I can't stress enough that your business strategy from the very start needs to have an exit goal. Exit is how you "cash out". This is true for any business other than a hobby business (you do it mostly because you love the effort) or a legecy business (pass it to your children). For everyone else you need a valuation goal AND you need it right from the start.
If you have partners in your business a great exercise is to write the gross amount of money you're looking to get when you sell and in how many years. Once you write down the information flip over the paper and exchange the answers. You'll probably be surprised how far apart you might be and it'll spark a healthy conversation.
Time and valuation on exit - that is the key to your exit goals. Building a buisness takes time and how long will dicatate many, many things including initial investment, operational strategies and quarterly and annual business goals (like product development, customer acquisition pace, etc.). Please be realistic in your business. It takes years to build a financially stable business with good positive cash flow. If you are hanging your hat on a "dot com" build it and sell it flash bang company - it happens, but the odds are very much against you.
Time to sell - It can also take a year or more to find a buyer, settle a deal and then exit yourself (you are free and clear of time commitments). I have a friend that owns fifty percent of a technology company to process credit cards. They create the hardware and software that allows tens of thousands of similtaneous card swipes into transaction approvals in a matter of seconds. This busines space has been "boring" and stabily growing for years. It does millions of dollars in revenues and is profitable. The managing partner had been reluctant to sell. But, then there was a large market shift. Square and competing companies (read about it here) created easy to use and inexpensive credit card swipers for phones and tablets and BOOM this market is red hot and popular to investors and potential buyers. So they see the opportunity for their "golden parachute" moment.
Even though they have good market position, patented technologies and a good client base it's taking time to get their "deal". What's involved? A deal with an investment bank to find a buyer and a "road show". Scheduled meetings with potential companies to buy in many cities. It's like a 1 hour concert tour. At the end of the day it will be tens of millions of dollars in a sale but it takes a couple hundred thousand dollars in consulting and business development costs and a board member working half time to get a deal done. They want multiple offers just like when you sell a house.
Watching for golden parachute opportunities - Every industry has cycles, often in terms of a decade or more, when there is a better time to sell. This is your "golden parachute moment". You'll know because there is a lot of new companies formed, more merger and acquisions happening or companies from other industries getting involved in the market. Usually financial media or industry professional publications will begin to "buzz" about consolidations, venture capital, etc. in the market space. Public companies will see a PE (price to earnings spike) with multiples of PE rising rapidly and then holding or growing from there. Even though you're small and private, public companies are a very good barometer for how well your business may be valued.
Stay on top of your industry - You also need to network in your industry. Go to the industry tradeshows. Get to know industry vendors and have regular conversations (they speak to many, many of your competitors). Stay on top of public companies in your industry and get to really know their strategies and performance.
Patient entrepreneurs - tend to be the ones that have highly profitable and easily sellable businesses at the end of their run. How long? Most successful entrepreurs that I know need five to ten years to start reaching their "parachute" valuation goals. The funny thing is at that point they usually don't want to let go and for good reason. They have highly profitable businesses that support a good lifestyle and their personalities and egos become highly tied to their businesses. They are Zen with their business or perhaps it could be more defined as co-dependent.
If five years sounds like an eternity to you then perhaps you need to reconsider your venture or at the very least realize that your timing goals to exit are very aggressive and this increases your risk of failing to meet those goals.
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What Buyers Want in a Business and How to Prepare