The Business of Buying and Selling Online Businesses

September 8, 2020

Meet The Speakers

Shakil Prasla

Shakil Prasla

Founder and Managing Partner of SZ Ventures

Listen to the podcast

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Shakil Prasla’s experience buying his first company through Mark Daoust’s brokerage
  • Shakil’s advice to investors who are deciding between holding companies or operating companies
  • The lessons Shakil has learned about what it takes to be a successful operator on Amazon
  • The biggest red flags Shakil sees in businesses looking to sell
  • How Shakil realized he was good at evaluating brands and finding winners to invest in
  • Shakil talks about his new training course on buying businesses online
  • The escrow company Shakil recently formed and how it works
  • Shakil reveals the up and coming trends in the industry

In this episode…

When Shakil Prasla first started buying online businesses, he made a number of mistakes—at times he asked the wrong questions, or failed to do due diligence, or kept the original seller as a partner for only a short period of time. However, while growing his investment firm exponentially over the past seven years, Shakil has successfully learned the tricks of the trade.

According to Shakil, one of the top lessons he has learned is to keep the seller involved in the business for at least 90 days. As he says, the knowledge that the seller acquires over the duration of running a business is invaluable, and it cannot all be shared within a short period of time. With this advice, and so much more, Shakil wants to help other investors successfully buy and operate online businesses.

In this episode of the Buy Box Experts podcast, host James Thomson interviews Shakil Prasla, the Founder and Managing Partner of SZ Ventures, about his experience buying and growing online businesses. Shakil explains how he started his investment firm, what he has learned over the years, and his advice to investors looking to successfully acquire a business on Amazon. Stay tuned.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode…

Buy Box Experts applies decades of e-commerce experience to successfully manage their clients’ marketplace accounts. The Buy Box account managers specialize in combining an understanding of their clients’ business fundamentals and their in-depth expertise in the Amazon Marketplace.

The team works with marketplace technicians using a system of processes, proprietary software, and extensive channel experience to ensure your Amazon presence captures the opportunity in the marketplace–not only producing greater revenue and profits but also reducing or eliminating your business’ workload.

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:09  

Welcome to the Buy Box Experts podcast we bring to light the unique opportunities brands face in today’s e-commerce world.

James Thomson  0:18  

I am James Thomson, one of the hosts of the Buy Box Experts podcast. I’m a partner with Buy Box Experts and the former business head of the selling on Amazon team at Amazon, as well as the first account manager for the Fulfillment by Amazon program. I’m co-author of the book Controlling Your Brand in the Age of Amazon and the co-founder of Prosper Show, one of the largest continuing education conferences for Amazon sellers in North America. 

Today’s episode is brought to you by Buy Box Experts. Buy Box Experts takes ambitious brands and makes them unbeatable. When you hire Buy Box Experts you receive the strategy optimization and marketing performance to succeed on Amazon. Go to to learn more. Before I introduced today’s guest, I want to give a big shout out to the team at Disruptive Media for its work in off Amazon advertising, focusing on driving traffic, converting traffic and enterprise analytics. Disruptive helps its clients increase their bottom line month after month. Go to to learn more. 

Today, I’m pleased to introduce Shakil Prasla. For seven years Shakil has been the Founder and Managing Partner of SZ Ventures, an investment firm specializing in acquiring, managing and growing e-commerce companies. Shakil has reviewed more than his fair share of pitches born on Amazon private label brands looking to exit. Shakil, welcome and thank you for joining us today on the Buy Box Experts podcast.

Shakil Prasla  1:45  

James, thanks for having me.

James Thomson  1:47  

Shakil, soft questions to start us off. Many years ago we were introduced by Mark Daoust of Quiet Light Brokerage. Tell me how you know Mark

Shakil Prasla  1:57  

Yeah, Mark, Mark’s a great guy. He’s the one That quiet light brokerage is the company that got me started in buying businesses. This was in 2013 when I bought my first business and it was through quiet light brokerage. And fast forward today, I think I’ve bought about five businesses from them. So Mark is definitely my favorite broker and favorite brokerage company out there.

James Thomson  2:25  

Tell me about that experience buying your first company, you must have thought at some point. Are you crazy? Is this gonna work? And what were all those emotions going through you and when you made that first purchase?

Shakil Prasla  2:36  

Yeah, I made that first purchase because I failed at my e-commerce business. I was trying to start up, right it took me a year to just make it barely profitable. But to get to that year of existence, I learned so much from manufacturing’s infringement issues. To blackhat SEO strategies, just that whole process, and it was a pain for me to just do that process. And so I figured, you know, what else can I do? So I went on Google, and I started Googling, you know, what should I do next? Should I become a consultant, and I came across the quiet lights add on to buying a business. So I subscribed to them and waited a couple months and came across some business that I really liked. And they were just selling on their website, not a thing on Amazon, no paid ads. And so I just took the plunge. And it was a small acquisition, a mid five figure acquisition, and I bought the business, listed those products on Amazon, turned on some Google ads, and I made my money back in three months. Wow. And so yeah, I knew right there that I was onto something.

James Thomson  3:53  

And it turns out, there’s millions of these brands out there if you can go and find them. So let me ask you this: A lot of attention to the type of business you’re in today a lot of new attention started to surface. In the past three years has made big splashes in growing up to be a big roll up firm with valuation nearly a billion dollars. Lots of enthusiasm recently by family offices, VC and private equity firms looking to recreate their own version of What do you make of, his business model and all of this enthusiasm from various investors?

Shakil Prasla  4:32  

I think it’s great for the market. When I joined seven years ago, there was nothing like this. I had to pay out of pocket for everything’s right so if I’m buying something for $100,000 it was hundred thousand dollars up front fully cash. Yes. Now the great thing is VCs and PE firms are recognizing this online selling and honestly, it’s a very cheap aquas If you’re buying things from anywhere from three to four times net profit, that can scale very quickly, right? If you compare this to a brick and mortar store, you can only get customers coming through your door. You know, based off the intersection, Your Honor, or some maybe local Facebook ads with Amazon business or e-commerce, you could target anyone in the world. And so I think people are recognizing that and I think more money is being thrown there. And it’s great for acquisitions, banks are willing to finance now. So you know, it’s good that all these players have came into the market. Me personally, I don’t think it’s affected me I think it’s helped my my business valuation even more when I was buying a two x multiple, seven years ago, and now, like I said, it’s about four x multiple now. So, you know, my portfolio is definitely doubled because of all this that’s going on.

James Thomson  5:58  

Some of the conversations I’ve had with Some of these potential investors, some of them want to be operating companies, some of them want to be holding companies. When you look at what it’s taken for you to grow your business. What advice would you give to a prospective investor around looking at that holding versus operating model?

Shakil Prasla  6:17  

Initially, definitely be an active operator. If you are buying an Amazon business with no Amazon, prior experience, you’re going to struggle. Amazon is its own beast. You know, and I have experienced both on Amazon and off Amazon, right. So getting things ranked on Amazon. It’s not sticky, so you could fluctuate quite quickly versus off Amazon and so you need to be very active. Know your customer. Know your competitors, understand the product for improvements, understand those reviews. misunderstand what competitors are really doing to get, you know, you definitely up there. But yeah, I would definitely advise to be an active operator, learn the model, learn the business, learn Amazon. And then eventually you could hire, what I do is CEOs to run the companies and act like a board member.

James Thomson  7:22  

One of the interesting aspects of large money coming into this industry is that often they’re used to keeping the leadership teams in place. And yet, you know, you take your own example, the first company you bought, you had to immerse yourself completely in that business. For companies that are rolling up these businesses or buying them and then taking over and running those companies. There’s a lot of knowledge that has to be gained to be competent at understanding something like the Amazon channel. If you had to do it all over again, what would you do to accelerate Your learning and accelerate your depth of understanding of what it takes to be successful as an operator on Amazon.

Shakil Prasla  8:06  

Yeah, I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, not asking the right questions, not doing enough due diligence, keeping on the original seller as a partner and then breaking that off, you know, what I would definitely advise is, if you know you’re going to buy business during due diligence process, keep the seller on at least for 90 days, 60 to 90 days on a consulting agreement. Typically when you buy business, you get 30 days free 40 hours a week, keep them on for an extended period of time. What this seller has learned for the five years, whatever they’ve been running the business, it’s incredibly hard to transfer the knowledge in 30 days. A seller may be telling you that they’re working 20 hours a week. They may be but that’s because over the last five years they’ve gained all this knowledge, you know, automated for them. If I were to come in, it wouldn’t take me 20 hours a week, it would take me way longer. Yeah. And so you need to recognize that and keep the seller on for as long as possible. One thing I like to do is, you know, either a seller financing or some type of earnout. And it forces the seller to help you out. And I’ll give you an example, James, if, let’s say I’m buying a business for $100,000. And I see the revenues going up and down the last 12 months, I may want to run out and tell the seller Hey, look, I want you to stay on and help me grow this business. Okay, I’ll give you $50,000 up front, and I’ll give you the other $50,000 as long as the previous 12 months revenue matches the next 12 months revenue. And what that makes the seller do is okay, well, I want my rest of my earnout I will help you maintain and grow The business and so it keeps those sellers foot in the game as well. You know, and that’s a great strategy I like to use but utilize the seller’s knowledge, there’s a lot that could fall through the cracks. And I’ve seen people you know, utilize SBA loans and not be able to make payments, because they just weren’t able to transfer all the knowledge and didn’t know how to keep growing the business is

James Thomson  10:25  

one of the most challenging parts of taking a digitally native brand. And now transferring ownership, one of the biggest challenges I’ve seen is how do you take on and quickly develop an understanding of the supply chain that the brand has if they’re sourcing products out of one particular facility and one overseas plant, making sure that that relationship continues to be in place, making sure the terms are in place, making sure you learn what it takes to be good at doing overseas sourcing, that there’s a lot of stuff there that has nothing to do with being a An operator on Amazon, how did you get yourself up to speed to be comfortable with the whole sourcing component of managing these businesses?

Shakil Prasla  11:10  

Originally, I failed a lot and I think I made expensive mistakes. But, you know, to bypass all of that, and not make those expensive mistakes like I did a good way is, you know, keep the seller on, Shadow them as if you’re an intern or even have the supplier. You know, you could create a contract with the supplier and say, Hey, I’m going to be the new owner. Can we sign an exclusive contract that you’re only going to distribute my products to me, if that was already happening in the past, just get a contract going? If it’s overseas, you know, maybe it’s gonna be hard enforcing something like this, but at least you have something on paper, but really just keep the seller on and ask those questions. You know, whenever a business I bought recently, it was Amazon focused. The seller was airing everything in and, and he was making these small batch purchases and I understand like people have cash flow issues, whatever cash you make from Amazon, you wrote you’ll reinvest that. In fact, I think that the stat was that 80% of your Amazon value, you’re going to get at the exit, right? So 20% you get from your net income. And so I understand cash flows are low, even though net income may be high. And so the seller was just airing everything and making small purchases. And I just told the supplier look, hey, I’m the new buyer. And, you know, let’s keep building on this trust. Let’s keep these same terms going whatever was next 30 or paid deposits right now, but I’m going to do a secret Right, and I’m going to make larger purchases, can I get a discount? No. And I was able to and so that’s another great way to really add value to your business is if you’re buying something, you know, let’s say your gross margins are 50%. And you could get that gross margin to 55%. Because you’re saving on the fright and you’re making bold purchases, that’s 5% on a million dollars, that’s $50,000 on a four times multiple you just made 200 grand valuation increase on your business, you know,

James Thomson  13:30  

you look at a lot of prospective purchases, a lot of companies that are looking to sell their business, take me through, you know, what do you normally run into that is a big red flag. What are the biggest areas where brands wanting to sell don’t do their proper homework and prepare to sell.

Shakil Prasla  13:51  

The biggest thing is financials and you’re weighing things on financials. I’ve seen a lot of mistakes. In financials, where you run multiple businesses through the same financials, or you expense a lot of personal items, and then it gets hard to see what’s business and what’s personal. So I would say definitely keep financials clean, your business is still sellable, but that multiple starts decreasing, you know, the more risky it looks. The second thing I would say is businesses Usually, I see a lot of businesses sell on the decline, and people may just, you know, throw in the towel and just say, you know, I don’t. I don’t want to grow this, when you sell on a decline. Your business may be worth now 2.5 X or three X, but when you’re selling it at kind of the peak point, at least when it’s going up, you’re gonna get at least a 3.5 multiple I’m just throwing kind of averages out there. But though that multiple can vary based on how the business is doing, so if it has a decline, yes, you could sell it, but you’re not going to get that much refocus and grow that business again, you know, go, you know, go 200% in. And so that’s what I would tell sellers if you’ve cleaned financials and sell when it’s trending upwards.

James Thomson  15:25  

For brands that basically exist just to sell on Amazon, we often see a half life of many of these private label brands of maybe 18 months. What do you think about companies that sell exclusively on the Amazon channel that are selling basically commodity products that they have branded themselves but they’re basically commodity products? What do you think about a business like that?

Shakil Prasla  15:50  

Yeah, it’s, that’s that’s a good question. You know, James, I, me personally, I need a unique product to buy like some patent patent on it or something that protects it. And I’ll pay a premium for something like that to be protected. Anything, you know, Amazon is a very cutthroat rolled and you could get taken over easily. But if you have a defensible product that makes it easier, but on the other hand, there’s a market for, you know, widgets that you just throw your, you know, private label on, you know, and people will buy that piece, you know, there’s a lot of buyers coming into the marketplace that are leaving their corporate jobs, cashing out their 401 K, and using that as a downpayment to buy Amazon businesses. So there’s a lot of buyers out there and you’re even if you have a purse, you know, private label product with nothing defensible. You’re most likely going to find a buyer out there to buy your business. So yeah, I mean, I personally wouldn’t buy it, but other people may.

James Thomson  16:52  

What do you think about the process of putting multiple businesses together when you have a portfolio of businesses have you found that it’s critical to have businesses that are in similar categories or similar types of customer groups? Or do you thrive on having a range of different businesses and find that that’s rewarding for you.

Shakil Prasla  17:14  

If I were to redo this, again, I would focus on a niche specific category. But I started focusing on buying just cash flowing businesses. And so if you look at my portfolio of products and a lot of different things that, you know, vary from, you know, greeting cards, to socks, to metal promotional items, it’s just a bunch of different things. Um, but what I do is that the sort of the synergy that works within our company, is what I call my back office. And so my back office is a team of people that worked for the whole portfolio. Think of it as an agency for my portfolio. Yes, and that’s what we do. It’s economies of scale. You know, I think it’s cheaper to have, you know, a team working for the whole portfolio. And so that’s my synergy is, you know, I have a paid advertising team, content team, import sourcing team. And so that sort of makes up my back office that works for the whole portfolio.

James Thomson  18:21  

If you could invest in certain talent that you don’t currently have, what would be a luxury hire for you in terms of having additional skills to help drive the businesses?

Shakil Prasla  18:33  

Hmm. That’s a good question.

James Thomson  18:37  

Oh, let me put the question a little bit differently. If you decided to invest more in the businesses you currently have today, where would you be placing bets within the existing portfolio, whether that’s people, whether it’s processes, whether it’s expanding catalogs, what kinds of things would be opportunities for you?

Shakil Prasla  19:00  

Growth hackers, some type of growth hack hackers marketing, where I could pay more for someone who has even more experience running, you know, AMS Amazon ads. I’ve sort of done it the way where, you know, pay an average salary, and then train them internally to recognize how to optimize keywords. But if I had no more money, I would just go high end and hire someone that has this experience that can just start getting me going right away. Yep, yep.

James Thomson  19:36  

Okay. So Shakil, let me change gears here a little bit. I’d like to gauge from you. At what point did you understand in your investment days? At what point did you understand you were good at evaluating brands and finding the winners in the midst of all these companies who were looking at? What triggered that moment of realization that Yeah, I can do this. I’m actually Gonna be able to make a living out of this? Yeah. All right, I’m sorry. I’m assuming you’re at that point already.

Shakil Prasla  20:10  

Well, yeah, you know, 15 acquisitions in now, you know, it’s hard to, honestly, if one were to screw up it would mess the whole portfolio upside. I’ve been very, very specific and methodical in buying the companies. But when I bought my first one, I made my buddy but money back quickly, I knew I was onto something. But along the way, you know, just not never asking those right questions. And you know, after the fourth or fifth acquisition, just kind of seeing the patterns and just kind of building the rapport and the relationships with the sellers. I was able to tell that, you know, this is going to make a good living for me. You know, one of the questions I remember is that, so, you know, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made is that when you look at financials and you look at cash and accrual basis, one of the businesses I bought was on a cash basis. So you know, everything that you’re making is going to be on the bottom line. What the seller had done was, let’s say, I think it was, you know, he’s selling in 2015 to 2014, he pre bought a bunch of inventory, using that same strategy of just both buying. So he pre bought everything. And so for the last 12 months cash, it looks really high, because he had pre bought all this inventory before that, right and so his inventory purchases were really low. And so your cash was really high. And so I bought it at that, you know, a cash basis instead of an accrual basis. That was one of my bigger mistakes and I overpaid for that business. And it was really hard to sustain something like that. But once I recognized that And just kind of learned from my mistakes, I definitely knew I was onto something now.

James Thomson  22:06  

You Have Recently launched a training program to help people understand how to buy businesses online. Tell me more about how that came to be. Tell me more about what has come of that now that you’ve got that out on available in the market.

Shakil Prasla  22:22  

Yeah, so, you know, prior to all these, you know, family offices coming, there weren’t that many multiple buyers out there like me and so people would always message me, you know, I have questions and stuff and a lot of them or, you know, similar questions over and over again. So I decided to just take a course. And it’s an eight module course and teaches you everything about how to find businesses that are on market, but also off market where you could get really good deals, and how do you go off to those off market deals to formulate your letter of intent? To ask 20 good questions to due diligence and the four things you should look into due diligence. The contracts, contracts are very important. And then finally, the first 30 days, the first 60 days to the first 90 days of ownership, yes, you’ve got a business. But you could easily screw that up. If you’re not running the business. If it comes with employees, and you just step in and start making changes. I know you’re rocking the ship, things would go sideways. So it teaches you what to do. And then the last module is called rinse and repeat. How do you do this? Again?

James Thomson  23:40  

Let me just fixate on one aspect. You talked about these companies that don’t have an online presence. We didn’t talk about that earlier in the discussion. How do you go and find businesses that don’t exist online yet?

Shakil Prasla  23:55  

Yeah, so when I mentioned that it was off market deals that are not selling But if you were to look for brick and mortar stores that have no online presence, you know, let’s just say I’m in Austin. A good thing you could do in Austin is go to meetups, meet with financial advisors, meet with accountants. You know, these two people are gatekeepers to a lot of businesses. Yes, you could have a conversation with these folks saying, Look, I’m in the I want to buy business I want to buy a business that’s not even selling online. Do you know anyone? You know, CPA, me know or colleague, or whatever, and pay him a finder’s fee. Look, I’m looking to buy a $100,000 business. I’ll give you five grand, just an introduction. Yeah. And people make those interests for you. Right. So, you know, that’s a great way to start something locally, or go to, you know, and look for manufacturing businesses or Austin based businesses and see if they have a local presence and then take Get online. I mean, I think that’s a great way to really grow your profits is I come across sellers that are maybe old or don’t want to embrace technology. Yes. And you come in and you take it online, and you make your money back quickly. Yes, yes.

James Thomson  25:20  

So talk to me about the escrow company you recently formed. What Why? Why did you go down this path?

Shakil Prasla  25:26  

Yes. So typically, whenever you’re about to buy a business, you want to transfer your funds into you have to give it to the seller, but you want to make sure you get all your assets first. So you put your money in escrow. And the money stays in escrow and then the seller will transfer you all the assets, the websites, the inventory. You know, all the acids that you put in the acid purchase agreement. Once you verify that You received all the assets, escrow gets released. Typically how the escrow company is done is made. Very few brokerage companies do it. But it’s a lot of lawyers that do it. And is kind of the biggest company out there. And so it’s very fragmented. So I launched, which is specifically for online acquisitions. And I’ve learned the pain points of not knowing how long escrow is going to take, not being transparent, being expensive. And I just paid a flat fee. I have a lawyer on staff. Yeah. And it’s transparent the whole way you get an inside look, dashboard on the whole thing. And so it was just a pain point for me and there’s nothing better out there. So just like any entrepreneur, I am looking to fix the problem.

James Thomson  26:53  

Talk to me about favorite tools or companies that have helped your company to be where it’s at today. Are there outside partners who you’ve worked with, or tools that you’ve used within your company to accelerate your business?

Shakil Prasla  27:09  

You know it I, we started a new program last night and you forget to, it’s already out there. It’s called EOS entrepreneurial operating system where, you know, we hired a consultant to train us on this. And that’s been a game changer for us. You know, and it’s, it’s honestly as simple as just getting your partners and your team members on the same vision. You know, like, we just threw up a vision statement of, you know, what we’re trying to do and stuff, but it wasn’t really what we’re trying to do out there. And so, this consultant made us ask the hard questions. What do you see yourself doing in 10 years? What do you see yourself doing in three years? Do your employees and your CEOs resonate with something like this right, and so is getting everyone on Have a unified vision? And then what we’ve done is work backwards now, in 10 years, we want to be known as doing this. Okay, let’s break that up into three year commitments. Let’s break that up further into annual goals. And so from there, we create quarterly rocks and monthly actionable items. Yes. But this gave us a framework to make sure that we’re doing what we’re set out to do there. You know, they gave us a framework for KPIs to make sure that I’m sitting in the right seat, that I’m enjoying the tasks that I’m doing. You know, there’s this quadrant that to us where, you know, on the bottom, right, it’s, I don’t like to do, but yet I’m doing it. How do we just take those things out and see if we could delegate something like that. So it was just a mindset change, but it created a lot of positivity and when that when you create a lot of positivity, your momentum picks up, people start doing more work and are happier. And so it’s led to a lot of growth.

James Thomson  29:04  

Can you talk to me about any up and coming trends that we should be paying attention to, within this world of buying and selling Amazon businesses?

Shakil Prasla  29:14  

I do see a lot of mergers and acquisitions happening. But I see a lot of people a lot. I see a lot of manufacturing now, buying these Amazon businesses too. Right? I can see China eventually getting into this, you know, the, you know, a lot of people, a lot of people from China already selling on Amazon, but manufacturers that want to bypass all this made by their customers business out, you know, I also see Amazon agencies or Google agencies buying their customers out to you know, they’re making profitable income for them. But they’re only collecting, you know, let’s just say they charge 10% of ad spend. How do they keep that whole The whole piece of the pie. And so I do see, you know, those types of acquisitions happening where more buyers come in manufacturing, direct to consumer agencies buying and I think your multiple of online businesses, it’s going to keep going up. So honestly, like today is the best time to buy a business. James, one thing I didn’t mention is because of this whole COVID thing that’s happening, you know, SBA has launched what’s called an SBA debt relief, where for the first six months of your loan is going to be paid for by the US government division of SBA. So there’s never been something like this where your loan is going to be paid for for the first six months.

James Thomson  30:51  

I want to ask you one last question as we wrap up our discussion today. building a business and having the right people in place Finding the right kind of talent, the right kind of motivations. Everybody seems to be running towards Amazon in some way. Where are you finding success in terms of finding people that are trainable are already competent when it comes to understanding online channels?

Shakil Prasla  31:19  

I do a few different strategies. So you know, yes, we’ll look on indeed you will look on LinkedIn and monster will use other headhunter agencies, which will basically poach people, you know, if they’re already working on LinkedIn, or there may be working on competitor, or maybe through a network, and I’ll tell them look, I’m looking for someone that is a badass at Amazon ads, that optimizes or that’s a really good photographer, whatever it is, and they’ll go look for it and I pay him a finder’s fee. Yeah. But even Yes, you found someone, there’s this whole process of making sure they’re right fit for you. There’s different tests that you can do to make sure their personality matches with you. But, you know, one thing I’ve learned is people do make or break your company. I wouldn’t be here where I am today without the people in my company. We have 80 employees over 80 employees now and I value each and every one of them. And so you want to make sure your, your, your hires are good. Otherwise they could break your company, but trust the process of hiring someone and training them.

James Thomson  32:40  

Shakil, I want to thank you for joining us today on the Buy Box Experts podcast. For those of you interested in learning more about Shakil and his business, please visit

Shakil Prasla  32:51  

Thanks, James.

James Thomson  32:52  

Outro  33:24  

Thanks for listening to the Buy Box Experts podcast, be sure to click subscribe, check us out on the web, and we’ll see you next time.