How to sell a small business: A guide for business owners

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  1. Introduction
  2. Preparing to sell a small business
    1. Understanding the value of your business
    2. Enhancing the appeal of your business
    3. Deciding on the right time to sell
  3. Common ways to sell a small business
    1. Direct sale
    2. Hiring a business broker
    3. Online business marketplaces
    4. Auctions
  4. How to sell a small business
    1. Marketing your business for sale
    2. Creating a compelling sales pitch
    3. Confidentiality considerations
    4. Negotiating the sale
    5. Understanding the buyer’s perspective
    6. Strategies for effective negotiation
    7. Legal and financial considerations
    8. Legal documents
    9. Tax implications of the sale
  5. How to close the sale of a small business
    1. Finalising the deal
    2. Post-sale considerations

Many factors must be considered when deciding whether to sell a small business, including market conditions, personal timing for the owners and when the business might be at peak value. Small-business acquisitions increased by 10% in the first quarter of 2024 compared with the previous year, with more than 2,300 businesses sold for a total value of US$1.8 billion.

Below, we'll explain how to sell a small business from start to finish, including the complexities and implications. Here's what small-business owners need to know.

What's in this article?

  • Preparing to sell a small business
  • Common ways to sell a small business
  • How to sell a small business
  • How to close the sale of a small business

Preparing to sell a small business

You must do lots of preparation to have a successful sale. To be in the best position possible, complete this work before you start conversations with prospective buyers.

Here's what thoughtfully preparing to sell your small business looks like:

Understanding the value of your business

Methods for business valuation

  • Asset-based approach: This method involves calculating the net asset value of your business by totalling up all the assets and subtracting the liabilities. It's particularly relevant for businesses with a significant amount of physical assets.

  • Earnings multiplier or income-based approach: This method focuses on the earning potential of your business. The current profit is adjusted for various factors, such as the customer base and opportunities for growth, and then multiplied by a number that reflects the industry standard or economic environment.

  • Market value approach: This method compares your business with similar businesses that have been sold recently. It's useful for understanding what the market is willing to pay for a business like yours.

  • Discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis: DCF forecasts cash flows and discounts them to present value. This method is forward-looking and considers the potential for growth and risks.

Importance of accurate financial records

  • Trust and transparency: Accurate records foster trust and transparency with potential buyers. They demonstrate the credibility of your business operations.

  • Basis for valuation: These records are the foundation for any business valuation method. Without accurate financial data, any valuation will be speculative at best.

  • Identifying trends and patterns: Detailed records will help you to identify financial trends, which are important for understanding the business's financial health and potential growth areas.

  • Facilitating negotiations: In negotiations, having detailed and accurate records can be powerful. They let you justify your asking price and can be a deciding factor in discussions with potential buyers or investors.

Enhancing the appeal of your business

Improving financial health

  • Revenue growth and diversification: Strategies to increase revenue can include expanding your customer base, introducing new products or services, and exploring new markets. Diversifying revenue streams makes your business less dependent on any single source of income, making it more stable.

  • Cost reduction and efficiency: Analysing and reducing unnecessary expenses boosts profitability. This can involve renegotiating contracts, optimising supply chains and using technology for cost-saving purposes.

  • Debt management: Managing and reducing debt effectively enhances the financial attractiveness of your business. A strong balance sheet with manageable levels of debt is appealing to buyers.

Streamlining operations

  • Process optimisation: Reviewing and refining business processes to improve efficiency makes a difference. This may involve automating repetitive tasks, improving workflow systems or adopting lean management principles.

  • Technology integration: Implementing tools for inventory management, customer relations or data analytics can significantly improve operational efficiency.

  • Regulatory compliance: Ensure that your business complies with all relevant laws and regulations. This includes obtaining the necessary licences and permits, adhering to industry standards and following employment laws.

  • Resolving litigation: Address and resolve any legal disputes or litigation. A business that is free of legal entanglements is more attractive to potential buyers.

  • Intellectual property protection: Securing and protecting your intellectual property rights, such as trademarks and patents, increases the value of your business.

Deciding on the right time to sell

Market conditions

  • Industry trends and economic climate: Assessing the current state and projections of your industry is key. A thriving market can increase the value of your business, while a downturn may suggest waiting for a more favourable time.

  • Competitor activity: Monitoring competitor actions – such as mergers, acquisitions or exits – can provide insights into market dynamics and optimal timing.

  • Buyer interest: A period of high buyer interest in businesses similar to yours may indicate a good time to sell.

Personal and financial considerations

  • Readiness for transition: Assess your personal readiness to let go of the business. This involves considering any emotional attachment, plans for life after the sale and your role during any transition period.

  • Financial goals: Time the sale to match your financial objectives. Whether it's retirement planning, investing in new ventures or other personal goals, ensure that the sale meets your financial needs.

  • Tax implications: Consider the tax consequences of selling your business. Timing the sale to reduce tax liabilities can affect your net proceeds.

Common ways to sell a small business

There's more than one way to sell a small business, and each has its own benefits, drawbacks and risks. Before you choose, assess all of the options to find the one that is most aligned with your goals. What do you hope to get out of selling your small business and what steps can you take to ensure that you get it? That's what you'll be determining at this stage.

Here's an overview of the common options for selling a small business:

Direct sale

A direct sale involves the owner selling their business directly to a buyer, without the intermediary services of a broker or an agent. The business owner is actively involved in every step of the sale process, from finding a buyer to closing the deal. This hands-on approach requires a keen awareness of the business's value, knowledge of legal processes and strong negotiation skills.

How does a direct sale work?

  • Preparation: The first step is conducting a thorough evaluation of your business. This involves analysing financial statements, assessing the value of assets and understanding the market position of the business. Often, business owners opt for a professional valuation to arrive at an accurate selling price.

  • Marketing the business: Once you have a clear idea of your business's worth, the next phase is marketing through various channels, such as social media, business networks, industry contacts or local advertising. The goal is to reach potential buyers who are likely to be interested in a business like yours.

  • Handling enquiries and negotiations: As prospective buyers show interest, you'll need to manage enquiries, provide necessary information and enter into negotiations regarding the terms and price of the sale. This stage demands strong communication and negotiation skills.

  • Finalising the deal: After agreeing on the terms, work on the legal aspects. These include drafting a sales agreement, checking compliance with legal requirements and possibly consulting with a legal professional to oversee the process.

  • Closing the sale: The final step is the transfer of ownership, which involves signing legal documents, transferring assets and receiving payment.

Pros and cons of a direct sale

Pros

  • Complete control: You have full control over every aspect of the sale, from setting the price to choosing the buyer.

  • Cost-effectiveness: This method saves on broker commissions and fees, potentially leading to a more profitable sale.

  • Direct communication: Engage in clear and direct negotiations with the buyer, allowing for more transparent and efficient dealings.

Cons

  • Time-consuming and labour-intensive: Managing every aspect of the sale demands significant time and effort.

  • Limited reach: Without the network of a broker, you may have a smaller pool of potential buyers.

  • Risk of under-pricing: Without professional guidance, there's a possibility of misjudging the market value of your business.

Suitability for different businesses

Direct sales are most suitable for:

  • Businesses with a readily identifiable buyer pool, such as local businesses with a strong community presence.

  • Niche businesses where the owner has strong connections within the industry.

  • Businesses where the owner prefers personal involvement and has the necessary skills to manage the sale process.

Owners who are well connected within their industry, comfortable with negotiations and willing to dedicate significant time to the sale process are ideal candidates for a direct sale. This approach is less suitable for owners who lack the time or expertise needed to handle the complex negotiations and legalities involved in selling a business.

Hiring a business broker

A business broker is a professional intermediary that can manage the sale of your small business. Business brokers specialise in selling businesses and offer expertise in valuation, marketing, negotiation and dealing with legal complexities. They act as a liaison between the seller and potential buyers, facilitating a smoother and often quicker sale process.

How does hiring a business broker work?

  • Selecting a broker: The process begins with choosing a suitable broker. This involves researching and evaluating brokers and considering their experience, success rate and familiarity with your industry.

  • Valuation and listing: Once you have engaged a broker, they will conduct a comprehensive valuation of your business to determine an appropriate selling price. They then create a detailed listing with key information about your business and its appeal to potential buyers.

  • Marketing and screening buyers: The broker uses their networks and marketing strategies to attract potential buyers. They also screen these prospects to ensure that only serious and qualified buyers move forwards, saving you time and effort.

  • Negotiation and offers: The broker handles negotiations with potential buyers. They present you with offers, provide advice and help you to understand the implications of each offer.

  • Closing the sale: After accepting an offer, the broker coordinates the legal and financial aspects of the sale. They work with lawyers, accountants and other professionals to comply with legal requirements.

  • Post-sale transition: Brokers often assist in the transition period post-sale, helping to transfer the business to the new owner and ensuring that all terms of the sale are met.

Pros and cons of hiring a business broker

Pros

  • Expertise and experience: Brokers bring knowledge of market trends, valuation and legal requirements, therefore increasing the likelihood of a successful sale.

  • Time-saving: They handle the complex and time-consuming tasks involved in the sale, letting you focus on running your business.

  • Broader market reach: Brokers have extensive networks and marketing resources, allowing them to reach a wider pool of potential buyers.

Cons

  • Cost: Hiring a broker involves paying a commission, typically a percentage of the sale price, which can be significant.

  • Less control: You relinquish some control over the sale process, relying on the broker's methods and decisions.

  • Variability in quality: The experience and effectiveness of brokers can vary greatly, which can affect the success of your sale.

Suitability for different businesses

Hiring a business broker is particularly suitable for:

  • Business owners who lack the time or expertise to handle the sale themselves.

  • Those who are unfamiliar with the legal and financial intricacies of selling a business.

  • Businesses that could benefit from broad marketing outreach to attract a diverse pool of potential buyers.

This option is ideal for owners who prefer to minimise their personal involvement in the sale process, instead relying on the expertise of a professional. It is less suitable for those who wish to avoid commission fees or maintain complete control over every aspect of the sale.

Online business marketplaces

Online business marketplaces are digital platforms where business owners can list their businesses for sale. These platforms cater to a wide audience of potential buyers, ranging from individual entrepreneurs to larger corporations that are looking to expand. They offer a modern, accessible and often cost-effective way to reach a diverse pool of buyers from various locations and industries.

How do online business marketplaces work?

  • Choosing a platform: The first step involves selecting an appropriate online marketplace. Different platforms cater to various types and sizes of businesses, so it's important to choose one that matches your business's profile.

  • Creating a listing: Once you've chosen a platform, you can create a listing for your business. The listing typically includes details such as the business's financial performance, assets, market position and asking price. High-quality photos and a comprehensive description can enhance the appeal of your listing.

  • Handling enquiries: Interested buyers will contact you through the platform. You'll need to manage these enquiries, provide additional information and possibly arrange meetings or calls to discuss the business further.

  • Negotiating the sale: As with a direct sale, you will negotiate the terms, price and other specifics of the sale directly with the buyer.

  • Finalising the deal: After agreeing on the terms, the legal process begins. This often involves legal agreements, transferring assets and guaranteeing compliance with relevant laws.

  • Closing the sale: The final step is the official transfer of ownership, which may involve both parties signing legal documents and completing financial transactions.

Pros and cons of online business marketplaces

Pros

  • Wide reach: These platforms have a large audience, providing exposure to a diverse range of potential buyers.

  • Cost-effectiveness: Listing on an online marketplace is typically cheaper than hiring a broker.

  • Convenience: The process is more streamlined and can be managed from anywhere, offering flexibility.

Cons

  • Less personal support: Unlike working with a broker, you won't have any personalised guidance or expertise to assist you throughout the process.

  • Varying quality of buyers: You may receive enquiries from unqualified buyers or buyers who aren't serious, requiring you to spend time vetting them.

  • Potential for overlooked details: Without professional assistance, important aspects of the sale process, such as proper valuation or legal compliance, may be overlooked.

Suitability for different businesses

Online business marketplaces are particularly suitable for:

  • Small to medium businesses that have a clear and straightforward value proposition.

  • Business owners who are comfortable with technology and online communication.

  • Those looking for a cost-effective and wide-reaching method to sell their business.

This option is ideal for owners who are confident in their ability to manage the sale process and prefer a more do-it-yourself approach. It is less suitable for complex businesses or those that require a high level of confidentiality and discretion in the sale process.

Auctions

Auctions involve presenting the small business to a group of potential buyers and soliciting bids in a competitive, time-bound environment. This method can be conducted in person or online, providing a dynamic and potentially fast way to sell a business. Auctions are known for their ability to capture the market value of a business through competitive bidding.

How do auctions work for selling a business?

  • Choosing an auction format: Decide whether to opt for an in-person or online auction. Each format has its own advantages and particular logistics, with online auctions offering a broader reach, while in-person auctions provide a more traditional, tactile experience.

  • Preparing for the auction: This involves valuing your business, gathering all the necessary financial and legal documentation, and creating a compelling description of your business. Presenting your business attractively will encourage competitive bidding.

  • Marketing the auction: Effective promotion is key to ensuring a successful turnout. This can include advertising in industry publications and online platforms, as well as using networks to attract potential buyers.

  • Conducting the auction: On the day of the auction, bidders will place their bids within the stipulated time frame. The auction can be a live, dynamic event, creating a sense of urgency among buyers.

  • Finalising the sale: Once the highest bid has been accepted, the sale is finalised. This includes completing the legal formalities, handling financial transactions and transferring ownership.

Pros and cons of auctions

Pros

  • Quick sale potential: Auctions can sell a business faster than other methods.

  • Market-driven pricing: Competitive bidding can potentially drive up the price, making sure that the business is sold at its true market value.

  • Excitement and urgency: The auction environment can create excitement among buyers, leading to higher bids.

Cons

  • Uncertainty of the final price: There's no guarantee that the auction will result in a price that meets your expectations.

  • Preparation and marketing costs: Organising an auction, especially a physical one, can be costly and time-consuming.

  • Potential for lower bids: If there's limited interest or a lack of serious bidders, the business could sell for less than its market value.

Suitability for different businesses

Auctions are particularly suitable for:

  • Businesses with a clear, compelling value proposition that can attract multiple interested buyers.

  • Niche businesses that may not have a clear market value and could benefit from a competitive bidding environment.

  • Owners who are looking for a quick sale and are willing to accept the risks associated with the uncertainty of the final sale price.

Auctions are ideal for business owners who are comfortable with the inherent risks and dynamics of a competitive bidding process. They are less suitable for those seeking a guaranteed sale price or who prefer a more controlled and predictable sale process.

How to sell a small business

Once you've prepared your business, decided on timing and chosen a sale method, here's how to handle the sale process:

Marketing your business for sale

  • Identify the key selling points of your business that would attract potential buyers. This could include your customer base, profitability, market position, or any proprietary technology or processes.
  • Determine the best platforms on which to market your business. This could be industry-specific websites, business brokerages or local business networks.
  • Develop marketing materials that highlight the strengths of your business without disclosing any sensitive information. This could include a summary document or an information memorandum which provides an overview without revealing any confidential details.

Creating a compelling sales pitch

  • Focus on what makes your business attractive and profitable. Highlight aspects such as steady revenue, growth potential, a loyal customer base and any competitive advantages.
  • Be prepared to explain your reasons for selling because this is a common question from potential buyers. A logical explanation can make the process smoother.
  • Personalise your pitch to the interests and concerns of potential buyers. Understand what they are looking for and how your business can meet their needs or goals.

Confidentiality considerations

  • Protecting the confidentiality of your intent to sell is important to prevent any potential impacts on your staff, customers and suppliers.
  • Use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with potential buyers to make sure that the information shared during the sales process remains confidential.
  • Limit how much information you share until the potential buyer has demonstrated a serious interest and has signed an NDA.

Negotiating the sale

  • Be prepared for negotiations to take time and require back-and-forth discussions. Patience is key.
  • Understand your bottom line and what terms and conditions you are willing to accept or negotiate.
  • Use the services of professionals, such as a business broker, a lawyer, or an accountant, to assist in the negotiation process and protect your interests.

Understanding the buyer's perspective

  • Try to understand the buyer's motivations, concerns and objectives. This can help you to customise your approach and address any issues that may be important to them.
  • Be prepared to provide detailed information and answer any questions about your business's operations, financials and market position.

Strategies for effective negotiation

  • Focus on creating a win-win situation in which you and the buyer feel satisfied with the deal.
  • Be flexible and open to creative solutions that can address the needs of both parties.
  • Communicate clearly and promptly, and be honest about any potential issues or concerns.
  • Double-check that all legal requirements have been met and that all necessary licences, permits and consents are transferred to the new owner.
  • Engage legal and financial advisers to review all documents and agreements to make sure that they are in your best interest and protect your rights.
  • Bill of sale: This document transfers the business assets to the buyer.
  • Asset purchase agreement: Details the terms and conditions of the sale, including which assets are being sold.
  • Non-compete agreement: May be required to prevent you from starting a competing business within a certain time frame and in a certain geographic area.

Tax implications of the sale

  • Understand how the sale will be taxed, including capital gains tax, and plan accordingly.
  • Consult a tax adviser to explore strategies for minimising tax liabilities and maintaining compliance with tax laws.

How to close the sale of a small business

Closing the sale of your small business is the most important step. Getting it right can enable a successful sale, while getting it wrong can jeopardise the transaction. Here's how to close the sale:

Finalising the deal

  • Completing due diligence: This is where the buyer evaluates your business. Provide all necessary documentation, such as financial records, client lists and legal contracts. Transparency can build trust and avoid last-minute challenges.

  • Securing financing: If the buyer needs financing, this is the stage at which they'll finalise their loans or investment sources. As a seller, understanding the buyer's financial standing can give you confidence in their ability to complete the purchase.

  • Negotiating the final terms: Even with an initial agreement, some terms may need to be fine-tuned. This may include the final sale price, payment terms or other conditions. It's important to remain flexible yet firm on your deal-breakers.

  • Preparing the sales agreement: The sales agreement is a legal document that outlines every aspect of the sale. It should be thorough, covering areas that include assets and liabilities, intellectual property and employee contracts. Hire a legal professional to draft or review this document to protect both parties' interests.

  • Managing the transition: An important but often overlooked aspect of a sale is how the business will transition to the new owner. Will you provide training or support? How will you introduce the new owner to your clients and employees? A smooth transition plan can significantly influence the continued success of the business.

  • Closing the deal: This is the final meeting where all parties sign the necessary documents and the payment is made. It's a good idea to have your lawyer present to make sure that everything goes as planned.

Post-sale considerations

  • Handling post-sale obligations: If you've agreed to stay at the business for a certain amount of time to assist with the transition, now is the time to fulfil that promise. This can include training the new owner, introducing them to key contacts or helping to manage client relationships during the changeover period.

  • Settling finances: Ensure that all financial aspects are settled, including paying off any debts or obligations that are tied to the business. Consult a financial adviser to understand the tax implications of the sale and how to manage the proceeds effectively.

  • Communicating the change: Inform your clients, suppliers and employees about the change in ownership. How and when you communicate this can affect the business's ongoing relationships and reputation.

  • Moving on: Take time to reflect on this significant milestone. Whether you're retiring, starting a new venture or taking time off, consider the emotional and practical aspects of moving on from your business.

The content in this article is for general information and education purposes only and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Stripe does not warrant or guarantee the accuracy, completeness, adequacy or currency of the information in the article. You should seek the advice of a competent lawyer or accountant who is licenced to practice in your jurisdiction for advice on your particular situation.

The content in this article is for general information and education purposes only and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Stripe does not warrant or guarantee the accurateness, completeness, adequacy, or currency of the information in the article. You should seek the advice of a competent attorney or accountant licensed to practice in your jurisdiction for advice on your particular situation.

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