What Is a Business Exit Strategy?

A business exit strategy is an entrepreneur's strategic plan to sell his or her ownership in a company to investors or another company. An exit strategy gives a business owner a way to reduce or liquidate his stake in a business and, if the business is successful, make a substantial profit. If the business is not successful, an exit strategy (or "exit plan") enables the entrepreneur to limit losses. An exit strategy may also be used by an investor such as a venture capitalist in order to plan for a cash-out of an investment.

Business exit strategies should not be confused with trading exit strategies used in securities markets.

Key Takeaways

  • A business exit strategy is a plan that a founder or owner of a business makes to sell their company, or share in a company, to other investors or other firms.
  • Initial public offerings (IPOs), strategic acquisitions, and management buyouts are among the more common exit strategies an owner might pursue.
  • If the business is making money, an exit strategy lets the owner of the business cut their stake or completely get out of the business while making a profit.
  • If the business is struggling, implementing an exit strategy or "exit plan" can allow the entrepreneur to limit losses.

Understanding Business Exit Strategy

Ideally, an entrepreneur will develop an exit strategy in their initial business plan before actually going into business. The choice of exit plan can influence business development decisions. Common types of exit strategies include initial public offerings (IPO), strategic acquisitions, and management buyouts (MBO). Which exit strategy an entrepreneur chooses depends on many factors, such as how much control or involvement (if any) they want to retain in the business, whether they want the company to be run in the same way after their departure, or whether they're willing to see it shift, provided they are paid well to sign off.

A strategic acquisition, for example, will relieve the founder of his or her ownership responsibilities, but will also mean the founder is giving up control. IPOs are often seen as the holy grail of exit strategies since they often bring along the greatest prestige and highest payoff. On the other hand, bankruptcy is seen as the least desirable way to exit a business.

A key aspect of an exit strategy is business valuation, and there are specialists that can help business owners (and buyers) examine a company's financials to determine a fair value. There are also transition managers whose role is to assist sellers with their business exit strategies.

Business Exit Strategy and Liquidity

Different business exit strategies also offer business owners different levels of liquidity. Selling ownership through a strategic acquisition, for example, can offer the greatest amount of liquidity in the shortest time frame, depending on how the acquisition is structured. The appeal of a given exit strategy will depend on market conditions, as well; for example, an IPO may not be the best exit strategy during a recession, and a management buyout may not be attractive to a buyer when interest rates are high.

While an IPO will almost always be a lucrative prospect for company founders and seed investors, these shares can be extremely volatile and risky for ordinary investors who will be buying their shares from the early investors.

Business Exit Strategy: Which Is Best?

The best type of exit strategy also depends on business type and size. A partner in a medical office might benefit by selling to one of the other existing partners, while a sole proprietor’s ideal exit strategy might simply be to make as much money as possible, then close down the business. If the company has multiple founders, or if there are substantial shareholders in addition to the founders, these other parties’ interests must be factored into the choice of an exit strategy as well.