3 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 an acquirer. They hand over the check and you ride off into the sunset.
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 3 steps to take in planning 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.
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: 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 / business broker), putting together a marketing package for your business, shopping it to potential acquirers, 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.
Step 3: 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 one to three years from the time you make the changes.
Figuring out when to sell
It certainly would be nice to make a clean, crisp break from your business after an all-out sprint, but for the vast majority of businesses, the process of selling a company is a squishy, multi-year slog. So the sooner you start, the better.