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Exit Engineering 101: Owner Readiness, The COVID Reflection

Exit engineering is about finding a “winning scenario” that allows you to balance work and life in ways you likely haven’t done for years, if not decades.

One significant observation I’ve made over the last six months with business and among family is that people are reevaluating where they are right now — and where they want to be in 2021 and beyond.

Life is busy, and most people do not plan more than a few months ahead. COVID, though, has slowed everyone down. Personal relationships are strained, finding ways to recharge has become more challenging, stress levels are higher, and the ongoing uncertainty is uncomfortable and anxiety-ridden. As “range-free” entrepreneurs, we don’t like being told what we can and cannot do with our businesses.

I have been hearing from more owners lately as they reflect on whether they want to continue the daily challenge of running their business, or walk away. It’s a soul-searching process, with no easy answers.

If you ask a business owner when they took their last two-week vacation, or if they would let go control of the company, or who at their company they trust to keep the business safe, the answers (more often than not) will be: can’t recall, no, and no one.

If you want to know the Achilles heel or kryptonite of a business owner, try broaching the subject of leaving their company. They all say they want to leave someday, with five years usually being the magical number, because it’s far enough off to safely consider. However, ask them what they want to do next in life, and they’ll come up short.

No matter how humble you are, success and pride of ownership massage your ego in ways you may not realize. Your name may be on the building. When you talk, people listen. Everyone respects your leadership.

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It’s a position of power that can be difficult to relinquish — not necessarily due to narcissism, but simply because it feels good to be the owner, the one (at least in your mind) responsible for creating opportunities and wealth for yourself and others. Some days you wish you didn’t have that responsibility, but you also can’t imagine living any other way.

Your business shields you from the monotony of everyday life, and possibly, from dealing with important relationships, personal finances, or your own health. If you exit, you’ve lost control over both the business and your life (or so you imagine). That is a scary thought for many.

But the truth is, work does not need you; you need work. It’s the reason you are successful. If you’re not ready to leave. it simply won’t work. And it is impossible to be ready if you don’t know what’s next for you.

The most common and, oftentimes, perplexing question owners must ask themselves is “If I’m not running the business, what will I do all day?” For example, a man well past retirement age recently called me to begin considering an exit from the multi-million-dollar company that he built and continues to put in 60-hour weeks at. He said he would be ready as soon as we could find a buyer.

“What do you need to consider this a successful exit?” we asked. “Money?”

“Nope,” he responded. “It’s not about the money. I just need something to do.”

Exiting Means Knowing What’s Next
A successful exit is one in which a business owner has a good sense of what life after work will bring. Owners need to be reassured a fulfilling existence is in store once they exit the business. The thought of doing nothing would be haunting if there weren’t plenty of ways to contribute in the next phase of your career.

Help others start a new business or become a professional service provider, trainer, or trusted business advisor. Find a way to monetize a hobby. Look for volunteer opportunities. Organizations and business are looking for people with your life experience, expertise and connections to serve on their boards or committees. 

If you don’t want to stop working entirely, find a part-time opportunity at another business. There are countless ways to remain active and productive without having to be in total control.

Exit engineering is about finding a “winning scenario” that allows you to balance work and life in ways you likely haven’t done for years, if not decades. That journey can begin only once you have answered the question, “What will I do next?”

John Ovrom
John Ovrom

John Ovrom is the founder and CEO of Exit Consulting Group.