To Create the Future, Begin Here

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What if you didn’t have to qualify for the job of your dreams, but were already qualified?

And what if the job isn’t a job at all, but more like the right role just waiting for you to step into it?

A role that’s a true fit for you and allows you to effectively craft your own future.

What if you could be the CEO of your own company while contributing positively to the world around you?

  • By using your natural skills and developing them to the fullest.
  • By investing in yourself and offering a great return on investment to others.
  • By taking something good, a profitable business, and combining it with your own skills and resources to create something great – a valuable asset that has not existed in the world before.

That’s acquisition entrepreneurship.

What if your realm of possibility expanded?

And what if you held the power to make that happen and achieve the results you wanted all along?

It’s all possible with the right approach to small business acquisition.

Debbie Millman once said in a fantastic commencement speech, “if you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve.

The Buy Then Build framework is about imagining more and then following a concrete set of steps to make it happen.

Doing so involves risk… A thing of value always does.

Millman had this to say about those willing to take such risks:

Every once in a while – often when we least expect it – we encounter someone more courageous, someone who chose to strive for that which (to us) seemed unrealistically unattainable, even elusive. And we marvel. We swoon. We gape. Often, we’re in awe. I think we look at these people as lucky, when in fact, luck has nothing to do with it. It is really all about the strength of their imagination; it is about how they constructed the possibilities for their life. In short, unlike me, they didn’t determine what was impossible before it was even possible.

The Buy Then Build framework provides a blueprint from which you can construct new possibilities for your life as an entrepreneur.

You’ll find that you’re not restricted to what you can build from scratch, or what you can fund out of your own pocket.

You’ll learn to rely, not on luck, but on the strength of your imagination and on a solid foundation of self-awareness.

And you’ll learn to stay open to new possibilities.

Once you decide that acquisition entrepreneurship is right for you, the first step is to begin your search for the right business from the right place. 

Too often entrepreneurs attempt to begin at the end, evaluating specific companies that come onto the scene before they’ve formulated a complete vision and a plan to accomplish it.

With the Buy Then Build framework, the process begins at the proper beginning.

With a thorough assessment of the 3 A’s:

  1. Attitude
  2. Aptitude
  3. Action

The idea is to begin with your own strengths and weaknesses, then continuously refine your search for the right company.

You’ll narrow the field as you move through each step of the acquisition funnel.

And you’ll ultimately arrive at a clear and concise target statement describing your end goal.

Let’s take a look at the 3 A’s as you determine your first steps and lay the groundwork for a successful search.

Attitude

Do you have what it takes to acquire and run a successful business or portfolio of businesses?

Are you suited to the role of free-agent CEO?

You may be surprised how little the answer to those questions depends on experience in a particular industry, and how much it depends on your attitude toward success and accomplishment.

It turns out that one of the biggest predictors of success as a business owner is not specific skills or highly-focused experience, but a much more general characteristic…

Flexibility.

A successful business owner takes the attitude that things change and that what isn’t working now can and will be improved.

She doesn’t see the world as a fixed set of conditions, but as constantly changing and growing.

Carol Dweck, Stanford psychologist and author, distinguishes between people with that more flexible mindset, which she calls a “growth mindset,” and people with an inflexible, “fixed mindset.”

Individuals with a fixed mindset tend to hold beliefs such as:

  • Truly talented people succeed effortlessly.
  • Those who have to put forth effort must not be talented and won’t succeed.
  • Resources are limited.
  • What you have is what you get – you’re born with a permanent set of characteristics and fixed level of intelligence.
  • To fail at something means you are a “failure.”

While individuals with a growth mindset believe:

  • Success comes from effort.
  • Talent can be developed.
  • You learn from your failures and the successes of others as you continue to improve.
  • Nothing stays the same, and you have the power to change things.
  • Challenges make you stronger.

Clearly, the flexible growth mindset empowers you to work towards your goals.

It’s ultimately one of the biggest indicators of success, and far more important than experience.

The more you develop such a mindset, the more suited you are to the CEO/business owner role.

Furthermore, success as an acquisition entrepreneur hinges on that idea of empowerment.

It’s less about having all the answers and taking all the action, and more about empowering others, finding talent, and assembling the resources you need.

It’s an art.

To lead a company or group of companies, you should be more comfortable in the role of “multiplier” and less suited to the role of “diminisher.”

Liz Wiseman distinguishes between the two roles in her book, Multiplier, where she describes the old conventional leadership role as one of a diminisher.

The diminisher believes he must have all the answers and therefore make all the decisions from a place of authority.

Diminishing the input and brilliance of others becomes the unintended result of that type of leadership.

The role of multiplier is one that empowers others to take responsibility, asks questions rather than giving answers, and encourages growth.

Again, this calls for flexibility. More curiosity and less ego.

And that critical growth mindset that embraces possibility.

Aptitude

When it comes to stepping into your new role as an acquisition entrepreneur, we have good news and bad news.

The good news?

You’re the boss. You provide the road map and act on your own mixture of intuition and experience to carry out the vision you have for the company.

The bad news?

You won’t have a fixed and well-defined set of responsibilities.

In fact, you’ll likely face ambiguity and a lack of externally-imposed structure daily.

In the introduction to the book, Dear CEO, Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove wrote:

Most jobs come with a job description, a lengthy list of the exact parameters of responsibility. But when you’re [the leader], the job descriptions come to an end.

It’s a good definition of the role of entrepreneur…the place where the job description comes to an end, and you design your own role based on the results you’re after.

Aptitude involves the skills you bring to the table and the resources you have available.

As you assess your aptitude for this type of work, know that what many assume to be the most critical skills turn out to be the least.

It turns out what you really need is not laser focus, rigid organization, and precision, but creativity and the ability to solve problems as they arise.

Let’s look closely at three fundamental attributes for any successful acquisition entrepreneur.

  • Strategic thinking

After acquiring a company, you’ll strive to spend more time working on your business than in it.

Your overall ability to act and think strategically becomes more important than your ability to employ specific tactics.

Those you’ll refine and tweak over time in service to the bigger strategy.

All efforts will be calculated efforts, based on efficiency and profitability.

Your decisions as owner are now based on careful consideration of the big picture.

In short, you think like an investor, but an active investor with agency over the operations of the company and the direction of growth.

  • Positive thinking

Over and over again, the research indicates that optimism equates to the ability to succeed.

It’s not just pop psychology, but scientific fact that viewing the world through a more positive lens has a direct and beneficial effect on your results.

Practices such as building gratitude and focusing on your own strengths and positive qualities can powerfully influence your success in any endeavor.

The well-known “You at Your Best” exercise, developed by pioneers in the field of positive psychology, can be a great way to begin your search for the right company.

You simply describe in detail a time when you were at your best. Then look over your description and identify the evident personal strengths and skills that emerge from it.

To take the exercise further, consider new and different ways to use those strengths in your next endeavor and create a plan for doing so.

  • An achievement orientation

Successful entrepreneurs are highly achievement driven. This may be less obvious than it sounds at first.

Psychologist Henry Murray proposed that people act out of primary needs that constantly work under the surface of our psyches, and that one of those needs can be the need to achieve.

Other needs include the need for praise, close relationships, or security.

For most successful entrepreneurs, the need to achieve drives their actions, and manifests as a desire to rise to a challenge and accomplish specific goals despite difficulty or setbacks.

Achievement as the driving force and ultimate agenda sets highly accomplished entrepreneurs apart from their peers. If you recognize the trait in yourself, it’s a fantastic sign.

Source: upenn.edu

Action

The daily activities of a business can be divided into two major categories:

  • Revenue generation – activities such as sales and marketing, funnel optimization, audience building, and business development.
  • Profit management – operational activities such as logistics, product sourcing, expense reduction, and data analysis.

As an acquisition entrepreneur, you’ll need to develop skills in both categories.

However, most people arrive at business ownership with a natural inclination toward one of these categories more than the other.

Ask yourself this question: would you rather spend your time getting more customers, or getting the product to the customer more efficiently?

Ultimately, revenue generation (sales and marketing) helps the company grow and scale, while profit management (operations and accounting) helps the company survive by cutting expenses and managing cash flow efficiently.

Both of these activities improve the company as an investment vehicle for you and any outside investors.

Both create value, which is ultimately what an acquisition is all about.

But knowing the answer to this question is critical: In terms of your skills and interests, are you growth oriented or operations oriented?

Think back to the “You at Your Best” description and the strengths that stood out.

When you envision yourself at your best, what actions are you taking and what daily activities make the most sense for you?

Some companies on the market show greater growth opportunities while others have more of an operational opportunity to build value.

Matching your day-to-day activities with your natural strengths and passions should be a primary goal when evaluating a company.

Consider what you’ll be doing at your best, and match that with the needs of a company.

All in all, the goal is to achieve that same synergy that turns raw materials into a work of art.

The synergy that produces a whole (profitable growing company) that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

With the work you’ve done carefully assessing your skills and mindset, you’re ready to turn your attention to the specific attributes of the company you’ll seek to acquire.

You’re closer to the moment of truth now, that moment that as Debbie Millman said, requires courage and will be less about luck and more about how you construct the possibilities for your life.

You’re also closer to understanding the type of company that’s right for you.

The Bottom of the Acquisition Funnel

There are three final items to explore, which complete the acquisition funnel:

  • Size of the company
  • Industry type
  • Function of the company

Size

The size of your target company will depend not on revenue, as many assume, but on cash flow.

The cash flow of a company, or its Seller’s Discretionary Earnings (SDE), provides its value, as well as its return on your investment of time and money.

As you move from main-street to middle-market size revenues, the term used to describe SDE is “Adjusted EBITDA” (Earnings Before Interest Taxes Depreciation and Amortization).

Most often, the value of a business comes down to its SDE (or Adjusted EBITDA) times a fair multiple.

And the larger the firm, the larger that multiple.

In general, firms in the $250,000 – $700,000 SDE range trade at reasonable multiples, from between 2.5 and 3.5.

The size of your target company depends on many factors, though, including your own investment and any outside funding you obtain.

Once you complete a self-assessment and narrow down your selection based on size, only then do we recommend looking at industry and function.

Industry and Function

Unless you have a compelling reason to limit yourself to one particular industry, for instance you’re an optometrist looking only to acquire a business in your field, we recommend identifying your target firm by type instead.

The broad types of businesses to consider, based on their function in the world, are these:

  • Product
  • Distributor
  • Service

After the work you’ve done on your own self-assessment, one type may already stand out as more suitable for you than the others.

Clearly, distinct core competencies will come into play with each one of these categories.

A product company may entail manufacturing a product, or branding and managing the sales channel of a product which you source from a supplier.

Buying such a company with an infrastructure already in place, can spell enormous opportunity for someone skilled at online marketing or branding.

Distribution companies entail sourcing, managing inventory and coordinating supply-chain logistics.

These often show great opportunity for someone skilled at metrics and analytics, though business development and sales may be the greater need depending on the company.

The service industry is vast and includes all professional services, non-profits, and retail.

As you can see, your work identifying your target at the bottom of the acquisition funnel continues the work you did at the top of the funnel assessing your strengths and opportunities for growth.

Too many entrepreneurs get the order backwards or believe they have to start by choosing an industry.

Knowing what you want to do with your time, and then narrowing down by size and the type of company you want to target is the correct order for your search.

If you have the drive to achieve, combined with a growth mindset and strategic thinking, know that the right role is out there waiting for you to step into.

And welcome to the world of the acquisition entrepreneur.

It’s a place where Debbie Millman’s advice rings true: “Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.”

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For more on acquisition entrepreneurship, check out the book Buy Then Build on Amazon.

Walker Deibel

Walker Deibel

Walker Deibel is an entrepreneur and advisor. He is the author of Buy Then Build: How Acquisition Entrepreneurs Outsmart the Startup Game.