Exit Strategies and How to Sell Your Business with Laura Gassner Otting


But because she only wanted to sell to a certain buyer, she had to be creative in how she priced the enterprise to get what she really wanted.


Laura: I ran the firm the entire 15 years, not for maximum profitability, I needed to make enough money, right? How do you pay your mortgage as table stakes for everybody and there's something between the need to make number, the how do you pay your bills, and the want to make number which is the do you drive a Hyundai or do you drive a Maserati? Do you stay in the Holiday Inn or the Four Seasons? There's a lot of space in between those two numbers, so I ran it for enough money, not maximum profitability, but for maximum legacy, for maximum flexibility, for maximum impact“ I wanted to change the world, I wanted to make it a better place but I also wanted to be present for my family and community activity and other things that I was doing, that was how I ran the company. ”And when it came time to sell the company, we had the company valued by an external source, and then the hard negotiation started which is when I got kind of stuck because my self worth became dictated by the number in that valuation document and whether or not the people who helped me build the company thought it was actually worth it and that I should get to leave with that pot of money.


It's very difficult to sell a professional services firm when the leader leaves because there's this question of is the value of the firm with the leader? Is the Rolodex with the leader? Was the firm synonymous with me? And I felt very confident that in fact it wasn't and that they'd be just fine without me. They were not so sure and they were confident in their work and they were confident in their reach but you just never know and that's a pretty big bag to be left holding if all of a sudden I walk out the door and the clients follow me, even though I wasn't still doing the same kind of work.“ I spent a lot of time with my ego in a bunch thinking about I’m worth this money”That's what the outside advisor says and we should do it and then my husband turned to me one day and he said, 'You never ran it for maximum profitability. You ran it to make an impact in the world, to have flexibility in your personal life, to create an institution rather than a cathedral,' and he helped me understand that that was the difference between the need and the want. That everything I've ever created as a serial entrepreneur has still existed to this day, 25 years later, and I'm really proud of that. That money was only one meaningful way to look at value and he really helped me understand that I could sell it for enough money, which would give me the kind of life I wanted to build and the kind of legacy I wanted to leave. P.S. the firm has done so well and probably, in small part because I didn't handicap it with this giant financial burden, that they've actually done better than the projections would have said.So I ended up selling the firm to them for $1, selling the firm outright, $1, 100 percent of the shares and a percentage of revenue for the following five years which was as far as we've all agreed, I can put my fingertips on any possible success. And that percentage of revenue will in fact, it's on pace four years into the five years, to outpace the number that the valuation gave.


But here's the thing, I bet on them for the previous 15 years because I employed them and partnered with them to serve clients on my behalf with my name on the door. So I'd already been betting on them. It was a pretty safe bet.And you also gave them a big boost by not saddling them with the cost of buying you out in advance because they didn't have to either pull money out of the resources of the current company or be hampered by debt payments.And I took a risk on them, they took a risk on me, we were very clear in the writing up of the exit strategy that if I'm out there and I'm bad mouth or if I'm supporting other search firms or I'm doing things that will get in the way of their success, then the agreement is null and void. But I think a lot of this worked because we had invested in each other in the previous 15 years. We had gotten to know each other, we believed in each other and we defined success in the same way. Not as maximizing payment at every single moment but in terms of maximizing impact.


I think we spend a lot of times when big things happen in the world, sending teddy bears. We send thousands of teddy bears every time there's a natural disaster and the truth is that most of those teddy bears get incinerated. And the money that we could be spending to ship and store and distribute and yet incinerate those teddy bears, we could actually be spending on other things like long term change. And I think that we can apply that to our own lives. We all go to parties, we all go to events, we all have things happen in our lives and we bring along gifts and a lot of times those gifts are just stuff. So I want us to be more thoughtful about the money that we're spending on all of these gifts, that for the most part just make us feel better. Either our egos or our grandmother looking over our shoulder telling us that we have to be polite and not show up empty handed and think about what really would matter to the person who you are in service of.And be smarter about our money that way.Bobbi: Can you give me a personal example? Of a gift you've bought for somebody that you really think was on target?Laura: Oh boy. A lot of those times they tend to be experiences, spending money on doing things together rather than just giving them another thing. It will be spending money on tickets to an event that I know a star that somebody loves and bringing them along with me and sharing time with them personally. I think time is so much more valuable to other people, that's my love language, is spending time with people and really connecting and being present with them. So I think doing things where we can spend experiences together rather than just spending money together, is a great way to spend money smarter.


Laura: When people try to ask me how do you find your passion? People always say, 'You should do work that matters and you'll never have to work a day in your life,' and I actually love work. I know you love your work, any of your listeners know that you love what you do because you can hear it in your voice and you have passion for it and so how do you find your passion? You think about the things that you spend your attention on. So what are the things that you do that nobody pays you to do? What are the things that you do outside of work? Or what are the things that you do at work that are not actually specifically in your job description? That's really where you like to spend your time and the more time that you spend leaning into the person that you are in those times, that's really how you get to do work that you love.Bobbi: Another theme that is in the book that really resonated is you talk about the metrics we use to measure ourselves and using the wrong scorecard.Laura: At some point in high school or in college, we were told to pick a major, pick a trade, pick a path and we were handed a list of metrics of success by which we should value that path. And those metrics were things like the brand procedure of the company or the flexibility or the benefits or how many skills we will acquire or yes of course, money, there's a bunch of them that I talk about in the book and they're all given the same weight. And we're told if you make a big salary, if you marry the right person, if you live in the right house, if you drive the right car, you'll be quote unquote successful. And yet, we're all so busy chasing that and running on this treadmill and spending more money in order to do those things, spending money on things we don't love to impress people we don't like, that's not a place where we should be spending our time because what that does is it's forcing us to define success as it's given to us by everybody else around us.And it's not until we figure out what success really means for us, that we actually will be happy when we find the success. So if you take the metric of money, you might be somebody who likes to go on beautiful cosmopolitan vacations and have breakfast in bed at the Four Seasons Hotel, right? That's going to cost a lot of money but not a lot of time. You might be somebody who likes to go camping and go out into the wilderness and wake up in the morning over a sunrise beautiful lake and make your breakfast on the camp fire. That's not going to cost you a lot of money but it's going to cost you a lot of time. So if you're taking this external definition and just saying, 'I have to keep going and have to keep getting more salary and more salary and more salary,' without thinking about what the money means to you, then all that quote unquote success is going to be meaningless unless it comes with the thing that you want, which actually might be more vacation time instead.


1. SAYING GOODBYE SHOULD NOT BE PART OF YOUR EXIT STRATEGY.Exit gracefully, no take this job and shove it, obviously, but then work proactively, have a strategy to stay in touch and be remembered. And still be maybe part of the social network. Stay connected to colleagues from all stages of your life, that could even include school and, of course, jobs, conferences and so on. It's easier said than done but try as much as you can. First of all, it's obviously just nice, odds are you enjoy their company but it's also smart business. That former colleague you connect with once a year, may think of you for an interesting opportunity. So try to stay top of mine. This could even include being strategically active on social media.2. DON’T SEND STUFF JUST BECAUSEIf you want to send something, if something tough has happened to somebody, maybe they lost a loved one, maybe they've suffered in some way, reconsider sending stuff just to send stuff and be aware that sometimes in this age where we don't want to have too much stuff, when you do send stuff, the recipients may feel obligated to keep it. So if you do want to send a thing, not everyone has time or wants to send experiences, maybe consider things that are splurge items that will be used up.For example, a gift card. A gift card for a nice restaurant so that they can have a break from cooking or a credit to a babysitting agency for a guilt free night out. Or maybe they had a home damaged say by a flood or some natural disaster or something like that, maybe a gift card to a home goods retailer could be truly helpful. Something that they may not want to treat themselves to or they may be stretched to afford that alleviates a financial burden, that might be enjoyed and, of course, in many cases, guilt free because it came from you. Those kind of things can be really helpful.