Is it possible to buy a one-man-band business?

  1. iStock

    Clinton UKBF Legend Full Member

    5,117 2,300
    1 |

    Ask any mergers and acquisitions (M&A) advisor or business broker the quickest way to grow and they'll invariably recommend that the business makes an acquisition. When it comes to retail therapy, what's there to not get excited about? You pay your money, you gets a shiny new toy.

    Your business can use synergies to cut costs and improve profitability, the diversification reduces risk and exposure to market fluctuations, and there's immediate access to growth.

    The cherry on the cake is the possibility of removing a competitor and thereby the downward pressures on price while improving the business' bargaining position with suppliers.

    The perfect solution!

    What makes an acquisition easier said than done?

    The three primary obstacles are:

    1. Finding a quality target at a reasonable price: this is what used to present me with the greatest difficulty when I was ‘on the hunt’. Even putting price considerations aside temporarily to focus on quality and suitability of the target, the task is immense. At one point, I even invested in developing my own software tools to ‘scrape’ the various portals where businesses are listed for sale - such as Dynamis and - to automate the process of collecting and semi-filtering the thousands and thousands of listings going online every day. It's not easy
    2. Financing the purchase: Once a few targets have been identified comes the tricky task of agreeing value with the vendor before paying for the purchase. Vendors often have an ‘all cash’ expectation, but whether they do or not they'll likely be a cash component to the purchase, a cash component that needs to be funded
    3. Vetting the target: How do you protect against being sold a pup? What is due diligence going to cost? How often are you going to sink costs into assessing potential acquisitions given that those costs can't be recovered if the process doesn't culminate in a successful buy?

    Is there a way around these obstacles?

    I'm going to ask you to consider an odd suggestion - buying the type of business that most others don't want: one-man bands.

    One-man bands are businesses that are heavily reliant on the owner. They may have employees or sub-contractors, but very little authority in the business, if any, is delegated. We in the UK have no shortage of businesses like these. Most make just enough to pay the owner a salary and these are effectively jobs, not businesses.

    However, there are exceptions. There are one-man bands making oversized profits. The delivery of profits far in excess of what equivalent firms are generating is usually because of some unique quality the owner possesses. Many of them clear six or seven figures in revenue with extremely healthy margins. When these businesses come to market, the driver tends to be a change in the owner's personal circumstances rather than a flaw with the business. It could be bad health, the death of a spouse or some other tragedy.

    I'm going to ask you to consider an odd suggestion - buying the type of business that most others don't want: one-man bands.

    But these businesses suffer from the same impairment as other one-man bands - their reliance on the owner  makes them difficult to sell and severely depresses the price. For larger firms, the key person discount that buyers factor in can be 20% to 30% of the price the business would otherwise achieve. For one-man bands, according to statistics compiled by people who track these things, the key person discount can be 70% or more.

    This creates an opportunity for the canny investor. There's still the problem of replacing the owner, which I'll address shortly, but the prospect of acquiring a very profitable business at a third of its value (or less) can be very tempting... if you can make the business work for you by successfully integrating it with yours and benefiting from its order flow and revenue.

    But do businesses meeting the above description even exist?


    I'm aware of one business for sale in the south-east in the construction sector with a turnover of a million, and profit in excess of £150,000. It would normally sell for £500,000 to £750,000 given its strong brand, IP and tangible assets. But the owner is seriously ill and is willing to accept a fraction of the price and even part-finance the deal. In theory, the right buyer could add £1m to their own turnover and a nice chunk of earnings for a cash outlay equivalent to less than what they'd make from the acquisition in the first year itself!

    Another business in London fitting premium blinds at very high margins and making £100,000-plus after all expenses including a salary for the owner-manager, has an owner who needs to leave the UK and who is highly motivated to sell. To sweeten the deal he's even offering a component of seller financing ie. to defer part of the price to be paid out of future profits. For a headline figure equal to two times annual earnings, and subject to negotiation on what percentage will be paid in cash, an investor could acquire not just a sound business, but one that is showing steady and significant growth year-on-year.

    Opportunities like these can found by registering your interest with UK business brokers most of whom you'll find here. A word of caution, though: if you are not very, very specific with the criteria you set out when registering with business brokers and business transfer agents you could get inundated with large volumes of businesses that come nowhere near your stated requirements.

    Replacing the irreplaceable owner

    The fly in the ointment is that the owner is indispensable. They will of course play down just how critical their involvement is - all vendors do - and he'll emphasise that the business could continue on the current growth trajectory even with new owners in charge.

    I suggest you call them out on this.

    If the acquisition makes sense for all reasons except this one, lay the responsibility for transition on the vendor and tie payments to the successful integration of his business with yours. Clear targets and goals need to be set and terms need to be negotiated. But if he can meet the projections and successfully deliver your business the growth you're seeking, it'll be worth every penny of the highly discounted price you've agreed to pay.


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  2. Ashley_Price

    Ashley_Price UKBF Legend Full Member - Verified Business

    7,145 1,313
    I did exactly that, bought a one-woman business.

    Pavilion Office Products was previously owned by a lady who did all the work. However, she burnt herself out and came to loath being self-employed.

    As I had been helping her promote the business, she gave me first refusal (it was either I buy it, or she would shut the business down).

    I made the leap and bought the business. I did lose some customers who preferred dealing with the previous owner (of course, that's not what they said, but their spoken reasons for still not using us didn't make sense).

    Now, here I am, nearly 8 months later, the owner of Pavilion and it was the best decision I made.
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2016
    Posted: Jul 19, 2016 By: Ashley_Price Member since: Feb 9, 2008
    RichardSunday and Clinton like this.