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Episode 1: The Difference Between a Happy and an Unhappy Exit
by Collective 54
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The first step in selling a professional services firm is knowing why you are selling, before you sell. Learn from an owner who figured this out and executed a massively successful exit.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Various Speakers [00:00:01] You can avoid these landmines. It's a buy versus build conversation. What's the root cause of that mistake? Very moved by your story. Dive all-in on the next chapter, life.

Sean Magennis [00:00:15] Welcome to the boutique with Capital 54, a podcast for owners of professional services firms. My goal with this show is to help you grow scale and sell your firm at the right time for the right price and on the right terms. I'm Sean Magennis, CEO of Capital 54, and your host. On this episode, I will make the case that step number one in selling a professional services firm is knowing why you are selling before you sell. I'll try to prove this by interviewing Greg Alexander, Capital 54's chief investment officer. We can learn a lot from why Greg sold his firm. The reason to sell your boutique is very personal, and it should be. You poured your life into building the firm. Leaving it, handing it to someone else takes much thought. Some owners sell for the money. Others say they are bored. Some are exhausted and some say that the work became a job. It was not fun anymore. Some are afraid that tomorrow might not be as profitable as today. At times, partners start fighting and one needs to be bought out. Maybe it's time to retire. Or maybe you're getting divorced and your assets are being divided. A health scare causes some to consider selling. The list is long. I've met owners who have had happy exits and I've met owners who have had unhappy exits. What's the difference? Those who had happy exits knew why they were selling and those who had unhappy exits did not. Greg, over to you, did you have a happy exit?

Greg Alexander [00:02:08] I did. I'm very fortunate to be one of those who did have a happy exit. You know, I've got wisdom to share with the audience now, because it's been a few years since I sold my firm.

Sean Magennis [00:02:22] Yes.

Greg Alexander [00:02:22] And I can look back on that and give some advice. And I agree with what you said, that key to a happy as it is, knowing why you're selling. So I knew exactly why I was selling. So let me let me share my story with you, as I think it might be a good example.

Greg Alexander [00:02:39] So I first became financially independent in my 20s. I got lucky and went to work for a hot tech firm before it took off. I performed well and therefore was rewarded with stock options. And then the stock shot up and so did my personal net worth. However, what I learned from that experience was is that, that success was not fulfilling to me, and fulfillment will be a key theme that will come out in my story and will directly tie back to why you're selling being a key to a happy exit. So the success I have with the high tech firm in my 20s wasn't fulfilling and the reason why that was, is that, although I was financially independent as a young man, I was very unsure if my success was due to luck or if it was due to my ability.

Sean Magennis [00:03:33] Yes.

Greg Alexander [00:03:34] And that that drove me crazy. That was the proverbial... What keeps you up at night? So I started my firm to answer a question, which was, how good am I? And it's very important. I understand, when you're selling your firm to think back to why you started in the first place. It gives you great context to make the decision to sell and not to sell and really when to sell. So my thinking back then when I was trying to answer the question, how good am I? Was that starting a firm from scratch was the purest way to find out. I started with no customers, no product, no employees. I put all my money into the firm and rolled the dice. If I blew it all, I was prepared to start over. I was young. I had a lot of years in front of me. If I was successful, I could look in the mirror and know what I was made of. And to me very personally, you know, living a life with not knowing when I was made of was just not worth living. And then time went on, as it does. And as I moved into my thirties and early for 40s, I matured. I developed a personal mission statement. So I had a purpose. I outlined a vision of my future that I wanted to pursue that got me to jump out of bed every day. I determined how I wanted to behave and this was done by developing the set of eight core values that I challenged myself to live by every day. Although not deeply religious, I became more spiritually aware. My political leanings and philosophical beliefs revealed themselves, and I became a skilled decision-maker and the result of that was that I made good decisions, which created new opportunities. And these new opportunities allowed me to think through what I was doing with my life, with my firm, in contrast to the new opportunities. In addition, I met many different types of people through my work at my boutique and this taught me which tribe I wanted to belong to.

Sean Magennis [00:05:54] Yes.

Greg Alexander [00:05:55] And I discovered how best to spend my time. I knew what made me special and probably more importantly, I knew what my limitations were.

Sean Magennis [00:06:06] So profound personal insights here, Greg.

Greg Alexander [00:06:09] Yeah, it was. And I think all of us go through that as we mature.

Sean Magennis [00:06:15] Yes, indeed.

Greg Alexander [00:06:17] And while this was happening to me, I was deliberate in doing it, but not so much in pursuit of selling my firm. I was just doing it as I was growing up. But it became incredibly valuable to me as I was faced with a decision.

Sean Magennis [00:06:31] Yes.

Greg Alexander [00:06:32] So this personal journey journey led me to goal setting ultimately and I settled on a single goal, which was self-actualization and many of the readers have probably heard that term, it's part of Maslow's hierarchy of needs and it can be most simply understood by saying it's the highest level of psychological development where the actualization of one's full personal potential is achieved and this occurs only after all the other needs have been fulfilled. And you can see why this concept of full personal potential was meaningful to me, because I started with my my firm, with the burning question, how good am I? And the firm was like an experiment or an explanation or exploration, I should say, to try to answer that. So this full, personable, tangible goal was really important to me. So with this goal kind of crystallize in my head and I should point out, this took many years. It didn't happen.

Sean Magennis [00:07:31] Didn't happen overnight.

Greg Alexander [00:07:34] Yeah. But with this goal, I kind of firmly planted in my head a bit. I began to evaluate my boutique against the goal. So, for example, was being the owner and CEO of this firm helping me self actualize. Ultimately, I reached the conclusion that the answer was no and that was really hard to come to grips with.

Sean Magennis [00:07:54] I can see that.

Greg Alexander [00:07:55] But it was true. The firm was providing things to me that were no longer important or were much less important than they once were. So, for example, all of my basic needs, you know, a house to live in, clothes to wear, food to eat, etc., you know, all those things were secured for a lifetime. You know, my family and I, we're we're stable for a lifetime. I had also done something that I think many professional service owners don't do, and that is I had established an identity outside of work. Many firm owners, their personal identity is completely wrapped up in their firm. So the idea of selling their firm really means selling themselves or losing their identity, which can be very frightening for many but I had I had a very clear identity outside of work and my need to belong to belong to a community, to belong to, you know, something bigger than myself was being fulfilled elsewhere that wasn't wrapped up in my firm.

Sean Magennis [00:09:01] Got it.

Greg Alexander [00:09:02] So, you know, I had I had answered the question at this point, you know, I started the firm to answer the question, how good am I? Because I was unfulfilled with my previous life and I had been tested. I was certain of what I was made made of. You know, the firm was very successful, more successful than I had ever dreamed. I had become very wealthy. I had received plenty of recognition. I was validated internally first and then externally. So if you think about it, I had reached the point of diminishing returns. There was really nothing left for me inside of the boutique. So right at that time, I got another injection of luck. I had a very good friend of mine, quasi mentor, who knew that I loved to read a kind of sense that I was at, you know, maybe a transition point in my life and handed me a book that had a big impact on me and that book was titled Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance and its author was Bob Buford and I highly recommend it to the readers listeners. The big idea of this book is how to live the second half of your life. Repeating the first half of your life was discouraged. First half success. According to the author, is no longer enough things like homes, cars, vacations, private schools, and so on eventually lose their appeal. You know I mean, how many steaks can eat?

Sean Magennis [00:10:37] Absolutely right, Greg. This is hard-hitting. These are the things to dive into.

Greg Alexander [00:10:43] So the second half is about significance, not about success. So making an impact on others, mentoring the next generation, contributing to society becomes the second half scorecard and this intrigued me because I had just turned forty-seven years old. My own mortality came into my purview. And what made this book really useful is that in the appendix there were all kinds of exercises and being the the diligent student than I am, I put myself through them and I drove my wife crazy because I forced her to do it as well. And then, you know.

Sean Magennis [00:11:28] Smart man alignment Greg.

Greg Alexander [00:11:31] And over many bottles of wine, we kind of compared our answers and these exercises were designed to serve as a personal definition of second half significance. So what came out of this was a new plan and it was very clear to me how I wanted to live my 50s in my 60s and 70s and then throughout the rest of my life and that path that I wanted to live was not the path that I was on and it became obvious to me that this second half plan was bold. I had been accused of dreaming big and it needed to be funded and the only way I could generate the funding, to fund the plan was to sell the boutique, to sell my firm.

Sean Magennis [00:12:26] Just incredible sharing and I'm very moved by, by your story and also the concept that Bob Buford has in his book Moving from Success to Significance, which is what you've done. That's been my experience of you and thank you for sharing that, Greg, you know, as president of YPO for seven years and as a very long term board member of EO for over 16 years, I've seen this journey play out many times, not quite like yours. You know, some sometimes it doesn't go as well as your exit, and sometimes it does, obviously.

Sean Magennis [00:13:04] We will be right back after a word from our sponsor. Now let's turn the spotlight on collective 54 members who are making an impact in the professional services field. Collective 54 is the only national peer advisory network for owners of professional services firms who are focused exclusively on growing, scaling and maximizing business valuation. Today, we have the pleasure of introducing you to Sam Bretzfield, who's founder and chief executive officer of bGlobal, one of Bangladesh's leading outsourcing companies providing cost-effective programming and interactive production services.

Sam Bretzfield [00:13:48] My name is Sam Bretzfield and I'm a technology-driven entrepreneur, investor, and advocate helping to build great companies such as EarthLink, Big Global, Direct Fresh, Six Beyond, and several others. I bring over twenty-five years of leadership experience working with global Fortune 500 enterprises as well as early-stage startups and have extensive international experience building high performing companies and project teams in emerging markets from concept to customer delivery. As the founder and CEO of bGlobal, we are passionate about offering exceptional and tailored fit programming and development services that are cost-effective and offset your operating costs using the latest technologies. These services form the backbone of the company and satisfied clients come back month after month to bGlobal, to benefit from our extensive experience, creativity, and innovation. bGlobal has operations in the United States, the Middle East, Europe, and South Asia. Please visit www.bglobal.com to learn more.

Sean Magennis [00:14:54] Please get to know Sam and other business owners who are leading innovation in the professional services industry by visiting Collective54.com. Learn more about how Collective 54 can help you accelerate your success.

Sean Magennis [00:15:16] In these podcasts, we're going to go through the value contribution to our audience and so in an effort to provide immediate take home value, I prepared 10 questions on a yes no checklist and I'm going to ask each of our listeners to really answer these questions for yourself. So if you answer yes to eight or more of these, you know why you are selling your business and why you'll have a happy exit.

Sean Magennis [00:15:47] Number one, do you have a clear vision of your future?

Greg Alexander [00:15:52] So let me put a little color on that. The word vision is often thrown around. In the context of this show and thinking about why you might want to sell your firm. What the vision means is what is your aspiration? You know, what do you want to be doing five, 10, 15 years from now? And your vision may be continuing to work in the firm, and if that's the case, don't sell.

Sean Magennis [00:16:17] Exactly.

Greg Alexander [00:16:18] But your vision may be, I don't know, travel around on my yacht in the Mediterranean from June through September. Well, if that's the case, you've got to sell your firm. So that's what the vision means is what's your aspiration?

Sean Magennis [00:16:29] Good distinction, Greg. Number two, does selling your boutique help get you to the vision that you've just created? Number three. Do you know why you do what you do? Greg, unpack this one.

Greg Alexander [00:16:46] Yeah, so I can tell you what a bad answer is. Right. Do you know why you do what you do if you say, cause I need to make money. That's a bad answer. There's a lot of ways to make money and I would imagine anybody who owns a professional services firm is a highly skilled person. They can make money a million different ways. Right. So the why you do what you do is your purpose, right? It's why do you exist? You know, what do you do? What drives you? What gets you out of bed? And when determining whether or not to sell your firm, which is what the show is about. If why you do what you do, is consistent with the reason for the firm's existence, then you shouldn't sell. If why you do what you do is inconsistent with the firm... In other words, you've grown or outgrown your firm, then maybe you should consider so. Yeah.

Sean Magennis [00:17:37] Excellent. Number four, would selling the firm bring you closer to that purpose?

Greg Alexander [00:17:44] Right. Which says you've got to define the purpose in the first place.

Sean Magennis [00:17:48] Question number five. Do you have a set of values that define how you want to behave?

Greg Alexander [00:17:54] Yes. I'll tell you a story there. So as firms mature, their culture morphs. So when I started my firm, we were a sales consultancy and as the founder of that firm, co-founder of that firm, the culture of the firm was very representative of a sales culture. You know, we were aggressive, we competed hard, etc. with very high expectations. Bringing in new business was highly rewarded. Well, you wake up 10 years later and here's what you realize. You started firm to go to work for yourself, then you wake up one day and you realize you're working for your employees. It changes. Mm-hmm. So, your values either have to change to reflect the new reality or your values remain the same and you realize that you're out of place that that you no longer fit with the firm, and when that happens, it's very important to hand the firm over to somebody who's appropriate for its next wave. It doesn't mean that that person's better or worse than you.

Sean Magennis [00:19:08] Got it.

Greg Alexander [00:19:08] It just means that they're the right person for that time, and you're no longer the right person for that time so it's time to move on and that happened to me. When I was the perfect person for the first 10 years of that firm, but for that firm to become who it needed to become and I'm glad to say it has it required a new style of leader. So that's what that question is meant to surface.

Sean Magennis [00:19:29] And and it required your self-introspection and loved the setup to this odd guest because, you know, in terms of the hierarchy of needs and your authentic focus on your purpose and vision allowed you to get to that point.

Greg Alexander [00:19:45] For sure, it wasn't easy. You know, there was a lot of pride swallowing, ego-bruising...

Sean Magennis [00:19:50] I'm sure.

Greg Alexander [00:19:51] That happened there. But, you know, I can say, looking back on it now, that it was definitely the right move.

Sean Magennis [00:19:56] Outstanding, question number six. Would the sale of your boutique, allow you to behave the way you want.

Greg Alexander [00:20:04] Yes. So for me, that was a case. I mean, what I've realized is I'm a habitual entrepreneur.

Sean Magennis [00:20:08] Yep.

Greg Alexander [00:20:09] So, you know, the founding of Capital 54 allows me to be around other entrepreneurs and be part of their journey and so it's allowing me to behave the way that I want to behave. Whereas being in a larger firm that's no longer a start up, we know [inaudidble].

Sean Magennis [00:20:26] Yeah, it restricted you.

Greg Alexander [00:20:30] Yep.

Sean Magennis [00:20:30] Number seven, do you know the type of community you want to be a part of? That's an entrepreneur.

Greg Alexander [00:20:33] Exactly.

Sean Magennis [00:20:35] Number eight. Would selling your firm allow you to spend time with these people?

Greg Alexander [00:20:40] Yeah, that's the other thing. You know, in order to have a successful firm, you can mail it in.

Sean Magennis [00:20:46] No question about that.

Greg Alexander [00:20:47] It's all-consuming. All right. So sometimes owners think they they can do both. You know, they can maybe pull back the reins and what they're doing today and start the new journey. The minute they do that, they're shooting themselves in the foot because the firm itself starts to deteriorate.

Sean Magennis [00:21:07] Yes. Good point number nine, will the proceeds of the sale fund something more than your material possessions? So what you're doing.

Greg Alexander [00:21:18] Yeah, for sure. And, you know, again, I learned that the highway, you know. You sell your firm, you get a pile of money and you start buying things, and then you realize that the wow factor wears off in about three hours.

Sean Magennis [00:21:32] I love that Greg. And then finally, number 10. Are you personally prepared for the next chapter of your life?

Greg Alexander [00:21:40] Yeah. You know, this actually should be number one, and the reason why that is, is that I would recommend those that are listening that when you do this, close the chapter and move on. Keeping one foot in the first half and one foot in the second half is not good. Just make the break. Reinvent yourself. Start over. Dive all in on the next chapter of your life, so you got to know what that next chapter is and you got to spend the time to think about what that next chapter is before you go after it.

Sean Magennis [00:22:16] Outstanding. Greg, thank you for sharing, sir.

Greg Alexander [00:22:19] My pleasure.

Sean Magennis [00:22:19] Honestly with us. As we all know, every entrepreneur exits. We all die.

Greg Alexander [00:22:26] I love it.

Sean Magennis [00:22:26] I don't want to be depressing but we do.

Greg Alexander [00:22:28] I love this. Sometimes I speak to entreprenuers and I say, where would you like to exit? And they say, well, I'm not going to exit. I'm like, Oh, yeah.

Sean Magennis [00:22:35] Oh, yeah.

Greg Alexander [00:22:35] Show me how you're going to run your business from the grave.

Sean Magennis [00:22:38] And that's it. You cannot run your boutique from the grave. Most of us sell our firms before we die. There are good exits. Some owners are happy after they sell. And then there are bad exits. Some owners are unhappy after they sell. Good exits start with a heartfelt, well thought out reason to sell.

Sean Magennis [00:22:59] If you enjoyed the show and want to learn more, pick up a copy of Greg Alexander's book titled The Boutique How to Start, Scale, and Dare I say, successfully sell a professional services firm. I'm Sean Magennis. Thank you, Greg, and thank you to our listeners for being with us.