It’s a question every business owner gets asked. A question that carries with it a certain amount of inevitability. A question that’s always made me feel sad and a little naive. What’s my exit strategy?
When I started nGen Works I never dreamed of a big payday. Not that I don’t want to be rich, I just don’t want to sell at the expense of others. And I don’t want so much hard work and love to disappear in exchange for a pile of cash.
Ten years of my life went into building something I love. It started with friends who eventually moved on. But new friends arrived. At times it nearly wrecked my marriage. But now it takes care of my family. Months on end I barely slept. But today I can sit back and take the time I need to figure out what’s next.
Things are better than they’ve ever been. But after 25 years of client service I am burned out. I don’t want to be chained to a role I can’t stand anymore as my price for staying. So to hell with having an exit strategy. I have an irrelevance strategy and it’s in full swing.
In January of 2011 I set a secret goal of doing nothing. Every time there was an opportunity to give the team control I did. It was messy. It didn’t always work. But over several months things began to click. Finally the day came where I realized I had handed over all but the final responsibility. That was six weeks ago.
I invited one of my company’s most beloved employees out to dinner. We hadn’t gotten together in awhile and it was wonderful to see her light up as she walked over to the table. We caught up on real life and then the subject turned to work. I explained I wanted to talk about the future of the company. With a somber expression she asked if I was shutting it down. Laughing, I said “No. I was thinking about letting you run it for awhile.” As a look of worry turned to a one of cautious optimism the questions started flowing. After nearly an hour of laying the groundwork for how things would go, there was a final question.
Quietly she asked, “Will I get a raise?” With complete seriousness I answered, “That’s up to you.”
That final responsibility I handed over was the power of veto. Although we are a “flat” organization there has to be someone with the ability to facilitate disagreements and make tough decisions when the team isn’t able to. It’s not a fun job but it’s critical. Handing that over was the only way to assure they could do everything themselves. The only way for me to truly be irrelevant.
An amazing thing happened once the official announcement was made that I was transitioning out. Initiatives that had been stalled for weeks started to move. It turns out that even the presence of an “owner” in a flat organization can cause people to wait for direction. But the absence of an owner can lead to action.
I’ve never sent a kid to college, but it has to feel similar. You’re excited for them as they take control of their life. There is a certain amount of guilt at the newfound freedom. And secretly you hope they’ll call because they need you. But they don’t and you feel a little lost.
My role is now that of an advisor. I spend a few hours a week chatting with the team and secretly hoping that they need me. Last week over lunch a glimmer of hope emerged in a simple question. “Carl, I need to talk about something a little difficult. It’s about money.” Finally! They needed me! What would it be? Someone wants a raise? Insurance costs are going up? Oh, maybe a huge expense was submitted for a boat rental in Costa Rica?
“Carl, it looks like your personal Netflix is being billed to the company America Express.”
So there you have it. It’s not perfect and there are still things to figure out, but it’s working. After 10 years of running nGen, I have financial stability as I move forward towards the next thing. Their reward for putting their passion into the company is autonomy and the ability to evolve as they see fit without new ownership dictating direction.
Oh, and as of this writing she still hasn’t given herself a raise.