'Finish Big' explores folly of failing to prepare for an eventual sale

'Finish Big' is full of case studies from the realm of 'real business,' rather than tech start-ups

"You may leave feet first, but leave you will, one way or another."

This cheery declaration is not a reflection on life per se, but the central thesis of Bo Burlingham's latest book for entrepreneurs. "Finish Big: How Great Entrepreneurs Exit Their Companies on Top," is published by Portfolio.

In the book, he contends that those who build companies from scratch are so focused on the "busyness of business" that they rarely think about their exit plan.

A curious mixture of self-help guide and hard-boiled business studies textbook, "Finish Big" explores the folly of failing to prepare for an eventual sale.

It is full of cautionary tales of business owners who experienced "seller's remorse" after shopping their company at a knockdown price or losing control to a ruthless private equity firm that fired all their staff.

Many of the experiences have a grief-like quality. Take the entrepreneur who "became so distraught he began seeing a psychotherapist" after selling his research group to a large company that made 80% of his staff redundant.

Given that the wave of baby boomers who launched start-ups in the 1980s are nearing retirement age, Burlingham argues that the competition to find a buyer is going to become more intense.

Only those businesses that have spent enough time preparing their companies for a sale — presumably by reading this book — will be able to sell to the right owner at the highest price.

Based in Oakland, Burlingham is an editor-at-large of Inc. magazine and author of five books including "Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Rather Than Big." Burlingham is not a natural business writer in the mold of Michael Lewis, author of "Flash Boys."

This attempt at metaphor is typical of his prose: "The owners who did best had a vision of what they would do after the sale and thus were better able to handle their metamorphosis from top banana one day to ordinary piece of fruit the next."

What he lacks in figurative writing skills, he makes up for with a simpler rhetorical device: repetition.

The central message of the book is delivered in a series of corny slogans from: "You should build a business today as if you will own it forever but sell it tomorrow" to "the one thing we can say for sure about your journey is that it will end."

Yet those who can see past the patchy writing will find much of the book refreshing. That is because it is full of case studies from the realm of "real business," rather than the fashionable tech start-ups that garner so much attention.

As with his previous book "Small Giants," the stars of "Finish Big" are entrepreneurs who set up call centers, freight trucking operators, exhaust cleaning companies and industrial water treatment plants.

Burlingham tells their stories with an enthusiasm and respect that is normally reserved for the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs.

Take Tony Hartl, an entrepreneur who was abandoned by his father before his second birthday, leaving his mother to raise him and his sister in extreme poverty. He escaped his background to set up a chain of 16 tanning salons in Dallas, which he later sold for a life-changing sum.

The "Finish Big" approach to building a business that is fit for sale is also reassuringly no-nonsense: Sell something unique, generate as much cash flow as possible, adopt a laser-like focus on costs and improve customer service.

In an era of silly valuations for Silicon Valley companies that have yet to turn a profit, entrepreneurs could do much worse than following Burlingham's advice.

David Crow is a New York-based correspondent for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
55°