For many founders, the ultimate dream is to put their blood, sweat and tears into turning their idea into a successful company and then sell it for enough money to fuel their next dream—whether that’s retirement or their next company. It may be a year from now or 10 years in the future, but either way, an acquisition is a complex transaction, and few founders are prepared for it. So, if you even think selling is your exit strategy, what can you do now to make it smoother and ensure you get the biggest payday possible? Here are five tips.
Make sure your books and records are clean
First, hire a strong controller or CFO as soon as you can. It may not be from day one, but the earlier you do this, the smoother the process will be. Along those same lines, hire an external accountant and make sure you have outside accountant financials. Again, it makes things much smoother. Next, many founders make the mistake of mingling their money and the company’s money. It's easy to do if you use your own money to get the company through hard times and loan yourself money when you need it. But don't use the company as a piggy bank. Keeping your finances separate will make things much cleaner in the long run.
Think about getting hit by a bus
Take a good look at your company from the top down with the perspective of a third party. If you were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, could your company continue with someone else stepping in to run it? It should be able to, and that is how you should run your company from day one. It will make your company much more appealing to potential buyers if it is more of an “institution” (meaning it has policies and procedures) vs. a “mom and pop” (think back-of-the-napkin agreements and all knowledge in your head). It will also make the due diligence faster and more economical.
Hold on to your equity
Many companies are excited by the idea of venture capital. Still, you need to remember that the equity you give in exchange for funding means less money for you in an acquisition. Let's say a VC invests in your company in return for 10% equity—when you sell for $20 million, you just give away $2 million of that payday to your investor. On the other hand, if you were to finance your growth via a line of credit and pay it back when you sell, you own most, if not all, of your company. (I say "most" because venture capital and debt can work hand-in-hand, so if you are using a combination of the two, you have likely given away a smaller piece of your pie.) In that $20 million payday example, you might pay a couple hundred thousand on your line of credit versus $2 million.
Involve a trusted team
It’s always hard to let your team know you are thinking of selling; it’s emotional and you don’t want them to worry or leave. But involving a small group of trusted employees in the process is critical. You cannot sell a business and run a business at the same time! You may not have considered it, but sale prices are moving targets during the due diligence phase. If you don't delegate to your most trusted teammates to keep the business going, you may lose focus and stop growing, impacting your ultimate sale price.
You also need an advisor on your side. Hire someone from the outside to help you, so you don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment. Some advisors buy and sell companies for a living—they are experts on the nuances, “what is market” and getting you the best possible deal.
Manage your expectations on valuation
Everyone wants to be the next Justin’s, RXBar or Vita Coco, but those valuations are for unicorns and they are far and few between. Don’t go out to market with the expectation of a massive valuation because you will be disappointed, you will turn off potential buyers and you will lose your leverage if you have to go back for round two with a lower number. You only get one chance to make a good first impression.
Selling a business that you started, or have a good deal of equity in, can be emotional, complex and sometimes overwhelming. But you can take steps to prepare, make it a smoother process and get a bigger payday. Ultimately, it’s an exciting time, the result of lots of hard work and the realization of a dream. Wherever you are in the process, congratulations!
Jennifer Palmer is CEO of Gerber Finance, the leading Asset Based Lender for fast-growing brands, with a specialty in natural products through its Naturally Gerber division.