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Selling Your Business? 6 Common Mistakes to Avoid

Selling Your Business? 6 Common Mistakes to Avoid

Selling Your Business? 6 Common Mistakes to Avoid

Before you make the decision to sell your business, you need to know how to avoid making the most common mistakes. 

Before you make the decision to sell your business, you need to know how to avoid making the most common mistakes. A little thoughtful preparation can save you time and money and help you avoid making decisions you might regret later.

For some people, going through the process of really thinking about what they are selling has led them to reconsider and make other adjustments in their business instead.

1. Not knowing what you want to sell

It sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? “I know what I want, I want to sell my business!”

But what does that look like?

We have worked with a few clients lately at different ends of the spectrum of preparation for sale. Some people know exactly what they are selling, have identified the assets to be sold and those not transferring with the sale, and know how much they want for it. They know whether the premises are part of it and what it looks like to transfer the premises.

Surprisingly, other people come to us to prepare contracts for sale, and we spend weeks trying to get clarity on what is included, what is not included, and what is actually necessary to ensure that the sale is made as a going concern and will therefore not attract GST.

And yes, if you didn’t get around to documenting a business sale when it occurred and would like it documented after the fact, that is still possible. Although it has its own peculiarities. 

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) guidelines for sale of a going concern are straightforward:

  • everything necessary to continue to operate the business, including staff, equipment and premises
  • continue to operate the business up until the sale date
  • buyer must be registered for GST
  • there is a written agreement showing that ‘going concern’ has been agreed between the parties, dated before the sale is finalised
  • both parties are to be a single purchasing entity and a single selling entity to claim the GST exemption – there can be multiple enterprises but these have to operate as separate sales (ie. land and business)

To be a sale of a going concern you need to transfer everything that is necessary to the ongoing operations of the business. This still occurs in context. You might use certain software in your business (like Xero or MYOB) and consider that essential, but the buyer might have different software and no intent of changing. What is essential for the business is the customer and sales data, not necessarily the software.

Prudent buyers will complete searches and due diligence before offering to purchase your business. Ideally, you will have anticipated and prepared all the information the buyer might want to see before promoting your business for sale; this makes the due diligence process much smoother and quicker.

Apart from knowing what it is you want to sell and what you want for it, it is also important to consider whether it is important to you, or the continuation of the business, to sell the company or the assets.

Obviously, if you are operating through a trust, it is an asset sale, but if you are operating through a company, there may be an option to sell the shares in that company. Lots of advisers will caution against purchasing shares because more due diligence is involved, and you may not be able to discover any skeletons in the company closet until after the transfer is complete. Yes, we can write in indemnities etc., but it is considered a higher risk position that purchasing assets. 

However, there are regulated businesses where it may be much easier to transfer the company than attempt to transfer assets. For example, selling a business with government contracts, selling a business which has licenses or permissions that require an involved process, such as an RTO (Registered Training Organisation) if you are looking for potential buyers who do not already have that compliance set up.

2. Not getting advice early, whether legal, financial or from a business broker

Working with a business broker can help you identify what you are selling and the value of what you have to sell, before you go to market. Some business brokers are great, will work closely with you to achieve what you want and really look after your interests. Some aren’t.

We’ve worked with business brokers in the past who are so focused on getting their commission that they write the sales contract in favour of the buyer, and insist on controlling the contract contrary to any legal advice to the parties. This is where it helps if you understand what you are selling and what you want to achieve. You’re not likely to be persuaded to just take any sale.

Sellers don’t always consider planning for life after the sale of business (apart from much needed holidays) and may struggle to ensure they have adequately provided for their next venture, or even retirement. You want to be better off financially at the completion of the sale, instead of regretting your decision.

Achieving the best possible price means that careful planning needs to be in place; a quick sale due to financial pressure or personal reasons is can potentially impact your ability to achieve the best price for your business.

You can put processes in place to limit your risk and protect your interests. You can put boundaries around what you are prepared to commit as part of the sale in terms of your assistance to the buyer after settlement.

If you get appropriate advice before you sign anything, you have the opportunity to walk away from a transaction that is only going to cause you grief in the future.

I would add addressing PPSR’s, as they tend to get overlooked and can cause a big problem with completion. The main issue I have found is that most sellers do not have a comprehensive exit plan that details every step, especially the preparation stages that will make the process more seamless. 

Another process which is becoming more popular is to engage a registered business valuer, or other expert to complete a pre-sale audit report that that will highlight the true strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats confronting the business. 

Hugo Martin, Business Broker and Registered Business Valuer 

Getting appropriate tax advice

It is essential to consult with a tax professional to make sure you understand that tax implications of your sale and the amount of tax liability you will have to pay. GST, CGT and income tax may all need consideration depending on what you are selling, when and in what structure.

We are not tax lawyers, and you will need to consult your tax adviser for advice appropriate to your circumstances.

Ideally you will have your financial reporting for the past 2-3 years available for inspection by the buyer (after they have signed an NDA) and a business structure that is attractive to a potential purchaser. As part of the business purchase, the buyer will want to review the financial records of the business, because this supports the price you are asking the buyer to pay.

Another consideration will be the way the selling price is determined and if the future performance of the business will generate a percentage to be paid to you as the seller.

Stamp duty

Depending on which state or territory you are located, and where the buyer is, there may be transfer duty or stamp duty on the sale of the business.

Duty is usually calculated on the arm’s length value of the business sale. So, if you transfer the business to a friend or relative at a discount, you may need to submit an independent valuation with the application for assessment.

Depending on the value, nature and place of business, an item like goodwill can still attract transfer duty. The sale of goodwill alone does not always attract stamp duty, but that type of sale is also not likely to be a sale of a going concern. Lots of different things need to be taken into consideration.

Case Study

An example of where goodwill was found not to be included in a sale was a case involving the sale of two McDonald’s restaurants in NSW. The Chief Commissioner for Taxation assessed stamp duty on the sale price and included an element for goodwill. The restaurant owner argued that the goodwill was not sold and instead remained the property of McDonald’s due to their licence agreement. The Court held that any goodwill the restaurant owner enjoyed would be terminated at the end of the licence agreement. In those circumstances it was determined that no goodwill was transferred, and no duty was payable by the restaurant owner in respect of goodwill.

3. Not understanding the ownership of the assets in the business sale

A little careful pre-planning for sale will ensure that the correct assets are in the correct business entity name and will attach to the sale.

We’ve had interesting situations in the past where clients have, at the last minute and only after we’ve reviewed a contract from the potential buyer (it’s not always the seller who prepares the contract, although that is a good idea) that it was discovered some of the assets sat in a forgotten entity that was about to be deregistered by ASIC. The company was quickly reinstated and added to the sale contract as one of the sellers.

In that instance it was a trade mark registration, but it could just as easily have been a motor vehicle, manufacturing machinery or office equipment.

To help you think about your business, the assets of the business are defined in the Real Estate Institute of Queensland (REIQ) Business Sale Contract, under Clause 3.1 to include the following:

  • Goodwill
  • Fixtures
  • Fittings
  • Furniture
  • Chattels
  • Plant and equipment
  • Industrial and intellectual property
  • Work-in-progress
  • Stock in trade
  • Permits
  • Licenses
  • Any other assets listed by the parties

There are usually warranties in the contract for sale of business that you as a seller give, promising that the assets are ‘unencumbered’ or not subject to the interests of another party, like a financier.

It will be a necessary part of the sale to provide clear title for the assets, including paying out any lenders who hold the existing loans and securities registered under the Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR). If this does not happen before or at settlement, then if the buyer defaults on the payments, the financier can repossess the asset.

4. Not understanding what is going to happen with your employees

Do you tell them, or don’t you? And when?

If you are about to list your business with a broker, then it’s a good idea to have a discussion with your staff beforehand. You don’t want to embarrass your employees by having them find out from someone else that their job might be at risk.

Some buyers will be interested in all your staff. Some buyers may be interested in some of your staff and some buyers just want the assets and don’t want any people. The size of your business, and the size of the purchaser, are likely to make a difference.

If you are listing with a broker, you can let the broker know what your expectations are around your staff – that they buyer will take them, or the majority of them.

It is the option of the purchaser to make your employees an offer, or not. You can’t force a new owner to take all your employees. You also can’t force your employees to work for a new owner. Some careful negotiation may be needed.

As a seller, you will be under an obligation to give all the employee details for transferring employees, their entitlements, any accrued leave and the pay rates and any Awards they might be employed under.

If the purchaser does not take your employees, then you will need to pay out their entitlements, which may include accrued bonuses, annual leave, long service leave, notice or redundancy. If you are thinking ahead and have a year or so before you expect to put your business up for sale, you might consider reviewing what entitlements have been accrued and suggesting some people use their leave.

Once offers and agreements with the employees have been made by the buyer, there is likely to be an adjustment to the purchase price for some entitlements, such as personal leave, annual leave, long service leave and accrued bonuses.  

If you need advice on understanding what is going to happen and what your responsibilities will be, and even answering your employee’s questions, then let us know and we are happy to help.

5. Not thinking about what you will do with the premises if not part of the sale

Not every business requires an office and with the changes in working habits brought about by COVID, a buyer may not be interested in taking over any premises you have for your business. So where does that leave you?

If the buyer does want your premises:

  • If you lease the premises, then you will need the landlord’s consent to a novation or assignment of the lease. A novation gets you out of any liability associated with the lease and an assignment means you are still on the hook (financially liable) until the lease ends, which may include option periods.
  • If you own the premises, you may be able to negotiate a sale in conjunction with the sale of business.
  • If you own the premises, you may be able to negotiate a lease with the new business owner, and yes, the lease still needs to be documented separately from the sale of business.

Most landlords are prepared to agree to an assignment but not a novation. Why not have two people responsible for covering the lease when you have no obligation to let the first tenant out?

If the buyer doesn’t want your premises:

  • Think about how much time you have left on the lease.
  • Think about alternate uses for the premises.
  • Consider whether you still have a use for the premises, or if you need to break the lease.
  • Instead of breaking the lease, you may be able to find someone else to take over the lease – again by novation or assignment, or you may be able to find someone to sublet some of the space from you to reduce your costs.

It is not uncommon for a business to ‘hold over’ after the end of a lease on a month-by-month tenancy pending a sale of business to limit the risk of having to maintain a lease without a business to fund it. We’re happy to talk through your options with you.

6. Forgetting to transfer licenses, permists and social media accounts

Some businesses need specific licences and permits to trade.

Think about:

  • food business licences
  • liquor licences
  • building trade licences
  • transport licences
  • commercial parking permits
  • and so on

The buyer’s expectation will be that the business sale contract includes at least reference to necessary llicences and permits, and possibly your cooperation in transfer, if that is available. Some permits require a new application from the buyer and that takes time. The buyer might ask you to stay in the business as the licence holder pending their application. If so, you will need to think about your risks if their application is unsuccessful. It is possible that the sale will fall over if the purchaser cannot get the necessary permits or licenses.

Online assets

Business brokers don’t always consider your online assets when helping you prepare for sale. In our online world where people increasingly search online to find what they are looking for, online assets can have a significant impact on the continued operation of the business.

Whatever you use to promote your business online is your intellectual property and needs to be part of the sale.

Your domain name, business website (a domain name and website are different things) and social media accounts will also need to be transferred across to the new owner. Different platforms have different requirements and its important you understand what you have to do when settlement comes around.

How can Onyx Legal help you?

If you are thinking of selling, have a chat with us before the deal is done. If you’ve found a buyer and want to move forward, we can prepare your contract for sale and if you’ve somehow sold without any written agreement and would just like to clarify any remaining liability before anyone forgets what the agreement was.

12 Common Issues with Privacy Policies

12 Common Issues with Privacy Policies

12 Common Issues with Privacy Policies

1. Thinking a simple privacy policy template will do the job

For many small business owners, protecting the privacy of personal information just isn’t a priority. There are lots of reasons for that.

  • Not placing any value in a privacy policy or the protection of personal information
  • Not knowing what makes up personal information
  • Not realising when the business is collecting personal information
  • Not understanding what the business is doing with personal data after its collected
  • Thinking that publicly accessible data, like through Facebook or a website, means its ok to collect it
  • Not understanding the difference between privacy and confidentiality, or the importance of privacy
  • Having competing priorities – like the need to make money – that mean privacy always sits on the back burner

A template might work. It might not. If you never read it or attempt to understand it, it probably won’t help your business meet its legal obligations.

I have heard of a company that copied and pasted their privacy policy from a crematorium, without having read it. One of their customers pointed out to them that it was a little weird to read about burial when that wasn’t their business.

Are you prepared to put your credibility at risk?

If you don’t know what your obligations are, how do you know a simple template will protect your business?

2. Copying and pasting a policy from somewhere else

It is easy to check out a friend’s website or a competitor’s website and decide to simply copy and paste what they have done. A friend might even offer it. The problem with getting help from friends like that is that they probably don’t understand their own privacy policy or the legal impact it can have on your business.

I’ve even come across a business spruiking a service of theirs offering advertising through Facebook that simply linked the privacy policy of a random website they did not have any control over, not having read it, understood it or worried about the promises they were making by using that privacy policy and simply seeing it as a ‘hurdle’ to overcome to get their adds showing in as many feeds as possible.  That is potentially misleading and deceptive conduct offending both privacy law and consumer law.

If you haven’t read it or don’t understand it or are looking at a website from outside your country, don’t put your business at risk by copying and pasting a privacy policy from someone else’s website.

3. Thinking a cookie policy covers privacy obligations

Having a cookie policy or a cookie choice pop up on your website doesn’t meet your obligations to protect the privacy of personal information.

Cookies may not be classified as personal information. Cookies can be functional (you won’t get full use of the website without them), performance focused (like analytics), focused on personalisation (like advertising based on your search history), or marketing focused.

Cookies are little data packets that store enough information to identify you when you return to a site for the purpose of say, pre-filling your username or password, or adjusting the display of a website, or advertising to better reflect your preferences. Cookies have to be matched with other data before they can be used to identify you and the information stored is not generally available for inspection. Cookie data may be collated to create a picture of who you are.

There was a ‘horror’ story that went around some years ago about a pregnant teenager being discovered by her family because her search history meant her parents got served advertising for pregnancy help.  The cookies didn’t identify her, but enable her parents to put two and two together.

Personal information is information about an individual which by itself identifies that individual, or with other information can be used to identify an individual. Types of personal information can include:

  • photo
  • name or alias
  • postal, street or electronic address
  • enrolment in a course
  • testimonial
  • biological samples
  • genetic data

So, a cookie pop up by itself just won’t cut it.

4. Never reading your own privacy policy

If you don’t know what your privacy policy says, how can you possibly be implementing the protections necessary to protect the personal information you are collecting?

How many businesses do you know have a blank page when you click on the privacy policy link in the footer of their website? Clearly they missed checking what was supposed to be written on that page. Your web developer or tech person is not responsible for you meeting your privacy obligations. They probably know marginally more than you do about your privacy obligations, are not lawyers and shouldn’t be uploading just anything for you.

5. Not understanding your own privacy policy

Privacy obligations only apply to information about real people – whether in their personal or business capacity – but do not apply to companies or other entities. Depending on where you are in the world, privacy obligation may also be limited to people who are still alive, and not the deceased.

So, what do you do with the personal information you collect? Unless you use integrated technology, you probably have data about your clients and supplies in a variety of places:

  • your CRM
  • your finance software
  • your email marketing software
  • your email management system
  • a project management tool
  • other software used in your business

Whilst the problem of keeping information consistent across databases is widely acknowledged, the type of protections each of those systems offer, and how you use them, probably isn’t.

For many types of businesses, your privacy obligations mean that you can’t send data overseas without the consent of the person providing it. This is particularly so for financial or health data. Personal trainers, life coaches, psycho-therapy providers all collect health data and probably don’t realise that every email they send pushes personal information overseas.  

I’ve also gone to privacy policy links on websites that don’t cover privacy at all, and in fact display the e-commerce terms of that business instead, which perhaps a throwaway line saying “we respect your privacy and will never sell your personal information.” That is not a privacy policy.

6. Not considering any procedures to support your policy

When you run a small business, the people who work with you, employees or contractors, need to understand your priorities around personal information and what can and cannot be done with it.

Do you allow contractors to keep contact details on their mobile devices outside your systems?

What controls or oversight do you have over what they are doing with their mobile device each day?

How many times have you seen parents hand a mobile device to their child to keep them quiet or entertained? Do you know the personal data of others isn’t being accessed?

For businesses in Australia which are obliged to comply with the Privacy Act 1988, there are now also mandatory data reporting obligations so that if any data is lost or accessed, it needs to be reported. Leaving a device on public transport can be a reportable event if that device cannot be remotely locked and contains any personal information that is supposed to be controlled by your business.

7. Not knowing where you are collecting data or what you are doing it

We’ve spoken with many small business owners who simply don’t realise how often or in what way they are collecting data.

  • a form filled through a website
  • an email received
  • a video conference recorded
  • a note made of a telephone conversation
  • a voicemail received
  • video feedback recorded and sent by a client
  • patient notes written and yet to be filed

All these examples involve the collection of personal information. Does your business have protocols in place for the destruction of information that is no longer required for the purpose of your business? Privacy law generally requires that you only collect what is necessary, and destroy it after it is no longer required. Interestingly, many large organisations, like banks, appear to keep your information indefinitely.

The GDPR (regarding information about EU residents) now requires that you monitor what you collect, how you collect it, and how long you keep it.

We can help you put together policies to assist people in your workplace to manage how information is collected, stored, used and destroyed.

8. Not updated to match data practices

Laws are changing all the time. If you haven’t looked at your privacy policy for more than two years, it is probably time you did.

Not only that, but if you’ve changed the software or technology you are using recently, that should also prompt a review of not only your privacy policy, but also the privacy policy of your new software or technology provider.

You might be offering a new product or service that means you collect additional information from your clients, more than you did previously.

You might have started working with another business in a joint venture, which means they now have access to some of your personal information, and vice versa.

Take time to review your practices and procedures for managing personal information and privacy, as well as checking that you are legally compliant with your obligations.

9. Doesn’t address all the different people affected – customers, partners, developers, general users

You may or may not treat personal information from different relationships in the same way. By relationships, consider the different people you interact with in your business – your clients and customers, your suppliers, your employees and contractors, volunteers, etc.

Consider: if you still have a business that uses paper forms, you might have collected similar or only slightly different data on different forms. You might scan that information and store it electronically, but then what happens to the paper copy? Is it securely destroyed? Is it stuck in a filing cabinet somewhere? Is that filing cabinet locked? Is any member of staff able to access that filing cabinet?

Do you have forms to be filed sitting on someone’s desk without any security or privacy around that information?

Do you have phone numbers written on a white board that can be seen from outside your office? This happened on a morning TV cross to a bank financial data room.

You might have a list of supplier details stuck on a wall, or a piece of paper near the computer.

If you treat the personal information you collect about different groups of people differently, all those scenarios need to be covered.

10. Hiding the terms

If your business has privacy obligations, you should share how you meet those obligations with the people whose data you collect. So, if you have employees, you should have an employment policy around how you manage their personal information.

If you have customers, you should have a policy about how you manage their personal information and what you do with it.

The easiest way to share a privacy policy with customers and suppliers is through your website and the convention is to have a link to that policy in your website footer.

A link to a blank page is not helpful.

11. Wrong laws or no laws

A contract came across my desk the other day between two Queensland, Australia based small businesses. Goodness knows where they got it. The agreement was four years old and mentioned the laws of Ontario, Canada as the governing law. No, no, no, no. Not helpful at all!

If you copy and past a privacy policy from someone else there is a risk that you have inadvertently referred to laws that don’t even apply to your business. Like COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act which is law in the United States. Reference to that law in another country is likely to be inaccurate and potentially misleading, or create obligations in your business that never actually existed until you voluntarily assumed them.

If you’ve copied something from overseas, it is also possible that you’ve not complied with the laws that do apply to your business, putting your business at risk.

Although there are certainly some similarities in obligations in different countries, law is not universal and there are often inconsistencies within countries, particularly federated countries, as well as between countries.

Make sure you are undertaking to comply with the laws that apply to your business.

12. Hard to read – legalese or no whitespace

Lastly, don’t make your privacy policy so hard to understand that people don’t or won’t read it. If you write for the comprehension level of a child of around 12, then most people who read your privacy policy, whether customers, suppliers or staff, will understand it.

You shouldn’t need a post-graduate degree to make sense of what has been written. It doesn’t help your business or anyone else you deal with. Back in 2019 The New York Times did an article about readability and found that Facebook’s then privacy policy was more difficult to read than Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. Don’t be that business.

Simply headings like:

  • How we collect your personal information
  • What we do with your personal information
  • Where we store your personal information
  • Your rights regarding the personal information we have collected about you

All make it easier for someone reading your privacy policy to make sense of what it is you do to help protect them. Short sentences, simple words, easy to follow headings, pleading of white space, all aid understanding.

If you are not sure, get a child you know to read your privacy policy out loud and ask questions about anything they don’t understand. If they stumble over a sentence, or have loads of questions, go back to the drawing board.

How can Onyx Legal help you?

If you’d like help reviewing or updating your privacy policy, or perhaps having one tailored to fit your business and your business processes, sent an email to advice@onyx.legal with a link to your policy (if you have one) and let us know what you’d like to achieve.