One of the major challenges faced by someone showing his or her business for sale in California is the appearance of people claiming to have the interest and the money to buy, but who actually are not qualified buyers. Because they waste so much of a seller's valuable time, and can compromise the selling effort by violating the non-disclosure rules, it's important that a seller avoid trying to work with these unqualified buyers. In order to do that, of course, it's necessary to know how to identify a time-waster, and to separate the unqualified from qualified buyers.
Surprisingly, some people make it a hobby to look at businesses offerings but with no intention of buying any business. They might ask intelligent questions, even show a financial statement that suggests they have the resources needed to make the purchase. And they often state an interest in making the purchase. But once bored with learning about one kind of business, the so-called buyer will start investigating something else. The seller who spent time, and opened his books to a pretend buyer will get nothing but a sense of confusion about why the buyer disappeared, and disappointment that no sale resulted from all of the time and effort.
More dangerous than phony business buyers are those who might like to purchase a business, but not at all the way the owner wants to sell it. These leverage artists and con men and women might go out of their way to impress and to charm a seller, perhaps take him out to dinner and repeatedly compliment him on the state of his business. But their real agenda has to do with striking a deal that enables them to "try out" or "lease" a business, or to purchase it with no money down. People like this may claim to be financially qualified, and in fact might have the cash needed to make the purchase, but their objective is to buy your business with your money.
Even experienced business sales intermediaries can be fooled from time to time by a time-waster who does a good job of acting like a real buyer. Still, there are some common things to look out for when showing the business. Identifying someone who is not a real and serious buyer when first meeting him or her can save a seller considerable time and aggravation.
Some ways that an unqualified business buyer might reveal that he or she is a phony, include:
1. Refusal to provide a financial statement and resume at, or prior to the first meeting. Or refusal to sign a non-disclosure before learning the identity of the business being offered.
Exchange of basic information is a standard practice in California when a business is being introduced to a prospective buyer, whether by a broker or the owner. That means the buyer learns the name and general information about the business, perhaps including some financial performance results, and the seller or licensed intermediary receives a signed disclosure form, personal financial statement and resume from the buyer. This exchange of information and documents usually takes place before any important discussion begins. Just as a buyer claims the right to see some information concerning the business about which he or she inquired, the seller has a right to know with whom he or she is dealing.
Refusal of a buyer to cooperate may take the form of an excuse such as "I won't disclose any information about myself unless I am interested in this business, so first, give me the details about what is for sale. If I'm interested in pursuing this further, I will supply personal information." Or words to that effect. This lack of cooperation with accepted practice is a warning that the buyer is not willing to play by the rules and may not be qualified to buy the business.
Another excuse: "Don't worry, I have plenty of money," might be acceptable if you recognize the interested party from photos you've seen of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. Otherwise, you have no way of knowing whether the prospective buyer has any money to make the purchase. That's when the discussion should end.
Some sellers require a prospect to bring a letter from his or her bank's officer attesting to the fact that the individual has money in the bank. Such a letter should state the approximate value of the account, and point out how long the sum has been in the account. The reason for this requirement, obviously, is because a financial statement presented without verification that it is authentic could contain completely false and misleading information.
2. Questions about "alternative" ways of selling the business. A buyer might be open about her intentions and ask something like: "Have you considered leasing the business with an option to buy?" Or the questions and comments might be much more subtle such as a statement like: "This business will take a lot of cash to run. Maybe you should take a note for the full purchase price so a buyer can use his money to finance operations and growth." Another popular question is whether the seller is willing to co-sign with the buyer for the loan the buyer will need so he can give the seller a down payment.
An alternative way a buyer might approach this subject is by telling a story about a friend or acquaintance who, for example, bought a company in a "creative" way and made the business so successful that he could afford to pay the seller a bonus.
It's a good idea to be suspicious of any buyer who mentions a business transfer that does not correspond pretty closely to the asking price and deal structure presented by the seller.
3. Indications that a buyer is making false or misleading statements. In other words, catching the pretend buyer in a lie. A machine shop owner discussed his business with a prospect who claimed he was experienced in the industry. But the questions the buyer asked and the way he look puzzled when viewing the equipment, made it clear to the seller that this guy had no idea about the business. If the buyer tells you one lie, the chances are good that any statement about his or her interest in the business and willingness to observe guidelines suggested by your price and terms, is almost certainly a false statement.
Related to catching a buyer in a lie, is getting the "feeling" that a buyer is not what he pretends to be. Some individuals have a sixth sense about people and can usually tell when someone is not sincere or authentic. If you don't have that talent, watch closely for clues that the buyer is not who she or she represents. An ad agency professional shouldn't have dirty fingernails unless his hobby is rebuilding auto engines on weekends. The "buyer" who claims to have just sold a big business for a lot of money, is unlikely to pull up to the curb in a fourteen-year-old mid-priced sedan with a broken headlight and missing fender.
The seller of a business should make it the first priority to know with whom he or she is dealing before spending time and sharing proprietary information with a prospective buyer. The place to start is by observing these three suggestions. The consequences of lost time and heightened aggravation that results from dealing with unqualified people can discourage an owner from ever selling the business.
About The Contributor: Peter Siegel, MBA is the Founder & Senior Advisor (ProBuy & ProSell Programs) at BizBen.com (established 1994, 8000+ CA businesses for sale, 500 new & refreshed postings/posts daily) working with buyers, business owners/sellers, business brokers, agents, investors, and advisors). Reach him direct at 866-270-6278 to discuss strategies regarding buying, selling, (or financing a puchase of) California businesses.
Categories: BizBen Blog Contributor, How To Sell A Business, Selling A Business
Comments Regarding This Blog Post
I think that part of an agents or brokers job is to protect the Seller by vetting all potential Buyers. As mentioned in the article, there are Buyers that are very manipulating. I recently had just such a Buyer. When I talked to him over the phone, he made a number of statements that lead me to understand that he had no clue of this particular industry. When I made a conscious effort to explain to him that this might not be a good business to pursue, he insisted and made a comment to the affect that he had the money and it was his decision to purchase this company. I sent him an NDA and he signed the NDA with a squiggle which made me uneasy. I requested to have a one to one meeting before introducing him to my Seller and he refused, stating that he had no time. This was my third flag. We met with him and my Seller at a local coffee shop and we spent time talking to him. He had a few questions but nothing with substance, which again was another flag. He then persevered on one specific subject related to the business which honestly made no sense and when I tried to explain to him that this subject would eventually be a moot point, he reiterated that he had the resources to purchase this company. In the end, he left the deal, and I am thankful that he did so early on in the process, so that he would not continue to waste my Sellers and or my valuable time.
I do believe that if a buyer brings a lack of knowledge in the industry of the company in which they are interested or if they only want to talk about financing the purchase or if they are uneasy with providing proof of funds (POFs) or in signing an NDA that this should be indicative of a problem. I tell my Sellers that no one Buyer is a sure shot and that we should treat each Buyer with caution, constantly evaluating their requests and their thought process. If something is out of the norm, it might be a good time to consider letting this Buyer go to their next port.
A broker's gives their knowledge and experience when selling a business, but the most valuable thing they have is their time. Since a broker works on commission, they are working for free until the business gets sold, so it's important that they use their time wisely. When dealing with a buyer who seems to be just "kicking tires", it's important for a broker to be economical with their time, because we are in the business of selling, not a professor keeping office hours. Some buyers will come into sign and NDA and end up talking for an hour and a half, talking about things that have nothing to do with the business. A smart broker should be able to see if a buyer is actually interested in buying or just likes talking to salespeople. A sincere will usually have a time line of when they want to own their own business, and seemed focused on achieving that goal. A broker should avoid becoming jaded, because there are people who buy businesses who have been looking for a while, but during conversations, one should always remind themselves to give information, but not get sucked into meaningless conversations.
While nothing can guarantee that a buyer is "for real" or not, certainly a buyer's answers to these two questions can provide a little more perspective:
1. How long have you been actively looking for a business? (We track buyer inquiries and we have several buyers who have inquired about businesses, but never bought one, for over 10 years. Maybe a good indication that they will never pull the trigger on a purchase)
2. Have you ever owned a business before, worked for yourself in any manner, or worked on a straight commission basis? (Buying a business involves risk. If someone has shown they they will take a risk with their income, I think it shows that they might be more inclined to buy. This is not to say that the middle manager from corporate America doesn't buy businesses, we sell to these types of individuals all the time. But often the corporate manager has not considered the loss of benefits, insurance, paid time off, etc.)
In general, the more you know about the buyer, their resources, their skill set, and of course their motivation, the more likely you will be able to help them find the business that meets their needs.
An interesting anecdotal figure for business sellers to ponder is that for every 100 inquiries I receive as a business broker, about 30 to 35 actually will complete the NDA and provide basic financial information. Prospective buyers (essentially, total strangers) are NOT entitled to the confidential information about a business without first agreeing to keep it confidential and proving that they have the financial resources and ability to actually complete a purchase. This is the first threshold: no NDA, no financials -- no confidential information. Period.
Another indicator that a buyer is not sincere or is not competent enough to buy the business is when they profess to be proficient in an area when its obvious they "haven't got a clue." For example, there is the buyer who knows nothing about accounting and, rather than spend a few hundred dollars on a professional consultant, asks totally irrelevant and unintelligible questions about the P&L, or the balance sheet, or the existing debt structure.
Frankly, if they are not going to invest a few dollars in hiring the expertise they lack, they are not going to be able to bargain in good faith for a realistic price for the business, they are not going to be able to finalize a contract, they are not going to be able to meet the standards of the landlord, and they are not going to be able to obtain financing.
Contributor: Business Appraisals, Valuations Advisor
One thing business brokers should realize is that they will probably waste 90% of their time looking for the right buyer and 10% closing the sale. I also found out over the 23 years that I sold businesses that I could not limit potential buyers by using my personal standards. I was very surprised that one of the individuals I thought unqualified for the business I sold actually doubled the sales in his first year and was very successful. Another Harvard Business School MBA graduate whom I thought had no chance of failure was forced to turn the business back to the seller within six months of the purchase.
I gave each potential buyer challenges to over come, an NDA, copies of their resume and financial statements and finally their own prepared letter of intent. At times I would comment to my seller whether or not I thought a potential buyer was sound, but the final decision was always his.
Often the best service I provide sellers is insulating them from the bogus buyers who will waste their time, sap their energy, steal their business ideas and plans, demoralize them, and contribute to the neglect of the business and consequent decline in value. While some business intermediaries advocate sharing a lot of sensitive, proprietary information with a prospective buyer based on the NDA alone, I caution my seller clients to be sure that the buyer is showing his good faith by making an offer with a significant deposit in escrow (or a smaller deposit and a letter of credit) before revealing too much of what's "behind the curtain." Since money deposited in escrow subject to due diligence is fully refundable to the buyer, it really is not at risk - but, it certainly separates the bonafide buyers from the bogus ones.
The second indicator is the prospect's ability or inability to make a decision. There's a distinct difference between prudent caution and fearful hesitation; the experienced business broker has seen both and usually can discern the difference, determining which buyer to take seriously and which to cut loose, quickly.
Contributor: Business Appraisals, Valuations Advisor
Before I was a Business Appraiser I was a Business Broker, and like all brokers I was always trying to sort out the sincere buyers. After many years of work and running into the same group of buyers I realized that there is a group of buyers that are truly sincere but could never take that leap of faith and buy a business. Their fear that they may be making a bad decision totally stops them dead in their tracks. I would estimate that 50% or more of buyer you run into will never buy a business.
Contributor: Business Broker, Northern California
The capitalist system is built on trust.
As Ronald Reagan was known to have said "Trust but verify". Trust cuts both ways in a transaction but the more each party is able to support their statements the greater the chances of success.
An effective way for a seller to decide early on if they wish to work with a buyer is to ask how they plan to finance the purchase. If the buyer states all cash its then easy to ask them to provide a copy of their bank statement with the cash sitting in the bank.
If the buyer says they plan to get an SBA loan then ask them to provide a letter from the SBA lender they have spoken to that has looked at the buyers financial statements and will be willing to make them a loan if they find the right business.
As the article says, if a buyer is unwilling to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement or provide a Personal Financial Statement then they can't expect to receive confidential information about the business for sale.