Planning for a Life After Business

When I first started out, after selling my company, I had a podcast called Rebound Business. I started it because I started researching about what to do after an exit and all the information I found pointed to immediately starting a new business. I couldn’t find anything helpful to me. I found myself feeling empty and unsure of where to go or what to do next.

Well, from the number of guests I’ve had on my show, the Life After Business podcast, I can tell you: I am not the only one. In fact, all entrepreneurs go through a bit of a grieving process after exiting their business. Don’t believe me? Let’s work through it together.

How a Business Is Like a Child

So, first off, we’ve all called our companies our “baby” at some point or another. Right? Right. You can’t tell me something you’ve treasured so much that you include it as part of your progeny doesn’t have a huge emotional hold on you. So let’s deal with that first.

You love your company. Sometimes you hate your company, particularly when it’s not behaving the way you want it to or doing the things you think it should. But you always care for it and wish it would do better — you’d do anything in your power to make sure it can grow safely and consistently and that it never lacks for anything.

All day every day you focus on growing your company. You massage it a little here, spruce it up a bit here with new duds, and sometimes you even help find it a partner so it can grow even faster. Heck, you even hand-pick the people who will be closest to it (your employees, partners, etc.) because you’re so protective of it!

Tell me again how you “jokingly” call your business your baby? Well, okay, you wouldn’t sell your kid. But make no mistake: selling your business is nearly as traumatic when you’ve poured your soul into and when it has been the way you define yourself as a person.

The problem is, all kids eventually leave the nest… even if sometimes it takes a little push from mom or dad. So what do you do when you become an empty-nester?

How an Exit is Like a Death

Here’s where we need to cut ties with thinking of our business as our baby. How do you put a price tag on it otherwise? And a price tag we must have. So now you’re stuck with this wonderful problem of letting strangers mull over your “baby” (see how much easier it would be if you could stop thinking of it that way?), poke and prod it to check for bad genes and overall just manhandle this beautiful thing you created, ogling it like a teenager at their first dance.

Not cool, bro, back away from my kid.

And fair enough. But you can’t keep this business with you your whole life so it’s a good idea to get comfortable with the fact that people will be “checking out” your baby and your baby’s not your baby anymore but has grown into a full-fledged adult and is ready to face the world on its own.

The problem is, you’re not ready. Even if you think you’re ready, you’re not. I have not talked to one single person who (on their first go-round) was truly ready to exit their company. Each person I interview always has a critique for what they could have done better during the process, but they also express surprise at the emotions they felt during the process.

I ran into so many issues after my dad and I sold our company. I went from having a decent name for myself, our company and in the industry to all of a sudden being irrelevant. I was lost. No one had prepared me for the grief I would feel at losing this life-defining enterprise. Suddenly I wasn’t getting hundreds of daily emails that made me feel needed and important — everyone was having their needs serviced elsewhere, and rightly so.

But like most business owners, my social circle was comprised of business associates. When you exit, you start to realize who was actually a friend and in your social community and who wasn’t. That’s hard because you spent years talking to these people on a daily basis, only to realize they were viewing you as a business acquaintance and not a real friend. You’re grieving the loss of these relations, these conversations. While you could pick up the phone and contact some of them, you know you don’t really have a reason to… you’re essentially dead to each other for all the good those years of relationship building have done for you.

And that sucks.

Then there’s the loss of the business, all by itself. It’s your passion, your reason for getting up in the morning and sometimes it’s even who you think you are. When you leave that, you’re left asking yourself “What am I now?” and “What am I supposed to do now?” It’s important to have outside interests and social circles to support you during this time. If you haven’t cultivated any extra-work relationships, now’s the time to evaluate this and give yourself the time necessary to build solid and healthy relationships with people who can help you build a new life when you’re done with your business.

This time sucks. This adjustment period or mourning period or whatever you want to call it is the shits. And you have to let yourself go through it. So knowing that, the best you can do is prepare yourself for this emotional punch in the face beforehand so it perhaps becomes only a slap. Your family, friends and even yourself will be much better off if you take the time to recognize you will face a huge emotional rollercoaster when you leave your business. It can take months; for some, it takes years.

Moving On

And so we’re back to why I called my first podcast Rebound Business. Moving on is something we’re conditioned to do from a young age. Your heart got broken? Oh, look, there’s someone new and shiny to try out. Got in an accident? New car right away. Sold your business? Congratulations! Now you should start a new one.

It is so much like getting into rebound relationships it’s not even funny. You don’t always put the best foot forward and take time to re-evaluate what you want in life, what’s best for you, where your interests lie and how you truly want to spend your time. Instead, we’re trying to prove our worth by jumping right into something else before too much time has passed because we’re not comfortable sitting still or being stagnant — and, if we’re honest with ourselves, we also like to feel important and in control, so we want to be able to say we run a company again pretty quick after the sale.

But this just isn’t the right move. Trying to figure out something that I’m just as passionate about that’s not in my industry was tough as heck. It’s tough to reinvent yourself to be as passionate about something new as you were about your business. And it’s hard to know what the right move is going forward and when it’s the right time to start a new business. It took me a while, but that’s how I came to do the Life After Business podcast — I was passionate about helping others avoid the mistakes I made when selling my company.

While I can’t tell you step-by-step what you need to do to — as Laura Rich of the Exit Club podcast says — recover, redesign, reinvent and then reconnect, I can tell you how I started. I started by asking myself two questions, which I will post to you now to get you started on your emotional journey:

What problems do you want to solve when you wake up and who do you want to solve those with?

Answer these and you may save yourself a ton of heartache when you do sell your business. If you’ve already sold, I hope they help you find your passion again and give you some direction.