“Independent business owner” is a phrase with two meanings. Of course, it means being the owner of an independent business. But another way to look at “independent business owner” is to let this phrase define the very personality of the person at the helm. Independent. Confident. Self-assured. Strong-willed. These are vital entrepreneurial attributes, but, ironically, they can sometimes work against the business owner when it comes time to sell.
Since business owners are the type who know about selling — either products or services– and about making deals — haven’t they had to cope with suppliers, customers, and competitors throughout their business careers? — it’s not surprising that owners approach selling their businesses with these tried-and-true tactics and ideas. Sellers who have spent years building a business are often unaware of how completely different the process of selling a business is.
Savvy sellers, realizing the importance of a selling approach equal to this very important task, will depend on the guidance of a business intermediary. With professional guidance, sellers can benefit from their personal strengths instead of letting them get in the way of the selling process. The following “strong” selling points are signposts on the road leading to a successful transaction.
Price Your Business To Sell
Sellers are good “business people;” they naturally are after the best possible price for their business. Realistic pricing is perhaps the most important factor in selling from a point of strength. Understanding the marketplace, up-to-the-minute and not some high mark just past or in the possible future, is key.
The pricing of a business, different from the simpler means of valuing based on goods or services, depends on industry-tested valuation techniques, with intangibles incorporated to ensure that the business will not be underpriced. The price of a business is arrived at by a variety of factors, one of the chief of which is the intensity of a buyers interest in a particular business.
Know Your Buyer
The seller, although good at “psyching out” customers and vendors, may not be as adept at sizing up potential buyers. Some buyers are professional window-shoppers; talking a good game but never really ready to play. There are also the buyers who would play ball — if they only knew where the action was! First locating and then qualifying buyers is a key function of business brokers. They will use computerized data bases, professional associations and other networks nationally and internationally — all to increase the chances of selling a business at top value.
In addition, the business broker will determine the right buyer for the right business, focusing on those prospects who are financially qualified as well as genuinely (or potentially) interested in the business for sale. As part of qualifying buyers, to take the “fear” out of the likely need for seller financing, the business broker will assess the ability of a particular buyer to run a business successfully. This invaluable work by the broker not only locates the best buyers, it also frees the seller to concentrate on his role in the selling process.
Prepare Your Business for Sale
In addition to the obvious need for the business to appear clean and cared-for, there are important steps the seller must take in advance of putting the business on the market. In most cases, a business will sell based on the numbers. Your business broker will help you create a clear financial picture — in timely fashion — and to prepare statements suitable for presentation to a prospective buyer. Remember that buyers may be willing to buy potential, but they don’t want to pay for it. In fact, sellers should be open to about all aspects of the business that might affect the sale; otherwise, once the real facts are revealed, the deal may self-destruct.
Business owners are accustomed to coping with paperwork, but few have had exposure to the specialized contracts and forms required both before and during the selling process. The business broker, an expert at transaction details, will help guard against delays, problems, and premature (or inappropriate) disclosure of information.
Maintain Normal Operations
Another vital activity for the seller is to keep on top of the day-to-day running of the business. When a business intermediary is on hand to focus on the marketing of the business, the seller can focus on keeping daily operations on-target. Sellers are “people people,” and may have visions of wooing buyers with their great presentation of the business. Even if this were to happen, these sellers fail to visualize the number of buyers they would have to “woo-and-win” if handling the sale on their own.
An adjunct to maintaining the status quo is the important task of maintaining confidentiality. Until a purchase-and-sale agreement has been signed, most sellers do not want to disturb (or jeopardize) the normal interaction with customers and employees; nor do they want to alert the competition. A business broker helps by using nonspecific descriptions of the business, requiring signed confidentiality agreements, and performing a careful screening of all prospects.
To keep the sale of your business on firm ground, be sure that your “strengths” as an independent business owner aren’t actually weakening the sale. Using these key selling points along with the expertise of a business intermediary will keep the process going strong.
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Every company has weaknesses; the trick is to fix them. There is a saying that the test of a good company president or CEO is what happens to the company when he or she leaves. Some companies–on paper–may look the same, but one company may be much more valuable due to weaknesses in the other company. Not all problems or weaknesses can be resolved or fixed, but most can be mitigated. Fixing or lessening company weaknesses can not only significantly improve the value, but also increase the chances of finding the right buyer. Here are some common weaknesses that concern some buyers, causing them to look elsewhere for an acquisition.
“The One Man Band”
Many small companies were founded by the current president, and he has made all of the major decisions. Since he has not developed a succession plan, there is no one in place to take over if he gets hit by the proverbial truck. He is the typical one man band; and, as a result, the company is not an attractive target for acquisition.
Companies that are in a declining market have to be smart enough to recognize the situation and make changes accordingly. A real-life example of a “smart” company is one that made ties, and, realizing the decline in this apparel item, switched over to making personalized polo shirts. A company can still make ties but has to have the foresight – and ability – to move into new product areas.
This is a major concern of most buyers. It is not unusual for the one man band to focus on what made the company successful – one or two major customers. He has built the relationships over the years. These relationships are seldom transferable. Finding new customers may take time and money, but the effort is absolutely necessary should the owner eventually decide to sell.
The One Product
Many one man band run companies were based, and still are, on either the manufacture and sale of one product or the creation and development of a single service. Henry Ford made a wonderful car – the Model A – but that’s all he made. General Motors decided that many people would like something different and were willing to pay for it. Fortunately, for Ford, he caught on quickly, but almost went out of business with the thinking that one model fits everyone.
Aging Workforce/Decaying Culture
Young people are not entering the trades, leaving many jobs such as tool and die positions filled with “old hands” who will soon be retiring. Technology may be able to replace them, but that decision has to made and implemented. No one wants a business that will have idle machines with no one trained to operate them.
There are many other areas that could be considered company weaknesses. If there is a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board, perhaps they can help the one man band create a succession plan and just as importantly – a successor. Certainly the time to act on all of this is before the decision to sell is made. Whether current ownership plans on staying the course or eventually selling the company, the good news is that resolving company weaknesses is a win-win situation.
If you are considering selling your company in the next year or so, the time to start is now. Planning ahead can significantly add to the eventual selling price. A visit with a professional business intermediary is the first step.
You’ve made the big decision to put your business on the market. Your reasons for selling are valid, carefully-considered, and “good” – the kind that won’t make a prospective buyer shy away. Now, you may tell yourself, comes the fun part. You’ll come up with a price – maybe a little high, but why not? – and let gut instinct (an attribute common to successful business owners) lead the way.
Wait just a minute. Or maybe a quarter of an hour; however long it takes you to bone up on your negotiation skills with the following steps as a guide. Being a smart negotiator is tantamount to effecting the successful sale of your business.
Gather Your Forces
The first step is to engage the help of a business broker professional. He or she understands the sales negotiation process as well as tactics for marketing the business. Before sitting down with your business broker, however, you should gather the following information: profit and loss statements (for three years), current federal income tax returns, a list of fixtures and equipment, copies of equipment leases (if any), the lease and any lease-related documents, a copy of your franchise agreement (if applicable), lists of loans (if applicable), with amounts and payment schedule, an approximate tally of inventory on hand, and the names of any outside advisors (attorney, accountant, etc.) you plan to consult.
It’s vital to have a clear and realistic notion about the value of your business. Pricing your business intelligently is as important as impressive financial records. Your business broker will apply industry-tested valuation methods, including ratios based on the sales of similar businesses, as well as the historical data that most closely matches your type of business. He or she will also incorporate intangibles to insure that the business will not be underpriced. At the same time, your broker will make sure you understand how the price is dictated by the marketplace and that realistic pricing is an absolute must. Most buyers won’t wait for an outsized price to drop – they will just go somewhere else.
Know Your Buyer
Finding the right buyer may be more important than getting that extra-high asking price. Your business broker will determine the right buyer for the right business, focusing on those prospects who are financially qualified and are genuinely interested in your type of business. It’s important also to know something about the bargaining power of the buyer and to discover early on how he or she plans to finance the purchase of your business. Your business broker will do that and more: he or she will anticipate the buyer’s concerns and counsel you about being up-front about any problems that might make a buyer suspicious and therefore unnecessarily adversarial during the negotiation process. Steeped in knowledge about negotiating price, terms and other vital aspects of the sale, the broker will guide you each step of the way. During the early stages, while the buyer is still considering making an offer, the broker is the ideal person to follow up and keep the deal running smoothly. Working alone, you could lose bargaining effectiveness by doing the follow-up yourself. And, in general, having someone else negotiate on your behalf is the smartest way to go. The “middle man” can get your thoughts across, keeping you at a distance from the words themselves.
In negotiating the sale of your business, you need to keep the ball rolling once an offer has been presented. Study it closely, and don’t automatically despair. Just because you didn’t get your asking price doesn’t mean that the offer has nothing to commend it. It may have other points to offset what you feel is a low figure, such as – if the deal is to be seller-financed – higher payments or interest, a consulting agreement, more cash than you anticipated, or the promise of a buyer relationship that will make life easier. In evaluating an offer, take the long view and look for the ways in which the offer just might accomplish your objectives. Above all, don’t think in terms of “punishing” the buyer because of a low offer. This is the worst reason for rejecting an offer – and certainly a self-defeating one for you.
Beef Up Bargaining Power
The best negotiating weapon is to have options available. For the seller, the mightiest one is lack of desperation. With any luck, you have not waited too long to sell and your business is sound. Carry this a step further: be sure, in preparing to sell, that you don’t let the business slip. It’s important that prospective buyers see your business at its best – bustling, and showing no signs of neglect. You should, for example, keep normal operating hours, repair signage and other first-impression areas of the business, repair or remove non-operating equipment, remove items not included in the sale, maintain inventory at constant levels. Make it obvious that you have not been forced to sell, and that – if necessary – you could refuse all offers and carry on the operation of your business. This may be the last thing you want to do, having made the hard decision to sell, but the buyer won’t know that.
Master the Art of Good Timing
Timing is crucial to the successful sale of a business. Any deal has a shelf-life, and it will go stale if it sits around too long. On the other hand, sometimes ideas need extra time to jell – and people sometimes need a little time-and-space to be more objective about their own positions. Your business broker will keep the process moving at the proper pace. He or she will also provide or offer advice about the specialized contracts and forms necessary for the completion of the sale.
In negotiating the sale process, you will benefit many times over from the guidance of a business broker professional. The business broker represents you, the seller, and works toward completing the transaction in a reasonable amount of time and at a price and terms acceptable to you. The broker will also present and assess offers and, at the appropriate juncture, he or she can help in structuring the sale and negotiating its successful close – helping to create a win-win situation for everyone involved.