Buying an existing business is one of the best ways to break into a new market, acquire valuable copyrights or patents, or leverage your expertise to steer a stagnating business in the right direction. While acquiring a business typically requires more funds upfront, the risks tend to be less than starting your own business—as long as you buy smart, that is.
We teamed up with Richard Phillips of Crossroads Capital to create a webinar guiding the smaller financial buyer eying the middle market. We’ve included the link to the full 60-minute webinar at the end of this article. Here we specifically address two key insights about buying an existing business: buy-side challenges to consider and how to develop a communications approach that turns those challenges to your advantage. So, let’s get to it!
Buy-Side Challenges Facing Smaller Financial Buyers
Because the mid-market M&A environment is highly competitive, if you are a smaller financial buyer looking at buying an existing business, you are unlikely to be able to compete on price alone. Bigger, strategic buyers will be in a position to offer better deal terms and be able to outbid you in most cases. This means you need to get clear about who you are and what you offer AND you need to be creative in coming up with a strong target list, developing your relationships, and negotiating deals.
First, keep in mind that opportunities to buy are not limited to brokers’ lists or small business auctions. In fact, investment bankers, who advise smaller commercial buyers recommend looking closely at not-for-sale companies. While it is tougher to find business owners who are willing to sell here, when you do find one, it can be easier to close a deal.
One key advantage you have over bigger buyers is flexibility, so use it. Your flexibility may allow you to shape a deal that’s more attractive to the seller. Consider that small business owners willing to sell often have concerns beyond price. An owner who has built her business from the ground up over the past 40 years may prefer an agreement that includes provisions for her continued involvement as a consultant or a guarantee that loyal employees will be protected. Bigger buyers often can’t or won’t make such promises.
Because many owners of middle market businesses care as much (or more) about non-financial concerns as they do about the money, it’s important to think about the transaction from the seller’s perspective. This may be challenging since, as a buyer, you will be primarily focused on the business valuation and financials. But this broader focus will pay dividends in the long run.
As you begin discussions, keep the following likely differences in mind:
- Personal: Business owners are often at a different stage in life than buyers and have different motivations. This makes sense if you think about when an owner might be in a position to sell, e.g., when she’s ready to retire. Also, according to recent reports, America’s business owners tend to be older (50% over 55). There may be important generational differences between you and the seller.
- Cultural: While you may be a numbers person, keep in mind that your seller is likely not tracking KPI’s or sweating over spreadsheets. Most business owners in this environment are independent-minded and focused on qualitative measures. Many entrepreneurs build their businesses by making smart short-term decisions and keeping their noses to the grindstone, rather than thinking about their exit strategy. Sweat equity may be all they know.
- Situational: Above all else, remember that while this may be one deal among many for you, this business owner will likely sell only once. Be respectful of this mindset difference and realize that if the seller expresses “sellers’ remorse,” resistance, or reluctance, he’s probably not trying to be a jerk—he’s trying to get things right. It can also help to keep in mind that you’re both doing something you’ve never done before. You’ve never bought this business and he’s never sold this business.
Overall, if you approach discussions with the owner of a not-for-sale business with an attitude of respect and a willingness to be flexible on the terms of a deal, you both stand to gain. Now let’s get specific about what your approach should look like.
Keeping the above challenges in mind, it’s clear that if you approach a potential seller with complicated spreadsheets and graphs, you’re likely to be met with polite stares, if not a quick invitation to show yourself out. This is not to say the numbers aren’t important to a seller, but buying an existing business is all about how you present the rationale behind the numbers, not to mention yourself and your qualifications as a buyer.
Ask yourself: What’s my differentiator?
Although you want to buy this business, your approach should come from more of a seller’s mindset. Your goal should be to articulate your value and sell your organization to the owner. Above all, gain rapport by listening to the seller, figuring out what she needs most to be comfortable selling, and then being willing to adapt to those needs. The bottom line is you have to build credibility with the business owner or you don’t have a deal. Period.
Key ingredients in your winning pitch:
1. Articulate your organization’s value. Be ready to talk about your mission and how buying an existing business fits into the broader vision you have for your organization. Bonus points for connecting this with the seller’s values.
2. Come up with a seller-focused message. Paint a clear picture that explains why this particular business, what your aspirations are for the future, and how you are uniquely positioned to usher this business into that bright future. This message needs to be authentic. If you simply say what you think the seller wants to hear, without buying in yourself, the owner will see right through you.
3. Emphasize how you stand apart from other potential buyers. It’s not unheard of in a competitive environment, such as the mid-market, for there to be 10 other buyers offering all-cash deals. It’s imperative for you to talk about how you and your team could be an asset to the company you want to buy. Talk about the unique strengths can bring that help them achieve their vision for the business.
Again, go beyond the numbers and consider the owner’s mindset. She is considering turning over her company, which is more like her baby, to a complete stranger. You would have reservations too. Help her see past those reservations through your message.
Remember: This is Personal
Finally, as you consider how to set yourself apart from other buyers, know that making the personal connection and gaining the seller’s trust can absolutely determine who wins the sale in the end. You’ve probably heard stories about home buyers in competitive markets writing heartfelt, handwritten notes to sellers and getting the house because of the letter. The same strategy can work in buying an existing business.
But before you pull out the stationary, it’s crucial to locate the point of overlapping values early on and expand on those points of relevance throughout the process. Describe your respect for the seller’s legacy and her motivations, talk about your investment plan and growth strategies, and discuss your philosophy on performance-aligned compensation. In other words, appeal to the owner’s beliefs about what it takes to successfully run this business.
There’s no doubt smaller buyers face several challenges in buying an existing business. But the right communications approach can turn those challenges into a winning strategy. If you remain open to opportunities to show that your aspirations align with the owner’s aspirations and that you can be creative with your deal structure, you can succeed in the mid-market M&A environment.
Once you’ve decided buying an existing business is your next move, it’s time to find the right advisors to guide you through the 16-18 month process. At Audacia Strategies, we’re here to support you before, during, and after your acquisition. We live for strategy!
For additional insights on this hot topic, follow this link to hear Katy and Richard’s full webinar: Succeeding as a Small Financial Buyer in Mid-Market M&A.
Photo credit: Wavebreak Media Ltd