Learning to let go
My eldest daughter is 17, studying for her ‘A’ levels and learning to drive. She is quietly confident, with strong opinions which she isn’t afraid to express to me and my wife! She will eventually leave home and become an independent young adult. While we’ll miss her when she does eventually leave home, we know that we have to learn to let her go. But knowing you have to do something doesn’t make it easy.
A similar challenge often arises with owner-managed businesses, particularly with founders. Knowing when you need to leave a business which you created, nurtured, defended, financed and grew, can be even more emotionally painful and psychologically difficult than letting your children go.
Knowing when you need to leave a business... can be even more emotionally painful and psychologically difficult than letting your children go.
I started my advice business – Bloomsbury Wealth – in 1998 and it was touch and go for the first five years. Despite the significant initial challenges and many mistakes I made, the business became successful. As well as delivering a great service for clients it also rewarded me very well.
Beyond the obvious financial rewards the business also gave me intangible rewards - professional status, personal meaning, recognition, a sense of purpose and an outlet for my entrepreneurial vision and ideas. The business almost became part of my identity and my public persona was often defined in terms of the business.
However, a few years ago, as the business matured, the team grew and we institutionalised how the firm operated, I started to feel less and less excited about being part of it. Looking back I can see that I blocked out these emotions and failed to acknowledge how I really felt. I think part of it was the sense of obligation that I felt to the firm’s clients, some of whom I had known for 25 years. This is often called having a custodian mind-set.
I blocked out these emotions and failed to acknowledge how I really felt
The fact that I had removed myself from most of the day-to-day client work, and had assembled a fantastic team, didn’t change the fact that I was the driving force and leader of the firm. Clients might not have had lots of contact with me but they liked seeing or hearing my comments in the media. They also knew that the firm had been built on my personal values and guiding principles.
Over time I started to re-envisage a different direction for my life which was not defined by my past, the expectation of other people or money. I have always been passionate about innovating, communicating, inspiring and creating.
I gradually realised that I could re-engineer my future by combining my passions with the skills and experience that I had acquired in my 25 year financial advice career, 17 of which were as a business owner/manager. This required me to change my business owner mind-set from custodian to cash-out, and accept that I could and should extract financial value from my stake to enable me to pursue my new life direction.
I had to change my business owner mind-set from custodian to cash-out
Negotiating the exit from my business was not easy and it took about nine months. But it is testament to the quality of what I and my team had created that I eventually sold my stake to the senior management. This minimised the impact on clients and staff, because the buyers knew the business well and their purchase demonstrated to clients and staff their belief in and commitment to the firm.
It’s been over six months since I formally left the business that I created. Getting used to my new life has taken some adjusting and getting used to new routines and habits.
My professional speaking activity continues to grow and I am thoroughly enjoying engaging with and delivering value to my audiences. I absolutely love giving a well prepared talk which entertains, engages and delivers tangible value.
I’ve invested in a few start-up businesses, provided advice to some large businesses and participated in various activities relating to young people and money. I also have a regular wealth column in the Financial Times as well as writing for a range of other financial media.
Despite what founders might think, they are not indispensable to their business.
I’m really pleased to see that my former business continues to thrive without me. Despite what founders might think, they are not indispensable to their business. Sometimes different skills are required to grow an established business from those necessary to get a new business off the ground.
I love the freedom, choice and variety which my new life now gives me. Every day is different and now I only do what I love and am good at.
Running a business can be exciting, rewarding, fun and enriching. But I know only too well that sometimes it can also be a tough, stressful, thankless and lonely existence.
So what about you? Are you living an outdated version of your life which is getting in the way of your happiness? Are you being honest with yourself about what a good life really looks like? Are you giving yourself excuses about why things can’t be better?
If the reasons you started your business are now the reasons you should leave it, then it's time to let it go. I learned to let my business go in order to change the direction of my life. Learning to let my daughter go, however, is likely to be a much harder task!
PS The picture is of me doing a half-crane yoga pose. It takes a while to get the technique right and you do need upper body strength, but eventually you learn to take your legs off the ground and balance them in mid-air.