only one!) which you can supply cheaper/better/quicker than your competitors
Even if you’ve been around for a while, and haven’t really thought about your exit strategy before, it’s never too late to groom the venture to attract your dream buyer.
I’m currently advising a group of directors who are looking to sell their automotive engineering business into a market not yet fully recovered from the recession. However, I’m confident that we can give them the value they deserve from their years of hard work and applied talent, by following a few crucial yet common-sense rules –
1: Appoint an exit strategist. Early on you’ll need someone to approach potential purchasers and manage the process. It’s rarely a good idea to contact them directly yourself, as you can look desperate and give away value unnecessarily. Besides, you should be still running your business, not spending your day hawking it around! Also choose a specialist law-firm with proven experience in drafting sale agreements.
2: Tidy the books. Buyers will expect a dossier of financial information, comprehensive and neatly presented. Have your latest accounts audited at the earliest opportunity, rather than waiting until filing deadlines. Provide the most recent management accounts too, and have answers prepared for all likely questions. They will assume that if you can’t manage the numbers, then the rest of the business is in a mess too.
3: Demonstrate growth potential. Although past results are important to you in showcasing the business, they really mean nothing to the purchasers, who will only benefit from the future. You need to provide a rationale for how revenue and profits could grow under their ownership.
4: Make yourself redundant. Anyone buying your business will want to see that it can operate without you. Ensure your customers don’t depend on you personally, and train staff to undertake every aspect of your work. Write down guides to all your systems and processes, so that everything would still function efficiently if you were to take a year off starting tomorrow.
5: Give yourself time. Most businesses need at least a year to organise things as described above. If you feel under pressure to sell when you’re not ready, or to accept the first offer, you’ll rarely get the best result!
Jonny Cooper is a business growth coach and exit strategist, having sold numerous businesses including his own £10M financial firm.
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