Scale up or sell up?

Your business is growing successfully and you’ve had an acquisition offer. Should you exit or play the long game? Our Young Guns alumni advise business owners on whether to stick or twist….

Making the decision to exit your business is never an easy one. Do you sell up and take the money or scale your business to its full potential and make further gains, accepting the risk that you could lose out?

Having both successfully sold and scaled their companies, the Growing Business Young Guns alumni – a cohort of the UK’s most impressive entrepreneurs – were the perfect sounding base to pose this question to.

With frank and honest answers, read on to find out their advice on whether you should sell up or scale up…

Tim Morgan, director, Mint Digital:

“What I’ve learned is that you can’t anticipate how you are going to feel when it comes to exit time until you get there but it’s normally obvious what the answer is at the time.

“More generally I do believe that too few UK […] entrepreneurs (and their investors) are focused on creating long-standing, sustainable and culturally significant companies. Favouring the quick buck of an exit and a short-term return on investment makes start-ups seem more like one-hit wonders than industrial institutions with longevity designed in their DNA.”

Mark Mills, founder, Cardpoint:

“Sell up – I have never met a business owner who would not “do something differently” next time so by selling up, you receive capital, time and a “blank sheet of paper”.

“Some of the best businesses I have seen are ‘version two’ and you also have the experiences of selling version one which will help you to drive greater value the second time around. Entrepreneurs are wasted in one business and the true definition of an entrepreneur is to be a serial entrepreneur!”

Emma Sinclair, co-founder, Enterprise Jungle:

“It’s not either/or. Do both. Bank it, find the opportunity and exit all in one go. That means 1+1 = 3, delivering value and future potential all round. That’s better than just good business and everyone wins.”

Anil Stocker, co-founder and CEO, MarketInvoice:

“Too often British start-ups are sold before they’ve reached their full potential. Getting a successful start-up off the ground requires a very different skill set to managing the scale-up process, but it is a challenge entrepreneurs should relish.

“Ultimately, focusing on exit (whether early-stage or late) will not help drive growth, instead it’s far more important to focus on business fundamentals – how we can improve our product, how we can reach more people, how we can build more efficient operations. If you look after the fundamentals the right exit opportunities will become clearer.”

Lee Biggins, founder and MD, CV-Library:

“Stick. The key to success is to be constantly striving to take the business to new heights. It’s that raw passion, and desire to achieve amazing things, that drives you to deliver the best results. Money alone can’t do that. And if you’re only trying to grow the business in order to sell it, you’re likely to disappoint yourself.

However, if you’re looking to sell up so that you can spend time with family, or retire, then you need to weigh up the value of time vs money – once you have done that, you can set goals and work towards them. My own personal belief is that a project isn’t finished until it’s reached and exceeded your personal goals– selling up before then isn’t an option.”

James Layfield, CEO and co-founder, Central Working:

“When I sold my first business, the immediate feeling was sadness. It’s difficult to let go of a company that you’ve grown from nothing – but ultimately it allowed me to focus my efforts on new endeavours. At Central Working I help members to grow their companies and that’s more satisfying than my previous ventures.

“This question arises constantly and my advice to my members is to always trust your instincts. Will selling up afford you the opportunity to pursue other, more gratifying ambitions? Riding straight off into retirement, saddlebags stuffed with cash, isn’t always the most satisfying long-term option, especially if you have the opportunity to build something which will leave a legacy and make a real difference to other people or businesses.”

Glen Calvert, CEO, Affectv:

“My overarching view would be to scale your business up and only consider selling if (a) the price is extortionate or (b) you don’t feel you can fund the business to get true scale. This decision would be made around key parameters such as: What can the development team build with current resources? What revenue can we generate? How big can we be? Is what we’ve build truly differentiated?”

James Murray, founder, Alternative Networks:

“I don’t believe there is a right or wrong answer, it depends on the business you are in and more importantly what makes you tick. For me it’s all about the journey, from growing a private business and then taking it public, from organic growth and then acquiring business, you’re constantly being challenged which in turn makes it incredibly exciting. As the saying goes ‘onwards and upwards!’”

Ali Clabburn, founder, Liftshare.com:

“Liftshare is about to celebrate its 17th Birthday. 17 years of self-financed scaling up. Despite various approaches over the years we have enjoyed going-it-alone. Learning fast, free from money raising and investor pressure. However the industry in which we were pioneers, the sharing economy, has come of age and is now being turbocharged with some huge investments into ventures that share our market. So to stick or twist? We’re on a social mission to solve transport poverty – would investment help us achieve that quicker or break our heart? Tips on a postcard.”

Logan Naidu, founder, Dartmouth Partners:

“Scale or sell? Take a fistful of dollars or hope to be carrying them out in a wheelbarrow? Ultimately, I think the key is what’s best for the business? Unless, you’re completely mercenary and I don’t believe many people set up a successful business purely for the economics, then the heart of the question is what’s best for the business. To get to the point of exit will have taken enormous energy, passion, will-power, bloody mindedness and sacrifice after sacrifice. Are you willing to keep doing more of the same to take it to the next level?

“Do you still have the drive? If you have, then you’ll probably want to stay on. If you don’t, then it’s time to partially or fully exit and bring in some funds and the cavalry. Hopefully, there will be people who will want to continue what you’ve started and push on. You may still want to be part of it, or you may want to move on. But either way, if your passion is fading then that’s contagious and the business will stagnate or go backwards. Funnily enough, what’s best for the business is usually what’s best for you too.”

Alex Depledge, co-founder, Hassle:

“All I know is that selling or scaling is like being asked to predict the future – you are never in control when running a business, you do not hold all the cards. So like poker it is a gamble with no certain outcome. So for me I follow my heart rather than run the numbers. To win in this game you have to have both vision and naivety.”

Andy Gilbert, CEO, Node4:

“The decision to exit or scale is a very individual one.  If the founder has a strong vision, together with the passion and aptitude to realise that vision, then I would definitely recommend scaling up to ensure the business realises its full potential. In our case, at Node4, we have a fantastic team, an exciting opportunity and the expertise to deliver on that.  By aligning ourselves with the right partners we are able to scale up to help our customers fulfill their potential too.”

Jenny Irvine, founder, The Pure Package:

“My advice would be to consider the benefits owning your business brings you and how it fits into your lifestyle. I am so passionate about what we’re doing at The Pure Package and Balance Box, and this is essential for anyone looking to stick – love the business.

“As a mum of four young daughters, being my own boss is also a wonderful position to be in as it brings me flexibility. I can work my hours around them and I also think it teaches them a lot exposed to the heart of a business – they love it as much as I do!

“Despite opportunities to sell up, my decision to stick based on these sentiments has proved sound and I’m proud that both brands continue to go from strength to strength. Passion and instinct are great guides when making any important decision, so don’t be afraid to mix them with business.”

Rob Small, CEO, Miniclip:

“I think that it really depends on what your motivations are. If its money that motivates you, then you should certainly look to sell up when a solid offer comes along. If, however, you have a grander ambition, perhaps to revolutionise an industry or create a new one, then you’ve got to play the long game!”

Dan Somers, partner, Boundary Capital:

“Whether to stick or twist: I’ve come up with a mathematical formula:

Scaleup formula

“Where “V” is the value today of the cash in your pocket; “Cn” is the entrepreneur’s capability to take the business to the next level at year “n” (between 0 and 100%); “Dn” is the cumulative dilution suffered from further funding rounds at year n, “Pn” is the eventual price that gets paid for the business at year “n” and “(1 + R)^n” is the ‘discount factor’ due to time of having the cash today versus tomorrow, where “R” is the discount rate and n is the number of further years to sale.

“It does make sense i.e. if you sell in 10 more years’ time and you don’t care about the time value of waiting for the cash, and the price goes up then it’s worth it. However if you think you’ll get diluted too much or don’t think you can cut it building the business then you should sell now. If V today is greater than V tomorrow then sell today!”

Piers Daniell, founder Fluidata:

“The market and your customers change. To keep up with this change sometimes it makes sense to make a step change to your business. This could be in the form of changing the management team, finding new investment or becoming part of a larger group with access to new markets. Whatever the reason, don’t fear change but follow your gut instinct which has served you so well to date. But certainly don’t wait for it to come to you, as they say you make your own luck.”

If you want to scale your business, then check out Startups’ new events series The Scaleups Sessions.

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  1. JerryONeill
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    Me personally, I’m against selling your own business. You put a lot of efforts to make it grow and when it finally does why sell it? It’s what you’re good at. You’ve put all your energy and soul into it. Most importantly – you’ve developed a brand. There’s always a risk to get your brand corrupted by selling it to another business. Some say why caring? Because your brand is your child – you just don’t want it to fall in the wrong hands (just like when you’re marrying your son or daughter)