Wednesday, April 27, 2016

For Equity Investors, A Startup Has To End To Win

startup-ipo-exitThe last thing a new entrepreneur wants to think about for a new startup is how it will end. Yet one of the first things a potential equity investor asks about is your exit strategy. The answer you give can make or break your ability to get an investment, so you need to have the right answer ready before anyone asks. Here are three important reasons for the question:

  1. Good investment paybacks normally require an exit event. Equity investments are not loans, so there is no loan payback period or interest payments. Equity is stock, but private company stock has no market value until the company goes public or is sold or merged with another company. These events may take three to five years at a minimum.

  2. Startups with no exit planned will minimize investor returns. If the entrepreneur plans to grow the company into a family business, or keep it private, they will either never be interested in buying out investors, or will certainly not be motivated to provide the 10x return that investors are looking for. Investors hesitate to invest under these conditions.

  3. Most entrepreneurs like the startup role, but not the big-company role. Investors know that the fun of a startup turns into managing production processes, sales processes, and personnel in a few years. You probably will do that job poorly, unless you plan your exit early, to move on to your next startup role, to do that better the next time.

Of course, if you are able to bootstrap your startup, and don’t anticipate the need for outside investors, you can technically ignore the first two points. Even still, in the context of all three points, I recommend that you evaluate the most common exit alternatives and considerations, and integrate the right one into your startup strategy and plan:

  • M&A - merger or acquisition by another company. This should be perceived as a win-win event, where your startup is bought or merged into a larger peer or competitor, allowing both you and investors to cash out. The resulting entity will gain complementary skills, economies of scale, new customer sets, and hopefully a larger growth opportunity.
  • IPO – public company initial public stock offering. According to recent National Venture Capital Association statistics, only 16% of venture-backed startups now use this alternative, due to high liability concerns, demanding shareholders, and high costs. Most experts don’t recommend this approach as your default strategy anymore.
  • Find a private equity firm or friendly individual. This alternative differs from an M&A, since the result is still your original single company. Yet it is an opportunity for you and your investors to cash out. The buyer has the challenge of scaling the business, and managing all the operational growth requirements. You can kick-off your next startup.
  • Position the company as a cash cow to fund spinoffs. If you can convince investors that your startup will generate a solid revenue stream, and the market won’t go away any time soon, they may see an opportunity for an ever larger return. You can maintain ownership, and even find someone you trust to run it for you, as you focus on spinoffs.
  • Liquidate the assets, cash out investors, and keep the rest. This is not a recommended strategy, since business shutdowns are usually seen as distressed situations, meaning the value of hard assets will be highly discounted. Less tangible assets like the brand name, business relationships, and even your reputation may be lost or damaged.
  • No exit. If your startup strategy is to be a lifestyle company, or a family business that will grow organically and never go public, then no-exit is a valid exit strategy. This alternative is often paired with a personal no-exit strategy. If you expect investors to help your startup scale, it probably won’t happen, as discussed in the first points of this article.

While exit discussions may somehow seem negative, an exit strategy should always be seen as positive. It’s a plan to develop the best opportunity for you, your startup, and your investors, and capitalize on it, rather than a plan to get out of a bad situation. Think of it as a succession plan, to keep you and what you have started growing. It may be the end of your startup phase, but it should be the beginning of a more mature and stable business.

Marty Zwilling

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