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ATD Blog

Winning Talent Development Firms Exit the Business: Part 1, The Seller

Friday, June 30, 2023

So, here we are at the last of the 12 winning strategies for building your talent development business. You have successfully executed on the previous 11 strategies and can now sell your business to reap the rewards, at least financially, for your hard work, long hours, and multiple sacrifices you’ve made over the years. How do you go about this process, what do you need to consider to best prepare yourself, what should you expect from interested parties, and what happens to you and the business post-sale? This is a lot to consider, so much so that I will break up this strategy into three blog posts, the first addressing you, the seller (this blog post), the second addressing the buyer (next month’s), and the third focused on some key things to watch out for when selling your business (out in two months).

The good news for owners today is that the talent industry has been relatively hot in recent years, with plenty of buy-out activity. However, the question for business owners is far more complicated than simply deciding whether to sell. They must recognize that their existing work and lifestyle could dramatically change, not necessarily for the better. For instance, although visions of how to spend that cash are motivating, many owners may still want to contribute to the growth of the business and the industry but certainly won’t be doing so in the way they had become accustomed.

With this in mind, owners must clearly understand they must let go of the personal and professional control they currently hold, not to mention the notion they will likely have to “report” to someone else, at least for some time. For the most part, this last point is the most difficult adjustment factor. It changes everything.

Personally, I have gone through the sale of about ten firms in this industry—either as the owner, a partner, or investor. Some experiences were wonderful; others didn’t work out as well. Here are some key questions you and other business owners must consider when considering selling a business and setting sail for new waters.

Why Sell in the First Place?

The foundational question you must answer is: What is really motivating you to sell? For some, personal life changes such as health issues will provide enough reason. Other owners may find it is time to semi- or fully retire because they seek a different pace of life or are just tired of doing the same thing every day. Or, you may feel you have taken the business as far as you can and need to turn it over to professional growth-oriented experts. These are all valid reasons.

When Is the Right Time to Sell?

I’m not sure there is a “right” time to sell a business, but there are logically good and bad times to sell. Clearly, when the market is active and buyers are interested is a good time to sell. There is a greater likelihood you will get a higher price for your business than during leaner times.


Another necessary condition for a “good” sale is when the business is financially strong—with both the current and projected top and bottom lines. A strong financial history will only add to this formula. There is no point in exiting your business at the lowest possible price, which will be the case if your numbers aren’t very compelling.

What Does a Deal Look Like?

Typically, any deal will involve keeping the owner(s) around for at least a transition period—if not for longer. Indeed, firms in the talent development industry rarely sell without the key players staying on for some negotiated time. This may be a relatively short-lived stay to help with the transition. But, it is more likely to be, at least as the deal is constructed, laden with earn-outs over a period of years, based on the continued performance of the business.

Of course, while all this can be negotiated, it is important to fully understand your own intentions, as well as the potential buyer’s short- and long-term plans, before beginning any negotiations. This doesn’t mean you can’t be fired before the end of the contract, regardless of any earn-out position or stock ownership. Just know that once you give up the majority shares of your business, you are at the mercy of the buying entity.


How Do You Go About the Sale?

How do you let others in the industry know you are considering selling your firm? This is the question most owners want answered, but it is complicated because of the many types of deals.

To get started, make it known to both private investors and industry leaders you are potentially interested in selling your business. Once you admit to this, it might be hard to negotiate a great deal because potential buyers may assume some level of eagerness—or desperateness—on your part. You can also retain a professional firm to broker your sale, its job being to seek out potential interested parties and negotiate a deal for you.

And, if you are financially healthy, a leader in your particular niche, and have a sustainable and competitive value proposition, private-equity investors will find you. For example, several private-equity firms have a training and education industry vertical portfolio seeking companies fitting this space. They look for firms whose offerings either can stand alone or would fit within one of their currently owned businesses as a “tuck-in.”

What Are Your Next Steps?

Just like any project, deciding to sell your business requires a well-thought-out plan. Don’t go into this endeavor without carefully deliberating all the possible parameters and dynamics involved—not the least of which is the impact it will have on your current staff. Be sure to engage some trusted advisors who have previously navigated these waters and understand the pros and cons (and ups and downs) of exiting a business. Keep in mind the words of Robert Burns: Even with a great plan, “the best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain.” This is not to say that all deals turn out poorly for sellers, but rather that their expectations and needs must be clear at the outset.

About the Author

Steve Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His first book, The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm, was published by ATD in 2017. His recent follow-up, 12 Winning Strategies for Building a Talent Development Firm is now available on Amazon.

He can be reached at: 952.942.7291 or [email protected].

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