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Investors are looking to buy a business, an engine that generates revenues and profits separate and distinct from the value a retiring owner contributes to the business.

It's not about you

Posted by David Humphrey on 28 February 2017 | Comments

The sale of your company is not about you.  Well, it probably is, but that should not be the focus during the sales process. Think like the buyer; investors are looking to buy a business, an engine that generates revenues and profits separate and distinct from the value a retiring owner contributes to the business.  

There are a number of businesses where the owner's role and skills in the business are integral to operations.   While Mark Zuckerberg is synonymous with Facebook, he is not the business, at least not any more.  Steve Jobs will always be remembered for his role at Apple, but he was not the business, which has continued to grow in revenues and value after his death.  However, the brain surgeon you never heard of is likely a critical component of her medical practice. There is no need for nurses and techs or reception and billing without the doctor. A brain surgeon is an extreme example, however there are many other comparable roles in smaller businesses:

  • An owner who is the chemist that invents new compounds can be the heart of the business.
  • An owner who fills the role of the engineer, designing and improving the product line, who is sorely needed to finish the next generation of an important product.
  • The owner, who is the chief salesperson, the face of the organization at all the client events, Chamber meetings, community charities and other business generation activities.

We regularly ask owners this question, "Who is the one person in the organization who if they were hit by a bus this morning on the way to work would cause everybody else to begin looking for a new job?"  If that person is you, then there needs to be a conversation about the value of the business with you and the value without you.  If you are the most critical employee and want to achieve premium value, take steps now to make your role less sensitive. Alternatively, consider whether you will be willing to work for the new owner for a period of time.  It can sometimes take years to transition your special skills, relationships and knowledge to value to others.

Owners who are not critical to the business often unknowingly send mixed messages to investors and should be aware of this potential value trap. Being proud of the business they built, they tend to tell stories about the business that have "I" in them. "I landed the new customer," when it was really a team effort to find the customer, learn about their requirements and make the pitch. The owner may have played an important role in "closing" the business at the end, but it was the fact that he was the owner and conceded a financial gap, one only an owner is authorized to bridge. Buyers are wary of stories that say, "I noticed a potential flaw in the product and designed a critical work around," suggesting that without you the product would have been doomed, when the flaw would have been discovered by the team anyway in due course.   

Generally, owners should try to avoid “I” stories when they talk about the business. The focus of strong businesses that stand alone from the working owner typically have stories that convey company successes as we also noted in the awards blog post. Better stories suggest the engineering team developed a new product, the sales team landed a new client and the production team found a way to reduce cost. The owner's role in each of these events was to hire the right talent and then supervise, motivate and give them the tools to be successful.