Heading for the Exit

Last week I had Six Random Thoughts About Felix Baumgartner. This week I have one very simple thought: what does he do with the rest of his life?

I don’t mean that negatively. But when you’ve fallen from 24 miles up it’s fairly certain that those 5½ minutes are going to be the ‘high’ point of your life. How do you follow that? Spend your life delivering inspirational messages to audiences that dutifully give you a standing ovation but have not the slightest understanding of what you’ve really achieved?

Matthew Pinsent said much the same during the Olympics. “We won the gold, did all the interviews, shook about a million hands… And then at eight o’clock that night I’m back in my room. Sitting on the bed with my gold medal. And I’m thinking, ‘now what?’”

The race is slightly longer for entrepreneurs and owners of SMEs – but are they doomed to suffer the same reaction at the end of the day? “Is that it? What do I do now?”

I’ve been reading some research from Coutts & Co, quoted in EN, a magazine for entrepreneurs and business owners. The report was called The Long Goodbye, and dealt largely with the amount of time it took to sell a business, and preparing your exit strategy. But it also quoted some statistics on how entrepreneurs felt on the day of the eventual sale.

Only 36% said that they were happy: 32% simply felt relieved, but 26% reported a sense of sadness and a feeling of anti-climax. Only 1 entrepreneur in 4 actually retired, with the majority still being involved in some way in the business they’d sold. And 40% of the entrepreneurs went on to start a new business.

There seems to be a simple message in this. In the same way that footballers – even those successful in management – say that they wish they’d played on for a few more seasons, so entrepreneurs seem to relish being in the game. The journey seems to be as important as the destination. As one TAB member confided, “Between you and me, Ed, there’s nothing I like better than a full-on crisis.”

But however much you enjoy the journey, it’s going to end one day. As the old cliché goes, you’re going to walk out of your business or you’re going to be carried out. Every entrepreneur knows this, and 90% of them agree that planning your exit is ‘very important.’ But as you might guess, not much more than 50% actually do anything about it.

So what should we do to make sure that our exit from the business we’ve run is as planned and as profitable as possible? (And yes, I do include myself in this.) Here are three preliminary steps – and I’ll return to exit planning in much more depth in a future post.

1. Accept that it’s going to happen. At the moment it seems to be fashionable for entrepreneurs to claim that they’ll never retire. Really? I suspect that your health may have something to say about that, or – hopefully – your common sense. One day, the buzz just won’t be there any more, and your business will go on without you.

2. ‘Without you’ are the key words there. If your business can’t function without you, it simply doesn’t have a value. Entrepreneurs and business owners often like to be involved in the smallest details of their business – after all, they built it; no-one knows it like they do. Don’t. You have to learn to delegate, however hard it is.

3. My other initial suggestion – and one that I’ve seen work well – is be prepared to gradually move out of your business. You can’t be 100% involved on Friday afternoon and then wake up on Monday morning with nothing to do. Gradually cut down your hours: gradually pass your work over to other people.

Notice that I haven’t said, ‘make sure you’ve plenty of hobbies’ as though they’re some sort of compensation for running your business. If they are, you’ll be very, very lucky. But in the vast majority of cases they’re not. Running your own business – even in these tough times – is brilliant. I love it and almost without exception so do all the Board members. We’re privileged – so make sure you really do enjoy the journey.

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