The most frequently asked question from those selling small businesses has to do with where and how to find buyers.

Small businesses are used to bootstrapping and implementing guerrilla tactics, and therefore they're used to getting the word out via networking, flyers, even signs in windowsnone of which works well in the business sale process. This is a time for discretion and confidentiality.

You need to offer your business for sale in a manner that doesn't tip off customers, suppliers, creditors or employees. And most certainly you don't want to let competitors know your sale plansunless you're considering a specific competitor as a likely buyer.

If you know a specific person or business that's likely to buy your business, you can proceed with a confidential inquiry. To cast more widely for buyers, the only safe approach is to offer your business for sale discreetly and without identification, using brokers or blind ads to get the word out.

The following steps can help you sort through and decide on your options.

Step 1: Define the likely buyer of your business.

Remember the old line, "Fish where the fish are biting"? In some ways, deciding where to advertise your business follows that age-old advice. Figure out who is most likely to buy your business, and then think about where and how you can best reach your prospects.

  • Is your business likely to sell to someone seeking to buy any business or a business specifically like yours?
  • Can anyone who is financially qualified buy your business or does the buyer need to have specific qualifications, credentials, or licenses?
  • Do you think your business is most apt to sell to an individual buyer, or to another business, or to an investor group?

Step 2: Determine how best to reach the likely buyer of your business.

The following chart helps you zero in on the person or business most likely to acquire your business, along with the marketing approaches most likely to reach the buyer you've defined.


Buyer Description

Marketing Approach


Local ads; local broker

Industry specific ads; industry specific broker

Online business for sale sites

Confidential Inquiries

An individual who lives or wants to live in the region where your business is located, who is considering a wide range of business offerings specifically in your market area.





An individual who is considering a wide range of businesses in a number of geographic areas.





An individual or business seeking to acquire a business specifically of your type but in a number of geographic areas.





An individual seeking a business of your type who has the specific credentials or certification to acquire your business.





An investor or investor group seeking to acquire a business of your type in a number of geographic areas.





A competitor or supplier with a strategic reason to acquire your business.





An individual seeking to acquire a franchised business.

If you're selling a franchise, called a franchise resale, consult with your franchisor before beginning the sale process, both because there are contractual obligations to follow and because the franchisor may have a list of interested buyers to share. If not, use online listing sites through which you'll reach the broadest range of prospective buyers.

When the buyer and seller are in the same market area the sale is called an "intramarket transaction," which describes the majority of all small business sales. Often these deals include a local broker, and almost always they involve online business-for-sale searches. Just as people search online for real estate in their own market areas, they also search the Internet for businesses for sale in their communities.

Step 3. Target your advertising efforts.

If you're using a broker to sell your business, the marketing of your business becomes the broker's responsibility. Still, it's worth it to understand where buyers are looking for businesses so you're in a good position to evaluate your broker's marketing plan or, if you're selling without an intermediary, to reach buyers on your own.

Match your likely buyer to one or several of the following descriptions to determine how best to reach your target audience.

  • Buyers interested only in business offerings in a specific market area often work through local brokers. They also read local classified ads, and almost all search online listing sites, where they limit their searches to their desired market area. Many also ask bankers, accountants, attorneys or business leaders for leads, which you can tap into through very discreet networking, often working through the confidential relationship established with your accountant or attorney.
  • Buyers interested only in business offerings in a specific industry or professional arena most likely search online listing sites where they can customize their searches by business type, size, and location. They also read trade publications and sites. Most also network to seek leads, which you can cultivate by making confidential contacts with association executives in your industry or professional arena.
  • Buyers interested in a wide range of businesses over a far-flung area almost certainly search online business-for-sale sites for opportunities.
  • Nine out of ten prospective buyers shop online listings, regardless of whether they're working with a broker, whether they're looking for businesses in a specific region or business arena, or whether they're open to a wide range of business and geographic areas.

In next week’s installment of “Selling Your Small Business” we’ll discuss writing ads that attract and pre-qualify buyers.   

Editor’s Note: This article is the twelfth piece in a series taken from’s Guide to Selling Your Small Business. The guide is a comprehensive manual to help small business owners maximize their success when the day to sell arrives. Each Wednesday, will publish a new section of the guide outlining’s best practices, from the initial planning stages of a sale all the way through negotiations and post-sale transition.