Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. Although many won’t admit it, true entrepreneurs can’t wait to exit their current startup, and build a new and better one with their next great idea. In addition, current investors want to see every startup go public or be acquired, as an exit event, so they can get their due return for that investment which has been tied up for the last few years.
For these reasons, I always look for an overt exit strategy in every startup I might consider for an angel investment. As a mentor to many entrepreneurs, I also encourage an entrepreneur exit focus early, and I really like the specific steps outlined in the new book, “Exit Signs,” by Pamela Dennis, who has helped companies through this critical transition for decades.
Her focus is a bit more on mature companies, but I believe the following eight steps, paraphrased from hers, are especially applicable to every startup and the entrepreneurs who create them:
- Think about the end game as you start. Running a mature company is totally different from running a startup. Most startup founders don’t relish the thought of managing repeatable processes, greedy stockholders, and endless regulation reports. Yet they often fall into these roles by not proactively preparing themselves for any alternatives.
- Set a target personal destination and timing. The first step is clarifying your personal goals and the legacy you want to leave. Exiting this startup is not the end, and may be the beginning of something even better, like Bill Gates philanthropy, or your next plan to change the world. At minimum, you need to get an exit advisor to keep you on course.
- Set your startup health gauges and use them. New startup founders keep all the operating metrics they need in their head. If you intend to exit, or even if you don’t, it’s never too early to think what an acquirer or stockholder looks for to assess your business health. This all starts with building a culture and strategy that can survive without you.
- Tune up your startup value and salability. Even if you don’t have a formal board of directors, it pays to have trusted advisors who will give you regular unbiased feedback on your team strengths and weaknesses, financial and operating ratio norms, and an external view of current company valuation issues. Listen carefully and act accordingly.
- Build relationships with potential acquirers. The best sale or acquisition is a gradual one, where the acquirer gets to know you through formal and informal relationships. Don’t wait for a distress situation in the business or your personal life, and hope that the ideal acquirer magically appears. Keep a critical lens on payment options and tax implications.
- Mature your business processes and customer base. Secure your company’s sustainability through multiple revenue streams and customer sets, and solid core business processes. Build an exit-transition plan for yourself, and a plan to retain key talent on the team. Anticipate customer and valued-supplier reaction to any change.
- Build a positive data bank and presentation. Well ahead of any planned move, you need to assemble hard data to support your historical and projected performance and sustainability. Your valuation and salability depends on the credibility of this effort. Plan to spend 30-60 percent of your time away from running your business during this phase.
- Lead your way out rather than wait for a push. The win-win startup acquisitions and successful transitions to public companies are led by the entrepreneur, rather than happen passively. You need to proactively engage the right people, drive improvements where required, and pay attention to all the external and internal factors gating success.
According to Dennis, an astonishing 87 percent of small and mid-size business owners don’t have an exit strategy or plan, leaving them to die at their desk, or get pushed out on terms they don’t like. If you are like most entrepreneurs, who look forward to a life of pride and profit after their current startup, it’s time to take some steps to make a startup exit more than a wistful dream.