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Finding The Right Business

How to Buy a Business

Starting from scratch isn't the only way to get started. Buying an existing business can help you hit the ground running. Here's what you need to know to find a great deal.

When most people think of starting a business, they think of beginning from scratch--developing your own ideas and building the company from the ground up. But starting from scratch presents some distinct disadvantages, including the difficulty of building a customer base, marketing the new business, hiring employees and establishing cash flow...all without a track record or reputation to go on.

Buying an Existing Business
In most cases, buying an existing business is less risky than starting from scratch. When you buy a business, you take over an operation that's already generating cash flow and profits. You have an established customer base, reputation and employees who are familiar with all aspects of the business. And you don't have to reinvent the wheel--setting up new procedures, systems and policies--since a successful formula for running the business has already been put in place.

On the downside, buying a business is often more costly than starting from scratch. However, it's easier to get financing to buy an existing business than to start a new one. Bankers and investors generally feel more comfortable dealing with a business that already has a proven track record. In addition, buying a business may give you valuable legal rights, such as patents or copyrights, which can prove very profitable. Of course, there's no such thing as a sure thing--and buying an existing business is no exception. If you're not careful, you could get stuck with obsolete inventory, uncooperative employees or outdated distribution methods. To make sure you get the best deal when buying an existing business, be sure to follow these steps.

The Right Choice
Buying the perfect business starts with choosing the right type of business for you. The best place to start is by looking at an industry with which you're both familiar and which you understand. Think long and hard about the types of businesses you're interested in and which best match your skills and experience. Also consider the size of business you are looking for, in terms of employees, number of locations and sales. Next, pinpoint the geographical area where you want to own a business. Assess labor pool and costs of doing business in that area, including wages and taxes, to make sure they're acceptable to you. Once you've chosen a region and an industry to focus on, investigate every business in the area that meets your requirements. Start by looking in the local newspaper's classified section under "Business Opportunities" or "Businesses for Sale". You can also run your own "Want to Buy" ad describing what you are looking for. Remember, just because a business isn't listed doesn't mean it isn't for sale. Talk to business owners in the industry; many of them might not have their businesses up for sale but would consider selling if you made them an offer. Put your networking abilities and business contacts to use, and you're likely to hear of other businesses that might be good prospects.

Contacting a business broker is another way to find businesses for sale. Most brokers are hired by sellers to find buyers and help negotiate deals. If you hire a broker, he or she will charge you a commission--typically 5 to 10 percent of the purchase price. The assistance brokers can offer, especially for first-time buyers, is often worth the cost. However, if you are really trying to save money, consider hiring a broker only when you are near the final negotiating phase. Brokers can offer assistance in several ways.

  • Prescreening businesses for you. Good brokers turn down many of the businesses they are asked to sell, whether because the seller won't provide full financial disclosures or because the business is overpriced. Going through a broker helps you avoid these bad risks.
  • Helping you pinpoint your interest. A good broker starts by finding out about your skills and interests, then helps you select the right business for you. With the help of a broker, you may discover that an industry you had never considered is the ideal one for you.
  • Negotiating. The negotiating process is really when brokers earn their keep. They help both parties stay focused on the ultimate goal and smooth over any problems that may arise.
  • Assisting with paperwork. Brokers know the latest laws and regulations affecting everything from licenses and permits to financing and escrow. They also know the most efficient ways to cut through red tape, which can slash months off the purchase process. Working with a broker reduces the risk that you'll neglect some crucial form, fee or step in the process.

A Closer Look
Whether you use a broker or go it alone, you will definitely want to put together an "acquisition team"--your banker, accountant and attorney--to help you. These advisors are essential to what is called "due diligence", which means reviewing and verifying all the relevant information about the business you are considering. When due diligence is done, you will know just what you are buying and from whom. The preliminary analysis starts with some basic questions. Why is this business for sale? What is the general perception of the industry and the particular business, and what is the outlook for the future? Does--or can--the business control enough market share to stay profitable? Are raw materials needed in abundant supply? How have the company's product or service lines changed over time?

You also need to assess the company's reputation and the strength of its business relationships. Talk to existing customers, suppliers and vendors about their relationships with the business. Contact the Better Business Bureau, industry associations and licensing and credit-reporting agencies to make sure there are no complaints against the business.

If the business still looks promising after your preliminary analysis, your acquisition team should start examining the business's potential returns and its asking price. Whatever method you use to determine the fair market price of the business, your assessment of the business's value should take into account such issues as the business's financial health, its earnings history and its growth potential, as well as its intangible assets (for example, brand name and market position).

To get an idea of the company's anticipated returns and future financial needs, ask the business owner and/or accountants to show you projected financial statements. Balance sheets, income statements, cash flow statements, footnotes and tax returns for the past three years are all key indicators of a business's health. These documents will help you conduct a financial analysis that will spotlight any underlying problems and also provide a closer look at a wide range of less tangible information.

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