This is my final MBA Mondays post on M&A Issues. I've been posting about M&A since last December. It feels like a semester long effort. And frankly I'm a bit tired of talking about M&A every monday. But selling your company is an important topic and I think we've done it justice now on MBA Mondays.
Price is certainly the most important issue in a sale transaction. You need to consider all of the issues we talked about when deciding whether or not to accept an offer to buy your company. But at the end of the day, price is the big issue.
The best way to get the highest price in a sale transaction is to have a competitive process. Multiple serious bidders will force the buyers to bid more agressively than they would otherwise.
However, most buyers don't want to be in an auction. You can lose potential buyers, maybe your best buyers, by overtly conducting an auction. So you must be careful about this. My favorite approach is to get one bid, then quietly get another, and all of sudden you have a competitive process. I don't like to start out the process telling everyone that "we are running an auction."
Sometimes, you will get your best price from a buyer who wishes to pre-empt the auction process by putting out an early agressive bid in an attempt to win the deal without competition. Pay serious attention to these offers. I have seen pre-emptive offers top bids obtained in a competitive process.
The problem with pre-emptive offers is you don't really know what the "market will bear" if you go through with a competitive process. So the pre-emptive offer needs to come with a premium over what you think that fair price is to incent you to avoid the sale process and sign with the pre-empting buyer.
You should go into a sale process with a target price. That target price needs to be based on some sort of logic and rationale. An investment banker can help with this. It is one of the best reasons to get an investment bank involved in a sale process. But you don't need an investment bank to do this valuation work. If you have venture capital investors, they can help you do it. Or if you have a strong finance team, led by a transactional CFO, you can do it yourself. Some of the early MBA Mondays posts can help you do this valuation work. Here is a table of contents of all the MBA Mondays posts to date in case you want to look back at some of them.
I generally like to look out a couple years, no more than three, and figure out what the business would be worth if it remained independent based on cash flow multiples, revenue multiples, or mutiples of active users who have an established lifetime value. That becomes the target price. My rationale for using this method is the buyer ought to be willing to pay a premium over what the business is worth today for asking the company to give up all future value potential. But you can't ask the buyer to pay now for all the upside that the business could obtain if it remained independent. So a few years of future value, especially if it is reasonably visible to everyone, particularly the buyer, is a reaasonable approach.
If you run a process and you cannot obtain a bid at or in excess of your target price, you should stay independent unless you are in a distressed situation. As painful as it is to the senior management team and the entire company to go through a sale proceess and end up with nothing, the alternative – accepting a price that you believe is not fair – is worse. I've seen plenty of companies go through a sale process, come up with nothing good, and then go back to business and continue to create value and come up with a much better deal a few years later. It's tough the first six months or so, but then everyone moves on and the failed process becomes a distant memory.
If a buyer meets or exceeds your target price, you will want to seriously consider the offer. If you made the decision to sell the company, ran a process, and hit your target price, you should think very hard before walking away from the deal. If however, you did not set out to sell the company, but were approached, that is another story. I've seen many entrepreneurs regret selling after the fact. Don't let a great price force you into a sale that you are not ready to live with.
In summary, when selling your company, do the work upfront to get to a target price that makes sense to you, your senior team, your investors, and will make sense to the universe of buyers you want to target. Then figure out how to get multiple bidders to the table to get the best price. And make sure you want to sell the business before you go through with all of that. Because getting a great price for your business is not easy and when you've accomplished that, you'll want to be able to say yes comfortably.