Everyone talks about selling their business. Few do so – and even fewer do so successfully. It is far from easy to achieve a great, dream deal on exit.
This is only going to get worse. While there have still been mega-successful deals, overall exit deals have become very uncertain, within the high end of the M&A market particularly in 2023.
But the real issues lie at the bottom of the market. This is thanks to the perrennial problems in exits coupled with market conditions.
Ignorance surrounding exits
People assume their business is sellable, without any understanding of what makes a business of value. I saw a typical shout out on a social media platform this week. Someone was asking for help to sell their business, holding forth about how successful it was and therefore valuable – till the kicker at the end, that it was just them in the business. A one-man band, completely reliant on the owner.
And they were offering this for sale on an investment site, openly admitting they had no clue about how to go about exiting a business. One very rude awakening was coming. It really isn’t rocket science. For a business to be of value, it has to go on creating profits when you have left
As long as your business works round you being the epi-centre, you have a business with little or no exit value.
People assume that their business will sell well. They have often heard a profit x 3 or similar equation and then chuck in crazy estimates for “good will” or reputation or brand.
The value of a business on exit is no different from anything else you sell in business. There is no value if people don’t want it. Exit value is totally market dependent. Few investors are interested in tiny businesses which require a lot of work for little return.
And if no one wants your business, I am afraid however good it looks to you, its exit value is still zero. The same as anything else you cannot sell.
The bottom layers of the M & A market are alive with opportunitsts, who are mostly looking for an opportunity to buy a name and or some cheap stock that they can juggle on a balance sheet and sell on for a quick profit.
Pre-supposing you aren’t as naive as to put a shout out on an investors group in Facebook, if you have a business that they might be able to do this with, they will get to hear of you, especially if you start to mention that you might like to “get out”.
Many VCs have an arrangement withthat will report your dissatisfaction with running your company almost before you recognize it yourself. Towards the end of the years that I had my last company, I received one offer to merge and three offers to purchase, without even going looking for a sale.
That sounds good – though of course it is the quality of the offers and, more to the point, the quality of the potential investors that really counts. And there is a huge predatory network out there just waiting for you to have a run of bad hair days with your business.
It wasn’t always such a shark infested pond. We have seen a dramatic change in the markets over the last twenty years.
When the investment market ran low in finding established companies to buy, start-ups became the focus of the M & A market and start-up values rocketed accordingly. Suddenly it was possible to make a fortune from a whisp of an idea and a barely established business.
Up to that point, in much of sleepy, rural England, people were still building businesses for the long-term, their focus on current income and possibly a business for their families to inherit. I was among them and it was only when I networked in London with other high growth founders to start to realize there were other possibilities that I could look at. Up to that point, the mysteries of selling businesses seemed way above anything I could have managed even if I wanted to.
However, while the create-to-sell movement hadn’t fully taken hold ten years ago, young entrepreneurs the world over were starting to believe that they could dream of an idea that would make them billions before they reached their quarter century. And, of course, many have. The accelerator /incubator market boomed to accommodate. And now, we have become obsessed with starting businesses specifically to exit them again.
It shouldn’t be frowned apon to keep a business for yourself. You created it – be proud. Income is not to be sneezed at. People assume they will just move blythly onto the next start-up but even with one success, the next one is by no means guaranteed.
But – and here is the kicker – be ready for some change in life that might make you want or need to sell one day. Construct your business so that you could. And learn how to do it – yourself. No equally sharkey agents needed. (There is a chapter with Jeremy Harbour on this in Scale for Success).
Learning how to exit – if wanted or needed – is crucial. It could be the most important piece of knowledge you will ever need.