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5 key factors to help you sell your business

Any business owner will eventually be faced with the need to sell their business.

It could happen when a medical change or injury makes it impossible to continue, and you need to sell to secure your family’s future. Or maybe an offer comes along that’s just too good to refuse.

Regardless of the reason, it’s always a good idea to take steps to make your business ready for sale at any time. And as Chapter Seven of the CFO Centre’s book “Scale Up” points out, many of those steps will help make your business life easier, less complicated and with fewer unpleasant surprises, right now and ongoing.

The CFO Centre report “Heading for a big exit goes into detail on some of the steps you can take now to get the best possible offer for your business when the time comes – and make your life easier now as well. Here are five key points covered in more detail in that report:

  1. Ownership

A potential purchaser will want clarity around the question of who currently owns the business. If you’re the sole decision-maker in the company, it may be best to have all the shares in your name.

But if you want to reward long-time employees, and support their continued loyalty, you may want to grant or sell some shares to them. If that’s the case, a potential buyer will want to see that there is an effective shareholder’s agreement in place. This reduces uncertainty for the buyer.

  1. Real property

If your business owns real estate, you need to understand that a buyer may view this as a problem – particularly if owning the land is not essential to the success of the business. Consider separating the property from the business, so that a potential owner has the option of avoiding a commitment to an asset that they may not want. One way to deal with this is to put the land into a holding company controlled by you, and then set up a lease agreement for the business to use the property.

  1. Intellectual property

Over the years your company has likely developed trademarks, patents, brands, and industrial processes that are important to the success of the business. You may not think of them as something that has value, however, anyone considering buying the company will want to be sure about the ownership of this intellectual property and its value. So, it may be good to have your company’s IP valued professionally – you may be able to increase the purchase price based on that valuation.

  1. Customer contracts

Many potential buyers will base their purchase decision on the expected ongoing cashflow of the business. So, they’ll want to know about how much of that cashflow comes through dependable contracts. But they’ll also need to know if those contracts will transfer to the new owner – and if a high proportion of the company’s income is due to the customer’s personal loyalty to the owner. Accordingly, it’s good to carry out an analysis of the company’s major customer contracts to see if the future business is sound. Because cashflow is so important in putting a value on a business, consider some of the points raised in our blog post “How your business can fly away from cash problems.”

  1. Financial records

Many owner-operated businesses are operated in a fairly ad-hoc way. If an idea sounds good, the owner relies on their intuition and experience to decide on the next steps.

Potential buyers need to know that there is a plan in place – including a budget each year that they can see closely matches what was actually spent. They need to know that there are not a lot of unnecessary expenses, such as a local softball team sponsorship that is due largely to the owner’s personal interest, rather than its marketing value.

This is one of the areas where an experienced financial professional from the CFO Centre can help. This person can work with you well ahead of time to build a business that is financially successful and therefore attractive to a potential buyer. You’ll also get help with finding out what potential problem areas might cause a potential buyer to lower their offer or just walk away, so you gain the most benefit from the hard work of building your company.

Scale Up with The CFO Centre - Cashflow

How your business can fly away from cash problems

Do you ever feel that growing your business is like being a bird in a cage? Even if it’s a big cage, it’s still got its limits. For your business, that “cage” can be a lack of cash needed to let your business fly as high as it can.

It shows up when you’re hit with a lack of cash to hire new people, to move to larger premises, or to invest in R&D to upgrade your products. It’s your accountant warning that you’re short on money to make payroll or pay the rent, or your bank asking you to replenish your accounts.

Sometimes, cash flow issues intrude if business is slow, and your fixed payments such as rent and utilities eat up too much of the small amount of revenue that comes in.

But cash can also be a problem if your wildest dreams come true and you have too successful a business. If you need to hire staff, buy inputs like parts and raw materials, and buy and install equipment, that means a lot of cash going out if you’re to meet your customers’ needs (see our post on “Hypergrowth” for more on that).

Even if your customers pay right away, you’re still left holding your financial breath until that money’s in your bank. And you may need to hold your breath a lot longer if your customers take 30, 60 or even more days to pay.

Success-induced cash flow problems are particularly problematic for scale-up companies, because their cash shortages are often much larger than those of startups. Smaller companies can dig into their home equity, a personal line of credit or friends and family. But scale-ups’ cash demands are often too big for those startup-type solutions.

It’s like learning to swim – in the shallow end of the pool you can always put your feet on the bottom. But at the deep end, that’s not an option.

Learning how to deal with those deeper waters starts by understanding how your company can get into cash flow problems in the first place.

What causes cash flow problems?

According to the CFO Centre’s e-book “Cash Flow,” the main causes of cash flow issues are:

Slow-paying customers: Customers may be facing their own cash flow problems and may be inclined to drag their heels on paying your company. There’s often a gap between the time you pay for the inputs to your product – including paying your staff – and when your customers pay you. You may be reluctant to press for payment, partly because you don’t want to alienate or lose a customer, but some customers will take advantage of that.

High fixed costs: You may be paying too much in rent or payroll, because in the optimism of entrepreneurship, you expect to need that capacity sooner rather than later. But your “sooner” may be taking its time arriving. When in growth mode, you’re likely paying more for inputs and fixed costs than you’re bringing in as revenue, so all costs need to be monitored regularly to ensure that you’re not spending too much.

Your prices are too low: You may be trying to win customers, particularly in a market where prices are easily comparable, but if you’re not covering your costs or giving yourself a healthy margin, you risk running out of cash. Customers who choose only based on prices will likely jump to a competitor if you increase what you’re charging.  Understanding your costs and developing your pricing model accordingly is critical.

Other common reasons include low sales volume, too-generous payment terms, bad debts and too much old inventory.

How to get the help you need to avoid cash flow problems

Most entrepreneurs would rather focus on growing the business than watching over the finances. That’s even more so as the business gets bigger, and the cash flow picture becomes more complex.

This means that growing companies can benefit from specialized financial expertise. Sometimes, that expertise is available within the company, but more often, it’s necessary to look outside.

A professional with financial expertise can help you recognize warning signs you may have missed as you focused on growing your business. This person can then help you find ways to deal with those issues, such as pressing customers for faster payment. There may also be opportunities for other ways to deal with your financial crunch such as vendor financing or R&D tax credits, that you may not have fully explored.

For many companies, that means a need for the skills of a Chief Financial Officer, but maybe without the price tag of a full-time CFO’s salary. A part-time CFO may be the answer – someone who is fully part of your leadership team, but on a basis that may range from a few days a month to a few days a week.

The CFO Centre’s “Cash Flow” book provides some suggestions on how to deal with possible cash flow problems, as well as describing your options as regards a part-time CFO.

Scale Up with The CFO Centre

Is the problem your company solves BIG enough?

If you have ambitions to grow your small company into a large one, you need to make sure it has room to grow.

To see how that works, consider that humble box of baking soda in your refrigerator. Baking soda was originally developed for, well, baking. It solved a baker’s problem – the difficulty of getting baked goods to rise. But then, people discovered other problems the product solved – diaper rash, kitchen fires, grease stains … and refrigerator odors.

Manufacturers such as Arm & Hammer found demand for their product that was quite unrelated to their company’s original idea.

But what Arm & Hammer found out indirectly about solving wider and bigger problems, you need to do intentionally. How do you do that? Here’s a three-step process.

1. What problem(s) are you solving now?

You may have started your business to provide a specific product (such as baking soda) or service. But your customers may look at the situation quite differently. They’re looking to buy a solution to a problem they’re facing, like diaper rash or a carpet stain. Sometimes, it’s more than one problem – a box of baking soda helps bake cookies and helps clean the kitchen counter.

So, you need to get a clear idea of what problems you’re solving for your customers now. To do this, consult with your customers directly, get input from your sales team, and see what people are saying about you on social media.

Then ask yourself: are the problems we’re solving now the problems that will help us continue to grow? Should we be solving different, maybe bigger, problems?

2. Find the right bigger problems to solve

The world is full of bigger problems – climate change, overpopulation, civil unrest, and many more. But how do you find the right bigger problems? Some ideas that may guide your quest:

Do people with money feel this problem? If you’re running a business, you need to earn revenue – so the problems you solve must involve people who have the money to pay you. And, the problems must be pressing – those ideal customers must actually feel the pain and urgency enough to want to pay you to solve those problems for them

Does this problem give meaning and urgency to your life? As well as pressing on your customers, the problems you’re solving must motivate you. They have to help you get going in the morning and stay at it all day. Only then will you be able to motivate others on your team, even those who don’t interact directly with customers, to help solve those problems too.

Does this problem have staying power? You need a problem that will continue – and better yet, continue to grow. Only then will you have the basis for a business that has sustainability.

Now, let’s consider how you can bake that sustainability into your business.

3. Develop a solution that’s disruptive

If your answer to the problem of refrigerator odors is another box of baking soda, you may need to re-think your approach. You’ll be struggling against a well-entrenched competitor.

Instead, the solution you offer must be disruptive – in other words, it must be unusual and offer new solutions to existing problems. One reason is that if it’s a big enough problem, it won’t be solvable by current thinking, or someone would have solved it already. And, you need to seize attention, and offer an advantage compelling enough so that potential customers will say, “I want some of that.”

Our work at the CFO Centre is something like that. We saw a problem – entrepreneurs whose dreams crash to earth because they don’t have the financial lift they need under their wings. And we saw that many companies can’t afford a full-time experienced CFO (that cash problem again), and what’s more, they don’t need one.

What many (we like to think all) growing companies can use is ongoing access to a CFO’s ability to clear away the financial stumbling blocks, but without a full-time CFO’s cost. So was born our “fractional” CFO – a permanent, but part-time, financial advisor.

That’s our disruptive solution.

One thing we’ve found out is the importance of having the cash you need to build a way to solve the “big problem” you’ve decided to focus on. Without cash, it’s like you’re trying to walk when you need to fly. To learn more about the importance of cash flow, the reasons for it (such as slow-paying customers, high fixed costs), and some steps you can take to resolve them, download our free e-book, simply titled “Cashflow.”

CFO Centre Blog - The F Word

If You Want To Succeed, You Need To Embrace The ‘F’ Word

What do Sir James Dyson, the Mercedes F1 team, Pixar, Google and the airline industry have in common?

They’re hugely successful, yes, but the thing that links them is they never shy away from the ‘F’ word—Failure. Instead, they face and learn from their mistakes, errors, and mishaps. So says Matthew Syed, award-winning Times journalist and best-selling author of ‘Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance’ (John Murray).

“We have an allergic attitude to failure,” he says. “We try to avoid it, cover it up and airbrush it out of our lives.

“For centuries, errors of all kinds have been considered embarrassing, morally egregious, almost dirty.

“This conception still lingers today. It is why … doctors reframe mistakes, why politicians resist running rigorous tests on their policies, and why blame and scapegoating are so endemic.”

This notion of failure needs to change, he writes. “We have to conceptualize it not as dirty and embarrassing, but as bracing and educative.”

That’s because success in business (as well as in sport and in our personal lives) can only happen when mistakes are confronted and learned from and there’s a climate in which it’s safe to fail.

It’s what the airline industry has done so successfully, he says. Instead of concealing failure, the aviation industry has a system where failure is inherently valuable and data-rich, says Syed.

In fact, his ‘Black box thinking’ refers to the black box data recorders that all aircraft must carry to provide information in case of accidents. One box records instructions that are sent to all onboard electronic systems and the other records the voices in the cockpit.

“Mistakes are not stigmatized, but regarded as learning opportunities,” he says. After a crash, an independent team investigates.

“The interested parties are given every reason to cooperate since the evidence compiled by the [independent] accident investigation branch is inadmissible in court proceedings. This increases the likelihood of full disclosure.”

What’s more, after an investigation into an accident is completed, the report is made available for everyone.

“Every pilot in the world has free access to the data,” writes Syed. “This enables everyone to learn from the mistake, rather than just a single crew, or a single airline, or a single nation.”

Syed gives the example of United Airlines Flight 173 which took off from JFK International airport in New York on December 28, 1978, bound for Portland Oregon.

Just before the airplane went to land, the flight crew became convinced the landing gear hadn’t locked into place. They then spent so long trying to fix the problem that they ran out of fuel and had to crash-land into a residential area, killing eight people onboard.

An investigation discovered that the flight engineer hadn’t been assertive enough in telling the Captain the fuel was running low. The Captain meantime was obsessed with trying to fix the landing gear problem and avoid giving passengers a bumpy landing.

As it turned out there had not been a problem with the landing gear in the first place.

Afterwards, new protocols were put in place and training methods were revised. As a result, nothing quite as bad has happened again.

So much so that flying on airplanes is now safer than any other form of travel because the industry investigates and learns from its mistakes.

“Openness and learning rather than blaming is the instinctive response – and system safety has been the greatest beneficiary,” Syed told Director magazine.

Dyson Vacuum Cleaners

Sir James, the designer, inventor, and entrepreneur, is another committed to learning from failure.

He made 5,127 prototypes of his bagless vacuum cleaner before he got it right. This practice has obviously paid off because Sir James is now worth more than £3 billion.

“Creative breakthroughs always begin with multiple failures,” says Sir James. “…True invention lies in the understanding and overcoming of these failures, which we must learn to embrace.”

Without them, innovations won’t happen, he says. “Failures feed the imagination. You cannot have the one without the other.”

Great inventors always develop their insights not from an appraisal of how good everything is, but from what is going wrong, Sayed wrote in the Daily Mail.

Using Failure To Grow Your Business

Obviously, failure is only useful if it’s acted upon. “You can build motivation by breaking down the idea that we can all be perfect on the one hand, and by building up the idea that we can get better with good feedback and practice on the other,” says Syed.

Some of the world’s most innovative organizations like Pixar, the Mercedes F1 Team, and Google “interrogate errors as part of their strategy for future success.”

Take Google’s decision to test which shade of blue in its advertising links in Gmail and Google search worked best, for example.

Rather than ask its designers to choose the shade of blue for those links, Google decided to run tests known as ‘1% experiments in which 1% of users were shown one blue and another in which 1% of users were shown another blue. Then Google went further and ran 40 other experiments showing all the shades of blue.

It paid off: Google found the perfect shade of blue (the one that users were more likely to click on) and made an extra $200 million a year in revenue.

Why Don’t Companies Embrace Failure?

One of the biggest problems in business is the collective attitude we have to failure, says Syed.

“We love to think of ourselves as smart people, so we find mistakes, failure and suboptimal outcomes challenging to our egos,” Syed said in an interview with Director magazine. “But the reality is, when we’re involved in complex areas of human endeavor—and business is very complex—our ideas and actions not being perfect is an inevitability.

“If we’re threatened by our mistakes, and become prickly when people mention them, we don’t learn from them. We need to eradicate the idea that smart people don’t make mistakes.”

To really be successful, businesses need to encourage a company-wide failure-embracing culture which in turn will create a “process of dynamic change and adaptation”.

“Success happens through a willingness to engage with, and change as a result of, our failings. Get that right and everything else falls into place,” he says.

If you would like to download the CFO Centre’s report on Risk you can do so here

You can also arrange a complimentary 1:1 Finance Breakthrough Session with one of Canada’s top CFO here

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