5 Myths About Selling A Service Business

When we started our own business, it seemed obvious that we should build it so we could sell it one day.

After all, even in the first raptures of blissful entrepreneurship, we thought it was possible we might not want to stay until the day we died.

So we did what we thought made sense.

We spent eleven years making ourselves irrelevant.

Which allowed us to sell when we were ready to go. And the company to prosper without us.

In the four years that we’ve been consulting, we’ve come across five myths about selling a business in a service industry that we would like to shatter.

1. The Disbeliever: You Can’t Scale A Service Business.

James O. McKinsey was an accounting professor at the University of Chicago. In 1926 he started a business in an industry that didn’t exist. Today, McKinsey & Company are the largest management consulting firm in the world. They keep their sales figures private. But will admit to at least $5 billion a year. Some estimates put it closer to $13 billion.

If the business isn’t scaling, don’t look at the base. Look at the head.

2. The Skeptic: Selling A Service Business Always Involves An Earn Out.

Only if you have made yourself essential to the business.

In which case, the price is depressed because of the uncertainty of what happens when you leave. And you have to stay longer, in order to extract yourself on someone else’s terms.

If the business functions perfectly without you, you get money in the bank and a great goodbye party.

3. The Talker: We’re Definitely Interested In Selling One Day. We’re Going To Start Planning For That Next Year.

Selling begins the day you start. We call it Plan The Last Day First®. It informs every decision, every hire, every customer relationship.

It costs no more to build for sale, than to build to stay. The only difference is the choices you have when the last day comes. Which is usually sooner than you can possibly imagine.

4. The Optimist: I Get Calls All The Time From People Interested In Buying My Business.

There’s a difference between buying a company. And talking about buying a company.

The first involves due diligence. A process that is invasive and uncomfortable and spends a lot of time looking at your financial statements. You’ll know when someone’s really interested in your business when they ask the third set of follow up questions. The ones you were hoping they wouldn’t.

The second involves a salad and a decaf cappuccino.

5. The Fantasist: We’re having a bad year. But if I got the right offer, I’d consider selling. 

This is actually two myths in one.

Buyers don’t buy service businesses in a bad cycle unless they can see the problem clearly. Buyers buy service businesses when things are pretty good, and they think they can run them better. Which typically means cheaper.

And unless you’ve trained other people to do what you do, the ‘right’ offer will definitely involve an earn-out. In other words, this scenario means giving your company to someone else, and then having them tell you what to do for the next three years.

And if they get it wrong, you don’t get paid.

The Sixth Myth

There is a sixth myth. It’s the one that says building a company that can be sold means you’re betraying your craft, your passion, your calling.

The alternative is closing the doors when you’ve had enough. Or dropping dead at your desk.

Which seems like a waste of a lot of time and money.

Unless you believe in fairy tales.

To A Frog, Feeling Fine Is Not Necessarily A Good Sign

I have a friend who, back in the mid 90s, started his own business. He got some angel investment, found space, built it out, hired a small staff, took out an ad and opened the doors.

He got a customer, then another, and by the end of the second month things were going better than he could have dreamed. So well, that his young office manager couldn’t keep up with all the paperwork. He found her late one night, overwhelmed, and realized he needed to offer some advice. “Don’t do any invoicing for a couple of weeks,” he suggested. “So you can catch up on the other stuff.”

So she didn’t. For a month. And sixty days later, busier than they had ever been, she came to him with the news that they had $174.95 in their bank account and payroll was due.

The problem, of course, was that he had never run a business before. And while he understood profit and loss, he didn’t know about cash flow, or AR, or 90 days past due, or uncollectables.

Worse. He didn’t know that he didn’t know.

I got a call from a company owner last September who thought he needed to re-brand his business. We had a meeting, the economy crashed, and he decided to wait until things got easier.

They closed last week. Not, I hasten to add, because he didn’t hire us. But because he was looking at a symptom - not a cause. He didn’t know what he didn’t know. (As an aside, I find re-branding about as effective as treating a heart attack with a capful of Tums. It’s not where it hurts. It’s why.)

Back when there was an economy, not knowing what you didn’t know was part of the journey of discovery that came with owning your own business. Over time you figured it out, and learned from your mistakes.

Today, that cushion is gone. If you’re going to make a mistake - and we all do - it can not be one of ignorance.

In that respect, running a business is a lot like being a frog. If you don’t know you’re in a pot of hot water, by the time the water’s boiling it’s too late.

By the way, the invoicing story turned out alright in the end. I never But he never made that mistake again.