Tackling it is the task that Geoffrey Dalton, a chartered accountant specialising in advising on the purchase and sale of unquoted companies, has set himself in his book What is Your Business Worth? Pointing out that there are several academic texts available, he has sought to offer a simple guide that the entrepreneur can refer to before seeking the help of a specialist.
As he says, wanting to sell up is not the only reason for wishing to know the value of the business. The owner-manager may want to bring in fresh partners, buy out a director - or even set up a means of monitoring its value so as to have some idea of the standard of living it will provide in the future. But wanting to sell up to retire or responding to an unexpected offer are the most likely situations. And in these cases it is important to have some idea of the worth of the business.
As a start, he recommends that owner-managers ask themselves five key questions. First: after reasonable remuneration for time and effort, are you getting an adequate return, taking into account the risk? Second: is the business likely to provide enough capital or income on which to retire? Third: how dependent is the business on your personal efforts and can this be reduced? Fourth: are you or your family making unrealistic demands on the business in terms of remuneration or benefits? Fifth: should more money and/or time be invested to improve the value of the business?
He then moves on to examine various methods of assessing a company's worth, especially earnings-based and asset- based valuations.
While pointing out that buyers tend to go for companies that can show smooth earnings growth, Mr Dalton says that asset-based valuations are more difficult to generalise about, simply because 'there are assets and assets'. In other words, those that are easily convertible into cash and those that are not.
As Mr Dalton acknowledges that the owner-manager's aim 'must be to develop a business with good product potential and sell this company into a rising market', timing has much to do with the eventual outcome.
But careful planning, and trying to see things from the point of view of a buyer, can help owners of private companies to maximise the price they get for a businesses, even if the deal is some way off.
'What is Your Business Worth, A Guide to Valuing Your Company' by Geoffrey Dalton is published by Kogan Page at pounds 12.95.