How it Feels to Sell Your Startup

It’s every startup founder’s dream: to exit. To hand somebody the keys to the kingdom, turn around and do a little heel-click while walking off (or sprinting away) into the sunset. To be done. To move on. To throw your life-ruining iPhone 40 feet in the air and watch it crash into a million little pieces — one piece for every painful email that you endured. To hear the words “Wires have been sent.” To be able to look your spouse in the eye and say, “We did it. Thanks for sticking it out with me all these years. I can start helping with the laundry now.”

I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in the messiah, but, like every startup founder, I used to pray for the day when the clouds would split and an angel from heaven would descend unto the earth to announce: “You did good, kid; we’d like to buy you.”

And then, about a month ago, it happened (the acquisition, not the Clint Eastwood-like Acquisition Angel).

But there were no trumpets. No parades. No I-told-you-so’s. No glamorous vacations or funny out of office notifications. Exhausted and worn from the years of constant blood, sweat and tears, I didn’t even take toll (at least, emotionally) of our accomplishment before receiving my new email address and being told to show up to the acquirer’s New Hire Orientation.

It felt like just another day, with all the ups and downs to which I’d grown so numb.

Earlier this week, I went back to our old offices to clean them out. It was my first time ever being there alone. The walls were covered with Post-Its and diagrams drawn in dry-erase ink. Desktops were ornamented with little self-motivating notes and reminders. Everywhere I looked there were artifacts of life, of team-work, of excitement. And maybe I’m the first person to ever become sentimental about 30-somethings doodling stick-figure diagrams explaining how to properly flush the toilet, but for the first time, I realized that I actually miss the playful startup days — the days when every idea could lead to a world of possibilities.

The acquisition process, by comparison, is a startup’s puberty phase. It’s scary, it’s permanent and, to a first-time entrepreneur, it’s unlike anything you’ve dealt with while growing your startup.

1. The process is clinical.

An acquisition involves many people. Your management team. Your lawyers. Your accountants. Your board. Your shareholders. The acquirer’s management team. Its analysts, and lawyers, and accountants, and consultants. And while you’d like to believe that everyone cared about all the great things you’d done, the truth is, once the Term Sheet is signed, momentum does the rest of the work. Things just happen and no one has time to invest personally in the outcome. Except you, of course. You’ll be an emotional wreck — thinking and re-thinking the deal while everybody else involved is just trying to do his/her job.

2. The process will threaten the health of everything you’ve built.

Unless you’re a large company that simply wears the “startup” tag, the acquisition process will severely overwhelm your resources. It will feel like things are falling apart as you begin to necessarily drop the ball on day-to-day items. The culture you’ve built will begin to crack as employees begin to internalize their own fears. There’s no surviving a failed acquisition. So the CEO’s job, once acquisition discussions have begun, is to finish the job.

3. The money matters, and then it doesn’t.

As a founder or CEO, the day an acquisition closes should be a pretty good day, financially. But I’ve been surprised how little the money matters, post-close. If anything, it’s an empty feeling because you’re no longer thinking about future potential; instead, you’re just left wondering if you would do it all again. And the answer is: Yes. You would. Because you don’t start a startup to be rich. You do it because it’s an avenue for a normal person like yourself to take a turn at being wildly creative. Money is good, but it’s not the reason to do anything.

The only job of a startup CEO, is to steer the ship through a successful voyage and back into port safely. Which is not to say that getting acquired is anti-climactic — it’s just different than first-time entrepreneurs expect it to be. Merely surviving doesn’t sound exciting, but where else does one have the freedom to do anything necessary to survive? That’s living! And I already miss it all. The camaraderie, the stress, the creative output. The tiny, rare victories, which outweigh thousands of losses. The pace, dis-order and chaos of it all. It was fun.

As I finished cleaning out the office, I thought about lingering for a while. Maybe I’d just sit down on the floor and try to inhale a bit more of the life seeping out through the walls. But it was all gone. The people, the notes, the drawings — all of it gone, having matured beyond this exciting mini world we created for ourselves.

And maybe that’s the lesson: Enjoy it. It’s better to live the startup experience than it is to look back on it. And who knows if you’ll ever have a chance to experience those playful days again.

Instead, now I’m stuck helping with the laundry.


Robbie Friedman

Linkedin #NextWave Top Disrupter Under 35, Visionary and Founder and CEO of Viewabill (recently exited)

Family Business Owners; How Do You Manage Your Transitions?

keysDid you know that 70% of all family businesses fail to successfully transition from the first generation to the second, and that 80% fail to successfully transition from the second generation to the third? This statistic is alarming.

I work with family businesses in transition. Transition is the active process of passing stock and leadership to the next generation.

I am often asked, “When should a family business get serious about transitioning?” I think there are three situations that call for beginning the transition work.

  1. When the entrepreneur wants to change his/her role. When this happens, the entrepreneur is in transition. And when the entrepreneur is in transition, the whole company and family are in transition. Planning is critical here.
  2. When the senior generation plans to pass stock to the next generation within 1-2 years. When stock transfers to the next generation, the next generation becomes owners. What does this actually mean? It means that they will have new ownership roles and responsibilities that need to be discussed and agreed on. Clarity is critical here.
  3. When owners and managers become different people. When some of the owners are not employees of the company or when the owners bring in professional non-family management, the roles of ownership and management separate. When this happens, owners and managers need to clarify their roles and agree how they will work together. Integration is critical here.

I am also asked, “What do owners do?” Besides electing directors, the main responsibility of owners is to agree on how they are going to own and run their business. They do this by developing an owners’ plan. Just like management should have a strategic plan which spells out their long-term strategy, owners should have an owners’ plan which spells out their vision.

An owners’ plan consists of three parts:

  1. The values, needs and goals of the owners. This includes things like revenue and profit expectations, distributions, debt and risk tolerance, compensation for owners who work in the business, the culture they want inside the company, etc.
  2. How the owners will work together. This includes things like what owners do, how they make decisions, perks, how family members who are not owners are involved, updating buy-sells, etc.
  3. What board arrangement, if any, they want. This includes things like what the board does and how it works with ownership and management.

When the owners speak with one voice, it gives clarity to management on where the owners want to go and what is important to them reduces ownership conflict and allows for a more effective transition.

For more detail on the roles and responsibilities of owners, managers and boards, check out my book The Balance Point by Cary Tutelman and Larry Hause, which is available at

The Balance Point

The Balance Point

by Cary Tutelman and Larry Hause

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