Why You Should Exit While You're Ahead - A Cautionary Tale

The very best time to sell your business is when someone wants to buy it. While it can be tempting to continue to grow your business forever – particularly when things are going well -- that decision comes with a significant downside. 

Take a look at the story of Rand Fishkin who started his entrepreneurial journey when he joined his mother’s marketing agency as a partner:

When Fishkin realized how much his Mom’s customers were struggling to get Google to display their company in a search, he immersed himself in the emerging field of Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

He began writing a blog called SEO Moz, which led to an SEO consulting and software company. By 2007, Moz was generating revenue of $850,000 a year when Fishkin decided to drop consulting to become solely a software business.

The company began to grow 100% per year and by 2010, Moz was generating around $650,000 in revenue each month, attracting the attention of Brian Halligan, co-founder of marketing software giant HubSpot.

HubSpot wanted to buy Moz and was offering $25 million of cash and HubSpot stock – an offer almost five times Moz’s $5.7 million of revenue in its last complete financial year.

But Fishkin wasn’t satisfied. He believed a fast growth Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company was worth four times future revenue and was confident Moz would hit $10 million by the end of that year.

Fishkin counter offered, saying he would be willing to accept $40 million. HubSpot declined.

New Plans Ahead

Instead of selling Moz, Fishkin raised a round of venture capital and started to diversify away from SEO tools into a broader set of marketing offerings. The further Moz veered away from its core in SEO, the more money his business began to lose.

By 2014, Moz was in full crisis mode, and Fishkin had begun suffering from a bout of depression. He decided to step down as CEO, describing his resignation as a “lot of sadness, a heap of regrets and a smattering of resentment.”

Fishkin became a minority shareholder in a company he no longer controlled where the venture capitalists had preferred rights in a liquidity event.

A Lesson Learned

In the ensuing years since turning down Halligan’s offer, HubSpot went public on the New York Stock Exchange and had been worth nearly 20 times as much.

Fishkin revealed that today, his liquid net worth is $800,000 – much of which he was about to spend on elder care for his grandparents. The Moz stock he holds may or may not have value after the venture capitalist get their preferred return. At the same time, Fishkin estimated HubSpot’s offer of $25 million in cash and HubSpot stock would now be worth more than $100 million (based on the increased value of HubSpot’s stock).

Fishkin’s tale is a cautionary reminder why the best time to sell your company is when someone wants to buy it – a story that is shared in his book Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World.

What if an offer was made for your business today? Would you be ready to sell? Would you regret if you said no?

Register for our ExitReadiness® BASECAMP today and ensure that your business will be ready to sell.  Use the discount code blogdiscount and get 25% off of the registration fee.

4 Steps To Finding Your Sell-By-Date

Most business owners think selling their business is a sprint, but the reality is it takes a long time to sell a company. 

The sound of the gun sends blood flowing as you leap forward out of the blocks. Within five seconds you’re at top speed and within a dozen your eye is searching for the next hand. Then you feel the baton become weightless in your grasp and your brain tells you the pain is over. You start an easy jog and you smile, knowing that you did your best and that now the heavy lifting is on someone else’s shoulders.

That’s probably how most people think of starting and selling a business: as something akin to a 4 x 100-meter relay race. You start from scratch, build something valuable, measuring time in months instead of years, and sprint into the waiting arms of Google (or Apple or Facebook) as they obligingly acquire your business for millions. They hand over the check and you ride off into the sunset. After all, that’s how it worked for the guys who started Nest and WhatsApp – right?

But unfortunately, the process of selling your business looks more like an exhausting 100-mile ultra-marathon than a 100-meter sprint. It takes years and a lot of planning to make a clean break from your company – which means it pays to start planning sooner rather than later.

Here’s how to backdate your exit:

Step 1: Pick your eject date

The first step is to figure out when you want to be completely out of your business. This is the day you walk out of the building and never come back. Maybe you have a dream to sail around the world with your kids while they’re young. Perhaps you want to start an orphanage in Bolivia or a vineyard in Tuscany.

Whatever your goal, the first step is writing down when you want out and jotting some notes as to why that date is important to you, what you will do after you sell, with whom, and why.

Step 2: Estimate the length of your earn out

When you sell your business, chances are good that you will get paid in two or more stages. You’ll get the first check when the deal closes and the second at some point in the future -- if you hit certain goals set by the buyer. The length of your so-called earn out will depend on the kind of business you’re in.

 

The average earn out these days is three years. If you’re in a professional services business, your earn out could be as long as five years. If you’re in a manufacturing or technology business, you might get away with a one-year transition period.

Estimate: + 1-5 years

Step 3: Calculate the length of the sale process

The next step is to figure out how long it will take you to negotiate the sale of your company. This process involves hiring an intermediary (a mergers and acquisitions professional, investment banker or business broker), putting together a marketing package for your business, shopping it to potential acquirers, hosting management meetings, negotiating letters of intent, and then going through a 60 to 90-day due diligence period. From the day you hire an intermediary to the day the wire transfer hits your account, the entire process usually takes six to 12 months. To be safe, budget one year.

Estimate: + 1 year

Step 4: Create your strategy-stable operating window

Next you need to budget some time to operate your business without making any major strategic changes. An acquirer is going to want to see how your business has been performing under its current strategy so they can accurately predict how it will perform under their ownership. Ideally, you can give them three years of operating results during which you didn’t make any major changes to your business model.

If you have been running your business over the last three years without making any strategic shifts, you won’t need to budget any time here. On the other hand, if you plan on making some major strategic changes to prepare your business for sale, add three years from the time you make the changes.

Estimate: + 3 years

Figuring out when to sell

The final step is to figure out when you need to start the process. Let’s say you want to be in Tuscany by age 50. You budget for a three-year earn out, which means you need to close the deal by age 47. Subtract one year from that date to account for the length of time it takes to negotiate a deal, so now you need to hire your intermediary by age 46. Then let’s say you’re still tweaking your business model – experimenting with different target markets, channels and models. In this case, you need to lock in on one strategy by age 43 so that an acquirer can look at three years of operating results.

Use Code ACADEMY-15 and get 15% off our Online Exit Planning Course.

Register today for our Exit Planning Workshop.

5 Reasons Why Your Business Is Too Dependent On You

If you were to draw a picture that visually represents your role in your business, what would it look like? Are you at the top of an organizational chart, or stuck in the middle of your business like a hub in a bicycle wheel? 

The Hub & Spoke model is a drive that shows how dependent your business is on you for survival. The Hub & Spoke model can only as strong as the hub. The moment the hub is overwhelmed, the entire system fails. Acquirers generally avoid these types of managed businesses because they understand the dangers of buying a company too dependent on the owner.

Here’s a list of the 5 top warning signs that show your business could be too dependent on you.

1. You are the only signing authority

Most business owners give themselves final authority… all the time. But what happens if you’re away for a couple of days and an important supplier needs to be paid? Consider giving an employee signing authority for an amount you’re comfortable with, and then change the mailing address on your bank statements so they are mailed to your home (not the office). That way, you can review everything coming out of your account and make sure the privilege isn’t being abused. 

2. Your revenue is flat when compared to last year’s 

Flat revenue from one year to the next can be a sign you are a hub in a hub-and-spoke model. Like forcing water through a hose, you have only so much capacity. No matter how efficient you are, every business dependent on its owner reaches capacity at some point. Consider narrowing your product and service line by eliminating technically complex offers that require your personal involvement, and instead focus on selling fewer things to more people. 

3. Your vacations… don’t feel like vacations

If you spend your vacations dispatching orders from your mobile, it’s time to cut the tether. Start by taking one day off and seeing how your company does without you. Build systems for failure points. Work up to a point where you can take a few weeks off without affecting your business. 

4. You know all of your customers by first name 

It’s good to have the pulse of your market, but knowing every single customer by first name can be a sign that you’re relying too heavily on your personal relationships being the glue that holds your business together. Consider replacing yourself as a rain maker by hiring a sales team, and as inefficient as it seems, have a trusted employee shadow you when you meet customers so over time your customers get used to dealing with someone else. 

5. You get cc’d on more than five e-mails a day 

Employees, customers and suppliers constantly cc’ing you on e-mails can be a sign that they are looking for your tacit approval or that you have not made clear when you want to be involved in their work. Start by asking your employees to stop using the cc line in an e-mail; ask them to add you to the “to” line if you really must be made aware of something – and only if they need a specific action from you. 

Register today for our next ExitReadiness® BASECAMP

"Why Should A Business Owner Build To Sell?": Interview with Author and Founder of The Value Builder System™ John Warrillow

A new client to our firm will first go through the essential step in our process of clarifying their financial and values-based goals. And while at the same time having an additional goal in mind of identifying their ideal route for exiting the business.

We recently had a client successfully sell their business to a key employee and one of their children, and another client sold to a third-party strategic buyer. A primary reason they were both able to leave successfully was that their businesses were sellable. The businesses had value apart from the owner, they were profitable with strong prospects for growth, and had other drivers of business value that were attractive and strong.

If you want to be in control with a number of options for your eventual exit, then right at the heart of your exit plan will be an emphasis on building the business the right way today. We very much enjoyed a conversation with John Warrillow, the Founder of The Value Builder System™ recently on the ExitReadiness® PODCAST discussing the importance of “building to sell”. You will be well served if you invest 50 minutes to listen in and learn from John’s personal experience as a successful entrepreneur and his analysis of over 40,000 businesses.

Those of you who listen to the podcast with John will also be provided a code for a 25% Discount on our next ExitReadiness® BASECAMP on July 31st at The Lurn Center in Rockville, MD.

Why Bother Doing It The Hard Way?

Whether you want to sell your business next year or a decade from now, you will have two basic options for an external sale: the financial or the strategic buyer.

The Financial Buyer

The financial buyer is buying the rights to your future profit stream, so the more profitable your business is expected to be, the more your company will be worth to them. Strategies that are key to driving up the value of your business in the eyes of this buyer include de-risking it as much as possible, creating recurring revenue, reducing reliance on one or two big customers, cultivating a team of leaders, etc.

The Strategic Buyer

The alternative is to sell to a strategic buyer. They will care less about your future profit stream and more about what your business is worth in their hands, typically calculating how much more of their product they can sell by owning your business. Strategic buyers are usually big companies, so the value of being able to sell more of their product or service because they own you can be substantial. This often leads strategic buyers to pay more for your business than a financial buyer ever would.

For example, Nick Kellet’s Next Action Technologies created a software application that takes a set of numbers and visually expresses them in a Venn diagram. Next Action Technologies was generating approximately $1.5 million in revenue when they received their first acquisition offer; Kellet’s first valuation was for $1 million, a little less than revenue, which is a pretty typical from a financial buyer.

Kellet knew the business could be worth more to a strategic buyer, so he searched for a company that could profit by embedding his Venn diagram software into their product. Kellet found Business Objects, a business intelligence software company looking to express their data more visually. Business Objects could see how owning Next Action Technologies would enable them to sell a whole lot more of their software, and they went on to acquire Kellet’s business for $8 million, more than five times revenue – an astronomical multiple.

Preparing For Every Eventuality

The question is: why bother making your business attractive to a financial buyer when the strategic buyer typically pays so much more?

The answer is that strategic acquisitions are very rare. Each industry usually only has a handful of strategic acquirers, so your buyer pool is small and subject to a number of variables out of your control; the economy, interest rates, the competitive landscape and a whole raft of other variables can all impact a strategic acquirer’s appetite to buy your business.

Think of it this way: imagine your child is a promising young athlete who’s intent on going pro. You know that becoming a professional athlete is a long shot, fraught with unknown hurdles: injury, the wrong coach, or just not having what it takes to compete at the highest levels. Do you squash her dream? No, but you do make sure she does her homework, so if her dream fades she has her education; you make sure she has a back-up plan.

The same is true of positioning your company for an exit. Sure, you may want to sell your business to a strategic buyer in a spectacular exit, but a financial acquisition is much more likely, and financial buyers are looking for companies that have done their homework – companies that have worked to become reliable cash machines.

Start today in planning your exit and register for our upcoming ExitReadiness® BASECAMP.