GE 173: How Website Brokers FE International Sold $60M Worth of Online Businesses Very Quickly (podcast) With Ismael Wrixen

Ismael Wrixen FEInternationalHey everyone, in this episode, I share the mic with Ismael Wrixen, CEO of FE International, an experienced website broker who offers highly personalized service and access to a large network of investors looking to buy and sell successful websites.

Listen as we discuss FE International’s content marketing strategy and why they invest in people rather than distribution, the power of building client trust, the unique value adds that give them a 95% success rate, and why you shouldn’t over-value churn rate. 

Download podcast transcript [PDF] here: How Website Brokers FE International Sold $60M Worth of Online Businesses Very Quickly TRANSCRIPT

Time Stamped Show Notes:

  • 01:01 – Eric introduces Ismael to the program
  • 01:20 – Ismael shares his story
    • 01:25 – CEO of FE International a website broker specializing in e-commerce, SaaS and content businesses
    • 01:30 – Since inception, done about $60M in business on 400 deals
    • 01:44 – Of the $60M, average commissions is about 14%–deal size is variable
    • 02:38 – Only get paid on successful sale
  • 03:20 – Separating FE International from the competition
    • 03:58 – Big team, talented, and spread across the world with REAL offices
    • 04:50 – 95% success rate
  • 05:55 – Key things to understanding in the marketplace
    • 06:10 – FE International operates less like a marketplace and more like an investment bank
    • 06:55 – By the time FE takes a client on, they’ve got 4 to 6 interested buyers
  • 07:28 – The phases of the listing
  • 07:55 – Very tight NDA policies
  • 09:00 – The value of FEInternational is hidden in the background
  • 09:24 – What you need to look for in a SaaS business before making an acquisition
    • 09:49 – People get caught up on churn
    • 10:17 – If the customers are still coming in—that should be all that matters with SME operations
    • 11:53 – The operational side of a business is where you can increase value rapidly
  • 13:23 – The percent of deals where it’s software developers looking to get out
    • 14:12 – It’s a time-management risk/reward equation
  • 15:00 – The multiples FEInternational is selling businesses for.
  • 15:52 – Take the last 3-4 months and extrapolate that when trying to evaluate a business
  • 18:08 – FE International’s content marketing team
    • 18:25 – It’s not about getting ahead of competitors
    • 18:39 – It’s about educating people about deal making
    • 19:01 – The more you help people make informed decisions, the more people will come to rely-on and trust you
  • 20:34 – Do the legwork for people and they will pay you
  • 20:57 – If the quality of the content is there, people will find it
    • 21:30 – Do content and marketing right the first time so you’re not constantly optimizing
    • 22:03 – Most of the marketing budget goes to content development rather than distribution
  • 22:52 – Ismael describes their return on content marketing
    • 23:14 – Re-targeting versus PPC
  • 23:48 – If your ticket value is high, you’ll always have a return
  • 25:05 – You can’t just spend money and expect returns—you need the underlying content and value
  • 25:37 – The conference/event marketing strategy for FE International
    • 26:15 – It’s about trust building
  • 27:35 – Scaling a service business is extremely difficult
    • 28:01 – You need to be disciplined, and you need to have systems
  • 29:25 – What’s one book you can recommend to EVERYONE?
    • 29:45 – Built to Sell
    • 30:05 – Always build a business with one eye on the door
  • 30:42 –

3 Key Points:

  1. In evaluating the quality of an SME, don’t overvalue churn rate.
  2. If the content is good, people will find it.
  3. How are you building trust with your clients? Content? Conferences? Word-of-mouth? You need a strategy there.

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Full Transcript of The Episode

Show transcript
Ismael: We're website brokers specializing in SaaS, e-commerce, and content businesses. We started in 2010, and since then we've sold around 60 million dollars worth of businesses.

Announcer: Do you want to impact the world and still turn a profit? Then you're in the right place. Welcome to Growth Everywhere. This is the show where you'll find real conversations with real entrepreneurs. They'll share everything from their biggest struggle to the exact strategies they use on a daily basis. If you're ready for a value-packed interview, listen on. Here's your host, Eric Siu.

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All right everybody, today we have Ismael Wrixen, who is the CEO of FE International, which allows investors and owners to buy and sell successful websites. Ismael, how's it going?

Ismael: Very good, thanks. Thanks for having me on.

Eric: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Ismael: I'm the CEO of FE International. We're website brokers specializing in SaaS, e-commerce, and content businesses. We started in 2010, and since then we've sold around 60 million dollars worth of businesses across 400 deals, or just over 400 deals now. We've been around the block, seen a lot of transactions, got a lot of experience, and a great team internally. Things are growing very, very nicely.

Eric: Awesome, great. Of the 60 million, just so people know how this works, how much revenues do you guys bring in as a business, what part of that 60 million?

Ismael: I think the blended average commission on that, I think last year, was about 13 or 14%. It very much ranges depending on the size of the deals we do. We typically start our commission on transactions is always contingency based, but we very much start at 15% for the small deals, and then that ratchets up all the way to the Double Lehman Scale on the multi-million dollar deals, very similar to what you'd expect to see in any other type of brokerage company. That's our blend average. Obviously deal by deal does change.

Eric: Would you say most of the revenues come from the commission or are there any other elements to a sale that the audience might now know about?

Ismael: No, we work purely on a contingency basis. We only get paid on the successful sale of a business. That's good for us. There are other ways you can do it, obviously, you could take the attorney model where you have billable hours and retainers, etc., but I feel that the contingency only side of it, or focus, really keeps us honest with our clients. It means we're totally aligned in terms of the goals and values of each transaction. Obviously we get paid a great payout the higher the value we can get for our sellers, which are our clients.

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Eric: Obviously there are some competitors in this space as well. How do you separate yourself from the other brokers out there?

Ismael: Yeah, it's a great question. There are obviously many people you could choose to work with if you were to look to exit your business, ranging from our competitors all the way to your local attorney, effectively. A lot of people do sell privately.

The reason we're slightly differentiated from the others is, firstly, we're one of the only brokerage firms specializing in this price range, which is anywhere up to 5 million dollars EBIT. We have three offices across three locations, on three continents now. We've got quite a big team, and they're all housed in offices. The learning we can demonstrate internally is a lot greater than, I think, at some of our competitors, where they might do a great job but they aren't co-located. In our opinion, as a client you don't necessarily get the same leverage in terms of internal knowledge-sharing, expertise, and experience across a team.

That's one of the real value adds we have, compared to others. Because we have offices and we're running this like a business, I feel like our core values are a lot stronger than say in some other firms, or if you were to work directly with an attorney. I think that when you start to combine those things, that all averages together to provide greater value for the client. Ultimately, our success rate is 95% on businesses we choose to take on. The results definitely speak for themselves.

Eric: Can you tell us what EBIT means?

Ismael: Yeah, it's actually just short for earnings before profit, interest, tax, etc. We usually refer to it as EBITDAR, more than anything else, but that's obviously the profits of the business. Anything up to 5 million in that case, annual, is where we tend to operate. That's usually done on our seller's discretionary earning basis, or SDE. It doesn't include any kind of owner draw or anything like that. Often these businesses are operated by the owner or small teams, so when you have to put that cost back into the business and then take that person out, it's very difficult sometimes to establish what the true baseline for that should be. In business sales of this size, it's very common to use seller's discretionary earning, when you're looking at EBIT and EBITDAR. I think most brokerages across the industry do that as well.

Eric: When you have a market place like this, what are some of the key things for people to understand, key things you learned in terms of growing one?

Ismael: I guess that's another one of the differentiating factors. We don't really operate in marketplace. We operate more the investment banking model than anything else, where we go out and cultivate a lot of the buyer relationships, so that when we bring a business to the market, we can get that sold very, very quickly. You usually have a pool of buyers ready to go [inaudible 00:06:21]. Whereas the marketplace model, which I guess is something that our competitors like to use more, in that scenario, you're almost blind when you're going out. In that model, it's just a critical mass you're going for, in

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terms of a buyer pool, and hoping that there's someone on that list.

We have a lot of repeat sellers. We have a lot of repeat buyers. A lot of the value we add is matching those people up to get the best deal for everybody. That's why we can get deals closed in under two to three months from start to finish, because by the time we're taking something on, we've probably already got five or six very strong candidates that would be putting offers in on the business. We don't really operate the market-based model so much. We just do a lot more buyer cultivation to get people [crosstalk 00:07:08] when an opportunity is there.

Eric: That makes sense. When I look at your site, what you're doing when you guys are showing a new listing, you guys aren't exactly revealing the details around it but just enough details to get people interested. The listings that you're showing right now, is it just to draw people in?

Ismael: Yeah. We have several phases for the listing process. By the time it gets up on the website, we might already have offers on the business. We kind of encourage people to get in touch if you're interested in becoming a buyer. It's definitely worth getting in touch with someone in our team, just to establish the criteria so that we can send the right things to you, in that case.

We're under strict confidentiality clauses with our clients, and we're out there to protect that. We wouldn't be putting up the URL, description of the business, that could lead anybody to figuring out what it is. Ultimately there is a lot of sensitivity when it comes to selling a business. If you have staff, employees, etc., you might not necessarily want them to know that you're selling it upfront. You don't want to create a panic internally. You also probably don't want your competitors to know it at the time anyway. There are a lot of reasons that it's kept private on the website.

There are a few bigger deals that have press releases put out after they sell, and that's where the buyer and seller decide that that's something they both want to do. It's beneficial for the business in a lot of cases, and it also helps the seller move on to their next thing. Then we will put details up on the website. The vast majority of the time, everything is done on an anonymous basis on our public facing website. It's very much, again, a cultivation of buyers and sellers in the background. That's where we add the value, so the majority of people that buy businesses don't browse the website and then decide there and then cold that they want to be buying something.

Eric: Yeah, it seems like a lot of the businesses that you sell are in the software as a services world. There's a lot of people that listen that are from that world. What do people need to look for in, let's say, evaluating a SaaS business that they might want to purchase?

Ismael: SaaS's are one of our bigger segments, so we do do a lot in that space. I guess in terms of what to look for in a SaaS business, obviously there are certain things that should go without saying. The business needs to be growing, needs to be longstanding, future-proofed to an element. You need to believe in the model, effectively.

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People get caught up, a lot of the time, on costs of client acquisition and churn. People often mistake the churn rate of a high level B2B enterprise companies like Salesforce and try and take churn number, which is in the naught-point-something percent, and then apply it to much smaller businesses. They end up very shocked when they see a business that has a five to eight percent multi-churn rate. A lot of people get put off. There's a lot of data out there that suggests that obviously these smaller companies don't have a sales team in place. They don't have a lot of other operational staff.

As long as the customers are still coming in and the churn rate isn't off the scales, then I think buyers should really be looking at these businesses in a slightly different way to maybe the high level enterprise LinkedIn SaaS acquisitions that you're seeing out there, and really find the opportunities in those places and look for things like the churn rate might be 8.5% in this case. If I bring somebody in to do this, or this, or if I improve the customer service, I can get that down to 5% and then potentially increase the revenues of the business, then potentially increase the multiples.

I think a lot of people are buying SaaS businesses to improve them operationally, rather than strategically or anything else. You often get SaaS sellers who are very good developers but not quite as good with a lot of the softer parts of running a business or the customer support, the business plan, the long-term strategic growth. We're getting a lot of people with more of a traditional background coming into these businesses and obviously replacing the development work inside of the business and then really focusing on the operational side of the business, to continue that growth.

If you are a buyer, I would very much be looking for businesses to have operational inefficiencies but a business that's underpinned by a very strong growth performance with a very good product that you believe is going to stand the test of time. In short, the operational side is where people should be looking because that's where you can increase a lot of value in a very short space of time.

Eric: Kind of like a private equity model, right?

Ismael: Yeah, very similar. Minus having to refinance the debt and strip out everything, but yeah, it's a very similar model. You want to go in and improve and add value in areas that the current ownership hasn't been able to do. Often you might be a very good coder, you might be a very, very good developer, but to an extent, whoever built it in the first place will always know a little bit more than you, just for the first six or twelve months of the acquisition, unless you have a huge team in place and this is your 10th, 12th acquisition.

These people often don't have that, the same skills, when it comes to the softer parts of the business, so that's where you should look to find those opportunities. We've seen people take businesses and add 10, 20, 30% revenue in the space of three to four months, just by improving things like customer service, trying to get the churn rate down, putting better SOPs, systems of process, in place. Which means that these businesses are nearly always built to scale, but they're not always scaling to their full potential because they are lacking in a few of these key areas. That's something that

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people should definitely be thinking about.

Eric: That's interesting. It seems like the developers can get these SaaS businesses to a certain point and then just kind of want to get rid of it afterwards. What percent of your SaaS businesses are like that, where it's just a developer that decides that they just want out?

Ismael: That's one of the common reasons that people look to sell a business at this level. They're obviously very entrepreneurial in nature and they like building businesses. People that are great at building businesses aren't necessarily great or don't necessarily have the desire to manage businesses long-term. A lot of people will build something for two, three, four years and then decide that they want to go off in a different direction, build a different product.

A lot of the times, they've probably already started building something else, and it's starting to take off. Obviously there's the time tradeoff, so a lot of the time they choose to focus on their new product, take the lessons that they've learned in the existing business, and apply it elsewhere. I think that's a very, very common reason for people looking to sell out of their businesses.

Yeah, I think like you intimated there, there's a certain element of people get it as far as they can and then they realize, to a certain extent, that they need to put in a lot of the operational pieces that they're not necessarily good at or sometimes just don't have an interest in. They would rather, again, sell the business and move onto something slightly more exciting, which is building another business in most cases.

Eric: If you could give us a quick rundown of the multiples people are selling for, in SaaS or lead-generation, whatever you have. Can you give us a quick rundown?

Ismael: Yeah, I'll just run through the main business models we deal with. In SaaS, it can be anywhere from 3 on the low side, 3 times, all the way through to 4+ on a business doing a million dollars EBIT or below. Above that level, you start to attract a lot more private equity firms with funds, and they're willing to pay more, obviously. That's when you can start getting into the 5 times levels plus, depending on whether it's just a strategic acquisition or something else.

When I talk about multiples, typically in a SaaS business, because there's obviously the compounding effect of new clients being added, assuming the churn rate is low, you typically look at the more recent performance when you apply that. You'll take the last three to six months and extrapolate that out and then apply the multiple to it. Actually, on a twelve month historic view, it's actually closer to 4 or 5 times, when you look at it on that basis. SaaS is definitely on the higher end of the multiple range, when you look across business models.

E-commerce is slightly lower, probably by a multiple across the board, but e-commerce is still very attractive because you have a lot of traditional buyers that have experience in retail and feel that they can apply that in an online capacity. There's obviously a huge

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demand on that side.

Then when you start to get into the more content side of things, affiliate display and direct advertising sites, lead generation, etc., the multiples do go down slightly. Or at least they have historically. There hasn't been too much activity in that space of late, mainly because a lot of the sites were wiped out by Google a few years ago. Only a few of them have started coming back. The ones that are coming back now are actually very, very strong, and they've stood the test of time. The jury is still out to where those multiples are going to normalize out over the next couple of years.

Historically, the pecking order has gone SaaS, then e-commerce, then content. It can change on a business by business basis, it just depends what the underlying performance is at the end of the day.

Eric: When you say content, are you referring more to a publisher or a lead-gen? What are you referring to?

Ismael: We actually refer to content in terms of your advertising businesses, being display, direct advertising, being one of the direct ad networks or actual just pure direct from individual contacts and networks. We also refer to it as lead generation and affiliate. When we talk about content, we're talking about anything that's driven by the underlying, fundamental content on the site to generate revenue, demand, leads to the business.

E-commerce, for example, often that isn't the case. SaaS, obviously, isn't the case. It's the underlying software that is the value add to people there. That's how we differentiate content from other business models.

Eric: Talking about content for a second, you guys are doing a great job with content marketing. You guys are sticking out there. I'm seeing your ads all the time. Tell us about your content marketing strategy and how it's done for you.

Ismael: We're experimenting constantly. We have a quite big marketing team here. That's something we've invested in heavily over the years. It's not been an investment for the sake of trying to get ahead of competitors. The industry is still small enough, it's growing, but it's still small enough where a lot of our leads come from word of mouth. We do it to try and educate people on deal making across those various business models. That can be a very good source of buyer, especially, and sometimes sellers.

It's just us trying to put the message out there in terms of what these businesses should look like, what a deal should look like, giving people that information they need to be able to make informed decisions. I feel like before we started aggressively publishing some of this content, there wasn't really much out there. You kind of had the relic information from 2006, 2007, when people were just relying on marketplaces like Flippa to do deals. It's commonly referred to as the Wild West of deal-making.

We just took a view and decided that if we wanted this industry to continue growing, we

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would have to take the lead on legitimizing it and a lot of the information out there. That's why we put a lot of effort into that. I think, at the moment, we've got three eBooks out. The plan is by the end of the year, we'll have one eBook per business model targeted at buyers and then another set targeted specifically at sellers. It should really give everybody the exact information you need to either go in and invest in a business or position your business for a sale, with the ultimate goal being that everybody should get the best results out of it.

We use many channels to deliver that message, be it podcasts like this, be it through Facebook advertising, general social media, or our blog and other channels that our team used. We do a lot of conferences as well. We do like to get out there and meet people, which is how we met in person. We do the legwork, and we're just fortunate to have taken the view to reinvest in the business. That means that we have a large staff here now, which means we can have three people at our conferences at any one time and still have a full marketing team here working on distributing through social media, and still have a full team of people just writing content all the time.

It's an investment we're making now, and I'm sure it's going to carry on paying dividends in the future.

Eric: For the sake of simplicity, you have a hundred dollars. What percent is going to be spent on developing a piece of content, and what percent is going to be spent on promoting it?

Ismael: We probably spend the majority on developing it because we feel that a lot of the time, if the quality of the content is there, people will actually find their way to it. We're not trying to put anything out to be a flash in the pan. A lot of the stuff we write is extremely long tail. The right people do end up seeing it, and it's fairly evergreen. If we write something today, I want it to be relevant today and for the next three years. I don't want to have to continuously change it because we did a rush job.

That might change over time. Now we've got a dedicated PPC and social media person in house. We've recently brought them on, so that might start to change as our internal marketing comes a little bit more sophisticated, but as I said before, the industry is still small enough for everybody to know who we are and for us to rank pretty well. Our SEO over the years has been very, very good. We kind of invest that money in people rather than in distribution. A lot of the distribution has been organic, so that's where the majority of our cost goes. It goes in the writing, and it goes in having people sat in our office distributing it in forums, or in other places and just generally getting the [inaudible 00:22:26] with ranking.

We very much take the view that everything we want to do, we want to keep it internal. We don't really like outsourcing things. That's where the majority of our spend actually ends up going.

Eric: Got it, okay. I think concept marketing is a topic that's really popular with this podcast. Let's just use the $100 example again. Let's say you've invested $100 in content

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marketing. Off the top of your head, what kind of return do you think you've gotten from content marketing?

Ismael: I guess it depends which channel we're using. If we're talking about paid content marketing here, we're experimenting a lot with Facebook at the moment. There's a lot of tweaking we're working with, so a lot of it is kind of sunk at this stage. It's more of a learning experience.

We find that re-targeting versus just straight up PPC seems to be better for us. We pretty much say that you need to hit people with 8 touch points before they actually come back and do something. Facebook and various social media accounts that we've been using, has proven to be effective in terms of just getting into people's heads and seeing us everywhere.

The return is a bit of a slow burn for us, but it serves me there. For us, the ticket value of getting a client in and then selling a business is so high that you're always going to have a return on it. It very much depends on what the actual return is, what the ticket item is that you're going to be getting at the end of it. It's very, very hard to say.

All I know is it's profitable for us at the moment, and I think as we become more sophisticated, we'll probably increase our spend, especially across social media platforms. I know there are some that people prefer over others. A lot of people look at Twitter for example and just completely discount it. That being said, a lot of people in SaaS for example are very active on Twitter. If you're going to conferences, that's a great way to communicate with people.

It really depends what you're trying to get out of it. If it's just general branding, then the ROI is very, very difficult to measure. For us, it's still very new. We've always kind of relied on organic. With organic, the best way has just been investing in people. That's a sunk cost over time we've just had to incur, but we have great people now because of it. I feel like our ROI from the paid side of advertising is higher because we do have that very strong organic base, and we do have the very high quality content.

I guess it's you have to have all of the elements there. You can't just spend a whole bunch on the paid advertising side of things, or the retargeting, and expect to just get great returns. You need the underlying content there, you need the branding there, and all the other pieces that go with it, so that when people click on your ad unit or they've seen enough retargeting to decide they want to come back to your site, there's actually some value for them there.

Eric: We met at a conference, and it sounds like conferences are a big part of your strategy. Walk us through what that strategy looks like to build relationships and ultimately have more buyers and also people selling their properties.

Ismael: Conferences are really good for us because obviously everything we do is online in terms of we sell online businesses. A lot of the times, there's a little bit of a disconnect between the real world, if you would, and people actually meeting face to face. If you

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were to buy any other traditional offline business, you would at least expect to go and see the business. You would at least expect to go and meet the owner, for example, before you were going to hand over a million plus dollars. I think conferences are then very useful for people to at least be able to meet or or for us to meet them and establish that trust basis, whether you're a buyer or a seller, that we are actually real people, we have a real office, we do real things, and we're here for the long term.

In terms of meeting people, that's very, very useful to help establish that trust from the outset. Then just for us as well, we run a portfolio of our own sites. We don't just sell the businesses, we actually have our own. We're always constantly learning. Going to the conferences is obviously very good because you get to listen to some of the very best people of whatever it is that they happen to be doing. There are a lot of takeaways we can take from that as well. A couple of reasons, one of them being our own portfolio, but the main reason to go to events is to meet people, to help legitimize the industry, what we're doing, to help spread the message and that education point.

Any time we get on stage is a great opportunity to explain to people why this is a very, very good space to be in. That's something you can't always get across through content marketing. Sometimes that face to face helps. We've definitely seen our business explode since we've started doing that more and more aggressively.

Eric: What would you say is one big struggle you faced while growing this business?

Ismael: Scaling a service business has been very difficult because every time you make an investment, it's an investment in people. I think that's probably the most difficult thing. When you have such high standards, you want everybody to adhere to those standards, but when the team starts to grow beyond five people effectively, that does become difficult. We had to spend, and we still do spend, a lot of time systemizing a lot of our processes, just to make sure that whoever you're dealing with, be it in our Boston office, our London office, or our Southeast Asia office, you have that same experience.

A lot of service businesses flatline. There reason we've been able to push through the first ceiling we've come across is because we've taken that investment, or taken our profits, and reinvested it into the people and processes. Yeah, that's by far one of the biggest challenges we've had, operationally, as a business.

Eric: Yeah, that totally makes sense. At the same time, you meet people like Ben. It seems like you've invested in some great people, too. I'm sure it's worth it in the long run.

Ismael: Yeah, it definitely is. I think that's why we enjoy doing it. You could have run our business two very different ways. Other people chose to do it the other way. You could run it from a remote working out of your house and still provide great service to people. We like having everybody in an office. It's a more pleasant environment. We feel we get better results because of that.

As an owner of the business, it's just more satisfying knowing you're building something for the long term. I feel like we do have some great people, and we'll just continue

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investing in them.

Eric: One last question for you. What's one must read book you'd recommend to everyone? Just one.

Ismael: There are a few. I'll try and get around it by saying I'm not going to recommend The Goal, which is a great, great book. Hopefully people will go and read that as well.

It might seem like a very simplistic book, but there's a book called Built to Sell. It's only two, three hundred pages long, and it's not particularly sophisticated. When I read that three or four years ago, I took a look back at my business, and I thought, "I really haven't built this in the scalable way I need to be building it." It's something that we say to people building businesses, looking to sell businesses, all the time. You should always be building it with one eye on the door, effectively, knowing that you're doing the right thing so that you're adding equity value as well as just adding additional profits to your business.

Built to Sell is quite an enjoyable read. It's written more as a story than anything else. Yeah, I would say that that's a very, very good light book if you want to read just to help them re-evaluate either their business or a business they're looking to acquire, just to get a fresh perspective on how ultimately scalable it is.

Eric: Love it. Okay, well, Ismael this has been great. What's the best way for our people to find you online?

Ismael: Just go to our website, which is Alternatively, on Twitter or Facebook. Twitter is @feintl, and Facebook is just A few ways. We have a very big online presence, as we discussed. There's a lot of good information out there, a lot of good eBooks. They're all free, so people should definitely be going, having a read, and getting in touch.

Eric: All right, awesome. Ismael, thanks so much for doing this.

Ismael: Appreciate it. Thanks so much.

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