I sold my business a few years ago and, since then, almost everyone I run into, who knows about the sale, asks me how I’m enjoying retirement. I’m gracious and smile, but I’m not enjoying retirement, because I’m not retired, at least not the way they (and all of us) have been trained to think about what it means to no longer be doing the work we were doing. I didn’t sell the business to play more golf, read the newspaper at the library, sit on a beach or go fishing.
Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things.
It’s just that those things never went into my thinking because they were never a part of my plan. I didn’t sell my business to retire. I sold it so that I could be more useful. To myself, to others and maybe, if I am super fortunate, to the world as well. “Options, not obligations” is how I’ve come to answer the question.
I know a lot of entrepreneurs and most of them are so absorbed by their work – or by the amount of work that requires their attention – that they have trouble turning it off or thinking about anything else. Corporate execs can be the same way. Their business defines who they are. It’s how they value themselves. It’s their identity. They can’t turn it off. And because of that, many entrepreneurs don’t make the time to think about their post-sale future. They picture an oasis of choices, but sometimes find that oasis to be a mirage.
That was the kind of entrepreneur I was, before I became the kind I am now.
I didn’t get smarter. Instead, I got organized. I knew I needed to light new fires before I burned out.
I’m Not Ready to Quit
I started my business when I was 27 and, not surprisingly, retirement wasn’t on my radar then as a thing, or a thought worthy of my attention. Too young for that. Too much to do. Ten years later, when I was 37, I was struggling with the demands of the business, the pressure I was putting on myself and the relationships that had inspired and fueled me along the way. Particularly the relationships with my Dad, with Butch and with Larry. It was a challenging time. I was thinking about quitting and that scared me because I had no “what’s next” figured out.
Some people are comfortable quitting something without a plan for something else. I admire those people. I’m just not one of them. Because I didn’t have a plan, I couldn’t quit, even if I wanted to. That’s called a trap and I’m also not comfortable being in those.
I didn’t quit then. I couldn’t, really. Instead, I started to get ready to quit, because it occurred to me that since I couldn’t predict the future, I had to be prepared for it when it knocked on my door.
I think it was Dan Sullivan that told me that the origin of retirement was a desire ‘to take people out of use.’ When everyone worked on farms, people worked until they died. They were in use for their whole lives. But when factory and skilled trade jobs grew in importance, it became important to kick out the older folks to make room for the younger ones. Since then, retirement has come to be positioned as a panacea. A time to rest on your laurels, on the time you’ve earned to do what you want, when you want, because you have nothing else to do, or to be.
When I heard Dan say, ‘take out of use,’ I pictured myself dead in a casket or as a car with a blown motor that’s stacked on top of other similarly useless cars in a field somewhere. Weeds growing up between them and infested with mice dens. Why would I want to be taken out of use? That sounded like a terrible idea to me. A waste.
I needed a personal purpose plan. A good one.
A 20 Year Organization Plan
Realizing that, without a personal purpose plan, I was stuck, I sat down and started thinking about, and writing down, all the things I wanted to do and accomplish over the next 20 years. It took a while. My list included my personal and professional goals. Only 1 or 2 of them had anything to do with my company – we had separate goals for that. When I finished my list, I started thinking about timing. I chose to break up the next 20 years of my life into 2 ten-year blocks. I then split my goal list into the ten-year period I thought was best suited for me to focus on and accomplish each of the goals. I knew that the timing of the split was like sand, not concrete. It could easily be changed based on how things developed for me. There were no consequences for not nailing it exactly right.
When I was done, I had created a framework of 55 challenging goals that would interest, excite and inspire me from that point forward. [You can read my Goals below].
With that in place, I felt like I’d developed and mapped out a life-long purpose. Whether I continued to own the company, or whether I sold it at some point down the road didn’t matter anymore. My future was no longer something that was just in my mind, and therefore easily malleable, or easy to forget, ignore or focus on.
It was now in print, in my face and in need of my full attention.
But I’d only finished half the job. With my personal and professional plan in place, I needed to prepare the business to be sold as well. Not because I wanted to sell, but because I knew it would likely need to be sold at some point. Potential partner buyouts, health issues, estate tax, hit by a bus – there were all kinds of reasons to get ready. Winding the business down at some point was never an option (or at least an intentional option). No business worth its salt should ever be taken out of use. I learned that from watching Butch’s best friend, Rick, do that with his business. It had such a fun name, Suds City Disposal, but Rick seemed miserable about it. I’m not sure that he felt like he had a future purpose. He was operating out of fear, scarcity or sadness, at least that’s how I saw it. And then he died. Young. Maybe there was more to it than I knew.
There were lots of things that went into getting the business ready for sale, but three things were most important in my mind:
- Me– the business couldn’t be about me. The more the business was about me and the more its continued success depended on me, the less it was worth in my opinion. It’s an ego boost to be “the man.” It’s just not worth much to someone else.
- Management– Piggybacking on #1, it made sense to me that businesses with great management and process were worth more than “seat of your pants” run businesses. I’d seen a lot (and bought a few) of these over the years, and they almost always had a ton of messes inside that a new owner would need to fix. That’s a pain in the ass for a new owner. And while we never got rid of all our messes, we got rid of a bunch. I figured a new buyer would put more value on a company with more order and less mess, with more clarity and less ambiguity.
- Finances– I got lucky here because, thanks to Karen and others, we had a well-oiled financial process for years before I started my planning. We just upped it a few notches. Those notches included investing in an ERP system [Enterprise Resource Planning – We Used Netsuite, by Oracle] that provided comprehensive and detailed financial, operational and other information on the business. I’ve seen and know many entrepreneurs who skip over this step to “save” money, not realizing (or not caring or understanding) about all the back-end mess (see Point 2) that not having a good ERP creates. ‘Stepping over dollars to pick up nickels’ is the phrase that comes to mind.
We also started having a real financial audit done each year on the company. “Those cost too much,” is what I hear a lot from others. And it’s true. They do. But, in my opinion, they create an appeal for the buyer, an air of professionalism and transparency. “Nothing to hide here, we have an audit!” Even if the audit numbers were always close to our internally generated numbers, I figured that the value the audit would bring to a potential buyer would make the investment in it a pittance, compared to its impact. When the right buyer came, I wanted them thinking ‘clean books, clean company’ and that’s exactly what happened.
The preparation I’d done got me organized for a lifetime. Because of my personal and company planning, we were both ready when the right knock came to our door. We deserved top dollar. They knew we’d prepared to be worth top dollar, and they were willing to pay it.
The business was ready to deliver long-term value to the new owner, and it was ready to do so without needing me. I was ready to retire [as I wrote that, I just shivered like you do when you hear nails scratching on a chalkboard], but only to be taken out of one use, my first business, the one that no longer needed me. There were many more uses for me to come. I’d already had a 7-year head start on repurposing myself toward those uses, toward the goals I’d established. No golf, no beach, no aimlessness and no retirement for me.
Too much to do and, now, more freedom to do it. The planning was worth it. I’d recommend it.
Options, not obligations. I’m not used up yet.
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