Why I sold my company and lessons learned

Updated to Business on May 3, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

I was ready to walk away from my business.

Sales were flat and so was my motivation and my creativity. I was putting out fires – not growing a business. On top of that, I was going through a divorce that needed my attention. 

And now for the happy ending…

Instead of walking away, I rebuilt the company, doubled sales, and sold the business for mid-six figures. And it all happened in 8 months.

How did this happen?

I’d like to say I mastered Tik Tok or was discovered by the Kardashians. But, it was more like the old metaphor about a ship’s rudder where you adjust the rudder just 1 or 2 degrees and, over time, you land in Lyon instead of Capetown. 

For over 5 years I had struggled to grow the business. I had a small, steady list of loyal clients who paid the bills, but growth was elusive. I was frustrated by the lack of growth and the high time commitment (not to mention stress) that came with owning and running such a small business.

Like the ship’s rudder, I needed a course change.

Instead of focusing on growing the business, I decided to prepare it to be sold.

As ludicrous as this might sound – most business advice is that you sell a business when it’s successful – this course change transformed the business and also my sales.

Ironically, when you prepare a business to be sold, it will actually run better. 

Since that sale (June, 2021), I have helped other business owners successfully prepare their business for an exit. Here are the 5 areas we focus on the most:

1. Stop and listen

For the first 4 years of my business, it was a side hustle. I had a small team who wrote and posted social media updates to promote the blogs for about 30 customers. 

This worked pretty well, as long as customers were publishing new content to their blog. When they didn’t our system broke down and we would be promoting the same content over and over.

In business, we are often offered pivot points that aren’t immediately obvious or even attractive. I needed to stop and listen to my customers

A quick survey proved there was a demand for us to write blogs for our clients. After enrolling a few clients I was finally convinced. Within six months I had four writers and by the time I sold the company, blog writing was 90% of the income and we were delivering over 100 posts per month.

Listen to your customers – you might be surprised by what they have to say.

2. Find your edge

When I added blog writing I moved into a very competitive space. Low-cost competitors, robo-writers, freelancers, and agencies were all happy to generate content for a smaller fee. 

That’s when I started to notice case studies reporting how updating and republishing old blog posts were returning impressive results. The concept is pretty simple. 

When you update keywords, content, internal links, and SEO attributes of old blog posts you send a message to search engines that this content is valuable. In return, you get better search results, traffic is boosted and more business comes your way.

After experimenting with our own blog (by this point I had published over 140 posts) we started to market our new “optimized and updated” blogging service at half the price of a new, original blog post.

By the time of the sale, over 50% of our revenues came from updating old posts.

You don’t have to be an expert in everything or serve everyone (Zoom does video calls, Calendly books appointments), but you do need your edge.

3. Build capacity

The first advice from my business broker was to make myself redundant. As he put it, “Nobody wants to buy a business where they get their hands dirty.”

When I started the company I designed every part of the client process from sales to onboarding to final delivery. I wanted each step to be perfect and I had my hands on everything. The growing demand for our new blog writing services led to recruiting more writers and building better systems. 

It also meant I needed to let go.

In the months leading up to the sale, I built systems for sales, client onboarding, client reports, prospecting, and lead generation. I also dropped my hours from 40-50 per week to 10-15.

Capacity is your ability to attract more business. Capacity also makes your business more valuable.

4. Fill your funnel

Ask most small business owners how they get sales and you’ll often hear the same well-worn reply: word of mouth, referrals, and a bit of promotion (or advertising). Nothing wrong with any of that – except it’s not predictable.

The secret to growing any service business is to design a predictable lead generation and sales system. Of course, you will enjoy the random word-of-mouth referral, but you don’t rely on it.

My pipeline tracking showed that LinkedIn was our main source of non-referral leads. I decided to build my sales funnel there.

Using a simple lead generation service I could get 20 to 30 conversations started per day. About 10 percent of those would agree to a zoom meeting. Of those, about 80 percent would close. 

Within 10 days of building a rough lead generation system, I had closed my first sale. Five months later I’d closed $240,000 in sales. All while working 10-15 hours a week.

The real surprise was I got better at selling.

5. Learn to sell

I would never claim to be a good salesperson. But having a source for sales calls every week meant I needed to quickly become one.

It started with the 3-part sales call.

Years ago I was promoting my course teaching people how to build a business in public speaking. The launches were very popular and some days I would book as many as 18 (15 minute) sales calls. I didn’t have time to chat, so I adopted the 3-part sales call that starts by offering an agenda for the call:

“First, I’ll ask some questions about your business, then, I’ll introduce how we can help, and then we’ll see if that’s a fit for you. How does that sound?”

I was careful to respect my promise of a 30-minute call—going longer rarely helped.

I also developed a two-call process: the first call established a need, and the second secured the sale. In between the two calls, we prepared what I called a Topic Map showing the prospect what topics we had chosen to write about or blog posts we were going to update. 

And here’s the trick: before the end of the first call, book the follow-up call.

Build it to sell

Most business owners are solely focused on growing their business. There are always new products to launch, new markets to enter, and new problems to solve.

All good stuff and all necessary. 

When I stepped back and looked at my business as an entity – that one day I could sell – it became obvious where I needed to put my attention.

I needed to listen and pivot based on what my customers were telling us. I needed to build a strong team and then get out of the way—I could no longer be indispensable. And I needed a reliable lead generation and sales process

When you build your business as if it will be sold one day, you will enjoy a much healthier business today.