You Should Consider Buying a Small Business. But When?

For the past five years, we have taught a course at Harvard Business School that prepares students to search for, purchase, and run a small business. The course is always taught in the spring term of the second year of the two-year program, and indeed, as graduation looms, our students have to decide whether they will look for a company to buy and, if so, when to do it. Each year roughly a third of the 80 or so students decide to begin their search right after graduation; a third decide that the career path doesn’t make sense for them, at least in the near term; and a third tell us they plan to work for a few years, learn a bit more about business, fulfill some obligations, pay off some debts, but that surely, in two years or less, they will be searching for a business to buy.

Here is the rub: Only one or two of those students have, to our knowledge, actually left their jobs after a few years to start searching. Whatever the intentions and logic of that third group, the fact is that they very rarely begin a search in the five years after business school.

As we’ve considered the question of whether there is a “right” time to begin a search, we’ve focused on what accounts for this discrepancy

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