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How to Find Businesses for Sale

Expanding your business or moving into a new industry is exciting. But if you never have before, it can be difficult to buy a business for the first time, especially if you do so without the help of a broker.

How do you find and buy a business? You have two core options: approach a business broker to do it for you or doing the work yourself. You can find businesses for sale online, through trade magazines, through local newspapers or by using cold outreach to potential targets. On the other hand, a broker can facilitate the entire sale, from sourcing a business, performing due diligence and regulatory compliance to negotiating. This is therefore the approach that most buyers take.

The guide below first details where you can find businesses for sale without the help of a broker, and the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. It then outlines how buying through a broker works and the difference between on-market and off-market deals.

Where Can You Find Businesses for Sale? (UK)

As a business owner or a sole trader, it may be tempting to take ownership of the business buying process. During the early days of running your own business, you may have been responsible for day to day running of the business, hiring and firing, filing taxes, onboarding clients and more; you may want to apply this same self-reliance to expanding your business too.

You have several options should you wish to go through the process alone.

Search Online for Businesses for Sale

Your first option is to search online. There are many sites you can visit, some of which list tens of thousands of businesses for sale. You can filter your search by industry, turnover, location and so on to make your search easier.

This is the starting point that most buyers turn to, as it is so easy to simply use a smartphone or computer to instantly find potential targets. However, with it being so easy for you to find businesses for sale online, it is just as easy for your competition to do the same. Bidding wars, last minute offers and non-committed sellers are common.

Needless to say, it’s easiest to find an online business for sale/internet business for sale when you look online. There are, though, examples of businesses in any industry that you can find.

Businesses for Sale in Trade Magazines

Another approach is to consult trade magazines and newsletters. While this will give you less choice than searching online, it is also more likely that you will find serious sellers and avoid competition. This is the ideal route to take if you need to expand in a technical field, e.g. if you need to find a manufacturing business for sale.

Again, though, there are downsides to this approach. The main one is that sellers are wary of advertising themselves directly to their competitors. Sellers prefer discretion for several reasons; they may not want to sell to a particular competitor; or, they may want to avoid disclosing confidential information like turnover. Your choice is therefore even more limited should this be the route you choose.

Businesses for Sale in Newspapers

Another option is to look through newspaper ads. These feature local businesses for sale, typically only the premises, but sometimes the limited company, too. Newspaper ads are useful for finding local businesses that may not be made available online or through brokers; the seller may be of a generation that prefers doing things the ‘old-fashioned way’.

On the one hand, this is ideal if you are looking to buy a business nearby. But if you live somewhere else in the country, or if you are an overseas buyer, it can be difficult-to-impossible to find these opportunities.

Make Approaches to Cold Leads

It’s also possible to take a sales-style approach and call businesses and their owners directly. You could make a long list of businesses in the industry you want to expand in that may make good targets for mergers and acquisitions.

This approach has distinct advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, if the seller is interested, you could potentially follow through with no competition whatsoever. At the same time, though, cold approaches have a low rate of success and require particular skills that not everyone has. This approach is best taken if you have staff that have sales or sales-adjacent skills, as they could spearhead your strategy in making the approaches.

How to Find Businesses for Sale as an Overseas Buyer

Buying a business from overseas presents yet more difficulties. Not only will you have to fight the competition described above, now there are added problems:

  • Contact and negotiation takes longer because of time zone differences
  • Cultural and/or language differences may become apparent
  • Rules and regulations differ from country to country
  • You may need to apply for a visa if you intend to travel to the UK
  • Sellers may seek to take advantage of overseas buyers unfamiliar with the industry

As such, it’s even more important for an overseas buyer to take advantage of a broker’s expertise. However, not every broker operates in the exact same way—some sell businesses on-market while others sell off-market, for example.

Buy a Business Through a Broker

Unless you are very lucky, when you see a business for sale through an advert or directory, its owners will already have received several offers. This means you have to spend time and money trying to outbid the competition.

Therefore, the option that most serious buyers take is to talk to a business broker. A business broker is like a broker in any other industry—they connect buyers and sellers and take a commission upon conclusion of the sale.

Business brokers typically work for the seller, not the buyer. The seller will contact a broker so that they can discreetly put the business on the market. It will be advertised confidentially, i.e. details of turnover and size will be revealed, but the identity of the business will not. However, the broker’s service to the buyer is that they can advise them on opportunities and assist with due diligence and regulatory issues.

The upside of buying through a business broker is that they link you with sellers for free; they are paid commission from the final sale price instead (typically 8-12%).

The core issue with using a normal broker is competition. There is no guarantee that the business for sale is only for sale through that particular broker; there is also no guarantee that the broker won’t have several potential buyers lined up in case a deal falls through. It is therefore possible to still find competition even if you get outside help.

On-Market vs. Off-Market Businesses for Sale

As a buyer, you can find a small business for sale either on-market or off-market.

When a business is sold on-market, it means that it’s publicly listed for sale. Whether directly or through a broker, a buyer can find the business for sale and approach it. The easiest way to do this is through online marketplaces. These are comparable to other kinds of online marketplace for goods and services.

The majority of businesses sold in the U.K. are sold ‘off-market’, however.

What Is an Off-Market Sale?

An off-market sale is where a business trades hands without ever officially being listed for sale.

Discreet deals like these are struck between parties with good industry connections. Rather than list the business for sale online, a seller can privately reach out to a potential buyer they know and trust to confidentially discuss terms. This benefits the seller as they need only talk to buyers they trust, and can avoid alerting their competition to the fact their business is for sale. Alternatively, a buyer may approach a seller to register interest, perhaps having heard through connections that the owner is interested in selling.

Which Is Better: Off-Market or On-Market?

There are several advantages to the off-market approach. One is that the seller and buyer can both be sure that the other party is serious. A positive for the buyer is that they can avoid competition and last-minute bids from competitors, while a positive for the seller is that they can ask for a fair price and not expect aggressive negotiation.

Part of the issue is that most businesses listed for sale are not actually for sale. It’s thought that somewhere around 90% of businesses listed in online marketplaces don’t sell. The core reason why is that some business owners only want to know how much they could sell their business for, as opposed to actually selling.

The biggest advantage to off-market buying, however, is that the most profitable and sustainable businesses are typically sold this way. Owners prefer discreet sales for all the reasons described above. But for the buyer, this means that the most profitable businesses for sale are sold before they even have a chance to approach them. Finding your way through this hidden market is difficult unless you have exceptional connections in your industry. Understandably, this also means that overseas buyers have an even harder time.

How to Find Off-Market Businesses for Sale

We are Chelsea Corporate. Our speciality is connecting buyers with off-market opportunities they could never otherwise take advantage of. We find, vet and approach potential sellers discreetly; those that do want to sell become part of our exclusive private database. We give our buyers access to these businesses which are available nowhere else but through us.

Many of our clients are overseas buyers. We can offer local representation through finding and negotiating with UK businesses on your behalf. Everything we do can be done remotely, so that not only can you complete the deal from overseas, but without even leaving home.

If you’re interested in how off-market selling works and how it could benefit you—whether you’re looking to expand your own business, or you’re an overseas buyer interested in British businesses—contact us today. You can reach our expert team over the phone at +44 (0) 20 3011 1373. Alternatively, fill out our contact form or email us at info@chelseacorporate.com.