After decades of hard work, selling your business can be an exciting and rewarding time. Yet, many business owners overlook some important legal matters associated with sales. In this article, we’ll explore three of the most significant legal mistakes sellers make when selling a business.
1. Use an NDA
The first critical mistake that business owners make is skipping a non-disclosure agreement. Before disclosing to any buyers that a business is on the market, a business owner should always make sure that a non-disclosure agreement is in place.
NDAs restrict who does and does not know your business is for sale. If competitors or employees learn confidential information about the business for sale, it could hurt the sale and possibly lower the selling price of the business.
2. Hire an Attorney
It may be tempting to skip working with an attorney, but you shouldn’t. If you are selling a business or anything of significant value, you need to work with a lawyer experienced in the area of sales.
Business owners become accustomed to doing a great many things themselves and learning on the job, a personality trait that has served them well over the years. When selling your business, however, there is zero room for “on the job training” or relying on your own instincts. One of the best ways that you as a business owner can protect your future is to work with a lawyer when selling your business. In fact, a Business Broker or M&A Advisor can be a vital resource for helping you to find a proven lawyer with a background in the buying and selling of businesses.
3. Get a Letter of Intent
A third significant mistake that business owners frequently make when selling their business is that they fail to get a letter of intent. Much like an NDA, a letter of intent is a key legal document in the process of selling a business. All too often business owners will skip requesting a letter of intent out of fear of slowing down the process and potentially disrupting a deal.
The letter of intent is designed to clearly spell out expectations while simultaneously protecting your interests as a business owner. When buyers sign a letter of intent, it indicates that they are taking the process seriously. This will protect you from wasting your time.
Selling a business is a process with its own unique challenges. Whether dealing with human psychology, organizing your books, thinking about what information prospective buyers are likely to want to see, or addressing a wide array of legal issues, selling a business is a complex and time-consuming process. Working closely with a Business Broker or M&A Advisor is one of the fastest ways that you can increase your chances of a successful sale.
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You understand the finer points and potential of your business better than anyone; however, that doesn’t mean that prospective buyers will instantly see your business’s various strengths. When you are looking to sell your business, you have two very important jobs. The first is to get your business ready to be sold. A second essential job is to showcase your business’s greatest strengths. At the end of the day, you must be the one to articulate why your business is worth buying. This effort, of course, will be supported by your Business Broker or M&A Advisor.
Understand Who Will Buy Your Business
Most people have never sold a business before and don’t fully understand what is involved in positioning one’s business for sale. The bottom line is that not every business is a good fit for every buyer. Finding the right buyer for your business will greatly expedite the process. This is yet another reason why it is critically important to work with experienced professionals. Business Brokers and M&A Advisors not only know what buyers are looking for, but also what sellers need to do to get their business ready to sell.
How to Navigate Roadblocks
Selling a business, especially if you attempt to do so without professional help, is a very time-consuming and often draining process. Successfully running a business requires attention to detail and focus. Unfortunately, these can both suffer when owners attempt to put on yet another hat and handle the sale of their business.
While you are attempting to sell your business, it is critically important that you maintain normal operations. The last thing you want is to weaken the finances of your business while you are waiting to find a buyer. Remember that it takes months, a year, or even longer to find a buyer for the typical business. Don’t let your business suffer damage in the interim.
Think Like a Buyer
Preparing your business to be sold isn’t as simple as making a few cosmetic changes and calling it day. Instead, you’ll want to think like a buyer.
What would you want to see if you were buying a business? You would want to know a great deal about that business and how it operates, who its key employees are, how likely those key employees are to stay, who the main customers and suppliers are, and the strength of the business location and competitors. Of course, you would also want a very detailed picture of the business’s financial situation.
In short, you would want to clearly understand what the business does and what it’s really worth, how financially healthy it has been in the past, what the business’ prospects are moving forward and, in general, how much effort the business will take to operate. These are exactly the kind of key facts that any serious buyer will want to know. It’s only to be expected that a buyer would expect to learn this information before making a decision.
At the end of the day, working with a Business Broker or M&A Advisor is one of the easiest ways to streamline the sales process. Thanks to years of experience, they already understand the pitfalls that you may experience as well as what is needed to position your business so that you can find the right buyer quickly and receive the best price possible.
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There is the oft-told story about Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds. Before he approached the McDonald brothers at their California hamburger restaurant, he spent many days sitting in his car watching the business. Only when he was convinced that the business and the concept worked, did he make an offer that the brothers could not refuse. The rest, as they say, is history.
The point, however, for both buyer and seller, is that it is important for both to sit across the proverbial street and watch the business. Buyers will get a lot of important information. For example, the buyer will learn about the customer base. How many customers does the business serve? How often? When are customers served? What is the make-up of the customer base? What are the busy days and times?
The owner, as well, can sometimes gain new insights on his or her business by taking a look at the business from the perspective of a potential seller, by taking an “across the street look.”
Both owners and potential buyers can learn about the customer service, etc., by having a family member or close friend patronize the business.
Interestingly, these methods are now being used by business owners, franchisors and others. When used by these people, they are called mystery shoppers. They are increasingly being used by franchisors to check their franchisees on customer service and other operations of the business. Potential sellers might also want to have this service performed prior to putting their business up for sale.
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There are unique attributes of a company that make it more attractive to a possible acquirer and/or more valuable. Certainly, the numbers are important, but potential buyers will also look beyond them. Factors that make your company special or unique can often not only make the difference in a possible sale or merger, but also can dramatically increase value. Review the following to see if any of them apply to your company and if they are transferable to new ownership.
Brand name or identity
Do any of your products have a well recognizable name? It doesn’t have to be Kleenex or Coke, but a name that might be well known in a specific geographic region, or a name that is identified with a specific product. A product with a unique appearance, taste, or image is also a big plus. For example, Cape Cod Potato Chips have a unique regional identity, and also a distinctive taste. Both factors are big pluses when it comes time to sell.
Dominant market position
A company doesn’t have to be a Fortune 500 firm to have a dominant position in the market place. Being the major player in a niche market is a dominant position. Possible purchasers and acquirers, such as buy-out groups, look to the major players in a particular industry regardless of how small it is.
Newsletters and other publications have, over the years, built mailing lists and subscriber lists that create a unique loyalty base. Just as many personal services have created this base, a number of other factors have contributed to the building of it. The resulting loyalty may allow the company to charge a higher price for its product or service.
A long and favorable lease (assuming it can be transferred to a new owner) can be a big plus for a retail business. A recognizable franchise name can also be a big plus. Other examples of intangible assets that can create value are: customer lists, proprietary software, an effective advertising program, etc.
The ability to charge less for similar products is a unique factor. For example, Wal-Mart has built an empire on the ability to provide products at a very low price. Some companies do this by building alliances with designers or manufacturers. In some cases, these alliances develop into partnerships so that a lower price can be offered. Most companies are not in Wal-Mart’s category, but the same relationships can be built to create low costs and subsequent price advantages.
Difficulty of replication
A company that produces a product or service that cannot be easily replicated has an advantage over other firms. We all know that CPA and law firms have unique licensing attributes that prevent just anyone off of the street from creating competition. Some firms have government licensing or agreements that are granted on a very limited basis. Others provide tie-ins that limit others from competing. For example, a coffee company that provides free coffee makers with the use of their coffee.
Technology, trade secrets, specialized applications, confidentiality agreements protecting proprietary information – all of these can add value to a company. These factors may not be copyrighted or patented, but if a chain of confidentiality is built – then these items can be unique to the company.
There are certainly other unique factors that give a company a special appeal to a prospective purchaser and, at the same time, increase value. Many business owners have to go beyond the numbers and take an objective look at the factors that make their company unique.
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1. Build a solid management team. A business with sales of $5 million or more needs a full complement of officers and directors. Such a team might include a COO, a CFO, a sales manager and, depending on the of type business, an IT director. It is also beneficial to create a Board of Directors with at least two outside members. This professionalization of management can remove the stigma of “the one man band.” Not only will this build a stronger company, it will increase the value to a possible acquirer. Smaller firms should also build a strong management team, and creating an outside advisory group is also a good idea.
2. Loyal employees. Happy and loyal employees make for a strong company. Top management should have non-compete and/or confidentiality agreements. Solid benefits plans for all employees should be in place. A company’s greatest asset is its employees and perhaps its biggest way to increase value.
3. Growth. Some smaller companies are kept small to maximize the owner’s benefits – the proverbial “cash cows.” However, if building value is the goal, then developing new products or services, building market share, expanding markets or opening new ones, is critical. This generally requires a financial investment, but building a strong growth rate also builds value.
4. Understanding your market. The value of a company may be contingent on its industry, its place in the industry and the direction of the industry itself. How big is the industry, is it headed up or down, who is the competition and how big is the company’s market share? Is it time to change direction or diversify?
5. Size counts. Companies with less than $5 million in sales and an EBITDA of less than $1 million can be perceived as small. Therefore, they may depend on continuing outside financing and lack the critical mass for both buying and selling power. These companies can be perceived as too small for acquisition or are penalized when it comes to value. However, over the past few years, corporate buyers and private equity firms have seen the advantages of purchasing smaller firms. Obviously, companies with $10 million or more in sales and an EBITDA of $1 million or more are considered to be solid and able to stand on their own.
6. Changing direction. Small companies can be very adept at changing course and implementing change. They have to be able to change and move quickly to take advantage of new markets, to fill voids in existing markets and even to add or change products or services.
7. Documentation. Business plans, financial plans and personnel plans should all be in writing and kept current. Terms of employment agreements should be spelled out and in writing. Business planning and company objectives, etc., should also be in writing and reviewed periodically. Contracts should be reviewed and maintained on a current basis.
8. Diversification. A major problem with many small companies is that their business is concentrated on one or two major customers or clients. Ideally, no customer or client should represent more than 10 percent of sales. Expanding to new markets, introducing new products, and finding new customers must be considered without deviating too far from the company’s core business.
9. Name and brand identity. Nothing beats the name Walt Disney, or Kleenex® or the soft drink called Coca-Cola® – they are household names. Small firms may not have the brand or name recognition of these companies, but they can work at it. This recognition is especially powerful in the consumer product area. But franchising has expanded this name or brand recognition to many different types of businesses.
10. Taking advantage of proprietary and other assets. Patents, brand names, copyrights, alliances, and joint ventures are all examples of not only proprietary assets, but, in many cases, valuable ones. Even equipment can be used in several different ways. Large landscape companies in cold climates put snow plows on their trucks, utilize their existing workforce and become a snow plowing company for their regular landscaping customers — office complexes, apartment and condo developments, etc.
11. “Lean and Mean.” Many companies lease their real estate needs, outsource their payroll, have their manufacturing done offshore, or have UPS handle all of their logistical needs. Since all non-core requirements are done by someone else, the company can focus its efforts on what they do best.
12. Do it now! The owners of small firms, even large ones, have an attitude that says, “I don’t have time now, I’ll do it tomorrow,” or “I’m too busy now putting out fires.” So the real challenges of building the business and value get sidetracked or put off indefinitely. Creating value is critical to the long-term (and short-term) success of the business.
Keep in mind that the best time to consider selling a business is when business is good, the business is running profitably, and many of the above “value-adders” are in place. By contacting your local professional intermediary you can explore which of the above will add the most value to your firm, so it will be ready to sell when you are.
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