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When is the right time to put your business on the market?

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Few decisions in your life will be more important – or difficult – than deciding whether and when to sell your business.

People sell businesses for a multitude of reasons, which are either personal in nature or related to the business or wider economy.

Ranked in order of how often they factor in an entrepreneur’s decision to sell up, according to a survey of sellers around the world, these are the most common personal motivations:

• Retirement (34%) 
• Seeking a new challenge (24%) 
• Relocating to a different area/country (22%) 
• Don’t have enough time to dedicate to the business (12%) 
• Always planned to sell after this many years (12%) 
• Illness (10%) 
• Divorce (2%) 

And now the typical business or economic reasons:

• Always planned to sell once the business had reached this stage of development (9%) 
• Challenging trading conditions (3%) 
• Increasingly difficult to thrive in this sector (3%) 
• Disagreements with business partner (3%) 
• Bought the business but now regret it (2%) 
• Don’t think I’ll ever get a better price for the business (2%) 

Note how personal motives are rather more common than business ones.

“Unfortunately,” says Sean Mallon, founder of Leeds-based business brokerage Intelligent Business Transfer, “many small-business owners decide to sell their business when they need to sell it. While there are times this can’t be avoided – like ill health – most business owners would benefit from some form of planning.” 

Rob Goddard, CEO of Reading-based firm Evolution CBS, echoes these sentiments. “Some owners have a time in mind, usually related to retirement and/or wanting to do something different in life. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many owners who had the luxury of choosing the timing taken away by ill health or other personal circumstances, so planning a time to sell is vital.”

Selling on the way up 

In an ideal world, your target exit date will coincide with an upswing in your business’s fortunes and/or propitious economic conditions (although a 2012 survey by revealed that most business transfer agents said successful businesses were actually attracting more enquiries than before the credit crunch). 

And yet – unless ill health forces the issue – who in their right mind would sell a business that seems primed for many more years of growing revenues? What if you’re jumping ship when its best years are still ahead? 

Read more about understanding when is the right time to sell your business. 

Except you can’t see into the future. However much ‘potential’ the business has, potential doesn’t guarantee success – and do you even have the appetite to make it happen?

“The timing is a lottery,” says serial entrepreneur and experienced business seller Philip de Lisle. “Sell too early and you'll risk leaving money on the table; go too late and you won't leave enough in the deal for the buyer to extract value, so the offer will be lower.

“I’ve always tried to sell on greed – i.e. potential buyers think: ‘He’s mad to sell it now – there’s so much more he could do with it.’ In this scenario, although the profits on which any offers are made will be lower, the multiple should be higher, so I get more overall. 

“If I were to sell nearer the top of the growth curve, the profits would/should be higher, but the margin is likely to be lower, because there is less left ‘in the tank’.”

Rob Goddard, who has 30 years’ experience at senior level in both corporate and private organisations, agrees that it’s better to “time a sale so that the business is in a growth phase but not at its peak.

A typical business growth curve is a repeat of growth-plateau-investment-growth. Businesses grow in the early stages, then plateau and need investment to get to the next level.

“That investment could deliver what the business needs in order to grow – new equipment, people, systems or product development, for example.  

Without that investment, the business tends to flatline and eventually decline.

“So, if you look at this scenario from an acquirer’s perspective, the business is unlikely to warrant a premium price (there are rare exceptions). Equally, if the business is at the top of the growth curve, an acquirer is also unlikely to pay a premium price because investment for growth will be required immediately. In many ways, this should be the starting point for the timing decision.”

Plan ahead

You can reduce your risk by planning ahead, says Sean Mallon, who started his brokerage firm aged just 21.

“Ideally, if you’re even considering exiting your business in the next few years you should start to plan your exit,” he says.

“Almost without exception, the business sales that achieve the highest asking prices are those that are well planned and achieved while the business is in its relative prime.

“Putting your business on the market without everything in place (accounts, documents, contracts) will make achieving the true value of your business far more difficult. By planning your business sale at least six months in advance you will ensure that you have the right structures and processes in place for when you are ready to sell.”

Top tips from a BTA: Rob Goddard, CEO, Evolution CBS

1. Start with your personal objectives. It may seem a rather back-to-front way of doing things but it will give you a clear view of what the business needs to achieve for you.

2. Alongside that plan, create a business growth plan with milestones set to that end date. You’ll be surprised how that changes your business decisions!

3. Don’t put the growth plan in the desk drawer and forget it. Plans need to be reviewed, revised and actioned if they are to be of any use.

The Reading-based Evolution CBS team has more than 100 years’ industry experience. Experts in buying, selling and growing businesses, their bespoke solutions are delivered with the experience and resources you’d expect from a company with such a long pedigree.

Selling on the way down

Sometimes it’s wise to abandon aspirations of selling during a growth phase and cut your losses while you still have chips on the proverbial poker table. 

Perhaps your business is drifting along but you need a new challenge and simply lack the appetite to reinvest for growth. Sometimes the writing is on the wall for your business model – think DVD-rental stores in the late 90s, for instance – and you’re savvy enough to recognise it. 

Tips from someone who’s been there, done it: Philip de Lisle – MD, Enhancing Clarity

1. Sell earlier rather than later – getting the last ounce of value will take longer and cost more than you think.

2. Sell when you have a strong order book and sales are relatively easy to come by.

3. Don’t delay the sale to hold out for a better offer – it may never come and you may lose your existing buyer.

Philip is a serial entrepreneur and business seller as well as non-exec chairman, business mentor and coach, facilitator, speaker and author. Enhancing Clarity is a leading provider of executive mentoring and coaching that transforms how people perform.

Unsolicited offers

There is another reason why people sell businesses. Some business owners sell up without ever having put their business on the market.

However much you enjoy running your business and however exciting your expansion plans, if a temptingly high unsolicited offer comes in, it’s bound to elicit more than a moment’s consideration.