Technical assistance with buying a new business

As the potential purchaser of a new business, you have a lot going on from the moment that you make the decision to purchase an existing business to the moment the “doors open”. Then the real work begins of making that business a success and if you’ve done it before, you know that is going to take a lot of care and nurturing.

So what can be done to help you through the jungle, out the door, and on with your operations? Consider assistance from a technology advisor early in the process BEFORE you complete the deal. For one thing, you want to hit the ground running and know your processes before you step up to the starting line. The operation of your new business is like a young child … it requires a little planning, making sure that things are in place before the baby arrives.

Does your potential new business have any accounts receivable? I once helped the owner of a large company buy a small business that they intended to roll into a larger business. I went with one of the owners family members to examine the computers that contained the accounts receivable. They wanted to be sure the computer was ok, that backups existed, and they wanted to know if the existing system could continue to be used going forward. I discovered quite a bit more than we bargained for by going a little bit beyond the hardware.

Early due diligence and attention to details can save you a lot of grief later. I had some background in university in accounting and had supported accounting systems for several years, so I took a closer look at the data. At first, the names of the advertisers were amusing. Later on, they stopped being amusing as there were so many odd and funny names that it suddenly crossed my mind that it seemed the names were made up. So I started looking at the customer records and started doing a few phone calls. In the end the result was an accounts receivable that was many thousands of dollars lower than advertised. In this case, it was a sales person pushing through ads in the system that didn’t exist. I also noticed that a fairly high number of receivables were more than 90 days. 30 days earlier the receivables looked a lot better.  The real catch was that the receivables looked ok when printed out on paper and scanned by an accountant, but the paper didn’t tell the whole story.  The sale went through but at a significantly reduced price.

Make sure you understand the history of any assets you are purchasing. A few years ago when a company was being purchased, I found out that the systems that were being purchased as part of the existing business were older than advertised and had already been written off to the point that if the new owner also attempted to write them off, she would have been exposing herself to a CRA audit.  In another case, I walked into the offices of a new client and sat down to work on a computer. The computer had an ID tag on it that indicated it belonged to one of my other clients! Turned out the new client was serviced by a consultant who suddenly left the country. That consultant had taken the computer from the first client’s office to the second one and nobody was the wiser.

The lesson here is to get clear ownership identified of all equipment you are inheriting as well as clear documentation about that equipment, when it was bought, how much it cost and whether or not the purchase was capitalized. And don’t forget to check for any existing warranty or service contract that is place, when it expires, what the renewal price might be, and so on.

You also need to clarify ownership of any software on those computers. Whatever software you are getting with a business purchase, you want to make sure that the ownership is transferred properly to you as well as any existing unused support contracts that the previous owner may have signed. There are a number of pitfalls that, unfortunately can cost you a lot of money to correct. I’ve seen business owners who have closed deals to buy a business assuming that the software on the computer was their own since they bought the computer. If this software is in any way unique or critical to the business you may not be able to get a critical update from the vendor without buying the software all over again. I’ve seen a case where the operations software had to be repurchased at a cost of thousands of dollars and this problem came to light when a patch was required from the vendor meaning the owner was penalized not just the costs, but the delay in getting the software working again while the licensing was covered off.

Stewart Francis, the founder of IT Roadmaps Inc, has helped owner-managed companies understand the value of technology processes and provides IT Management experience to small and medium sized businesses.  He can be contacted at 416-574-9675 Copyright 2008 IT Roadmaps, Inc.