How do you imagine life after selling your business? Are you travelling? Europe maybe? Patagonia, or somewhere nice and warm?
If you’re like most of the business owners I know, you imagine selling your business, having a going-away party, and riding off into the sunset.
Increasingly, it’s not working out that way.
In a shaky economy, with banks shy to lend, the proportion of cash that business owners get when they sell is sinking with the proportion of the sale price put “at risk” in some sort of “earn-out” or “vendor take back” loan is going up.
Recently, I hosted a workshop in Toronto and invited an M&A professional who spoke about the typical deals she is doing these days. She shared the story of one buyer who is acquiring marketing services businesses for as much as ten times earnings before tax. The fine print? They only pay three times earnings upfront and leave the possibility of the other seven in a five-year earn-out.
Buyers and sellers come at the M&A process from totally different points of view.
The seller is usually just willing their tired old body to the finish line. On the other, you have a buyer just about to fire the starting gun. But the buyer isn’t planning on doing any running; they expect you to hear the gun and run faster than you ever imagined possible.
Is it just me, or is there something wrong with this picture?
Note to buyers: we’re tired, not stupid
I think buyers need to stop being greedy. I saw a deal recently where a rental business had grown to twelve million dollars in sales and more than two million in EBITDA. They were being offered six million dollars upfront and another six million dollars available through a complicated, five year earn-out formula.
Are you kidding?
Do you know what it takes to build a business from scratch to a point where it is generating two million dollars of profit? Have you any idea how burned out and tired the business owner must feel? This owner has built the business to the equivalent of a Picasso and you want to steal it for three times earnings?
For a gem like this, you need to pay a decent multiple upfront and put a reasonable set of goals together for a one or two-year earn-out. I don’t care what your spreadsheet says; a victory lap is okay but indentured servitude is not.
Note to sellers: move up your “sell by” date
Sellers – I like you. A lot. I consider myself on your side, but you have to understand that the days of driving off into the sunset on closing day (unless maybe you own a technology business that runs itself) are over. As a seller, I would tell you to plan to sell WAY earlier than you think you want to, so that you still have the energy, ideas and passion for the business to get you through the earn-out.
Yes, if you do everything right (recurring revenue, management team, unique niche, double digit EBITDA growth etc.), you can increase the cash proportion of your take from a sale from maybe 40% cash upfront to something closer to 65 or 70%; but you’re still going to be leaving at least a third – if not much more – of your money on the table if you plan to take your foot off the gas after closing day.
If you think you want out in five years, my advice is to plan to sell in two, so you have some juice left to get you over the finish line, which is moving ever further away.