July 30, 2020

Startup CEO Second Edition Teaser: Selling Your Company – Preparing Yourself for an Exit

One of the new sections in the Second Edition (order here) that I’m excited to share is a deep dive with several chapters on selling your company.  The next few blog posts will share some of my thinking on the subjects as they’re arranged into chapters in the book.  For many startup CEOs the culmination of their life’s work is an exit of some kind (other than being fired!). Personally, there were a range of emotions surging through me when we got to the point of a sale and while the financial reward can be enticing, there are a lot of things that you start to think about, like all the things you created, all the offsites with your team, the good and bad times and, especially, the deep relationships you’ve developed over the years.

If you’re a founder entrepreneur who has led your company for several years, the odds are you have a significant amount of emotional investment in your company, too.  For many entrepreneurs, the company is a deeply embedded part of their identities as a human – right or wrong, for better or for worse. 

I said in the First Edition that entrepreneurship is full of extreme highs and lows and the most difficult thing to accept is when they happen at the same time. Nothing describes the process of selling your company more accurately than that saying because you’re gaining some financial reward, but you’re losing your life’s work. You’re also creating some chaos and uncertainty for all your employees.

One of the most important questions you can ask yourself is, “Am I ready to let go?” For me I used a simple litmus test to help answer that question and I used the answers to these four questions to figure out the sell-don’t sell dilemma:

  • Am I having fun at work?
  • Am I learning and growing as a professional?
  • Is my work financially rewarding enough, either in the short-term or in the long-term?
  • Am I having the impact I want to have on the world?

You can turn these questions into a scale if you want to be more sophisticated but there are two important points: one, you have to do it and two, you have to look at all four questions as really just providing one piece of information. If I walked into an executive team meeting and said, “I’m not having fun at work,” my team would probably look at me and say (or think to themselves), “Hey, buddy, suck it up.” They’d be right, but if you have low scores on all four questions, that tells a different story. 

So how do you know when it’s time to sell? Usually there’s an inflection point of some kind–either positive or negative. On the positive side, you can receive an out-of-the-blue inbound offer, something you never expected and believe me, that will get the juices flowing! Or maybe when you look two years out you realize that your company is at its highwater mark in valuation, so it becomes a timing issue. Sometimes you can have a major internal problem related to the cap table–a founder with a lot of stock needs liquidity or you need to push this person out of the company. Institutional investors can require liquidity too, and while it’s possible to buy out shareholders or create a debt / equity financing, you might think about selling the company instead.

Other points on selling your company that I make in the Second Edition revolve around who you sell to (financial buyer, strategic buyer) and what the likely outcome of those types of sales are for you and your employees. You’ll need to brace yourself, your team, and your company, and your family for a major impact–the sales process is disruptive, non-linear, and intense and it’s not done until the final agreement is signed. 

Above all else, There is no right or wrong answer here about selling your company.  But there probably is a right or wrong answer for YOU.  That’s the most important thing to think through, deeply, at the early stages of working on selling your company.