The Entrepreneur Life

Tag: selling your business

3 Steps to Getting the Valuation You Seek

Yesterday after I spoke to a group of Rotarians in Bangalore, the first question that was posed to me, was “How does an entrepreneur get the valuation they seek?” A few weeks ago, an entrepreneur who was still part way through my book posed the same question to me as in “How do I get the valuation I want?” The short answer is you build it. But how does one do that? Through careful planning, execution and a spot of luck!

In both these cases the entrepreneurs had been running their businesses for a considerable length of time. It was when they began considering exiting or selling their businesses that they found there might be a gap between their expectations and the valuations potential buyers might offer them. So how does one bridge this?

There are three steps to getting the valuation you seek. Understanding valuations, preparation and running a good process.

Understand how valuations work in your industry. Typically for a business in a mature industry, this works as a multiple of earnings (EBIDTA) or even revenue. A simple place to start is to look at others in your industry or sector who have been recently, say within the last 6-24 months, been acquired. Informal conversations with investment bankers can also help get a sense for this. Now do a reality check of this number against how your company would measure and what you seek. If you are lucky you are already there. Of course in fast growth or emerging industries, often technology-based, these numbers may not matter. For instance, my first company Impulsesoft had barely broken even and had revenues in the single-digit millions yet was able to attract both a top-tier investment banker and global buyers based on the industry (wireless technology) and technological innovation. So get a sense of what valuations are likely and where your own business falls.

Plan and work on bridging the gap between typical valuations and the one you seek – this requires you to first understand what you seek not just the valuation or $$ but also your own role, if any, post acquisition. Tim McCarthy founder of Workplace Impact hired a consulting firm and tasked them with the job of finding what sort of buyer he should look for, and what within his company would cause such a buyer to pay less than they deserve. They came back with a set of five specific things, not all of them financial that Tim’s company would have to address—things such as customer concentration, client size and EBIDTA. Over the next five years Tim and his team set about fixing these and sold his business for $45M in cash!

Run a good process One of my mentors Chandrasekaran was fond of saying “It’s a matter of their need and your greed, or vice-versa.” So understanding the potential buyers’ motivations and hence value perception is critical. Assuming you’ve clarity on the outcome you seek and done your prep, one of best ways to maximize value is to have more than one buyer, ideally several, at the table prepared to bid against one another.

Luck of course plays a bigger role than any of us is prepared to admit. However the more you plan, prepare and persevere the luckier you are likely to get.

5 Questions Founders Need to Ask, Annually

“Can I meet with you today?”  Usually, when I get such a call, which I do about once in two weeks, the entrepreneur wants to meet immediately. In this instance, I suggested that we can meet the next Tuesday. The entrepreneur, let’s call him Jack, persisted, “If it’s okay can we meet today please?” So I agreed we’d meet at 530pm that evening and moved around a few meetings to make it happen.

At about 445pm I get a call. It’s Peter, Jack’s partner. He says “I’m going to be about 10 minutes late.” As I’m wrapping up a meeting, I tell him “Don’t worry about it. I will be at the coffee shop. See you there.” At that time, I didn’t pay attention whether Peter had said “we’d be late” or “I’d be late.”  So at 530pm, I’m surprised to see only Peter show up with no sign of Jack.

“So what was so urgent that it couldn’t wait till next Tuesday?”

Peter was polite enough to apologize for Jack’s absence, “A major customer crisis has arisen. Jack had to go in person to placate the customer,” before jumping into why he’d asked for the meeting.

“BigCo has made us an offer. We’d approached them as a strategic investor. As we talked to one another, the discussions turned into an M&A one. They are interested in acquiring us. So we’re looking for advice on what we should do.”

Over the previous six years Jack, Peter, and another partner had at first bootstrapped their tech business and then raised both an angel round and a series A. They were on the verge of operational breakeven and had impressive Fortune 100 customers that any startup would kill for. They’d also dabbled in hardware and systems, pivoted a couple of times and overcome significant challenges in pulling together a fragmented supplier marketplace. In short, they were not just smart and hardworking but successful by any measure.

“What do you want?” I asked. “What does Jack want?”

Peter’s responses, many of which were questions rather than answers, sounded similar to ones that I’d faced more than a decade ago when my own startup was acquired. And one that I’ve heard from many entrepreneurs since. Most founders rarely stop during the madness that is doing a startup is, to ask, let alone answer these questions. So regardless of where you are in your own startup journey, here are some questions for you to ask yourself. I’d suggest revisiting these once a year, more frequently they’d be a distraction.

What do you want? Why are you running/doing a startup? To make a zillion dollars? Because people don’t have easy access to mental health? Because every kid should go to college? Whatever be your reason – only money, only greater good, some combination of both or yet another reason, knowing what it is, is important. This will help you figure out, are you close to it? And regardless of your distance from it, do you want to keep doing it?

How much money do you want? Despite startups being businesses, many entrepreneurs haven’t really put thought into how much money, specifically, they’d like to make or have. So when they are faced with a sudden offer to sell or particularly when they face a hostile or shall we say unwilling ejection, they are in no position to figure out what they want in any dispassionate manner. Surprisingly many entrepreneurs, starting with myself, find that they are uncomfortable talking about money for themselves. So this is a good question to answer if only to get comfortable talking about it.

What do your partners want? Usually your co-founders, especially at an early stage startup, much like you would also have not given this much thought. But in some cases may have greater clarity, which is usually a good thing, but you’d better know what it is and how different it is from your own answers to the question. Again, they may have thought of things only in terms of money or in terms of outcomes and not money. Knowing the answer to both and knowing your differences will be immensely useful.

What does your team want and what do you want for them? This may or may not matter to you, or you may even be unclear if this matters to you or not. Knowing this is critical at some many practical and even ethical reasons. For instance, what matters to them – that they work in a startup, the freedom or independence they get maybe very different than what they get from BigCo once they acquire you. What are they likely to get monetarily if you sell your company?

What will you do tomorrow, if you get what you want? If your company were to be acquired today, in an all cash deal, with no strings attached (and let me know if there are such deals out there 🙂 what will you do tomorrow or ninety days hence, after you take that well-deserved vacation. In many ways, this is similar to the first question around purpose? If you’d still do what you are doing today, what does that tell you? And if you’d do something totally different, what are you waiting for – what should you do differently today?

I believe if you ask and answer these questions both individually and collectively as a founding team, periodically, it would help you make better decisions when you are at crossroads in your startup.


As many companies that I’ve been involved with grow past their fifth or even seventh anniversary, they are facing new questions around exits – be the outright sales or mergers or in some case existential questions. I’m hoping to write about these questions in what I’d like to think of as “Selling your startup” series.

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