How Much is Your Business Worth?

There are 3 basic approaches to value your business: the Asset Approach, the Income Approach and the Market Approach.

The Asset Approach is based on the principle of substitution. Meaning, it assumes that no prudent buyer / investor would pay more for a particular business than the cost to reproduce it right across the street. The main flaw with the Asset Approach is that it does not do a good job of capturing intangible value (goodwill). How you (and your employees) treat your customers and the reputation you hold in the marketplace is not something easily duplicated (and therefore valued with the Asset Approach). So, beware of the limitations of this approach. Understand that although an Asset Approach provides a relative indication of value for highly asset intensive companies, it may serve merely as a liquidation value for your service oriented company. The Income Approach and Market Approach do a much better job of fairly capturing the value of your company’s goodwill or intangible value.

The Income Approach operates under the assumption that a buyer will pay for the cash flow that your business is set up to produce going forward as of the date of sale. Buyers buy cash flow. How much they are willing to pay for access to your cash flow depends on the risk associated with the buyer actually receiving it once you exit the business. If your company shows a consistent history of steady cash flow and/or growth a buyer is likely to pay more for your cash flow stream (less risk) than for the cash flow stream of a similar company with unstable cash that cannot reasonably be assumed to reoccur in future periods (more risk).

By valuing the cash flow of your company you are inherently valuing EVERYTHING that your company does. If your company did something different (made different decisions or operated under a different philosophy) your cash flow would look different and the value of your business would be different. Your cash flow reflects all the decisions you make within your company. So, I challenge you with this question, if the decisions you are making don’t increase your cash flow (and buyers will pay you only for your cash flow) why are you engaging in those activities that don’t result in increased cash flow? They are not adding value to your company.

The third approach to value is the Market Approach. If you own a home or have rented an apartment, you’ve done a form of the Market Approach. When you compare and contrast similar properties and then use the comparative data to value your property, you are doing a Market Approach. In residential real estate you may compare things like price/sq.ft. or price/bedroom and price/bathroom. Once you obtain these ratios from similar properties you multiply the ratio by the square footage, the number of bathrooms, or the number of bedrooms in your home to get to a value for your property.

You can do the same thing with businesses. However, as you may have guessed, the value of your business is not driven by its square footage and its bathrooms. It is driven by other metrics such as revenue, assets, growth, leverage, turnover, liquidity, etc. Publicly traded companies and transactions involving other private industry participants provide an understanding of how price relates to the various financial metrics of these companies. Then, just like we did in valuing your property, we apply these market ratios to the metrics of your business to determine its market value.

Valuation is a complex matter with many intricacies that are not discussed here. The purpose of this article is to familiarize you with the basic valuation approaches employed. I don’t recommend that you attempt to value your business without the help of a qualified expert. But, I do encourage you to gain an understanding of these approaches so you can better focus on building value within your business before it is time to sell.

How Much Is My Business Worth?

Did you ever notice that the attitude of a seller of real estate is often substantially different than the attitude of a buyer? Sellers have been known to irrationally claim their property has more value than it does, despite evidence to the contrary.

The buyer often sneers at the seller’s price, and claims the property is hardly worth buying, that the seller is crazy, and that as long as the seller thinks he has such a treasure trove, he can keep it.

Now here’s where it really gets fascinating. All buyers eventually become sellers. Some well meaning folks will display both attitudes, first the buyer’s attitude when they purchase (This property is hardly worth buying.), and then years later when they are ready to sell, they display the seller’s attitude (This property is a hidden treasure worth far more than I paid for it, and any buyer would be lucky to have it.). I love to watch and learn about human behavior, and this behavior fascinates me.

Let me bring this home to roost where the most eggs are laid. Small business owners. Many small business owners drive a hard bargain when they purchase their business. During the years they run the business, many don’t show all the income on their tax return. For example, it is commonly known that coin operated businesses are ripe with opportunities to skim coins off the top without reporting that as income. Another approach, within legal limits, is to deduct the heck out of everything and show virtually zero net income. And the Trap . . .

Is that when it comes time to sell, they want more than they can justify, because they can’t prove to the buyer it really makes all that income.

Key Point. When you purchase a business, always operate the business as though you intend to sell it to get the highest possible FMV. If you can’t prove income, you won’t get your price.

What’s My Business Worth?

Probably one of the most common questions business owners ask is “What is my business worth?”. Perhaps you want to do some retirement planning, succession planning, divorce planning, estate planning, etc.. This simple question has no simple answer, however. Valuations differ based on their purpose. For instance, the courts and accountants focus on a “Fair Market Value” without compulsion. For the sale of a business, brokers and valuation experts create a “Most Probable Selling Price” that takes the current market conditions into consideration. Let’s assume we’re looking to sell our business, and we want a valuation.

There are three main approaches to determining a most probable selling price:

1) Market Approach
2) Income Approach
3) Asset Approach

The market approach is based on the comparison of “similar” businesses that have sold when compared to ours, then projecting a value for your business. The principle of substitution would suggest that this is a reasonable way to come up with a valuation. There are several problems, such as comparing businesses in different parts of the country, or even state that might make this comparison inaccurate since local economic conditions vary. Also, comparing companies of significantly different sizes can skew the results since buyers typically pay higher multiples for larger companies.

The income approach looks at a view that presumes that a business is a cash generation machine, and you should compare your business to any other investment that generates cash. The big difference here is that small business is risky, so an accommodation for risk needs to be built in. A key part of the process is to identify the cash coming from the business through a process known as recasting. Recasting will take tax returns or financial reports and estimate the cash flow of the business that benefits the owner. This is often referred to as “Sellers Discretionary Cash Flow” (SDCF) or “Seller’s Discretionary Earnings” (SDE), or something similar. This cash flow number is then multiplied by industry specific ratios to estimate a value. Other variations on this method include a capitalization rate applied to the SDCF or looking forward and estimating the SDCF for several years and calculating the net present value of that cash flow (what the sum of future benefits is worth today).

Finally, the asset approach depends on the fair market value of the company’s assets. This is sometimes called the cost approach, since it deals with the physical assets of the business, and doesn’t provide much value for goodwill. In most businesses, goodwill is the majority of the value of the business. This approach is most useful for unprofitable businesses or businesses that have a significant investment in equipment or other assets.

Ultimately, the market determines the price of the business. Because every business is unique, expect negotiation on the price. Buyers buy the whole package, it’s not just price, but the perceived risk of the business, the prestige of owning that business, the volatility of earnings, strength of the industry, the local economy and a host of other factors not easily quantified. The opinion of value is the start of the discussion on what the business will actually sell for. You should get some help when its time to price your business.