‘I Sold My Company 3 Years Ago. NOW What??’

By JoAnne Norton

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written in response to a question submitted during a Vistage peer session.]

A Vistage member built a business and sold it three years ago. Now, he’s ready for something new.

But what?

Regardless of the circumstances of the sale, the answer to “Now what?” is crucial to the future success and happiness of the questioner. Of course, it makes a difference whether this is a young entrepreneur, if he or she is close to retirement age, or if this is the end of a multi-generational family business.

The first question to ask yourself after selling your company is: “What do I want to do next?” — but not before doing some thinking about the business you sold.

There is a reason that human beings celebrate beginnings and commemorate endings of key relationships. It is because we are significantly different for having had them. Ask anyone who has ever started a business or sold one, anyone who has ever led a business and then relinquished control. We change the business, and the business changes us. It is important to honor that fact by reflecting on what we’ve learned and how we’ve changed before moving on, before we contemplate answering, “what do I want to do next?”

Once a CEO, Always a CEO?

Some people fear that, once they’ve been a CEO or founder, they must always be in charge. Of course, there is no hard and fast rule that says, “Once a CEO, always a CEO.”

However, we know that entrepreneurs are likely to have certain personality types, one of the traits being that they don’t like to follow other people’s rules. Some former CEOs go on to be successful teachers sharing their talents with next-generation leaders; still others find a way to work with others as exemplary followers. Again, it depends on where you are in your life cycle and what you learned in your own company about yourself as to whether or not you could or would work for someone else.

So How Do You Figure Out What Kind of New Business to Go Into?

Alexander Graham Bell said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” Spend some time reflecting about what it was you enjoyed doing as a child and see if there is a way to use that in the business world today.

Fortunately, we can have more than one passion in this lifetime. What if Thomas Edison had stopped his passion for inventing after he had invented the tinfoil phonograph? What if Alexander Graham Bell had stopped after inventing a wheat husker? What if Steve Jobs had stopped inventing after the Apple I computer?

If you can find something at the intersection of what you love to do, what you are good at doing, what the world needs, and what people will pay you for, you’ll know you are in the right place. Steve Jobs said, “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Hidden Problems to Look Out For

When we pride ourselves on being logical, we might be more susceptible to ambushes from feelings and emotions. Be prepared to deal with the predictable letdown that comes from ending your business — even if it was a happy ending. Serial entrepreneurs are sometimes surprised by an unexplained sadness or a kind of emptiness when everything is going well in their next venture. They don’t connect this feeling with their failure to honor their last business, for failing to properly commemorate the end of it before beginning the next.

Some business owners love their businesses like their children, and successfully selling a business can be a lot like watching a child go off to college. It’s bittersweet to recognize that you’ve done a good job raising your child, so now she’s going off to school.

The most powerful antidote for this sadness is gratitude. Take time to think about what you’re most grateful for from the business, your employees, and your customers before moving on. If you were in a family business, be sure to share your gratitude with your entire family, and then you’ll be ready to begin your next adventure.

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote: “Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.”
Originally published: Nov 21, 2011

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