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Search Funds: A New Option for Entrepreneurs

The Baby Boomer retirement boom is coming. In 2017, 36% of small business owners said they planned to change ownership in the next five years. Though traditional acquirers are eager to purchase these businesses, there’s a third option available: search funds. As a new generation of talented entrepreneurs graduate from elite business schools, many new graduates want to be Main Street CEOs instead of heading to Wall Street. So they’re eager to acquire small businesses.

One increasingly popular way for them to accomplish this end is via search funds. A decade or two ago, this was a strategy virtually no one was trying, and almost no one had even heard of. Now, they’re all the rage in business schools, with some MBA programs even creating search fund-specific programs. This strategy shows no sign of declining in popularity, and stakeholders on all sides of the M&A equation need to be aware of the increasing influence of search funds.

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So could a search fund be an option for fueling entrepreneurship? Here’s what you need to know about this option.

Search Fund Models
Search funds come in three basic forms: self-funded, traditional, and fundless sponsors. Traditional funds allow searchers to raise capital from an investor group seeking a company with specific agreed-to assets. Investors have the right of first refusal on deals the searcher finds.

Self-funded searchers finance their search efforts. When they find a deal, they then seek outside capital. Terms are negotiated for each deal, and deals are often funded via SBA loans.

Fundless sponsors raise capital from either a single source or an investor group. Fundless sponsors tend to be more experienced. They are knowledgeable at deal structure, and people often choose to back them based on prior experience.

Search Fund Education
As search funds become more popular, more programs are being created at business schools. Many students view search funds as less risky forms of entrepreneurship. They allow students to buy from retired founders, and to purchase businesses that are already tested. Students view this as inherently less risky. A combination of increased awareness, a willingness to experiment, and economic forces—such as retiring Baby Boomers—have increased student interest in these funds, and spurred business schools’ willingness to educate about them.

Will the Search Fund Trend Continue?
Search funds may seem like the latest and greatest trend. Most analysts think this trend will continue. The timing is right, and more business schools are educating and raising awareness about search funds. But the forces that drive search funds of the future may be quite different from those that have driven the current trend.

More business school graduates see older peers doing search funds at a large volume. On average, the results are good. That drives interest. There’s plenty of money out there to support a growth of search funds. With private equity returns diminishing, entrepreneurs are looking for higher returns. They’re turning to search funds to deliver on the promise of higher returns.