4 Tips for a Happy Exit From the Company You Founded and Love
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Two years have passed since I announced the result of the Open Leadership Exercise (OLE), an open source exit strategy, to give away my PR agency, Global Tolerance. I wanted to be a stay-at-home dad and find a new owner for the company I had led for a decade.
With a 95 percent stake in the business and $16,000 cash in the bank on offer, as well as former clients including HH Dalai Lama, TED and Gandhi’s grandson, there was huge interest in the global search, with hundreds of applicants from 30 countries.
After a grueling two-month process, only four candidates remained. Two of the finalists were asked to collaborate and split the equity. They agreed. I thought I had nailed a happy exit strategy, devoid of the heartache and heartbreak that is so often seen with mergers and acquisitions -- and full of hope and innovation.
I was wrong. The company is closing down. After giving it a go, for various reasons, including unforeseen family issues, the partnership didn’t work out.
It’s been a real personal struggle, wrestling with emotions as I watched the company I founded when I was 24 and led for a decade, take a very different path to the one I set out. Of course, the point was to find a new owner and not to find a Mini Me, but the ideology of letting go was in stark contrast to the reality.
Leaving a company you love is never easy. If you’re one of the lucky ones who feels your work is more of an extension of your heart than ‘work,’ leaving is never going to fill you with unbridled joy.
Whatever your situation, here are four lessons I’ve learned about how to have a happy exit, and feel positive about moving on.
1. Be dispensable.
Someone once told me "the secret of success is to be dispensable." I only truly appreciate the wisdom of those words now. If we’re indispensable, we can’t get promoted. If we’re indispensable, we or our business’ health will ultimately suffer. What if we could be disposed of at any point and our businesses would still thrive? That’s success.
Our clients work with our companies because they want to work with us. When I gave away Global Tolerance I had underestimated this factor -- so much of the brand equity lay in me. As much as I believed that I didn’t matter compared to a vision of global peace and justice, the truth is, I did.
Happy exits can only happen when we cultivate the systems and culture for any cog in the corporate machine to be replaced at a moment’s notice. Being disposable doesn’t mean we aren’t special -- it means we’re smart.
2. Revel in failure.
The fact is that mergers and acquisitions fail three out of four times and other exit strategies are equally broken. Even if the company we are leaving isn’t ours, the odds are that it hasn’t worked out exactly as we planned. There’s still hope for a happy exit.
Accept failure. Then revel in it. We all fail far more often that we succeed. Like Olympic athletes, entrepreneurs are people who fail time and again until they reach their goals. They fail well. It is the stories of resilience and determination that inspire us the most, not projected perfection. As the Japanese proverb says, "Fall seven times, stand up eight."
What really matters is that we have a go in the first place. It takes guts to leave. How many battle-weary entrepreneurs (not to mention couples) stay put for too long, even when the alarm bells are ringing?
Celebrate the courage of those who fail. Celebrate the courage of those who leave the comfort of the harbor to voyage into uncharted territory. When we revel in failure, and the courage that underpins it, we have a shot at happiness regardless of the outcome.
3. Focus on the positives.
Traditional exit strategies are broken and innovation on how to exit well is desperately needed -- just ask Britain. I stand by the idea of giving away a company as a new way of exiting, and so many positives have flowed from the decision.
The aim of giving away the company was to preserve the values of the organization.
When Global Tolerance relaunched under new leadership at Google in London, they released the Values Revolution, a groundbreaking piece of research about the value of values for the millennial generation.
This work didn’t just preserve the values of Global Tolerance -- it enhanced them. At the same time, it’s given companies around the world a business case for integrating values at the heart of everything they do. This is part of the positive legacy of the company and it had nothing to do with me, which I’m immensely proud of.
Whatever the exit circumstances, focus on the reasons for choosing to leave in the first place, and the positive experiences with your company.
Just as there is no success without failure, there is no starting up without finishing up. The closure of my company -- of all companies -- is an inevitability, not a tragedy. It’s just a question of when and the attitude we bring to the ending.
Dr. Seuss said "don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened." The closure of Global Tolerance is an opportunity to celebrate all that has passed. To complain would somehow be to dishonor the awesomeness of the journey and all those who were a part of it. Working with the Dalai Lama; spreading positivity with the world’s largest poll; championing tolerance with Jedi Knights; managing PR for events with The Prince of Wales and Desmond Tutu -- all of this is worthy of a grateful smile, not a tear.
I am particularly grateful to Rosie and Noa, who took the reins of Global Tolerance as part of this new exit strategy. Rosie has now gone on to launch Kin & Co, and Noa has started Impact Squared and I wish them both every success. Without the Open Leadership Exercise, the courage and determination of these women to give it a go, my two little girls would not have a stay-at-home dad, and the world of business would not have the Values Revolution. That’s worth more than anything.
Why do we start up our companies? Why do we leave? For most of us, it’s for happiness, and to live a life of value. Value is a luminous spectrum, not a black and white graph of profit and loss. When we simply ask ourselves what we value most in the world, no matter what the outcome is, we can all have an enriching, happy exit.