Five Questions Business Buyers Should Ask, but Usually Don't

The average business for sale buyer goes into the buying process with an arsenal of boilerplate questions for the seller. But the questions buyers really need answered are the questions they usually don't think to ask.

Buying a business isn't for the faint of heart. A host of hidden pitfalls and dangers lurk beneath the surface of every deal, waiting to pounce on the blind enthusiasm of the first buyer that crosses their path.

To protect themselves, buyers have traditionally relied on a standard list of questions to shed light on the company's historical performance and current financial condition. Due diligence itself is designed to focus the buyer's attention on issues such as financial conditions, business operations, personnel, condition of assets, etc. – all of which need to be addressed before the buyer can make an informed buying decision.

But a growing trend in the business for sale marketplace is making it necessary for buyers to ask a new set of questions. The trend is called FSBO (For Sale By Owner) listings and it works just like it sounds. Although brokers continue to play a vital role in the business marketplace and participate in a substantial number of business for sale transactions, some sellers and buyers find it more advantageous to use the Internet and other resources to sell or locate companies themselves.

The advantages of FSBO listings for both buyers and sellers are clear. However, FSBO listed businesses require the buyer to assume greater responsibility in the buying process. For some buyers, the lack of broker expertise can ultimately lead to a purchasing decision based more on gut feelings than facts. For those business buyers unsure of their ability to make a sound purchase decision on their own, professional business brokers can play an important role.

FSBO buyers can overcome the gap in expertise by asking questions that go beyond typical due diligence and probe more deeply into the seller's thought process. While answers to the regular financial and operational questions are still crucial, there are five other questions today's FSBO buyers also need to ask.

Question #1: "When Did the Owner Decide to Sell the Business?"

In some ways, buying an existing business is like buying a used car. If you've ever bought a used car, you probably asked the dealer why the previous owner sold the car in the first place. And then the car dealer probably told you that the previous owner was a little old lady who only drove it church and was recently placed in a nursing home.

Business buyers have a similar curiosity about the owner's decision to sell. Owners usually respond with an answer from the seller's playbook. Variations of "I'm ready to retire," "It's time to do something else," and "It's time to give someone else a chance" lead the pack.

Yet much of the time, the reason behind the owner's decision to sell is less important than when the owner decided to put the business on the market.

Ideally, the answer buyers should look for is that the listing didn't arise suddenly, but came as the result of a well-thought out, multi-year plan conceived by the owner as a means of achieving his personal and business goals. If that's true, the owner should be able to provide the buyer with a copy of the plan upon request.

But if the owner's decision to list the business happened quickly, that could be a red flag that the business is in trouble, that there are economic threats on the horizon, or that the owner hasn't taken the time to properly prepare due diligence materials.

Question #2: "What Valuation Method Did the Owner Use to Determine the Asking Price?"

In a typical business for sale transaction, the buyer and the seller each perform their own valuation of the business' worth. So from the buyer's perspective, the seller's valuation method isn't an essential element in determining a reasonable price tag for the company.

However, the seller's valuation method does become a factor when it comes to gauging the owner's basis for the asking price. Many sellers assess their business' worth by way of an asset-based valuation method simply because it is the easiest valuation method. Unfortunately, it is also the least accurate way to determine a value for small businesses. Income capitalization methods are equally unreliable for small company valuations.

Instead, savvy small business buyers utilize a multiplier valuation method based on the owner's benefit. If the seller also employs a multiplier valuation method, both parties enter the negotiation process on the same page. If not, the negotiation process will likely become an exercise in apples and oranges. The buyer and the seller will both experience frustration because they are unable to agree on a common basis for valuation. If buying or selling online, users of business for sale marketplaces can find multiplier-based business valuation tools available at no or little cost.

Question #3: "What Does the Owner Want to Walk Away With?"

Although it may seem unlikely that the seller will disclose his bottom line before the negotiation process has even started, it's important for the buyer to make an effort to discover what matters to the seller.

At the very least, buyers who are willing to ask this question will begin to get an idea about the seller's non-cash motivations. The vast majority of small business owners are just as concerned about the business' future as they are about how much money they will make on the sale.

The seller's non-cash motivations can be a powerful negotiation tool for buyers. When the negotiation process hits a wall, knowing everything that is important to a seller can sometimes close the deal.

Question #4: "What Would the Seller Do to Increase Sales and Profits"

More than anything else, buyers need to create opportunities to inject a dose of reality into the buying decision. Presumably, the person who is most qualified to offer a realistic perspective about the business and its future growth prospects is its owner. Yet sellers often prefer to paint a rosy portrait of the company rather than simply telling it like it is.

One of the ways a buyer can break through a reluctant seller's defenses is to invite the owner to make suggestions about how to increase capacity, market share and profitability. With the right approach, a buyer's appeal to owner expertise can change the seller's posture from defensive to collaborative.

Question #5: "Is the Seller Willing to Sign a Non-Compete Clause?"

An established customer or client base is one of the reasons existing businesses are so attractive to buyers. That incentive disappears if the owner's intention is to sell the business and take the company's customers with him.

There is no surer way to surface a seller's real motives than for the buyer to request a contractual non-compete clause. If the seller refuses, the buyer should proceed with caution since the business' customer base may be soft. On the other hand, if the seller agrees without blinking an eye, the existing client base can probably be used as a reliable gauge for financial projections.

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About the Author

Mike Handelsman is the General Manager for BizBuySell.com, the Internet's largest business-for-sale marketplace. Since 1995, BizBuySell has offered tools that make it easy for business owners and brokers to sell a business and potential buyers to find the perfect business. BizBuySell lists more than 50,000 businesses - spanning 80 countries - for sale at any time, with over 4,500 added or updated each month. BizBuySell also has one of the largest databases of sale comparables for recently sold businesses and one of the industry's leading franchise directories. It has approximately 800,000 visitors to the site each month.

Prior to his online experience, Mr. Handelsman began his career in brand management with Procter & Gamble, and also worked as a Management Consultant with McKinsey & Company in Chicago and San Francisco. For the past 15 years, he has had extensive experience dealing directly with start-ups and early-stage businesses.

Mr. Handelsman is a graduate of Duke University, and holds a MBA from the Harvard Business School.

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