How To Value A Business

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Accurately valuing a small business is often the most challenging part of the process for prospective business buyers. However, it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming or difficult undertaking. Above all, you should realize that valuation is an art, not a science. As a buyer, always keep in mind that the “Asking Price” is NOT the purchase price. Quite often it does not even remotely represent what the business is truly worth.

Naturally, a buyer’s valuation is usually quite different from what the seller believes their business is worth. Sellers are emotionally attached to their businesses. They usually factor their years of hard work into their calculation. Unfortunately, this has no business whatsoever being in the equation.

The challenge for you, the buyer, is to formulate a valuation that is accurate, and will prove to provide you with an acceptable return on your investment.

There are several ways to calculate the value of a business:

  • Asset Valuations: Calculates the value of all of the assets of a business and arrives at the appropriate price.
  • Liquidation Value: Determines the value of the company’s assets if it were forced to sell all of them in a short period of time (usually less than 12 months).
  • Income Capitalization: Future income is calculated based upon historical data and a variety of assumptions.
  • Income Multiple: The net income (profit/owner’s benefit/seller’s cash flow) of a business is subject to a certain multiple to arrive at a selling price.
  • Rules Of Thumb: The selling price of other “like” businesses is used as a multiple of cash flow or a percentage of revenue.

Let’s look at each to determine what’s best for your purchase:

Asset-based valuations do not work for small business purchases. Assets are used to generate revenue and nothing more. If a business is “asset rich” but doesn’t make much money, how valuable is the business altogether? Conversely, if a business has limited assets, such as computers and office equipment, but makes a ton of money, isn’t it worth more?

Income Capitalization is generally applicable to large businesses and most often uses a factor that is far too arbitrary.

The “Rule of Thumb” method may be too general since it’s hard to find any two businesses that are exactly the same. Valuation must be done based upon what you, as the buyer, can reasonably expect to generate in your pocket, so long as the business’s future is representative of the past historical financial data. Notwithstanding this, the “Rules of Thumb” methodology is an good place to start but is a bit too broad to consider by itself.

The Multiple Method is clearly the way to go. You have probably heard of businesses selling at “x times earnings.” However, this can be quite subjective. When buying a small business, every buyer wants to know how much money he or she can expect to make from the business. Therefore, the most effective number to use as the basis of your calculation is what is known as the total “Owner Benefits.”

The Owner Benefits amount is the total dollars that you can expect to extract or have available from the business based upon what the business has generated in the past. The beauty is that unlike other methods (i.e. Income Cap), it does not attempt to predict the future. Nobody can do that. Owner Benefit is not cash flow! It is, however, sometimes referred to as Seller’s Discretionary Cash Flow (SDCF).

The theory behind the Owner Benefit number is to take the business’s profits plus the owner’s salary and benefits and then to add back the non-cash expenses. History has shown that this methodology, while not bulletproof, is the most effective way to establish the valuation basis of a small business. Then, a multiple, based upon a variety of factors, is applied to this number and a valuation is established.

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