Entrepreneurs: Why an exit shouldn’t be about exiting your company

 
Ben Langdon
Lock and key
Don't close the door and turn the key (Source: Getty)

For many entrepreneurs, selling one’s business is the culmination of years of hard work. The endgame which leads to the exit door.

This is incorrect. Being acquired should be seen as a new beginning, not the end. An exciting partnership bringing opportunities to achieve more through scale, such as opening up new markets and experiences for staff.

To achieve this, an acquisition needs to be a partnership, not a master/slave relationship with the acquirer dictating terms. Certainly, it was this approach that I took when my design agency was acquired by EY one year ago. We were determined to focus only on what would make the experiences of our clients and people better. We ignored or rejected anything else.

As a small company being acquired by a huge corporate, we decided early on that protecting our culture was crucial. We knew that integrating a design agency into a global management consultancy would risk alienating our clients and staff. So we didn’t. EY was also smart enough to understand this, and allow us to continue to run a separate business, with its own P&L and its own directors. We don’t have to sing the company hymn or wear ties and braces.

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Sitting behind this is a wider piece of advice for any company undergoing an acquisition. Don’t just roll over. Cherry-pick the things important to make the acquisition a business success. We comply with EY’s stringent quality control processes for one reason; they make us better at our job, and benefit our clients.

We don’t use their IT system, we have our own training programme, and continue to run our own HR. We still buy our own milk and coffee. We are happy to conform when it improves our service, but not just for the sake of it.

For me, the acid test of a successful acquisition should be one simple question: is what we have created as a joined entity more useful to more people? Odd as it might sound, in a lot of acquisitions this question is not thought through. Once you have defined your new joined-up offering, be sure to test it with existing clients first. Never forget, they purposely hired a smaller company, so the strength of relationships and products needs to see you through.

With a clear offering in mind, the next thing an acquired business needs to do is focus on very specific targets. Be prepared for a barrage of requests for meetings, phone calls and documents. Say no. Stand your ground and pan through the silt to find the nuggets that help you achieve your goals. There will be plenty of time for developing these opportunities over the next three, five or even 10 years.

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Finally, people. You already know what makes your people tick so make sure it doesn’t change and focus on how the new parent company can amplify your retention efforts. This used to be solely about fiscal remuneration, but with the younger generation it is increasingly about experiences and personal growth.

For us, our staff needed intellectual stimulation, so we made sure to build personal development and training into the deal, as well as small but important things such as the opportunity to work overseas and on international projects.

The most important thing is not to view the acquisition as the end of a journey, but the beginning of the next leg. Work in partnership with your acquirer, not for them, and know what your team wants and the business needs to succeed. It won’t be easy, but done right it will help your company achieve things which were previously unattainable.

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