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First of all, you shouldn’t create an exit strategy for an investor – it’s actually the first question you should answer for yourself if you’re thinking about a startup.

The Exit Strategy – Cornerstone of Startup Success

You see, the exit strategy is about understanding who your customer is. Not the customer who buys your widget or app that you make, but the customer who buys your customer. The value proposition for this customer is different from the value proposition that you may have for your “first” customer who buys your product – the “second” customer who buys your company is much more important.

The second habit of the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People is “Begin with the end in mind.” This is more true for startups than anything else I know. Startup founders who understand their exit strategy are able to align all their strategies and people towards that single value proposition.

So how do you articulate a great exit strategy? There are six things you should think through carefully.

  1. Look at that past. Who in your industry is acquiring companies. Why are they acquiring them, and what patterns can you find in their acquisition activity? Specifically, if you can find 1) what is the average acquisition amount for companies, 2) what is the revenue multiple (how much the company was acquired for, divided by the trailing twelve month revenues for the company), 3) what drove the strategy behind the acquisition? Following these patterns will let you know who the likely acquirers are and how big you need to grow to be in the “sweet spot” for acquisition.
  2. Look at the future. What are the trends in your industry that point to your solution being a big solution to gaps that the big incumbents in your industry will need to fill? This is the Wayne Gretzky point to learn “where the puck is going and not where it is.” If you can be ahead of the incumbents and innovate, then you’ll be ripe for acquisition at a high multiple.
  3. Understand your values and the values of your acquirer. More than half of acquisitions fail because of values misalignment. You’re passionate about what you’re doing, so you want to make sure that your acquirer is also passionate about carrying on what you’re doing, but with ten times the impact in the communities you sell into.
  4. Build a team. I don’t mean the team on your “team slide” on your pitch deck. You need another team for your exit that includes direct employees who have been through acquisitions before, investment bankers, M&A transactional attorneys, and CPAs familiar with audits, valuations and transactions. You’re going to be acquired by professionals and you can’t take an amateur approach.
  5. Timing Strategy. You can’t define when you’ll be acquired, so you should always be ready for acquisition. I know a company who was acquired for $20 million before they ever had a customer, or an investment round. The two founders pocketed $10 million each for seven months of work. Early exits can be awesome, so long as you understand your early exit value proposition. Later, your value proposition evolves as you prove product market fit and gain many new customers which might be attractive to growth stage VCs or strategic acquirers. Even later you’ll have positive cash flow that may be attractive for Private Equity acquisition. The point is that you should know your value at each inflection point, know who you’re valuable to, and how much your company is worth at that stage.
  6. Know your acquirer. If you’re going to be acquired, it helps if the acquirer knows you exist. As you go through your timing strategy, you should define the potential acquirers and how their company is structured. Some acquirers drive M&A through the CEO and CFO, others have Business Development teams, others have M&A departments that execute the wishes of the board, and still others will drive acquisitions through product managers who bring in acquisitions to build out their product lines. Remember, companies don’t acquire companies, people do. You need to define who in the company does the acquiring and get to know them. Connect on LinkedIn. Write blogs and include them on the distribution lists. Go to trade shows they go to. Do podcasts, guest visits, and reach out via email introductions. The more well known you are as a thought leader and innovator in your space, the more likely you’ll be considered for acquisition. Don’t even think of being in “stealth”mode for more than a few months while you develop your MVP.

Investors don’t make money on your cash flow, so make sure you’re developing a capital strategy designed for growth. Investors only make money when you exit, so if you don’t have a great answer to the “what’s your exit strategy” question, then you’re not ready to raise capital since you can’t answer the question they’re really asking – how will I get my money back?

Interested in learning more about exit strategies, capital raising, valuation, term sheets and more? Check out the Angel Capital Summit, membership for both angels and founders at Rockies Venture Club and upcoming classes, workshops and accelerators for BOTH angel investors and entrepreneurs!

fire_exit-svgI heard it again this week.  The lame startup who answered that they didn’t have an exit strategy because they just wanted to create value for their customer.  I’ve heard this so many times by CEOs who think they’re being noble by focusing on their passion and commitment to the company and not to an exit – but what I hear is that they are NOT truly committed to their business.

  CEOs who don’t have an exit plan are limiting the potential for their business.

The fundamental lie of exit denial is in the belief that creating value for the customer is the same as creating value for the business.  Think about it – if you do something really well and create value for a customer, and you’re passionate about carrying out that mission to the greatest extent possible, then wouldn’t it be a good idea to identify larger companies who shared your values and could carry out the mission to even greater extents with their additional resources, capital, sales channels and expertise? Creating value for the acquirer means creating value for the customer as well – it’s rare that anyone wants to acquire a company with no customers.

But no – you’re just creating value for the customer, and then if you do that, acquisition offers will come along….eventually.  Yes, offers will come along, but they may not be from companies that share your values.  They may be from companies that want to shut you down.  They may be from companies that want to exploit your product or customers.  Just passively waiting for a suitor to come along is a cheap cop-out for lazy CEOs who believe that uncertainty means that you have to wait for whatever the world brings you.

Companies who are truly passionate about their mission are working to develop two value propositions simultaneously – the value proposition for their “first customer” who buys their product and the value proposition for the “second customer” who buys the company. Wayne Gretzky Exit Strategy

CEOs who think about the second customer are the ones who get me excited because they exhibit deep knowledge of their industry.  Like Wayne Gretzky, the hockey player who famously said “I don’t go to where the puck is, I go to where the puck is going,” these CEOs have identified a trend and they build value for companies in their industry who will be needing their innovation within a three to five year window.

To be sure, there is uncertainty.  You can’t just pick the acquirer, date and amount of acquisition.  This does not mean, however, that you can’t research comparable transactions and identify the key players and their behaviors.  You can create relationships with the companies who will be needing your technology so that when their board identifies a need for your product/service, they know that you are a key player in the industry that would be a good acquisition target and can reach out with an offer.

Identifying multiple bidders for your exit strategy not only allows you to select 6699678_sthe bidder who most closely matches your values and goals for the company, but also allows you to demand top dollar for the acquisition.

No, it’s not all about the money, but if you put your head in the sand and just wait for suitors, you will likely end up with a lower price for your acquisition and more importantly you may fail to truly carry out the mission of your company to its fullest potential.

Create a detailed exit strategy and show everyone your passion for the mission of your company.