How To Start A Business You Can Sell

By John Warrillow

Starting a new business? Follow these eight steps to build a business you can sell one day:

1. Identify a scalable product or service: Scalable products meet three criteria:

  • Teachable—you can train people or program technology to deliver them.

  • Valuable—your customers want to buy them.

  • Repeatable—you can show an acquirer a future stream of income.

Once you’ve picked a product or service that is scalable, document for your employees how to sell and deliver it.

2. Create a positive cash flow cycle: The more working capital an acquiring company must put into your business, the lower its potential return on equity, and the less it will pay for your business. Create a positive cash flow cycle by charging up front or at least in staged billing so that you get paid before buying the products or services you’re selling. Leveraging online billing platforms like Freshbooks will allow you to send invoices electronically (saving the snail mail lag time) and to preprogram invoices to be deployed at scheduled intervals.

3. Put lead generation on autopilot: Most business owners are their company’s best salesperson. That may seem a positive, but if you want to build a company you can eventually sell, you need to show that sales are not dependent on you personally. Create a lead-generation engine that works when you’re sleeping by buying keywords from Google (you pay only when you get visitors), and start a blog to stimulate repurchases from existing customers (most blogging platforms are free). If your company sells face-to-face, replace yourself with salespeople.

4. Stop accepting orders for anything but your scalable product/service: You need to stop selling everything but the product/service identified in Step 1. Great companies are the best at one thing. It makes them referable and ultimately sellable. Acquirers do not want to buy the “padding” in your business. They want the one product or service that makes you famous. Once you have started to charge up front, you’ll have the cash to absorb any short-term revenue drop while customers adjust to buying only your scalable product.

5. Launch a long-term incentive plan for managers: A buyer needs to see your key people will stay after you’re gone. A long-term incentive plan sets aside a portion of an employee’s annual bonus in a locked-in account for three years. Upon the third year and in each subsequent year, the employee can pull out a third of the value. That way, he or she will always have to walk away from three years’ worth of bonuses to quit.

6. Find a broker: Selling your business may be the largest transaction of your life, so get a professional to represent you. Good brokers create competitive tension and earn the success fees they charge. To find a broker, contact American Mergers & Acquisitions Advisors (, or you can visit, an online marketplace for businesses for sale (think eBay for small businesses). Contact a business broker representing companies that are similar to yours (e.g., in your city, industry, etc.).

7. Tell your management team: An acquirer will want to meet your management team before closing the deal. Explain to your employees how the acquisition will help them (e.g., career advancement) and consider offering a “success bonus” upon the sale of your company. Pay the bonus in two installments: one just after closing; the second, six months later to those who stay through the transition.

8. Convert offers to a binding deal: Your broker will (hopefully) generate offers for your business. Most of the time, these will be non-binding letters of intent (LOIs) that request a period of exclusivity to conduct due diligence. Like a home inspector, the acquirer will find warts in your business during diligence. Remain calm and expect the offer to be discounted from the number in the LOI. If the post-diligence offer meets with your approval, go ahead and close the deal.

Read other articles and learn more about John Warrillow.

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