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Most powerful secret every entrepreneur should know

June 14, 2019

By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader

Martha leads HK’s succession and exit planning services division and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin’s InBusiness digital magazine.

Have you ever heard of ACT-W or Chick Tech? ACT-W stands for Advancing the Careers of Technical Women, which, in concert with Chick Tech, gives women and girls an inclusive platform to pursue careers in all forms of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Last week, I spoke at the ACT-W conference in Chicago. The conference supports women throughout the cycle of their careers in technology — from startup to retirement.

It’s inspiring to see all the women and men — yes, there were a few brave male souls — pursuing interesting work in STEM. Many of the attendees were starting, or dreaming of starting, their own business.

It’s a rare startup bird that thinks about how to land just as they take off. When you start a business, your exit from it seems inconceivable. You must get the sale, do the work, collect the cash, and make a profit. It’s intoxicating. As one attendee posed, “Why would I want to think about giving that away?” Point taken. It’s hard to think about “giving it away.” Yet, it’s crucial to do so.

These women and men are creative, energetic, and bold. They are eager to apply their intelligence to make a better mousetrap. They won’t let themselves get bored — they achieve.

Being in STEM, the chances are that if they start one company, they’ll start a second. Like Inc. magazine’s America’s coolest young entrepreneurs, these folks know they’re going to push the envelope in their current gig while already dreaming about the next. They know this about themselves. They often plan their exit from the company right from the start. When the next opportunity comes along that brings them energy and meaning, they’re ready. They build the current company to thrive without them. They seize their opportunities. That’s a powerful mindset, and it’s their secret sauce.

Put yourself in their shoes. If you knew that you were going to “flip” the company some time in the future — be that three years, five years, or maybe longer — what would you do differently? What decisions would you change?

Be honest with yourself. The answer is probably “plenty,” for the simple reason that you’re building something that someone else will see value in. You’re driving forward confident that you will attract someone else to put their money where their mouth is and invest in your company and its lucky charm.

You’ll be aware, every day, that your systems, procedures, relationships, products, etc. must be transferable. No matter how awesome you are, you recognize it’s not about you. It’s about the company delivering its magic to your customers, employees, and communities for years to come — with or without you.

Craig, a former colleague and now serial entrepreneur, expressed this well when we met awhile back. He and his co-founders were building their technology around their customers and supplier network. They were assembling a team and staff able to thrive without its founders. Tribal knowledge was shared, institutionalized, and documented. Decisions were made with an eye on what would create, drive, and grow value for the next owner.

Do you challenge yourself to look at your company that way? Few business owners do. First, they don’t intend to “flip” the company. Second, they’re having fun running it.

However, wise ones do. They know that life happens, and they want to be as agile as possible.

For example:

  • There’s a 50-50 chance that you could be forced to “give it away” at a time you don’t want to. Life has a way of getting in the way. Death, disability, divorce, disagreement, or distress could knock on your door tomorrow and all of a sudden you’ll need to sell the business.
  • Lots of things bring meaning to your life. What happens when you want to go do something different? Perhaps you’re feeling burnt out by the business. Many owners are. It’s in the running as the number-one reason for selling a company these days, according to the International Business Broker Association’s Market Pulse report. Be sure to care for the whole you — your personal, financial, and business well-being. As my mom used to say, “Balance, Martha.” Don’t be a slave to your company. Nurture those other interests. They can open new paths for you.
  • It’s best to transition a business when you and it are strong, not burnt out. Think about it, would you want to hang out with someone who is a tired, fried, fuddy-duddy? Are you going to invest time and energy into that? Companies are more attractive to buyers when you and your team have gas in the tank to go enjoy the next big thing.

Successful entrepreneurs get it. They understand that the most important thing for their success, and that of their company, is to build it for the next guy — every single day.

So, how about it? What are you going to do starting today?

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