A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a thirty-something entrepreneur and CEO. He runs a medical device company with revenues of about $10M. As we got talking, I learned a little about his history. He had started the business six years prior and fought through incredible challenges and turmoil surrounding his team, the market, and the investors. Like many entrepreneurs, he is in significant debt and double mortgaged on his home because every spare penny goes to the business.
Like every good entrepreneur and CEO, he was incredibly determined and willing to fight it out to make things work. But I could also tell that he was feeling worn down, beaten up, and resentful from the constant grind. His plan was to raise some more capital, get the company to profitability, and sell it off to a strategic acquirer. Then he could “take some time off, rebuild my marriage, and figure out what I want to do next,” he said.
Even though I knew he didn’t have the answer yet, I asked him, “Imagine you do sell the company. What do you think you’ll do next?” “I know I should know this,” he replied, “but I haven’t got a clue. Something where I can start fresh and this time . . . do things the right way.” “OK,” I said, “I get that. But let me ask you another question. If you were able to run your current company, extract yourself from the things that cost you energy, and spend 80 percent of the time doing things that you love to do and are good at, would you still sell the business?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “On the one hand, I’d really enjoy doing that kind of strategic business development. I know that I’m at a point where I need to be working on the business rather than in it, but I just haven’t been able to make the leap. On the other hand, my wife hates how much I work. She’s terrified of how much equity we have tied up in the business. She wants less risk, not more. The current board is a pain in the ass to manage. It’s like herding cats and I’m sick of it. It just seems easier to start fresh, with a clean slate.”
I share this dialogue because most entrepreneurs (me included) have fallen into this trap at some stage. You fight so hard, work so long, take so much risk, and give so much to the business, that you end up ruing the day you started it. Trapped in a prison of your own making, the only exit you can envision is to sell the thing off and be free of it. You tell yourself that if you just fight it out long enough and find a buyer, not only will you have a big pay day, but you’ll be free of everything. Pesky clients, irritating staff members, that board member you’ve wanted to tell off, the grind, the travel, the risk, the fear, the headache and hassle. And then, if you’re creative and visionary, it seems so easy to spot new opportunities and launch a new business—something clean and fresh without all the baggage of the current one.
But here’s the thing: The dream of scaling and selling a burdensome business to start fresh is just that—a dream. It’s a folly, a myth, an opiate we use in hope of a brighter future. The reality is that if your business or career is a burden now, it’s going to be very hard to create enough new energy to make it scale if you haven’t lowered the entropy first. It’s just physics. When entropy is high in the system, integration will be low.
If you truly want to be successful and grow your business, then you need to follow the principles of energy management. Rather than focusing on fighting through the friction and burden of your company, you’ll want to focus on shifting the company so that it’s no longer a burden to you now. That is, you’ll need to shift your role in the company so that it becomes net-additive to you. Then use that new available energy to work on the business, rather than in the business, and allow it to scale.
A business is an asset, much like a car. If you had a car that wasn’t working well—if it was a liability costing you more than the value you got out of it—naturally you’d try to sell it. Paradoxically, the best time to sell a car or any other asset is when you don’t need to—in other words, when it’s working great and you’re getting a lot more back from it than you put into it. This is equally true for your business. If you’re continually giving more to it then you get in return, then of course you’re going to want to sell it. But if the business is an energy drain for you, it’s going to be seen as an energy drain for a potential buyer as well. Who wants to buy a cheap broken car?
Fortunately, unlike a car, your business has the potential for perpetual renewal, continually adapting to new market conditions and generating value and satisfaction for everyone involved. Ultimately, the act of freeing yourself from energy-draining relationships and activities in the business gives energy back to you. You can then use that new energy to create more energy-adding relationships and pursue those business activities that really light you up. If managed well, these relationships and activities will increase the enterprise value of your company and provide new energy and capabilities for it to scale.
How do you free up enough new energy to experience greater satisfaction and productivity across the board, along with greater business success? The art and science of Organizational Physics offers some powerful answers including how you build and manage your teams, choose the right strategy, avoid strategic pitfalls, and execute fast. But it starts even before that. It starts with your own recognition that if you want the business to scale, you can’t keep doing what you’ve always done. You need to commit to a new mindset and new behaviors that support a new reality.
The good news is that the new mindset and behaviors support what you’re naturally good at and energized by. That is, I’m not asking you to become someone you’re not or spend more time in activities that cost you energy. Quite the opposite! I’m asking you to shift into more of who you authentically are and to play from your natural strengths—or in other words, from your genius zone.
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