This is the story of two business owners who got what they had planned for. The first owned a business in western Wisconsin. He didn’t do any planning or research and had a bad experience with another M&A advisor but still chose to sell.

I could hear the exhaustion in his voice when he called me based on a referral from his Financial Planner. He admitted he was dealing directly with just one buyer. “I think it’s an okay deal,” he told me.

I offered to do an estimate of value at no cost. “Just so you can sleep at night,” I told him. “Just so you know.”

“I kind of already did that,” he said. “I think I’m leaving $500,000 on the table, but I just don’t want to go through the whole rigmarole again. I just don’t want to.”

The guy was burned out. From what I’d heard, this was a sophisticated business owner who’d done well for himself. But he’d held on too long. I estimated he was knowingly giving up 30 percent of its value just because he was tired.

Now let me tell you about a business owner from the Madison area. In 2007 he was considering an unsolicited offer to buy his business. We did an estimate of value so he’d know what to expect on the open market.

This business owner wasn’t satisfied with the value and asked for recommendations to position the company for a future sale. Then he set about improving his operation.

Three years later, when we took him to market, we got 13 solid expressions of interest and four letters of intent. His company sold for 60 percent more than our original estimate.

This is the difference between planning for an exit and waiting until you feel ready. Business owners need to take a longer-term view. Instead of, “I’m ready to sell. Now what do I do?” they need to say, “I want to sell in X years. What should I do to prepare?”

Imagine a graph with a relatively flat line representing stable company revenues. Now imagine that you planned an upward trajectory your last three years in business. You pushed sales, drove cash to the bottom line, groomed your managers for leadership, and sold off unproductive assets. The line makes a nice 20 percent curve up.

Now imagine you didn’t plan ahead but waited instead until you were tired. Instead of stable revenues, sales start to decline, turnover increases, and the facility shows signs of disrepair. This time the line curves 20 percent down.

That’s a 40 percent swing in business value. And based on a dozen years of experience, I can tell you those numbers are very realistic.

Selling your business can be the best of times or the worst of times. It all depends on how you approach the finish line…energized for a strong finish or dragging your blistered feet over the line.

Scott Bushkie is President of Cornerstone Business Services, a low-to-middle-market M&A firm. Reach him at 888-829-9061 or [email protected]

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A thought-leader in the industry, Scott developed the Cornerstone Process to offer investment banking M&A-level services to the lower middle market. The result is a closing ratio that’s more than double the national average.