609-664-7955 gcaruso@artofbv.com

Employees are all over the news for demanding flexibility and better employment terms. For many businesses, employees are both the largest cost and the source of most of the intangible business value. Here is a primer on how employees and your business’s intangible value are related. 

What is intangible value? 

First, let’s start with the basics. Intangible value is all of the value of your business that is not represented by identifiable tangible assets. A business’s intangible assets are things such as money, furniture, computers, equipment, or real estate. Namely, anything we cannot see or touch. 

What really creates intangible value? 

When we talk about value (tangible or intangible), we are talking about the future profitability of a company. In reality, this future profitability is always about people, or employees who maintain and grow a company or business. You may say, “But Greg, Microsoft can just sell more copies of their software and make profits with very few people.”  This is true in the short term. However, in a few years, no one would buy Microsoft products because they would already own it. 

Companies need to keep updating and improving what they offer. Then, they need to sell, manage, and lead the product lines or offerings. Otherwise, the overall company or the value of the company would quickly fall as customers move to newer or easier-to-use products. (Remember the decline of the Blackberry for the iPhone?). All companies need “forever and continuous improvement,” or they will get left behind. 

You employees create all of your intangible value over time. This is an especially important point for small business owners to remember. 

How can you increase your intangible business value through your employees? 

In today’s tight labor market, employees (and good employees) are especially important. But really, they are always important for your business’s value. There are simple ways to increase your business’s intangible value through your employees. 

  1. Hire the best. Train them, grow them, and keep them. This is hard work and if you are really successful you will lose the occasional well trained person but really, what is the alternative?
  2. Compensate them well. I say compensate rather than pay, because benefits like flexibility, titles, and non-monetary compensation (i.e. retirement plans or health insurance) are often just as important as salary. Just remember, your competitors are lurking for your stars and they will pay more – at least on the hire date.
  3. Create benefits that lock employees in. For instance, if your company gives large bonuses, pay the bonus over 3 years in thirds. If an employee chooses to leave, they are also leaving a big bonus behind. However, remember that if you need to lay them off, you will have to pay them the full bonus. Another option is to create a stay agreement, where the employee receives a bonus if they stay for 2 years under new ownership. Remember, ownership can change for voluntary or involuntary reasons.
  4. Remember the huge cost of new hires. Although you are hiring the best, they will still need time to adjust to your company. By the time they are found, trained, and really up to speed, they are even more valuable. Don’t be chintzy with your best people.
  5. Hire slow and fire fast. This might be the most important advice for any business owner. Back to point one–hire the best, even if it takes time. Then, don’t be afraid to let people go. How many times has a hire that did not feel like a fit at the end of the first week actually make it on the team? Yet I bet you put tons of time “trying” to get it to work. Let those people go after two weeks, not six months.  
  6. Contractually protect yourself. In most jurisdictions, properly prepared non-competes or non-solicits can be used to protect your firm from the loss of clients that might leave with a key employee. In my mind, these employees should be able to work in the field but not leave with your clients. The specifics of these provisions vary by state, so make sure to ask your lawyer. 

Creating value for your company through employees means using both the carrot and the stick. Take your time to hire great employees. Then, keep them growing by compensating them well and keep them around by structuring benefits and contracts that keep them around and protect you. And don’t be afraid of letting employees go if they aren’t great, no matter how hard it is. Employees are the single most important part of a business’s intangible value, a value that you want to keep for yourself or for future partners in or owners of the business.  

Contact me to find out more about exit planning and business valuations.