Expert pointers on the details of selling a business, planning an IPO, and choosing a successor.
Whether you're planning on selling your business, plotting the path toward taking your company public, or mulling the details of your succession planning, chances are Inc. has written about the experience. We've compiled tips gathered by our reporters from experts on making a smooth exit from your business – as well as a couple that exemplify what not to do when ducking out.
1. Know when to fold.
When first approached by Amazon, Zappos founder Tony Hsieh made clear his desire not to sell his online footwear sales company at any price. However, when conflicts within Zappos's board of directors led to lasting friction over the company's long-term goals, Hsieh started to reconsider the deal, he wrote. Finally, in 2009, a meeting with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos turned fruitful – and Hsieh says he realized that selling might yield something better for the company than continuing to deal with an unsupportive board. Read more.
2. Watch out for your employees.
Until you sign on the dotted line, remember, it's still your company and they're still your employees. And you might end up keeping the whole shebang should negotiations not work out in the end, so you need to consider your workers' point of view. Norm Brodsky learned that by helping out in an attempted sale of a company he founded, CitiStorage. He wrote for Inc., "As educational as the entire process has been for me, it has taken a toll on the morale of my employees, especially my senior managers. They've endured three rounds of due diligence and watched a parade of potential buyers come through the company. Each group of strangers in suits served as a reminder of the uncertain future we faced. I could almost feel the anxiety level in the building rise whenever a new group showed up. Staff members couldn't help wondering whether they'd still have jobs after a sale. Inevitably, the rumor mill cranked up, and we began hearing disgruntled noises from some key people." So, Brodsky says, as different companies came around to talk, he made sure that potential buyers dealt exclusively with his partner and him. Learn more about the attempted sale.
3. Before an IPO, consider the downsides.
Potentially, there are several. The biggest one for management and founders, Elizabeth Wasserman writes, is often the loss of control over the company. Same goes for initial investors. As a public company, the management team faces severe pressure to meet the quarterly earnings estimates of research analysts, which can make it much more difficult to manage the business for long-term growth and profitability. Also consider that the Securities and Exchange Commission requires public companies to disclose data you might not be prepared to reveal. Another possible downside: Poor performance after going public. That can be a thud of negative publicity for your company. Learn more.
4. Don't call it retirement.
Hey, you can exit your business in your 30s, and have a full, satisfying career after the fact. There are plenty of reasons for wanting to sell a business you've built that don't involve retirement. John Warrillow, author of Built to Sell: Turn Your Business into One You Can Sell, thought of a few. Perhaps you want to…
· Become an angel investor;
· Capitalize on an unsolicited offer for your business;
· Write a serious check to a charity;
· Get rid of your mortgage;
· Start a bigger, faster and more profitable business;
· Live debt free;
· Take a year off to coach your kid's baseball team;
· Buy a beach house
Check out more of what Warrillow has to say on selling your business.
5. Have the right management team in place.
If you're considering going public, you'll need a management team with the right strengths and capabilities. Getting such a team in place could take years. "The senior management team must have considerable financial and accounting experience in complying with increasingly complex financial and accounting requirements," Elizabeth Wasserman writes. To stack up, some pre-IPO companies seek to recruit CFOs or other executives from outside who have had experience going public with other companies. While leaders who have been with your company from the start clearly know it best, key managers need to possess strong communication skills to present the company's vision and its performance to the market, and to meet the often-intensive informational demands of research analysts and investors. Read more on the importance of having the right management team in place.
6. Devise a four-step succession plan.
That is, if four steps are right for you. The number well suits Tracy Hart, CEO of Tarlton Corp., the $121 million general-contracting company in St. Louis. She developed a four-part succession process through reading, talking to other CEOs, and brainstorming with her executive team. Part one: begin by ranking the departments by maturity to determine where to focus first. Next: figure out what each department should look like in the near and more distant future. The third step is to identify future leaders. The final step: creating personalized development plans. Then, get developing. Read more.
7. Make yourself desirable to potential buyers.
If you're ready to sell, you obviously want to target your highest potential bidders. Norm Brodsky writes that there are several characteristics you'll want to display to potential buyers. In order to get a good bid, you need to show a history of steady growth, he writes for Inc. You also need to have "sticky sales," or recurring revenue from customers that are locked into the company for one reason or another. It could be a good idea to find a consulting firm in your industry to investigate what potential buyers want. Also, consider that it could be tricky to find a buyer if the business cannot operate without you at the helm. So, consider getting a replacement on track sooner than later. Read more of Brodsky's column.
8. Consider alternatives.
Even if you aren't public, that doesn't mean you can't cash out some of the equity you hold in your business. If your company has issued shares privately, SecondMarket, a New York City financial services company, might be able to help you tap into what's normally an illiquid asset. Last year, SecondMarket launched Private Company Marketplace, a site on which businesses set the terms for sale of their privately held shares, Ryan McCarthy writes for Inc. Barry Silbert, CEO of SecondMarket, says he got the idea in 2008 after brokering the sale of more than $50 million in Facebook shares and receiving a slew of requests for similar sales at start-ups such as Twitter, Tesla Motors, and Glam Media. The service uses SecondMarket's database of 3,000 investors to match buyers, mostly institutional investors, and sellers, mostly employees. Both buyer and seller pay a 2 percent transaction fee. Read more.
9. Don't forget the little things.
If you're planning on working until the very end, you need to think about your legacy – and your legacy online. A whole new specialized area of estate planning is cropping up to help entrepreneurs protect their valuable digital assets, which include domain name registrations, server passwords, online merchant accounts, etc. There are also ways for entrepreneurs to start protecting their digital data without involving an attorney. An online service called Legacy Locker can help you plan for passing on all the digital data that sustains your business. For a $30 yearly fee, or a $300 lifetime membership, you can create an account with Legacy Locker and document all your digital assets. Read more about the details of estate planning.
10. Use your gut.
When you're identifying the future leaders of your business, there's performance reviews, and then there's what you know deep down. "That's pretty easy," says Tracy Hart of Tarlton. "Look at performance appraisals. Ask the supervisors, 'If you got hit by the bus tomorrow who would you want to see in your place? Who is showing fire in the belly?' You do it numerically and you do it by gut." Learn more about Hart's strategy.