Every business should have an exit plan in mind from Day 1. Why? Because it’s impossible to control the timing of an exit or the changes in circumstances that might precipitate it. Venture capitalists know this, and build in their exit formulas at the time of their initial funding. Entrepreneurs should think the same way. And, like any business process, selling a business is a knowledge-based process that repays an investment in learning its techniques and critical success factors. Economics For Business talked to Jessica Fialkovich, a successful business builder in her own right, who founded Exit Factor, an advisory firm that helps entrepreneurs get the most from selling their businesses.
Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights
Entrepreneurship provides better career control and security than corporate life.
Jessica climbed the corporate ladder, investing effort and skill into being a great employee. But she was just a name on a list when the GFC came along – a list of those to be let go when Lehman Brothers (her employer’s funder) collapsed.
She realized that entrepreneurship provided her with great security. There’s uncertainty, but the entrepreneur decides what their future is, takes responsibility for those decisions, and accepts the accountability.
She built a successful business through hard work and the discovery process of identifying target customers and finding new and better ways to bring them value. Her chosen business was in wine sales to wine-loving customers, many of whom were connoisseurs. She developed many specialized services including finding rare wines for collectors, and her clientele spanned the globe. She incorporated the latest technologies and innovated in marketing techniques. She worked long hours, talking to customers across 16 time zones from Japan to California.
Then she decided to sell.
Entrepreneurs experience a lot less support when selling a business than when building it.
When you’re successfully growing a business, everyone wants to help, providing you with business services and supplies, and advice and ideas. What Jessica found when she came to sell was that she was on her own. It was hard to find expert help, or the requisite resources, or pretty much any kind of support infrastructure for a transaction of the size she was planning. For big business, there’s investment banking. For the 99.9% of businesses outside the Fortune 500, there was nothing similar. There were some so-called business brokers, but they were not dedicated specialists, not professionals in the specific process of selling, unreliable and poor at client service.
As an alert entrepreneur, Jessica understood that this finding signaled a market need.
The first step to design for an under-served market is to draw on relevant experience from parallel markets.
Business development always starts with first principles: is there a market to be served, in that some potential customers feel an unmet need or have a meaningful problem to be solved? Jessica had first-hand knowledge of the problem, and talking to entrepreneurs in similar situations reinforced her confidence in the market’s potential.
The comparison market Jessica chose was investment banking, which can be thought of as selling businesses of a larger scale. There’s an established investment banking process and a timeline of steps and milestones from preparing an evaluation, to developing the pitch deck, to the identification of the best buyers and the tailoring of a marketing plan for them. Jessica’s husband had some relevant investment banking experience which enhanced the knowledge transfer from one field to another, and provided a reality check for the process design.
Business-to-business services development and execution has its own set of rules; the most important one is the nurturing of relationships.
A business brokerage is a high-intensity B2B service bundle requiring a lot of in-person customized relationship management. There’s pitching the potential customers in the first place, customizing the service tom their particular business and to meet their specific needs, with a big need for staff training to deliver these specialized services. B2B service providers must be both sales experts and process experts. That requires a lot of human capital.
Jessica’s answer was to design and build a system-based model that, once in place, could be repeated and reproduced via well-trained staff with the right IT support.
She has found B2B services to be even more demanding than sourcing rare wines for connoisseurs. Selling a business is somehow more personal and individual. A client’s perception of what their business is worth may be quite different than the market’s perception. It’s the nurturing of relationships that smooths out the potential jagged edges in these transactions.
Some insights for entrepreneurs selling their business.
Identify your exit options from Day 1 of your business. Since it’s impossible to control exit timing – which may be due to unforeseen changes in circumstances – it’s best to lay the runway from the start. Plan to run a salable business, as well as one that’s profitable and growing. Don’t have a fire sale or panic sale or be unprepared.
Tailoring your selling process to the size and type of your business is important. There are different influences on what moves valuations up or down depending on business size, but, in all cases, it’s a process with a beginning, a middle and an end to be planned for in advance. You’ve got to know how to find buyers, how to source offers, and how to keep your business in good shape for due diligence.
Conduct regular health checks for evaluation. Always know what your business is worth. Find out how businesses are valued in your industry or sector. Make sure your business shows well on the criteria that are applied in your field.
EBITDA multiples are the dominant valuation metric. You may read in the Wall Street Journal about businesses being acquired for brand value, or for technology integration, or for other reasons of corporate M&A strategy. For small and medium size businesses, EBITDA multiples remain the dominant metric. There’s some art regarding what the precise multiple may turn out to be, but it’d within a range and is not going to vary wildly.
There is some room for qualitative factors and subjective valuation. Jessica listed subjective factors ranging from the degree of business involvement of the owner (and the worry that their future absence might be detrimental) to the perceived quality of the brand and its imagery and reputation.
The ultimate asset is a proven and scalable business model. If you can demonstrate that your business model returns increases in revenue and profit growth for additional investments in capital or people or marketing, then you are most likely to find an eager buyer. Make sure you can model your business in this way and that the data are clean and credible.
Getting The Most For Selling Your Business by Jessica Fialkovich: Mises.org/E4B_185_Book
Jessica on LinkedIn: Mises.org/E4B_185_LinkedIn