About a year ago, I was listening to a prominent accountant speak to a room full of business owners. His message was both clear and simple: "Each day you should run your business like you are in the process of trying to sell it."
This simple message created many frowns and furrowed brows. Clearly, people in the audience wanted to respond, "But I'm not selling my business, and I don't plan to any time soon."
Not the point.
It doesn't matter whether you're thinking of selling your business. Some lucky owners get to simply pass it on to the next generation. But the real point is this: You need to think and act like you are selling your business, every day.
Why? Selling a business is an extended process, often a gruelling one. Compare it to selling a house. The first step is to "stage" the property. This means taking a hard look at your surroundings with fresh eyes, to help you recognize which furnishings and decorations add to your home's ambience, and which are just clutter.
It's a tough thing to do. For most people, everything in their home represents a memory or a milestone on the journey of raising a family. Prospective purchasers care nothing for memory or sentiment, seeing every unnecessary element as a flaw that diminishes the value of your home.
When you are selling a business, the process is little different. Prospective buyers go through your numbers, your assets and your records with the diligence of a home inspector. They will scrutinize your sales, margins, inventory, returns, client list, receivables and payables. They will dig through your sales history and your new product or service pipeline, looking for any irregularity, liability, trend or threat that could detract from the value they are paying for your company.
While some may see this as a tedious, time-wasting process, I see due diligence as a very positive exercise. It's a way to identify issues before they become problems. In fact, this process shouldn't just be limited to when you buy or sell a business. I believe that entrepreneurs should initiate a mock due-diligence process every year, preferably just before their company's annual retreat or strategy sessions.
Think about it. Your goal as the owner or manager of a company is to increase its intrinsic value (how much the business would be worth if it were going to be sold). By rigorously and formally questioning all of your business's habits, assumptions and processes, you'll develop a culture that embraces change and continuous improvement – and increases the value of your business on an ongoing basis.
In my opinion, your company's value is the single best measure of how well you are running and building your business. Value incorporates all key time horizons that buyers and evaluators employ when assessing a business – how you are running your business today, what you are doing to keep it relevant and meaningful to your customers in the short term, and how you establish and execute on your grand, long-term vision.
"When it comes time to sell their business, many business owners are surprised to receive a lower valuation than what they had expected," notes Murad Bhimani, a Toronto-based partner with accounting firm MNP LLP. "That's why we recommend to our clients that they should operate and build their business as though they could sell it any minute. This keeps you focused on what is critical every day, such as sound operations, diversity of customer base, building a strong management team, and proactive product development."
If your kitchen's ceiling is leaking, you wouldn't wait for a home inspection to find the cause and fix it. Don't wait to see whether your company is leaking opportunities and profits. Whether or not you're planning to sell, take a good long look at all of your key performance indicators on a regular basis. Your bottom line (and your wallet) will thank you for it.
And some day your children may, too.
Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. He holds the Institute of Corporate Directors certification (ICD.D). Follow him on Twitter at @90PercentRule.