The following is an excerpt from investor Brent Beshore’s recent book, The Messy Marketplace: Selling Your Business in a World of Imperfect Buyers. Beshore is founder and CEO of adventur.es, a Midwestern-based permanent equity firm.
As a seller, it can be easy to fixate on the numbers. “My business is worth X. I’m going to get Y cash at close.” These figures will represent some of the largest you’ve seen in your lifetime. The focus on valuation is understandable, but remember that structure and terms are equally important in negotiation.
When negotiating with a qualified and trustworthy investor (a.k.a. the type of buyer you probably want), you should take advantage of their expertise. While this may seem counterintuitive, they have spent their careers understanding creative ways to structure a deal, from responsible options and uses of debt to how to properly incentivize existing leadership to ensure a smooth transition. Your best path is to tell them what is important to you and why, and also what you recognize to be the risks in the deal. Then let them explain what options may satisfy both parties best. To be clear, I’m not suggesting blind trust in a buyer regardless of reputation, or your intuition. Always approach a proposed solution with open-minded skepticism.
To illustrate, here are a handful of scenarios:
QUICK EXIT: You tell the buyer that you will only consider an offer that provides all cash at close because of grave health concerns. Immediate liquidity is priority number one. You are asking the buyer to assume all responsibility and liability for not only the future prospects of the organization, but also the transition post-close. The buyer will apply a discount and the resulting valuation will likely be substantially less than a deal with more structure over a longer time period.
MARKET-BASED EXIT: You tell the buyer that you have a target valuation range, providing research that backs up why you believe it is reasonable for your business. The buyer will compare your research against their own, and also the circumstances of your company. Sellers sometimes bring forth research on industry-relevant com- panies unrelated in scale, leadership depth, and earnings history, which a buyer will quickly disregard. If the research is valid, how- ever, the buyer will likely calculate a similar valuation range (it may not be exactly the same, but they’ll tell you why) and focus on structure and terms. What percentage will be earned out to ensure performance? What guarantees will be outlined about key employees and customers?
BRIGHT FUTURE EXIT: You tell the buyer the company is set up for future growth, you have confidence in the projections provided, and, while you need some immediate liquidity, you want to share in the upside. The buyer will structure the deal to share risk and reward.
Valuation and terms for each of these exit scenarios will be varied, and that’s a good thing. They’re creative solutions. It’s key to remember what’s important to you and evaluate the options against those criteria. And above all, communicate your interests clearly.
There are no hard rules in valuation. A buyer doesn’t have to match another buyer’s offer, accept your presented adjustments, or meet your demands on timeline or payment structure in their offer. And, you don’t have to sell. Every value and formula is negotiable.