Learning how to sell an ecommerce business can be an exciting and profitable endeavor. For many ecommerce business owners the profits are nice, but the goal was always a big payout with a sale at the end.
The successful sale of an ecommerce sale can be a life-changing event, but it’s not as easy as just slapping up a listing and waiting for the offers to roll in.
This article covers:
- The 7 best options for where to sell your ecommerce business
- How ecommerce valuation works and what current markets look like
- How to prepare your ecommerce business for sale
- The sale process and expected post sale follow-up and/or support
Let’s dive in!
Where To Sell Your Ecommerce Business?
In my opinion one of the biggest decisions you can make is deciding on where to sell your ecommerce business. There are several great options, but the options for ecommerce based sites are a little different than for an affiliate or display ad based site.
There is some overlap, but in my experience and after talking to others in the space these are the names that pop up most often as the best platforms for selling your ecommerce business for a fair amount.
Empire Flippers is the largest vetted marketplace in the world, and has a strong reputation as being one of the top places for buying and selling established profitable online businesses. They are the go-to for both buyers and sellers of established online businesses.
Generally to be listed here, your ecommerce business needs to be making at least $2,000/month in seller’s discretionary earnings. If it is, Empire Flippers is one of the first places I would look to sell an ecommerce business.
This is also a good place to check on current market multiples and the state of ecommerce mergers and acquisitions.
- Established marketplace means a large number of experienced buyers in one place
- Most listings of online businesses sell on the high side of average market multiples, meaning more profit for the seller
- High level of service that includes handling escrow and migration needs
- They take a 15% commission, which is definitely on the high side of things
- Average time to sale can be a bit longer as Empire Flippers works to get the right buyers to vet and buy your site
Flippa is the largest marketplace in the world for buying and selling online businesses. They boast the most traffic, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is an unvetted marketplace, which makes vetting crucial both on the buying and selling side.
Many investors see this as a better place to look for undervalued deals to buy rather than sell.
However, considering its sheer size Flippa still has to be on the short list of places to consider. I would mostly recommend using Flippa if your overall sale price is <$75,000 – $100,000 in value. Above that, it’s probably worth it to go with Empire Flippers or Quiet Light brokerage.
- Flippa is the largest online marketplace, meaning plenty of traffic for sites on sale
- Lower commissions than many other selling platforms
- No major support offered from the platform for escrow or migration
- Most buyers are looking for lower valuations to find a better (cheaper) deal
FE International is one of the old mainstays when it comes to buying or selling businesses online, and they are one of the best options for larger businesses. FE International focuses only on online websites that are valued at $100,000 or above.
FE International isn’t as popular as some other platforms, but their long history and focus on high value online properties makes any business listed here extremely likely to sell eventually.
- No upfront fees
- Very high success rate for selling businesses
- Business must be worth an absolute minimum of $100K according to their valuation
- Often has longer wait times than other platforms
Quiet Light Brokers
Quiet Light Brokers is a brokerage that gets a lot of positive marks from ecommerce business sellers because of their legendary support. Each seller gets a broker to support them through every step of the process, and the brokerage even handles all technical details of escrow and migration if requested.
Few brokers offer this much support, making them an excellent option for ecommerce business owners who are selling for the first time, or just don’t have a tech-savvy team to handle the details.
One aspect I love about Quiet Light is that each of the brokers has run their own business before. This makes them especially helpful when it comes to deciding whether to sell now or not. Many times, they will recommend you actually NOT sell now.
I’ve used Quiet Light before and I came away very impressed with the level of service and quality.
- Brokers provide support during sale, Quiet Light handles all technical details
- Large database of investors/buyers to contact
- Lower than average commission rate on sale
- Most sites must be worth >$250,000 to list
- They take a % of inventory as well as overall sale value
Digital Exits hasn’t been around as long as some of the others on this list, but if your ecommerce business makes enough they are an outstanding option for selling a large and profitable ecommerce business.
The support is excellent from start to finish, with the added boost that they actively look for good buyers who would want your business. That said, Digital Exits is very heavily focused on larger established ecommerce businesses so you have to make a decent amount to qualify to sell with them.
- Full support from start to finish for the sellers
- Actively work to locate the best buyer for your online business
- Site must make $200,000 to $5 million in profit per year to qualify
Acquire (formerly MicroAcquire)
Acquire, formerly known as MicroAcquire, works quite a bit differently than other platforms and is great for business owners who have experience with negotiating sales and have bought/sold online businesses before.
Acquire works by charging the buyers. They do this by finding excellent online businesses for sale and get exclusive rights (for a limited time) to offer them to their buying pool. They then work as a middleman to connect the buyer and seller, at which point those two parties work to negotiate a deal.
- No fees for the seller
- Brings eager buyers to the platform who are looking to buy
- More control over the sales process and negotiations
- Gives benefits of private sale while providing vetted buyers you might not otherwise find
- Don’t offer sales support
- Don’t offer technical support for business migration
- Requires the seller to be very actively involved in negotiating a good sale price
Going with a private sale is always a viable option, and there are undeniable pros and cons with going this direction versus using a brokerage. This isn’t recommended for first time sellers, especially if they don’t have reliable accounting or negotiating experience.
For experienced ecommerce business owners who have gone through the buying & selling process before, the private sale can be an appealing way to avoid brokerage fees and have full control of the sales process.
- No commission fees since you’re handling the sale yourself
- More control over the process, the migration, the escrow
- Good negotiators are likely to get a better price
- Must handle escrow and migration on your own
- Must handle price and sale term negotiations on your own
- Can be hard to determine is a buyer is legitimate or fishing for information
Should You Sell To Ecommerce Aggregators Like Thrasio?
Ecommerce aggregators are a relatively new phenomenon in the world of online business mergers and acquisitions. They came to prominence in 2019/2020 with Thrasio leading the way (one of the fastest companies to reach a billion dollar valuation.
Many aggregators work off of simple math. They will buy your ecommerce business at 2-4x earnings while their business is valued at 10x earnings. That means the second they buy your business, it’s worth more.
The biggest pro of selling to an ecommerce or Amazon FBA aggregator is that they have likely performed 50+ acquisitions. That means due diligence should go quickly and smoothly.
Many aggregators won’t offer 100% cash up front. The most common payment terms I’ve personally seen are 50-60% upfront with the rest being an earnout over multiple years or a stability payment. This makes you dependent on them being good operators of your business moving forward.
Ultimately the decision is up to you. Selling to an ecommerce aggregator will likely be easier than selling to an high net worth individual but be wary of the risks involved. You will most likely get a lower payout from an ecommerce aggregator than you will from an individual.
Before The Sale
Prepping your ecommerce business for sale is crucial to positioning yourself for the highest multiple, and therefore highest payout, possible. These are things that need to be taken care of well before the listing date.
Prepare Your Site/Shop For Sale
The ecommerce market is hot, with hundreds of millions in sales taking place on a yearly basis, possibly even much more.
While most studies are limited to a sample size of sales, there is some interesting data we can glean about the market for selling ecommerce businesses right now, such as:
- 3x average annual multiple (roughly 42x monthly)
- Significantly fewer deals in 2022/1Q 2023 than 2020/2021
- Factors outside of pure average profit like growth, platform used, and inventory can have a major impact on the multiple valuation
Overall the M&A market has significantly cooled down from the excess of 2020/2021. However, that means there is always the opportunity to sell a great brand or buy a great business.
The better prepared you are as an ecommerce business owner to sell, the better the final price is likely to be. There are several important steps to make the store look as good as possible.
Look At Your Platform
Is your ecommerce store on Shopify? While not being on Shopify isn’t disqualifying, it’s become standard enough that ecommerce stores using Shopify tend to be in much higher demand than those that aren’t, a sentiment confirmed by FE International in what they were seeing with buyers and listings.
If you’re already with Shopify, that’s a plus, if not you may want to take a look at moving or at least putting in SOPs and making sure both the frontend and backend are as clean and functional as possible.
The cleaner and more functional the platform, the better. If there is anything on the front end that causes a worse user experience (UX), that needs to be addressed before moving forward with any listing.
Organize Your Inventory
Buyers expect to have inventory on hand when the business is handed over so that way it can continue to function with a minimum of hiccups and earn from day one. It’s important to have active SOPs that make it easy for potential buyers to see what’s there, how it works, and where inventory currently stands.
At a minimum you should
- Hide or limit visibility for product pages of products that are out of stock
- Remove any old product pages for products you no longer provide
- Make sure product images are excellent and replace all of them that are not
- Develop an SOP for inventory management if you haven’t already
- Clean up, firesale, or get rid of excessive inventory
Don’t forget to optimize your product listings before listing, as well!
Remember when you sell your business – you will sell the inventory with your business. Often times the inventory is sold at landed cost to the buyer.
There are a few important bits of financial information that you’ll need to have prepared when getting ready to sell your ecommerce store.
At a minimum you need to prepare:
- The last 3 years’ worth of tax returns
- Income statement
- Cash flow statement
- Balance sheet for the business
Last Three Years Of Tax Returns
Tax returns provide crucial information to buyers and are considered very reliable data showing an overall net profit picture of the company. These help to assure the numbers being quoted are reliable, verified, and that there aren’t any red flags that could cause buyers to hesitate to go forward with the sale.
An income statement should be well organized, to the point, and clearly show numbers for total revenue, expenses, and net income. A good income statement breaks down each of these points and should make it easy for investors to get a good sense of where money is spent and where it is made with the business being acquired.
Cash Flow Statement
The amount of total income that is in the form of cash flow is important, and every buyer will almost certainly want a cash flow statement. This shows the money coming in and out of the company, how efficient (or not) it is, and gives a clearer view of the margins involved.
This is especially important for an ecommerce business that holds inventory. Many times, an ecommerce business can show increasing profits month over month and year over year but have no actual cash on hand – because they have to keep reinvesting in inventory.
Cash flow statements help you know your cash position and prepare ahead of time for big inventory orders.
The balance sheet is always going to be requested as it gives a full view of your ecommerce business’s assets and liabilities. This can help confirm other information provided while giving a solid overview look at how the business as a whole is performing.
Your balance sheet also shows your inventory value – to know whether you’re overstocked or understocked on key items and your cash position – both essential for a growing ecommerce business.
Streamline your Customer Acquisition
Any prospective buyer of an ecommerce business is going to want to know exactly how you’re acquiring customers currently and how much each customer is worth to you.
Evaluate each of your marketing channels and see where you can drive greater efficiency. Can you push more Facebook ad spend in order to increase overall revenue? Can you increase on-page SEO to drive more organic traffic to each page?
Look at your customer acquisition cost by channel and make sure you know your numbers. This will help you dramatically when you’re ready to sell.
Buyers are going to be excited to see diversified marketing channels including owned channels such as a large email list or SMS list. You should also know information such as repeat customer rate and lifetime value of each customer.
Consult With Your Accountant/Lawyer
This step is extremely important. Based on where your business is located, incorporated, and a wide array of other factors there can be many legal factors that come into play. Having an accountant and lawyer on hand who understand business laws and regulations in your area is important to protect your interests.
Important – plan this out at least 6 – 12 months ahead of the sale. That will give you the time needed to implement any changes – for example, moving to a state/country with no capital gains tax.
Your accountant might ask for specific language or payment terms to give you the best tax income. A lawyer might inform you of additional consumer protections that need to be taken into consideration in the contract.
Reach Out To Brokerages For Valuation
Getting multiple perspectives on valuation is very important to make sure you have an accurate range for what to expect from the sale of a business. This protects you from selling too low while also making sure it’s realistic to get the price you want.
If the valuations aren’t where you want them to be, maybe it’s time to go back to growing the business for 6-12 more months before coming back to sell.
During The Sale
If you took the advice of this article and did all the proper preparation for an ecommerce business sale, you should be set up well for the sales process. Depending on where and how you’re selling the ecommerce business, the steps here can vary greatly.
Negotiation times vary and can be days, a couple weeks, or even months. Ecommerce businesses being sold via private sales or on Acquire will have much more intensive sales processes than those on other brokerages with set price listings.
The larger the ecommerce building, the longer the negotiation process is going to take.
Any buyer willing to spend mid-six figures or seven figures for an ecommerce business will definitely want to do their own vetting and verification.
It’s not unreasonable to expect the following during negotiations:
- Phone or Zoom calls with potential buyers
- Further verification documentation to answer questions or concerns
- Negotiations on the deal structure
- Payment terms
- Negotiations over exact multiple to use for final sale price
- Post-sale support expected
Sometimes terms can be hammered out relatively quickly while at other times it will take a much deeper series of negotiations.
This is all a natural part of the process
One of the scarier aspects of a potential sale are the privacy concerns. Buyers need to vet their investment and that means sellers need to give sensitive information about their operation. What if the sale doesn’t go through?
Brokerages and Marketplaces are going to have controls in place to give information to interested serious buyers while keeping important information private from fully public listings. This can be harder with a private sale where you don’t have control over what the other party does with the information.
Note that on a brokerage, any prospective buyer is forced to sign a NDA before any confidential information about the business is revealed.
The best way to provide some protection is to white out the actual URL of your ecommerce business until you can verify the buyer and get to the point where a deal’s negotiations are getting really serious.
Migration Process (How Long Does It Take)
The migration process can vary in length depending on the exact nature of an ecommerce business and on what platform the business was sold. After an ecommerce business is sold, the money should be kept in escrow, and that escrow doesn’t release until the migration process is complete.
If you are working with a broker handling the migration process then you won’t have to do a lot. This will mostly be dealing with passwords or being guided step-by-step to give the brokerage’s tech team the access they need to handle this for you.
Shopify stores are easy to transfer and make the ownership transfer process simple, even offering a step-by-step guide on how to do so which makes the migration process fast and easy.
Generally speaking, the migration process can take anywhere from several hours to several days. Many factors go into this process which is why times can vary so much, as platform rules and ecommerce business platform setups all play a hand into how long a migration process will take.
After The Sale
While most of the work is done leading up to the sale and the transfer of ownership, there are still some actions and support that is expected after the sale. Don’t sleep on the importance of these steps.
Post Sale Support
Any post sale support should be covered in the purchase agreement. Generally speaking many buyers want the seller available for questions and assistance up through the transfer and to answer any basic questions in the first week or two after if the buyers are using some of your contacts or suppliers.
It’s imperative to live up to what’s agreed upon, but if any long-term support is requested then further compensation for that support should be discussed in the sale.
Taxes can be tricky after a sale. I always recommend consulting a professional accountant as sales of businesses can result in some pretty complex tax situations. If the sale qualifies as capital gains income, for example, an accountant can save you a lot of money on your taxes.
A seasoned accountant will be able to make sure you get the best possible outcome post sale. Don’t put this off for months – get it done early so you’re taken care of and can then forget about it and go on to your next project.
Potential Issues During The Whole Process
Each deal has its challenges, but there are some common ones to be ready to deal with. One is time. Vetting tends to take longer with ecommerce businesses than a profitable affiliate-based or ad-based blog or website. This means much longer wait times to complete an ecommerce business sale.
Buyers also often have their own vetting requirements. This could mean multiple conversations to answer questions, providing more requested information, or otherwise having to go back and forth with a verified buyer to assuage their concerns and move the deal forward.
Businesses based out of high regulation areas, especially those with major privacy laws, will need to work to make sure all important regulations and laws are followed in a deal, and that can cause delays.
Finally, migration issues can hold things up. If a hosting provider locks transfers for 30 days because of internal policies, there’s very little that can be done to undo that or get things moving again, in many cases. Migration and setup with a custom coded online shop is also much more complicated than using a conventional platform.
These can be common issues that come up during a deal, but all of them have solutions. The payout to a successful ecommerce business sale makes those problems worth dealing with.