The Unsellable Company

What does an unsellable company look like? Some business brokers will assert that there is a buyer for any business. That may be true, but historically four out of every five small businesses listed for sale fail to sell.

In this post I am specifically discussing profitable Main Street businesses. That is loosely defined as those valued at under $3,000,000. “Small” doesn’t necessarily refer to size. Some low margin businesses, such as those in distribution of commodity products, could have revenue well into eight figures and still be not command a $3 million valuation.

Others, like those with proprietary software, might have a few million dollars in revenue and be snapped up by a strategic buyer for an eight figure price.

The buyers for most Main Street businesses are individuals who are seeking a livelihood. They usually have never owned a business, and are betting their life savings on the venture. It’s not surprising that they are nervous.

The price ceiling on defining a Main Street company is based on the projected ownership. Simply put, if a business’ principle purpose is to provide an owner (or perhaps a few owners) with a decent standard of living, the ceiling on valuation is based on what the company’s cash flow can support in owner salary, debt service and ROI on the down payment.

To see if your presumed value supports these three requirements, try the Valuation Sanity Check at http://yourexitmap.com/exit-planning-valuation-sanity-check/.

Just because your cash flow justifies your price however, doesn’t mean your company is saleable (or as my Canadian friend John Warrillow writes it in Built to Sell, sellable.) There are still a number of reasons why a solidly profitable business may not find a buyer.

Owner Centricity

Simply put, the whole business revolves around you.  A buyer’s due diligence keeps running into you at the end of every question. How do you do this? (Ask Bob.) Who are your most important customers? (Ask Bob.) What discounts are available from your suppliers? (Ask Bob.) You get the picture.

Even if you have excellent processes, duplicable talents and widespread delegation, an owner who personally holds the professional license needed to legally operate presents a similar issue for a buyer.

Customer Concentration

Some small businesses are very good at what they do, but luck always plays a part. If you’ve grown by depending on one customer for over 50% or your business, or a handful of customers for 80%, expect individual buyers to shy away.

Long term relationships are great, but if they aren’t documented don’t expect them to carry much weight in a valuation. It’s one thing to be proud of doing business on a handshake. It’s another to bet your life savings on one.

Uncertain Revenues or Margins

If you have to explain your tax returns with “We have some good years and some bad years,” you will have a problem attracting buyers. They don’t have your confidence that a bad year will be followed by a good one. If they are committing their retirement savings to the purchase (which is often the case) they are worried about having the financial stamina to withstand a dip in sales.

Similarly, it you are regularly buttressing your revenues with cuts in margin through big discounts or volume deals, it will be perceived by a prospective buyer as regularly having to “save” the business.

You may have steadily increasing revenues and profits, but companies that bid, or have to submit proposals for each job, strike fear into the hearts of inexperienced buyers. They have nightmares about failing to win another job from the day they take over.

Contracts help with this, but they often aren’t enough. I worked with one buyer whose offer was based on the revenue stream from each existing contract until it expired. He wanted to be made whole for the purchase price even if he proved unable to ever land another big customer.

The Unsellable Company

If you recognize your business as having any of these traits, you have three choices when it comes to exit planning.

You can sell the company to employees who understand the constraints of the business and are comfortable with them. You can list the company for sale anyway, and hope that yours is among the 20% of enterprises for whom the right buyer can be found.

Finally, you can implement a plan to eliminate the obstacles to a sale.

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