You built your company from the ground up. You developed the idea, you hired the team, you may have even written the first line of code. It's your baby, and you've done everything you can to raise it to be the best company it can be.
Unfortunately, not everything works out as planned, and your startup may not have grown up to be that coveted Unicorn. However, it's not exactly a dud, either. It has revenue, it has customers, it has a brand, but maybe it's harder to scale than you thought it would be, and your investors are weary of continuing to invest in "the vision." So now, it's time to change the game plan.
Unless you can turn a profit, you probably want to start shopping for a buyer. No need to throw in the towel and walk away. Selling your company is still a win and not all outcomes are for a billion dollars. If you're in a situation where it makes sense to sell, and you don't have major acquirers knocking on your door, you can still orchestrate a successful sale of your company by following these seven steps.
This process is based on what I learned while selling inSparq and speaking with other founders. Every venture and every acquisition is going to be different, but these steps should give you a good blueprint for how to architect your exit:
1. Test the Waters
Before you go out guns blazing and reach out to a large pool of potential buyers, start by testing the potential buyer waters with your story to see if there is interest. Work with your board and advisors to frame the story and then identify and reach out to three perfect buyers. These are companies you are probably working with who already know you, like channel partners or co-marketing partners. Before investing unnecessary time in the sales process, you'll be able to see if you've garnered actual, viable interest from the market. If at least one company starts to engage, expand your outreach as quickly as possible.
2. Commit to the Process
Once you know there is interest, commit to the process and don't go about selling your company in a half-hearted way. Create a list of every company you know that may be a good buyer, including your channel partners, vendors, clients and companies in tangential industries. Get creative and work with your investors and advisors to expand this list to be as broad as possible. And don't worry about the word getting out--it's more important to cast a wide net and get some serious bites in the process.
3. Prepare a Pitch Deck
Prepare a deck that tells your company's story to help any prospective buyer understand your product, team, customers, revenue and strategic value. A prior investor deck is probably a good place to start. You will likely be sharing this deck prior to signing an NDA, so be sure to keep your trade secrets and IP out of this version. In the initial meeting, be ready to talk in depth about how your business could contribute to the business of the prospective buyer. An even better approach is to prepare a couple of customized slides explaining the buyer's possible uses for your technology.
4. Find a Third Party Broker
Selling a business can be very personal, similar to selling a home or artwork. Being in the house while your agent is touring prospective buyers will make them uncomfortable and concerned about insulting you with their feedback and initial offering price. Same thing with this kind of sale; take yourself and any unnecessary tension out of the equation by having a detached third party broker the deal. You'll get more offers in the door and will also be able to collect valuable feedback that will improve the sales pitch and process along the way. If you're too small to hire a banker to do the job, find an advisor that will do it for a minimum fee with an upside.
5. Prepare Your Virtual Data Room for Diligence
Get all your documents in order: financial statements, investor docs, board resolutions, team bios, marketing materials, patent/IP documentation, etc. You should only provide serious buyers access to your data room, and only after they sign an NDA. Having it ready in advance will help move your process along more quickly, not to mention make you and your company look prepared and organized.
6. Establish Criteria for Evaluating Offers and Set a Timeline
Determine upfront what you and your investors want in a sale. Is it cash, or will you take stock in a growing company? Do you want to stay with the entity, and, if so, for how long? How much do you need to be paid in your new acquihire role? If you're getting interest, try to establish a reasonable timeline for when you want term sheets to come with the details of the offer. You want to try and align the timing so that you can leverage multiple offers and negotiate the best deal.
7. Find a Good Lawyer to Help You Negotiate
Negotiating the sale of your business will most likely be pretty stressful. Not only are you selling your baby, but you're also likely navigating several parties at once: the buyer, investors, cofounders, etc. Everyone has their own objectives and agendas, and let's face it, it's unrealistic to assume every party is going to get everything it wants. You have to focus on the best deal for the whole, and an experienced lawyer can help you negotiate key issues, advise you on the market realities of other deals, and even help mediate when things get tense (and they probably will).
Honestly, selling a company is not for the faint of heart. No matter the business at stake, the process can be challenging and very emotional. While it may not be an official step included in the process, make sure that while you are going through it, you have an outlet to help you keep focused and calm.
However long it takes, and however trying it might be, don't lose faith in yourself or in your company's worth. Getting things over the finish line-and you can get it over that line-is much better than throwing your hands up and walking away. While it's not easy, your investors and team will be grateful, and your company will live to grow another day.
Veronika Sonsev is a leading expert in advertising and ecommerce technology. Currently, she is a consultant and advisor to digital startups. Previously, she was the CEO of inSparq (acquired by Adiant Media). inSparq helped retailers and brands discover and market their trending products in real time. Veronika led inSparq to become the solution of choice for leading retailers like Adidas, Bloomingdales and Newegg. Before that, she was an operating executive at AOL and Jumptap (a mobile advertising network acquired by Millennial Media/AOL), where she launched international markets, built new business lines and developed strategic partnerships.
Veronika is also Cofounder and Chairman of Women in Wireless, a national organization that promotes and develops female leaders in mobile and digital media, and is on the retail advisory board for Remodista, an educational consultancy helping retailers navigate digital disruption. Veronika holds an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a BA in Economics from American University. She was recently honored by Fast Company as one of 60 members to The League of Extraordinary Women and by TechWeek as one of the Top 100 digital leaders in New York. You can find Veronika on Twitter at @vsonsev and on LinkedIn athttps://www.linkedin.com/in/vsonsev.