Early in my corporate career I was in a team meeting where the manager asked us all to answer the following question: What motivates you? Sensing a trap, I kept quiet and let my unsuspecting co-workers take the bait. It was only a matter of seconds before somebody wearing his Gordon Gekko hat blurted out “money.” Thus began a lecture on how we are never motivated by money, but rather what we think the money will bring us — more leisure time, financial security, power…whatever floats your boat.
I’ve come to feel the same way when I hear small business owners say how much they “love” their business. In truth, I’m not sure anyone loves their business in the way that we love family members and those dear to us. What we really love are the things that our business does to satisfy certain parts of our lives and personalities.
The problem with loving your business is that you may be confusing love with something else entirely. And not knowing what you really love about owning your business can get in the way of selling it — or successfully completing an exit strategy of any kind.
Here are three things your business may provide that you really love:
If you’ve read any of the emerging research on human happiness, you may already know that one of the most dependable predictors of happiness is having a sense of control over one’s life. Not surprisingly, one of the primary reasons people leave the relative security of a job to start a business is because they want more control over their time, and their lives. (I know that’s the reason I left corporate America back in 2003.)
It’s easy to understand the relationship between control and happiness when you think of the opposite. There is almost nothing worse than the feeling that we’ve lost control over some portion of our lives; our health, our children, our finances. Studies show that having control even in small measures can lead to a longer, more productive life.
Control becomes a central issue when you decide to sell your business. There is a stark reality that owners often face for the first time: Selling means you will no longer have operational or financial control over the business you’ve built. Be honest with yourself before you begin the process of selling your business. It’s better to choose a alternative exit strategy than start down the path of selling, only to turn back because you simply cannot let go.
There are a number of emotional and psychological benefits to owning your own business. Chief among them is the opportunity to build meaningful relationships. You can’t talk to business owners for long before someone refers to employees as “family,” or counts customers and other business associates amongst their closest friends. Indeed, the entrepreneur’s inner circle is often made up almost exclusively of relationships that stemmed from owning the business.
Over time, our relationship with the business itself is often referred to in familial terms. We speak of it growing and maturing, as if we are parenting a child. There are difficult times in the middle — the teenage years — when you may not like your business, but you still love it. And of course, even when it’s all grown up, you may always see your business as your “baby.”
The language of business often reads like a love story, filled with sacrifice, drama and passion. But there comes a time when referring to your business in the vernacular of human relationships becomes problematic. To quote one author: “As business owners we know how to fall in love with our business, but we usually don’t know how and when to fall out of love with it.”
If control is the number one predictor of happiness, then loss of identity is one of the top reasons business owners delay, ignore or otherwise botch their own exit strategy. “The business is my life” tends to be a common refrain. There’s a reason people associate exit planning with the joyless task of writing a will. How can you contemplate an exit from your “life” and get excited about it?
When my husband and I sold our retail espresso business we were thrilled. As happy as we were, there was still a sense of loss. “I won’t be the coffee guy anymore,” I remember Chris saying a few days before closing. Our businesses tend to be a form of self-expression. We put our stamp on them. They also define us to the outside world: Laura is the sign lady, Orlo is the builder, and David the IT guy.
The official term for this “I am my business” phenomenon is role-identity fusion (RIF). Business owners experience RIF in varying degrees. If you plan to sell or exit your business, you’ll want to be honest with yourself about where you fall on the RIF spectrum. Low RIF owners have an easier time making the emotional transition, while high RIF owners may have to wait for a trigger event to force them to leave the business (not recommended; see Control, above).
There’s no doubt that it can be difficult to sell something you love. When you start to think about selling your business, notice how you describe it — to yourself and others. Don’t underestimate the power of your words; they can actually get in the way when it comes to a successful sale or exit from your business.
The next time you hear yourself saying that you love your business, peel back a layer or two and put a name to what it is about your business that brings you satisfaction. Maybe what you really love is the structure the business brings to your life, the built-in tribe you surround yourself with, or the sense of purpose it gives you.
Whatever it is, identify what you love most about your business, then make sure you figure out what will replace it in your post-sale life.
Are ready to talk about selling your business? We’re happy to start the conversation with you today.
Author: Barbara Taylor
Barbara is co-founder of Allan Taylor & Co. and a former New York Times blogger. She has been a small-business owner since 2003. Barbara lives with her husband, Chris, and their two sons in Northwest Arkansas.