Book Club #21: Finish Big: How Great Entrepreneurs Exit Their Companies on Top, by Bo Burlingham

How Great Entrepreneurs Exit Their Companies on TopWe’ve run into Bo Burlingham here on Book Club before. We’ve reviewed his groundbreaking Small Giants book and he was seen as a major source for Dan Andrews’ Before the Exit as well.

Burlingham characterizes this as an “end-up” book as opposed to a “start-up” book. Fascinatingly, there’s so much literature about starting up, but not too many at all, like Finish Big, about “ending up.” Yet it is true that all businesses at some point, must end for the owner, and the most successful ones end in an exit.

Key Lessons of Finish Big

The book is chock full of lessons for anyone even remotely interesting in building, running, and exiting businesses, but they can be divided into several large categories:

  • Case Studies – actual stories of how businesses started and exited, sometimes with the names changed. These can either be major successes or catastrophic failures. In either case you often have the entrepreneur him/herself describing, through the author, each step in the process.
  • Education – if you didn’t know about due diligence, financial ratios, stock vs. equity purchase and other vocabulary that surrounds a business transaction, Bo does an excellent job of weaving short explanations of these throughout the text. He assumes that you have some basic familiarity with business in general, but assumes a zero starting point for familiarity with the ins and outs of transactions.
  • Choosing a successor and managing your people – one of the trickiest parts of a transaction is keeping confidentiality so that your staff can stay on task.  Perhaps even trickier is to find a successor to you so that a buyer can have confidence the company will not just survive, but thrive. Burlingham takes us through several scenarios, extracting key steps you should take along the way.
  • End in Mind – a theme Burlingham keeps hammering home in the book is the idea of “think about your exit before it’s time.” The best time to think about your exit is during the time you start up. The next best time is at least 18-24 months before you list your business for sale. Here at Apex we’ve often maintained good relations with our clients for years before they listed their businesses, mostly because they wanted someone to keep them grounded in the realities of the market, and because they wanted to make the changes necessary to exit at a level they preferred.
  • Mentorship – we may start the journey of entrepreneurship alone, but very rarely is the journey completed alone. Burlingham highlights the many ways that entrepreneurs can find mentorship, coaching, and help in their journeys.
  • What happens next – by speaking with many entrepreneurs about the pitfalls of an exit – successful or otherwise – Burlingham challenges readers to think ahead to what happens after the sale too, not just focus on the numbers and delight of the exit.

There’s really no other book like Finish Big in the market. Only read it if you’re interested in learning about the right mindsets you should have in order to have a successful exit, which may very well be the most important financial event of your life. If you want to shortcut the reading, give us a call! We’ve got plenty of those stories amongst our treasure trove of brokers!

Book Club #20: The Lifestyle Business Owner, by Aaron Muller

Lifestyle BusinessThe subtitle of Aaron Muller’s book is “How to Buy a Business, Grow Your Profits, and Make it Run Without You.” While entrepreneurship has perhaps never been more in the public consciousness, the phrase “lifestyle business” is still not commonly known in the general public, and this book goes a long way to addressing that gap while sharing some important lessons along the way.

Let Your Business Be Your Business

For those who are considering buying a business, there’s often some soul-searching: is this my passion? Muller’s response to that query is one we tend to agree with: “Finding meaning and purpose in your life is hard enough. Finding a profitable business that also gives your life the unique meaning and purpose you are looking for is doubly hard.”

It’s a lot to ask of a business to offer meaning and purpose for your life. Rather, you should focus on:

  • Soundness of the business.  Are the taxes and paperwork in order? Are the financials up to date and do they show promising trends?
  • Role in the business.  Are you being asked to be an owner-operator (someone working on the business each day or at least each week) or an absentee owner (someone who only periodically checks in on the business or if there is a major decision to be made)? Do you think this role would suit your talents and current desire to work?
  • Growth potential.  Is this something that you can build on in the next 3-5 years to give yourself more options, i.e. build from owner-operator to absentee or from absentee to another exit.

Leverage Previous Mistakes

In a previous article we shared that a buyer of a business was able to more than double his income simply because he fulfilled the orders that the previous owner failed to do. The author shared a story about a business he once bought which had alienated many customers: “In fact, I even put up a banner on the building that read, “New Owner. Friendly Service.” Within one year, revenues increased by over 65 percent.”

Sometimes previous owners have made mistakes they haven’t told you about just because it’s too personally embarrassing. One of them might include poor attitudes with clients or times they simply could have done better on the customer service side of things. Never underestimate the power of a restart and the second chance a customer might give to a new owner.

Bring Your ‘A’ Game… and Teach It

Whatever it is that is causing your customers to come, you need to transfer that skill to your employee,” Muller opines. He’s right. Whenever you are able to bottle your value-adds into training and company manuals, you’ve created a better asset for a future customer.  

At the heart of a lifestyle business is the unique proposition of creating a schedule you determine and an income you’re responsible for. Don’t be beholden to a 9-5 office paradigm. You can work the hours you want on the days that you want… as long as you set up the proper systems to do so. While the lifestyle you build for yourself may limit scalability and growth for your company, this will be a conscious choice you make that will also make the business an attractive acquisition for someone in the future, who like you, wants a lifestyle business.

We offer businesses of all “speeds” here at Apex, including lifestyle businesses.  Learn more today!

Book Club #19: Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh

happinessMany business books offer solutions or systems or case studies to make their point.  Very few offer a simple narrative with lessons gleaned on the journey.

Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, happens to be one of those books.  

It had no agenda other than telling the story of Zappos, and yet, when you tell the story of a company that gets acquired for a billion dollars in stock by Amazon ten years after its founding, no agenda is really necessary.  

The journey itself is a compelling narrative.

Pay Employees To Quit

Hiring is such a challenging part of any business that one would think that once you’ve got a new hire, you want to do your best to keep him/her.  Zappos agrees, but adds a twist.

During the training process, they offered a $2,000 bounty to anyone who quits during a certain time period, in addition to getting all pay/vacation time accrued.  

This worked so well in making sure the best people stayed (and the few short-sighted ones left) that Amazon created their own program after acquiring Zappos called Pay to Quit. This program allows full-time associates to take a $5,000 one time bonus to leave the company, but it means they can never work for Amazon again.

Instead of the focus being on bringing on warm bodies, it was on bringing on long-term players, part of a team, part of a family.

Customer Service That Matters

More and more companies are making it difficult for you to contact them if you have problems, questions, or just feedback.  Zappos chooses to go the other way, by plastering their 24/7 telephone number at the top of their website.

In the book Tony mentions at the time of publishing their longest customer call was 6 hours long.  They chose to focus on the relationship with each individual customer.

And when you are focused on relationships, you aren’t focused on metrics like quick turnover times on calls. You want every part of the buying experience to be fun and delightful, and Zappos lives that.

Giving employees the freedom to really represent the brand, as a partner of sorts, inspires them and rubs off onto customers, who go on to become loyal customers, right after they rave about you on social media.

A Culture on Display to the World

Tony would make a point of posting internal company emails and memos to a public blog. He did this only moments after sending them out to the company.  

He also compiled a culture book each year which was printed and distributed to all employees and was then made digitally available to the public.  

The only rule was that no one at the company could censor what each employee wrote. (which, by the way, was their own personal experience of what Zappos company culture was to them).

Culture can’t be made.  It can only grow by the environment created by the work you do together.  Being unafraid of sharing only adds sunshine to an already fertile project.

Book Club #18: Before the Exit, by Dan Andrews

exitThere are some books out there that can tell you the financial side of how people exited their businesses, but there’s not too much literature on the emotional process of selling.  

Bo Burlingham often refers to a sale as just another “phase” of the business. Dan Andrews and his business partner experienced a seven-figure exit some years ago.

Rather than feeling content, they felt something unresolved, and this book, Before the Exit, Thought Exercises for Entrepreneurs, is an extended reflection that resolved those thoughts.

The book is divided into two parts.  The second part is the one we’re used to – the origin story of how someone went from wage slave to plucky business owner.  But that story takes a turn as Dan honestly explains mistakes they made along the way to an exit.

The first part is a fascinating set of exercises. They’re meant to push an owner who is either currently considering a sale or who hasn’t thoughtfully considered an exit at all.  

The goal isn’t to tell you all the exercises (as the book is under 100 pages and we want you to discover them for yourselves) but to get you started thinking about the bigger question of why and not just how when it comes to an exit. Here are two of them:

Lifestyle Ladder

Dan discusses (in a Dave Ramsey sort of way) how an entrepreneur progresses forward in income.  At first, it’s simply a matter of getting out of debt to zero. Then there’s a certain amount of income in the bank – say $20-40k liquid.  

It’s the stage at which money is less of a worry, but you can still be a prisoner of your thinking when you were at a lower stage of the lifestyle ladder and severely deplete this cushion.  

Further up the ladder, you have 10 times that liquidity plus an income-producing asset that means you don’t have to touch the liquidity. At each stage Dan continues to probe the reader…What is it that you want? Will this business be a vehicle to take you there? Why or why not?

So many people just have their foot on the gas for so long that they seldom stop to think what it’s all for and what real numbers interest them when it comes to lifestyle or an exit.

Boredom?  Or incompetence?

Seth Godin famously advised a woman who asked how to grow her $10M business to $100M: “Find someone to run your business, go and apprentice under someone who runs a $100M business for two years, then come back and do it yourself.”  

We’re all familiar with the idea that “what got you here won’t get you there” but sometimes we’re masking our own inadequacies.

What’s going to take you to the next level?  

Will it require you to do some things or learn some practices you don’t know?  

Will you need to bring in some outside help?

Maybe you’ll need to reinvest?

Sometimes these possibilities don’t occur to the business owner who is tired of the fight and looking for the door.  

But if he/she is willing to do the work of thinking it through, there could be an even more valuable exit after more work has been put in. It all depends on what you want long-term and has to contextualize the pain of the short term.

As noted above, the book is a lonely one in a space not often discussed. The ideas and challenges it offers in such a short read make it very much worth your time.

Book Club #17: How to Win Friends and Influence People

friendsDale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was the book that kickstarted the personal development genre that continues to grow every single year.  

While some have attacked some of Carnegie’s methods as “forced”, its continued selling power since 1936 speaks to the timelessness of the ideas between its pages.  

In this article, we’ll examine a few of our favorite ideas that are equally important in business and in our personal lives.

Smile

At the time Carnegie wrote this book he didn’t have access to the overwhelming number of studies that have been done over the years that back up his advice to simply smile.  

Smiling has been shown to improve mood, lower blood pressure, create a stronger immune function and lead to pain relief, among many other astonishing effects.

Furthermore, customers don’t usually register complaints along the lines of, “So and so smiled too much” or “was in too good of a mood.” Smiling is the simplest way to indicate to someone that you’re happy to be there with them.

Become genuinely interested in other people

Sometimes we get caught up in the regularity of business transactions and fail to take the time to get to know people on a personal level. But people prefer to do business with those they know and trust, and it’s sometimes surprising how little we may know about some of our most vital and important clients. It’s a good practice to try to learn something new about clients each time you meet with them.

Be a good listener

In a world filled with digital noise, listening is becoming more and more of a lost art and requires so much more attention than it did in Carnegie’s smartphone-free era. Listening to customers is the easiest way to ensure that you not only fulfill the obvious needs but uncover the not-so-obvious ones too.

Someone’s name is the sweetest sound in any language (to them)

The great failing of many of us is to fail to listen and pay attention when people introduce themselves (see “Be a good listener”). But beyond that, those who are “good with names” weren’t given some magic pill or genetic advantage.

They use strategies like Carnegie outlines in his book, like associating the name with a funny image, repeating it back to yourself silently several times after hearing it, and then using it at least once or twice in the conversation so as to imprint it.  

“Being good with names” takes work, but it’s work that is deeply appreciated and remembered, and will help you stand out in your business dealings.

Give honest appreciation

Mark Zuckerberg famously wrote a thank you note to someone each day of the year for a whole year in order to remind himself of all he was grateful for.  

While you don’t necessarily have to commit to something so significant, it’s important to ask yourself – when was the last time I thanked a colleague, an employee, a vendor, or a customer?  

Genuinely thanked them – taking the time to write them an email, or even better, a handwritten note, to share your appreciation? When you do it for no occasion at all it will be particularly impactful, and you will be influencing people to pass on that gratitude.

Book Club #16: Built to Sell, by John Warrilow

built to sellWe’ve already spoken about a John Warrilow book before, namely The Automatic Customer, which is all about how creating subscription streams of income is something incumbent upon (and doable for!) most businesses today.

But before he wrote that, he wrote a book called Built to Sell, which uses the story-telling devices used in The E-Myth and The Goal to drive home precisely what’s needed to build a company that can be sold.

We’ve said it here numerous times before – many businesses don’t sell, and many aren’t even eligible for sale, because the owners haven’t put in the work to build something that can be turned over to a complete stranger. But that’s precisely what’s required. It starts with getting rid of YOU.

Get out of your own way

Of course, you’re a big reason that the company has gotten to whatever level of success it currently enjoys. But for it to grow, and for you to be able to sell it one day, it can’t depend on you.

This means you can’t be synonymous with the business, and you have to have teachable processes in place, as well as products and services that can be sold and delivered by other employees.

Of course, you’re going to be one of the best, perhaps the best in your firm, in all of these areas, but that’s not the point. A potential buyer will be scared if he/she sees your name over all the sales, processes, and management. On the other side of things, how will you keep employees long-term if you never allow them to take on the big tasks you keep reserving for yourself?

Diversify your clients and your offerings

Warrilow really hammers home the idea of avoiding dependency on a single client. Any client who is responsible for an outsized portion of your revenues has implicit control over the direction of your company, yet they have no real risk. Warrilow recommends that no client should be responsible for more than 15% of revenues.

There are many other ideas he discusses, but two, in particular, we should focus on are:

  • Avoiding price wars by doing one thing better than everyone else.
    If you’re a florist, perhaps you do wedding flowers particularly well and charge an excellent, non-customizable price. By creating a standard offering, you maximize efficiency in your workflows and also create a rallying point for your sales team. It’s also a great funnel for other services.
  • Generate recurring revenue by creating products your customers need to repurchase.
    This is a theme he would fully develop in
    The Automatic Customer, but it’s something that works well. Go back to our florist. Instead of offering one-off purchases only, what if she went to hotels and other places that always want flowers in their lobbies and offered a subscription service? It removes a sales cycle, guarantees a service for the client, and generates count-it-every-month income for the business.

The subtitle of the book is creating a business that can thrive without you. Note the word “thrive.”  If you know your business slows down or sags a bit while you’re away, you haven’t put in enough work into building your company to sell.  

Keep in mind, you don’t have to sell…BUT if you build to sell, not only will your life become easier, but your employees will make more money, and your company’s foundation will be more stable.

Book Club #15: Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Many business books have the same formula:

  • Identify a problem
  • Show your unique way of solving the problem
  • Do so within 300 pages or fewer

This means that there’s a predictable comfort with such books. But it also means only a very few go on to become truly meaningful and useful long-term beyond fads of, oh say, throwing a fish around or asking where someone’s cheese might be.

That’s what’s so surprising and powerful about Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win, by Iraq veterans Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

It manages to tie together a compelling (and real life) narrative about modern warfare with leadership principles and actual case studies of those principles being successfully applied. It’s a book that you’ll want to go back to time and again.  

Twelve Principles

The book has 12 chapters, each of them dedicated to different principles, like “No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders,” “Decentralized Command,” and “Discipline Equals Freedom,” a catchphrase that became so popular on Jocko Willink’s podcast that came after the book (unsurprisingly titled Jocko Podcast) that it led to a follow-up book which describes Jocko’s personal life philosophy.  

But the most important chapter, and what sets up the rest of the book, is Chapter 1: Extreme Ownership (this is something we’ve discussed in a previous article). 

extreme ownershipThe short definition of Extreme Ownership means having a solution-oriented posture towards failures or missteps instead of pointing fingers.

It’s a powerful principle and one that works all the way up and down the chain of a business or any organization. It will change the way your organization works.  

If the response to a problem or failure no longer becomes “Who can we blame?” but rather “How can we prevent this from happening again?” employees will feel supported and everyone will be oriented towards solutions rather than blame.  

A revolutionary idea (for business, at least) inside an atypical business book. Pick it up for the lessons in leadership, come back to it for the humanity that animates it.

The “No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders,” chapter is also powerful, as the lesson was derived from SEAL training in which, during a 6 boat race (each boat manned by 6 men), Jocko swapped the leader of the team that was consistently winning (the SEALs had to paddle the boat a certain distance from shore, capsize it, then empty the water out, get back in, and paddle back) with the team that was consistently coming in last.  

Soon thereafter the team that was coming in last started coming in first. The men who were in the boat that was originally finishing last just needed a leader who knew how to motivate them.

Personal Responsibility

The appeal of this book is particularly strong in our society which is so desirous of true, strong leadership. It’s a book that never lets up and never takes the easy way out.  

Leadership isn’t something you achieve, but something you earn every day, and it’s always done best by building your team the right way….by showing them how to lead with humility and engagement.

Book Club #14: The Goal, by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox

goalAsk most business school students and they will often nod their heads in recognition when you mention The Goal. 

It’s been a mainstay of business school curriculums for decades and despite the fact that it was published in 1984, it still retains relevance today.  

Firstly, unlike the overwhelming majority of business books, it’s a novel. Secondly, it’s written by a physicist.

The novel angle may be obvious to most – the story can help move the reading along – but a physicist?  Why?  Simple: the big idea at the heart of The Goal is the Theory of Constraints, which interests scientists plenty.

The Theory of Constraints

In any system, be it comprised of machines or humans, limits will be reached due to constraints. There’s almost always at least one constraint in a system, and by identifying constraints and restructuring processes around them, systems will necessarily become more efficient.

Understanding bottlenecks – constraints – in a system is vital for manufacturing and distribution businesses, hence it’s no surprise that The Goal is one of three required reading books Amazon’s Jeff Bezos gives to his top executives.

The Problem

Our protagonist, Alex Rogo, is a manager at UniCo who finally gets a transfer back to his (small) hometown. What he wasn’t prepared for was the fact that the factory is facing challenges and may get closed down unless he can turn things around in the next three months.  

Specifically, shipments are always late and the production backlog is growing, but inventories also keep growing. It doesn’t seem possible to ship on time with good quality at a reasonable cost.

The Professor

Alex manages to bump into his old college professor who listens to Alex’s story and begins asking questions to help him dive down to the root of the problems.  

As Alex and his team chase down the complicated answers to these difficult questions, they find the true problems all around the factory and begin solving them.  

As they do this, “the goal” keeps changing, from focusing on cost-effective purchasing, to hiring the right team, to the latest technology, to finally, making more money. The refinement of all the other issues necessarily led to more profits, as the factory began to run like a machine itself.

You don’t need an Annual Meeting to go over systems and processes. You start by asking the most basic of questions – where are we experiencing pain in our processes – either internally or externally?  

By seeking the true answers to those challenging and uncomfortable questions (which are not often immediately visible), you can start making the changes necessary to make your business hum – which will make your staff, clients, and of course, you, happier.

Book Club #13: Start with Why by Simon Sinek

WHYIn 2009 Simon Sinek published a book called Start with Why. That same year he gave a TedX talk which at the time of this article had 36,000,000 views. Why such interest?  

He hit on a powerful notion that isn’t just valuable for a business owner who wants to connect more thoroughly with a customer, but with employees as well.  

Sinek uses Apple because its success and cult-like following are both accepted and legendary.  

He points out that most businesses start at “what” and work into towards “why.” Framing as Apple, this would look like:

“We make computers” – what

“We focus on style and design” – how

“We like to challenge the status quo” – why

That sounds nice. But it’s just like every other pitch out there. “We make cars. They are well designed. Would you like to buy them?”  Sinek points out that the neocortex of our brain engages with what and is very logical.  

But the limbic part of our brains, the parts that know about loyalty and trust and do not have language functions, those are connected with how and why. Sinek then reframes:

“We challenge the status quo in everything we do.”

“One of the ways we do that is by building computers that are designed beautifully.”

“Want to buy one?”

By starting with why, Sinek says that you can acquire customers who think like you (and your business). If they believe in your mission, they will buy anything you want to sell them.  

That’s why Apple doesn’t just sell computers. They sell music players and headphones and tablets and in the near future, perhaps cars. They are operating in your limbic brain, and that’s why you see advocates of their products in contrast to the “whatever works” attitudes of the customers who use other products.

This also allows you to hire employees better, aligning them with your cultural fit. If you hire people who believe what you believe, then it doesn’t matter what tasks you assign or projects you want to tackle – they are with you because you started with why.

As a new year dawns, consider a different way of looking at your business, not just in how you face your customers, but how you face your employees. And you might get to add some of that “can’t explain it” loyalty and excitement that companies like Apple and Tesla generate to add to the things you’re already doing well.

Book Club #12: The Dip, by Seth Godin

quitSeth Godin has been a prolific blogger and author for many years now. He is particularly dedicated to helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses and develop robust mindsets. 

The Dip, which has a subtitle that promises to teach you “when to quit and when to stick” develops a very specific theme across its 96 pages.

Seth explores a theme which was covered in a wildly popular Freakonomics Radio episode from 2011: quitting.  The premise that is questioned is simple: Is it true that “winners never quit”?  

Seth’s answer is quite emphatically “No.”  Winners quit all the time, and he gives stories about a number of famous business people to back up his argument.  

What is “The Dip”?

Simply, the dip is the hard and difficult road between being barely competent in something and being the best in the world (Seth argues that being the best in the world should be a primary goal).  

There are only a few spots at the top, Seth notes, and you should be okay with quitting if it’s not clear to you that a) you have the desire to get to the top or b) you have the ability to do so.

Now, while we don’t share Seth’s idea that “best in the world” is the only goal possible/desirable, we would argue that high levels of personal satisfaction and competence should be at the end of the road. You need to be okay with quitting, and quitting quickly, if those aren’t on the horizon. Hope is not a strategy.

Persistence is Overrated

Perhaps the biggest lesson in this short book apart from giving people “permission” to quit (against all the social pressure not to) is to remind us that persistence isn’t everything.  

People can keep pounding their heads against the walls for many years for nothing other than the alleged “virtue” of persistence for its own sake. Seth is reminding us to make sure we’re clear on what our “why” is.

If we know why we’re doing what we’re doing, combined with a realistic look at whether we can accomplish our goals, the persistence will make sense and be the best part of the journey. Otherwise, it can be the anchor that holds us back from so many other possibilities.

As one year closes and a new one opens, it’s a great time to audit our lives and ask if there are any things in our business or personal life that need quitting, once we’ve given them “the Dip” treatment.