Thomas Smale is the Founder and CEO of FE International. He is a serial business entrepreneur and M&A expert, having built the industry-leading firm in the $1-100M global technology sector.
With experience dating back to the early 2000s, Smale offers invaluable technical, diligence and negotiation advice to early-stage and seasoned business owners alike, which has resulted in over 1,000 successful exits.
Smale can be regularly found speaking at industry events where he enjoys meeting like-minded entrepreneurs and investors.
Alongside his duties at FE International, Smale is a sought-after author and keynote presenter for leading industry events worldwide.
He has been interviewed on top podcasts and blogs on a variety of topics, including business strategy, buying and selling businesses, negotiation tactics and more.
He writes a business column regularly on entrepreneurship, growth, and business management for Entrepenur.com and is a Young Entrepreneurs’ Council member.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- [00:00] Intro
- [01:19] Thomas’ backstory
- [04:54] Reasons to buy or sell websites
- [06:25] 3 main buyer groups for websites
- [08:15] 3 types of websites that FE Intl buys
- [12:30] Setting up for selling your business
- [15:31] What makes FE Intl different
- [17:15] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
- [17:35] Sponsor: Mesa apps.shopify.com/mesa
- [18:19] Sponsor: Gorgias gorgias.grsm.io/honest
- [19:46] Sponsor: Rewind rewind.io/honest
- [20:18] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
- [21:06] Best practices for selling your website
- [22:23] Don’t sell your business when it’s declining
- [23:44] It’s easier to sell businesses now
- [25:30] Write down your processes
- [25:58] Consider an evergreen business industry
- [28:56] Does FE Intl help buyers?
- [29:55] Be careful in choosing advice
- [31:40] Should you raise money?
- [32:20] Consider your future early on
- [33:59] Where to find Thomas and FE International
- Connect with Thomas @ThomasSmale linkedin.com/in/thomassmale
- Sell your online business with a Professional M&A Advisor you can trust feinternational.com
- Get a free valuation of your website feinternational.com/sell-your-website
- Scale your business with electriceye.io
- Download Mesa at the Shopify App Store apps.shopify.com/mesa
- Level up your customer support gorgias.grsm.io/honest
- Respond to any of Rewind’s welcome emails and mention HONEST ECOMMERCE to get 1 month free rewind.io/honest
- Get started with a free account at klaviyo.com/honest
If you’re enjoying the show, we’d love it if you left Honest Ecommerce a review on Apple Podcasts. It makes a huge impact on the success of the podcast, and we love reading every one of your reviews!
Anything you have within your business has a process. Write it down. Because if a buyer comes in, they [are] going to want to know how to run your business.
Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game.
On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating real results.
I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.
Let's get on with the show.
Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer.
Over there, he is the founder and CEO. They're an award winning global M&A Advisor. That's mergers and acquisitions for people that don't [know]. That's not a contraction, but... I don't know what it actually is... Simplification.
So Thomas, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Yeah. Thanks. How are you doing, Chase? I'm doing well.
I'm doing fantastic as well. So this is a topic we don't talk about that often. A lot of the audience here are, they're just getting started or they're in that scaling phase.
But there's the third piece of the pie. And it's honestly a strategy that a lot of people get into from the beginning: They want to sell their business.
So I guess, before we get started on all that, I'm sure that you as a little kid didn't grow up and say "I want to be the guy that helps people sell their businesses."
So how did you end up in this line of work? What's that backstory?
Yeah, so I guess the short story is, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I was at college or university, depending where you are in the world, how you describe it, and was about to graduate into a pretty bad recession.
So I graduated in 2010, the economy was not in particularly good shape at the time. So finding a job was difficult. So I liked the idea of starting my own business, I just didn't really know what.
So I felt at the time... When I was at college, I was trying all sorts of different things on the side to try and make some extra money or say anything, but going to get a regular job. I tried it.
So you name it, I probably tried it. I tried buying and selling domains was how I first got into this industry. So undeveloped domains, not even a website.
Moved on from that quite quickly, because I never really, I still --even now-- do not really conceptually understand the value behind domains. It's very...
To me, it's very subjective, because it's... How good [the name is] is as good as it sounds to someone.
Whereas with a business, it makes a lot more sense because the business makes a certain amount of money. It made sense to me...
Well, I was doing a business degree at the time, the business is worth selling because it generates cash flow. So that made more sense. So I pivoted from buying and selling domains.
And we're talking, maybe I'm overplaying buying. We're talking about buying something for $50 and selling it for $200. I started buying selling very small websites. Similar sort of concept at the time.
So in 2010, when I founded FE, marketplaces and options to sell your business really did not exist at the time.
So buying and selling a bit myself, build up a bit of a reputation from the content I was sharing, writing, talking about. It was very unique at the time.
And then business owners started to come to me and say, "Hey Thomas, you know how to sell websites. I've got this big --or what I thought at the time-- was a big website. Can you help me sell it?" Which is really what M&A is. It's quite a fancy term but effectively, it's...
Mergers and acquisitions is helping people exit their business. But back then we were doing deals for helping... I think the first website we ever sold was at $18,000.
So I'd help them sell it. We do everything. Then at the time, because what we were doing is so unique, but in demand, the word-of-mouth really snowballed.
People started to come to us and say, "Hey, I sold a business to my friend. I heard you sold a business to a competitor" or whatever it might be. So that word-of-mouth snowballed.
And that's really how I got into it, how the company was founded in 2010. I was doing very small deals. And then from there, it's really just compounded.
And then, now we've done over 1100 deals, over a billion dollars in total valuation sold and we wouldn't even look at a deal below $100,000 these days. Majority of our deals are 7 - 8 figure valuation.
Absolutely. So back then, what were some of the reasons people were selling their businesses and what were some of the reasons people were looking to buy businesses?
I think the reason... And this is still the same today. But a lot of people sell because entrepreneurs tend to be serial entrepreneurs.
There are very few, in my experience, least, one-time entrepreneurs. Very few people have one business that they keep forever, sell after 50 years and never do anything else again. In the online space, particularly, it's easy to --or relatively easy-- to spin up multiple businesses.
You can launch 5 ecommerce stores, 5 websites, 5 software products... Whatever you might want to do, you can launch multiple websites quite easily.
So at the time, it was usually [the] people selling, they had their own 5 websites, and they would sell the smallest or the biggest, or the one they were now least interested in.
And that's still the same today. A lot of the clients you work with don't just have one business. And if they do, they're probably selling that business to then move on and launch something new.
Maybe they have a new idea or change in personal circumstances. For most people what you started 10 years ago, probably not necessarily what you want to do 10 years on or what you're interested in, because your life has probably changed and moved on. So I'm…
I guess, I'm still very fortunate. I still love what I do. But a lot of people I've asked for 10 years, or 5 years, or 3 years have changed their mind.
From a buying perspective [there are] I'd say 3 main groups. So the first group would be people who have a full-time job or a job and want to get into running their own business, but do not necessarily want to launch one themselves. You can buy an established business, you have…
Assuming you buy it properly, you have a 100% chance that business is making money. You don't have to worry about all the issues you have starting a business. You take over. It's already established. You can quit your job and run that business.
The second common group is strategic buyers. So you might already have an Ecommerce brand. And it would make sense for you to buy another Ecommerce brand, which is selling a similar product, or maybe they sell on a similar platform or similar supply chain or team or whatever it might be.
So strategic buyers really vary what they look like. It could be anything from a big public company to a small business owner who's just working by themselves.
Private equity firms generally have raised money from investors or groups of investors. And then they're looking to acquire, to build out a portfolio. Usually they will own or control multiple businesses in a similar industry.
And their motivation is really combining them all together and benefiting from synergies and economies of scale that you can get. So those are the 3 main types of buyers. And then there's a reasonable amount of overlap within that group.
So sometimes you get people who want to quit their job, who will get funding from an investor they know, same as strategic buyers. So there's often overlap between the groups, but they're the 3 main groups that buy and also why they're looking to buy.
Awesome. Yeah, that was a great little kind of intro into just how the... how it basically works and the motivations behind it. But there's obviously, a lot of different types of businesses and a lot of different types of websites out there.
And you guys really focus in on SaaS and Ecommerce. So what's appealing to you about those particular types of their assets at the end of the day, as an asset to help people prepare for sale.
Yeah. I would also add, we also work on content-based businesses that the 3 main business models we look at.
So say, in general, all 3 of the business models, primarily sell online. So just what I like in general --particularly as everyone's seen over the last couple of years with Coronavirus and all the lockdowns that come with it-- more and more people are coming online.
In other parts of the world, I guess we're very privileged in the... I'm from the UK, but I live in the US now. They're privileged in the US.
The vast majority of people have access to the internet. We kind of take it for granted. There are lots of places in the world that are only just getting internet access.
So more and more people are coming online. More and more people are now buying online.
So if you just look at the Ecommerce industry, content business industry, software industry, or SaaS, there's more and more potential customers coming into the industry consistently. That's never gonna change. I don't think that's ever going to slow down.
World population increases, more and more people have access online. So overall, the industry is growing. We've been in the US since 2010.
But over the last couple of years at least, the social shift of remote work becoming more socially acceptable definitely brought more investors into space who previously might have only wanted to buy businesses with physical offices or real estate.
Whereas now, you could conceivably buy a business as a team that's entirely remote and that's not a problem. And the vast majority of companies you work with are completely remote. It's not necessarily a criteria of ours, but it's definitely a commonality that we see.
So I think if you just look at the 3 different business models... so think, content businesses, things like blogs, they are always gonna be popular because people are always online, researching all sorts of random topics.
And I guess it's a never ending supply of things that people want to learn about and search. So 20 years ago, when I was growing up, you'd have to buy a book or a magazine or whatever to learn about a topic.
Now, you could just Google it. So content websites are always gonna have demand. And I guess they usually advertise. These have ads on there or affiliate offers or various different ways of monetizing like that. Ecommerce industry...
Because more and more people are coming online, particularly over the last couple of years, have really accelerated. People who may have had Internet access before and are buying online at a much higher rate than they ever have before. People have Amazon accounts.
And you could have your own store and you could be selling on Amazon. You can just sell on Amazon. You can not sell on Amazon, too. There's not really a right or wrong way to do it in my mind.
But there are so many different options you have for distribution now to reach potential buyers. In the software space, years ago, if you wanted to...
If you're a business owner, and you wanted to do things you'd have to --from a software perspective, you'd have to physically get it installed in a server in your office, like on-premise software.
But now... Not everything, but almost everything can be done in the cloud. So the SaaS industry as a whole...If you just look at the industry, if you just ignore buying and selling those businesses, the industry is going to continue to grow.
The average SaaS business will continue to grow just as the total addressable market grows. I think that's the thing. And then I guess, we're just a middleman.
As the industry grows, our job is to help founders successfully sell. But if the industry grows overall, then we probably grow overall as well.
That's awesome. Yeah, I'm... Just the curious... My curious nature is the content... Buying and selling content businesses was always something I was super interested in when I was... Before I found Ecommerce.
Honest Ecommerce is a bit of a content play as well. [For] anyone listening, obviously, I've been doing this quite a while and we invest in the content.
And we got a few sponsors here as well to try to make things as cool as we can for you. And then obviously, SaaS is...
Every one of our partners is basically a SaaS software over at the agency. But we're here today, because everyone involved in this whole thing is basically in the Ecommerce business or tangentially related Ecommerce. So let's just...
Let's focus on E commerce. So I've got a business Thomas, and I've been working on this for a couple years. But I've got some... I got shiny object syndrome.
I've done what I can for this business, it's fairly successful. But success is a metric that only you tie to yourself. No one else really cares. I'm done with this business. I want to sell it. I have no clue what I want to do. What do I need to do?
So the very first thing you need to do is figure out what it's worth. So depending on your business, my suggestion would be find a company like FE International, but it might not necessarily be FE International. Find a company that has represented businesses that are similar to yours.
So using another example, if you were thinking of selling a house, the first thing you do is go somewhere like Zillow, and you look at the houses similar to yours sold locally. And you'd probably find the realtor that... At least that is what I did when I bought my house.
Find the realtors who've worked on similar deals and you'd reach out and be like, "Hey, I want to buy a house or sell a house similar to the one you've sold locally. Can you help?"
So exactly the same in the M&A world. Find an M&A firm or a business broker or marketplace, depending how big your business is.
If it's really small, you might not be able to work with a firm like us. If it's big, you might be calling a different company. It really depends.
So find who's sold a business similar to yours. And hopefully multiple companies. Usually, a lot of deals in the space are private. There'll be press releases. Ask founder friends who you know have sold businesses, see who they worked with, get a valuation.
Well, most firms in the industry will offer a free valuation. At least we do.
So we'll give you an idea what your business is worth for free and an overview of what the process looks like.
"So Chase, your business is great, it's worth $10 million. We think it can take 90 days to sell, here's the process."
And then you might get some other valuations as well like "8 million dollars. it's gonna take a year to sell." or "Sorry, we don't really know how to sell this kind of business."
You get a range of valuations. It's important to do that as well and get an understanding of who like[s your business], because everyone has a different process.
While I think we have a really good process, one thing that you might not like working with us as we dictate how the process works. We're not a market... We're not a DIY marketplace. We know our process works [and] we follow it.
If you want to come work with us and change how our process works, we won't work with you. So maybe you want to go sell somewhere else.
So start with evaluation, and affirm why you like that process and how they do things. Make sure you like the person or the team you're going to be working with and make sure it is a team as well.
Ideally, if you hire FE, for example, there's probably --throughout the course of a deal-- 20 different people that have at least touched our business or looked at it in some way. For much smaller firms, often just one person.
And we have experts, each at a different stage of the process. The way I describe it is completely respectful to my team.
The people in our team who are valuation experts, they are good with numbers and spreadsheets. You do not want that same person physically going out there to sell your business and dealing with buyers and negotiating.
You want them telling you how much your business is worth, you don't want them doing that. So that's why we have a team. We have lots of different people that work in it.
And talk to me at least that process is much more optimal than one person who knows a little bit of everything. So that's how to start the process.
And then depending who you're working with, everyone's process will vary.
But hopefully, once you've established what your business is worth, you can decide what you want to do from there: Whether it's sell now, hold the business for longer... Maybe you never want to sell.
Maybe want to shut it down.... I guess there's lots of different ways to approach it once you've got that valuation.
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So from a founder's perspective on the Ecommerce side of your business how... There's the process. That's what it's like, if you've made that decision that you want to sell it.
What are things that I should be doing as a founder, or as a listener, or as I'm building my Ecommerce company to make sure that I have a better valuation or an easier time selling my business?
What are some systems or processes that you see that are in place and businesses that sell faster or for more money?
Firstly, you do have to start with the actual valuation because as part of that process, there will almost definitely be specific things to your business.
So I will give some more generic points after this. But there'll be some things very specific to your business, that you could... You could find a checklist of 20 things you absolutely must do. You could check all of those boxes.
But there might be one thing that's specific to your business that makes it more sellable that wouldn't necessarily be on a generic checklist.
And that should --at least if you've worked with a good firm-- get picked up in the valuation process, because there's lots of analysis that goes into it. So start with that. But some more generic points, in general.
Buyers always want to... And this sounds kind of obvious: Buyers want to buy a business that is growing. Some people make the mistake of only trying to sell a business once it starts declining.
So you might grow for 5 years and then move on in life, or move on to another project, or get busy, or the business might just get difficult. Then the business starts declining. They don't really see the writing on the wall, maybe not be honest with yourself.
And then a year later, once a business has been declining, they then look to sell that. That's not a very good idea. Sell the business while it's still growing, you're going to maximize valuation. And at least the way I look at it, if you just look at the big picture.
It's not really a bad thing if you sell a business that's growing. And a buyer comes in and also manages to continue growing the business.
If you've walked away with an amount of cash that can change your life, does it really matter that the next buyer [is the one] who's giving you that cash in the first place then goes on as successful, customers are happy, employees are happy? Big picture, that's always a good thing. There's never any bad things there.
So selling a growing business is always better than a business that you've already given up on and moved on from. Putting good processes and systems in place internally, particularly in Ecommerce if you've got any like logistics challenges...
Today is much easier with platforms like Shopify. For example, the Shopify platform is great. There are lots of plugins and apps you can use to run your store.
There's lots of agencies like yours that can help people build a successful business on Shopify. 11 years ago, when I started FE, Shopify did not exist, at least not in the form it did today. I think it was founded in 2010. It was definitely not the platform it is today back then.
So you were stuck with all sorts of terrible platforms that people probably don't remember like Volusion, which when I mentioned that, people know I've been online for a long time because most people have not seen Volusion ever since.
But platforms like that.... It's much easier these days to have a business which is easy to take over from a technology perspective. Because if you say hey, "I'm selling this business. We do 10 million a year in sales. It's on the Shopify platform."
Lots of people get how Shopify works. Very similar to what happened in the content business space of Wordpress. Now everyone uses Wordpress. Almost everyone you ever speak to knows what Wordpress is, and has used it if they have a content-based business 10 years ago.
So while some people still do. Technologies become easier, but you still need to document how things work. So how do you update your...
Simple things from how you update your like product descriptions to how you know when to order more products, how you do inspections with your supplier to make sure the products are the standard you need.
Anything you have within your business has a process. Write it down. Because if a buyer comes in, they [are] going to want to know how to run your business.
And the easier it is for them to come in and run your business, the easier it is to sell them and for them to come in and take over.
If you don't have anything written down, then either your business is gonna be difficult to sell, or you're gonna have a challenging transition period where you have to handhold and train the buyer for a long period of time.
This is obviously a little bit difficult to predict, but try to build a business in a space that's evergreen and always be around. If you build your business around... And this happens quite often in Ecommerce specifically. People see a trend. Alexa these days...
With Shopify, it's easy to spin up a store and don't really necessarily do it in hours. But if you're smarter than me, probably good. You can spin up a spin up a store in a couple of hours. And you can leverage almost any trend to start selling products in that base.
Say if you want to build a business you can sell, definitely needs to be in an industry that has probably been around for a while and is gonna conceivably continue to be around and continue to be popular.
If you're just chasing every single new new trend.... So years ago, like fidget spinners, they came on. And people would come to us with websites like fidgetspinnerecommerce.com or whatever it would be.
And they would have 6 months of sales and they would have been making millions a month. They wanted to sell that business but it's never possible.
We've never had to help them because we've literally no idea what was gonna happen with fidgets spinners. And obviously, now most people don't even really remember what they are. And they're definitely not selling at the same rate they were back then.
So try to build a business in an industry where it is going to continuously grow. If not, if you do want to leverage those trends, make that part of your business model.
So build a store around, the latest products that are kind of seasonal, and then if your business model every year is, "Hey, here's my process of finding popular products and selling them."
That's a much more sustainable business for someone to buy because like, "Well, this whole business is built around reacting to trends, rather than just chasing one part of the trend or one specific trend." which will --guessing by the nature of trends-- will die.
So there's some things to think about but fundamentally, you need to start with evaluation because every business is different. It's difficult for me to give generic advice that applies to everyone, because every business is different and somewhat unique.
Absolutely. No. No, there's a lot of fantastic advice there. And it's funny that you say that you can't sell a business that is catching a trend or riding that wave. We also don't work with businesses that are trying to... It's almost, in essence, like a cash grab.
We're always wary about that because A, it's such a flash in the pan. It's not sustainable in any regard. And nothing against those businesses.
If you're smart enough to see that trend come and make that money, power to you. But it's definitely a little bit more quick money thing than it is to make a sustainable thing over time.
On the other side of things... So we've talked about how... What's the process when you're about to sell it? What are the things that you need to do for it to be able to be sold?
Do you also help people on the buy side?
So we will have a lot of content for people who want to buy a business. But from a service perspective, we represent sellers. So...
...you have a business to sell, we represent you, you as a seller pay us. Buyers don't pay us anything as part of the process. I mean, we have... There might be some small fee throughout the process as part of buying a business.
But fundamentally, the seller is one paying us for it. We'll help them if you come to us and say "Hey, I have a million dollars, I want to buy a business. Here's what I'd like to buy."
We will show you a selection of businesses, and we'll give you resources to teach you how to buy a business. But no, we do not necessarily represent buyers directly.
Absolutely. And then is there anything that I forgot to ask you about today that you think is crucial to this whole process or that you think needs to be shared?
I think when you're building your business... We've spoken about winning when you decided to sell it.
But I think it's definitely important early on in your business to start thinking about what you'd like to achieve and what you'd like to sell for. Because I think a lot of people follow generic advice, which might be applicable...
Advice can really depend on what you're trying to achieve. If you're just trying to think... You're just trying to build a million dollar business...
What you need to do to build a million dollar business is completely different from if you're trying to build a billion dollar business.
So I think too many people trying to build million dollar businesses follow billion dollar advice. And too many people trying to build billion dollar businesses follow million dollar advice. So the kinds of things you need to do and learn about -are different.
So for example, the stage FE is at today, 8-figures revenue. Our team is over 100 people now. The kind of things I'm doing as CEO are completely different than it was when we were 5 people.
So the kinds of things you need to think about, you need to be prepared for the things that go with that.
Now, if that's you, just a manager, I've spent all my time managing people, reviewing work, doing strategic thinking early on in your business, what you're doing is different.
A lot of people decide to sell when they kind of hit an upper limit of how much they were either willing to do or can do themselves.
But I think it's important to understand that early on, if you're just trying to build a business, you don't want to hire any people who just want it to be you or maybe like you and a couple of family members, that's fine.
But don't read the article about how to build the next Facebook because it's not going to be useful for you. And it will help determine other decisions early on, which can be really important when it comes to sell[ing]. So should you raise money or not?
Most clients who [we] work with don't raise money. So when they sell for a million dollars, --it's much more of a social norm now-- years ago, people would laugh at you, if you hadn't raised money. You almost had to raise money.
Whereas now if you sell for a million dollars and you own 100% of the business yourself, you're getting a million dollars when you sell. Whereas previously, people might sell for a million dollars, but they would have raised money in there and you own 10%.
Or if you own 10% of a $10 million business, you also still walk away with a million dollars. So figure out what you're trying to achieve early on in your business. And you mentioned a lot of people listening or I guess watching early on in their business.
So think about that early, because it really will help determine your decisions. So when we're talking about like trending products for example, that doesn't necessarily mean... Just because I think you can't sell a business built around one product...
If you can ride the wave and do really well with a trending product, you can make a lot of money, which far outweighs building a business you can eventually sell.
So I'm sure there are some people out there who have fidget spinners who made millions of dollars a month for a few months, which is great. I'd say ride the wave, take the money while you can.
But one thing I've learned about running a business over the last 11 years is there's always ups and downs. So when times are good, I guess, make the most of it.
Absolutely. That's some fantastic advice, really. It's like what type of business are you trying to build? And being realistic with yourself.
And just in getting there and putting on, almost, blinders and just doing what needs to be done to that exact level.
And I think that's... Something to be said there is to talk to people that have done it before, you know, million dollar businesses aren't difficult to build. $10 million dollar businesses aren't difficult to build.
Billion dollar businesses are probably a little more difficult to build. That's when you're getting to a different type of caliber business.
So you can definitely get some great advice out there and speak to smart people whenever you need it.
Thomas, I can't thank you enough for coming on the show today and sharing all this information. If there's a listener out there that is thinking about selling their business. How do they get ahold of you?
Yeah. well, firstly, I appreciate you having me on. Secondly, we go to the FE International website. Depending on who you are, you can navigate around.
So if you want a free evaluation, go to our "Sell" section, press “Get Your Valuation”, fill out your form and then someone in the team will reach out.
And if you mentioned you listen to this podcast and heard then the team will always say that prioritize you but they will know that you've kind of thought about this kind of stuff in advance and they'll get back to you.
Awesome. Thank you so much. Cool.
Well thanks, Chase.
Alright. I can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us.
We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes.
Make sure you head over to honestecommerce.co to check out all the other amazing content that we have. Make sure you subscribe, leave a review. And obviously if you're thinking about growing your business, check out our agency at electriceye.io. Until next time.