A Mission With No Exit

I’m a big user and raving fan of Evernote. I could never adequately explain to non-users why I like it so much. It’s software for taking notes. It works well. I don’t know – it just keeps getting better and I don’t remember what I did before it.

Earlier this year I was listening to a Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast featuring Evernote co-founder and CEO Phil Libin as the speaker when Libin said something that explained in an instant why the product was so good. He said for him, there was no exit – he was on a mission, the mission would never end and he would never sell. He was dedicating his professional life to Evernote. I understood then the impact of the owner being all in on his/her business. My reaction to Libin’s commitment to Evernote was to match it. In a moment, I decided that I too was all in on Evernote. I still marvel at how instant my pledge of allegiance was upon hearing that Libin himself was that committed.

There’s a large segment of the tech world that lauds the serial entrepreneur, but I’ll admit I’ve never understood it. These people are admired for how many companies they’ve spun up and exited but I never hear anybody taking stock of what happens to those businesses after they get acquired. For sure, some go on to be great businesses or important technologies in other great businesses and I don’t begrudge anyone their success or their right to sell what they’ve built. I can’t help but think however that most of these businesses just fade away after the founder leaves. I wonder how many of these exits end up being good for both the acquirer and the customer? I also wonder what those entrepreneurs could accomplish if they focused all their superpowers on just one endeavour?

Entrepreneurs have more vision and guts than any CEO-for-hire could possibly have. They have too – they’re always betting everything. (Just ask their spouses.) When you take that vision and courage out of a business, what’s left? Optimization and the pursuit of efficiencies.

I’ve been thinking of my own experience as a user of a new technology (that I won’t name) which I discovered a couple of years back, shortly after it launched. It was pretty cool, so I signed on and started using it. There were a few bugs but the founder/CEO was fixing them fast. He was clearly committed to the vision of the company. I knew this because I would get emails from him asking me questions about how I was using the platform. I would send him suggestions and he appeared to take them seriously – his replies would often come in the middle of the night. I started reading his blog. When he announced the sale of the company I was happy for him, but it wasn’t long before things started to feel different about the product. I lost interest in the founder’s blog and the company he founded. He’s on to the next thing and so am I.

Maybe some people have strengths that make the serial entrepreneur thing work for them, but it’s not me. I decided I was going to follow Libin’s path: I’m never selling. Everything I want to do in business I’m going to do through this one. Everything I want to do in life, this business will have to enable.

The False Promise of Retirement

If the idea of never selling strikes you as a big commitment, consider that I added it to an even bigger one I had made earlier last year when I decided I was never going to retire.

I now see the idea of retirement, in this age of the knowledge worker, as destructive. It causes us to put up with less than ideal circumstances today as we wait for our reward in the end, except the idealized reward of the retired life isn’t really what most of us want. We’re not coal miners retiring from physically punishing careers, after all. We have the luxury of working with our brains and enjoying it. Plus, as entrepreneurs, we have the ability to shape our reality to whatever we want it to be. The only thing in my way is me.

I think many business owners forget how much power they have to shape their reality. They start out pursuing freedom and then get trapped in a role they didn’t anticipate in a business that just kind of turned into what it is today, instead of steadily marching toward a vision of increased freedom and control.

We all want purpose in our lives. We want to keep making an impact, to reap the rewards of that impact now rather than deferring them, and to live life today doing things we love and are good at. We retire when we aren’t getting these things in our working life. Well, they’re not there in retirement either.

Go ahead and try it on – the idea that you will never retire but you will start retiring immediately from the things you shouldn’t be doing, the things you don’t really want to do. (Another idea stolen from Strategic Coach founder Dan Sullivan.) It will change everything. You will be reborn. You will also rethink your tax planning.

It’s remarkably liberating for me to know that there is no retirement and no sale. I know that I have to get this right. I need to always strive to make an impact, always reap the rewards as they come and live life at the same time; to keep focused on the mission of changing the way creative services are bought and sold the world over while knowing the tools and methods will constantly evolve, knowing my own ideas and role have to change with time, but never, ever altering in the mission.

The Price of Eyeing the Exit

When I look at creative firms that are stuck, it’s almost always because the principal has quit making big bets. He or she has gotten complacent instead of making bets on future success. What’s almost universally true about these firms is the principal has one eye on the exit. He or she is neglecting the difficult decisions, shying away from the big bets in the hope that the forces of change can be staved off until retirement.

If there’s one thing I wish I could do for these people it would be to wave my magic wand and make their business a life sentence. I know then they would get it right. They would face the difficult decisions about their businesses, their roles inside and their lives outside of them, and it would be the best thing that ever happened to them.

Your Bonfire on the Beach Awaits

Like Cortez arriving on the shores of South America, I’ve burned the ships behind me, cutting off any escape route. I’m doing this Win Without Pitching thing until I die, so I have to get it right and therefore I will.

There are so many things to get right and so many skills that I don’t personally posses, so I have to increase the pace of my learning, I have to develop skills I’ve never had or really needed before, I have to rely on others (making culture and teamwork infinitely more important than I ever thought they could be), I have say no to the things I should no longer be doing, I have to keep bringing vision and guts – to keep betting everything on what I see and believe – and I have to live life now. I’ve put myself in a position where I have to do all the things I’ve ever wanted to do.

I can’t burn your ships for you, but if I could, I would. I would burn them to the waterline, drag what’s left up on shore, burn that too, roast weenies on the embers and toast to your glorious future with scotch whiskey from a chipped enamel cup. I would do it and you would thank me because we both know that bonfire on the beach would be the best thing that ever happened to you.

How great could you, your firm and your life be if you closed the exits and went all in on your business? Who would bet against you? Not me. I’d be all in on you, too.

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