I have some questions for you:
- Are you building your firm to sell it?
- Do you plan to lead your firm as the owner/leader until you retire?
- Do you want to check out and let other people make the decisions while you travel?
- Why did you start your firm in the first place?
You don’t really have to answer these questions, but I would be curious as to how you would answer if you were being super honest with yourself. All of us as firm entrepreneurs consider these things at different times in our lives and in different seasons. I’ve mentioned before that the accounting profession is copying unhealthy things from other professions. I think seeking to build your firm just to sell it is another trend in that direction. It’s a trend we’ve all read about in Silicon Valley startup blogs – being able to build something so valuable just to leave it seems like a pretty cool achievement.
I am all for any direction a firm owner wants to take their career: Acquire. Sell. Merge. Scale. But I want to lean into one of these paths. I want to understand why we as entrepreneurs do the immense work of building just to sell what we’ve invested so much of our life into. Like any great thing, the payoff to you personally comes toward the back-end of the work, not initially when you begin your journey. In the 20+ years I’ve been building a firm, I’ve seen people start something, leave it, get a job, become an executive, make a bunch of money, just to come back to lead a company again. But now, they’ve lost all of that time experience as an owner, and they have to start building again from scratch.
We Already Admire Those Who Build for the Long Term
Think about the titans of those business builders who built empires. David Ogilvy, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffett. They never embarked on a journey to build to sell. Day in, day out, they came to work, laid out protocols, reminded people what their vision looked like in daily practice, and over time saw great benefits in a large company they had built. Truly, I think that’s who we all admire. Why? Because they stay around and continue to be those giants on whose shoulders we all stand. Sometimes quietly, but always moving and building bigger and bigger things that we all admire.
I want to challenge us all to make sure that we aren’t following a trend in the tech startup market that we will regret following. I believe it’s worth asking. Let’s consider those we truly admire in the process of business-building and ask ourselves: “What could we build if we built forever?”
I hope you’ll indulge me for just a minute. Let’s say you’ve been running a firm for 5 years (a pretty strong feat in itself) and you are building your firm to sell it. Let’s say you sell your firm now, and you go get a job or travel for a while (selling a firm is not going to make you wealthy so you’ll need to eventually get a job and will probably only be able to take 2 or 3 exotic trips at the most). Then you find out you don’t like working for someone else, so you start up a firm or some other business again 5 years later. You then build your second firm for another 5 years. If we compare our stories, I’ll be able to tell people I’ve been building firms for 30 years, and I will know some serious sh*t about it too. But you’ll probably only be able to claim your second 5 years of building a firm, because you had to start over. The first 5 years of building a firm will be of some help, but it’s not cumulative and transformative like continual firm-building is. I’m not where I know I’ll be, but I’m not where I was. And I’m not the ultimate comparison either, but I’ve learned some things. Lots of things. And you can too, if you’ll just stick with it for the long term… with me.
I’ve been building a firm for over 20 years now. But the last 5 to 7 years are really the times I’ve been able to truly apply my knowledge and skills in business-building in ways that are having meaningful impact. Maybe I’ve even been able to inspire you to build your firm in a new way. That would bring me joy to know. And maybe you are making a significant impact on the team, clients and families you are responsible for because I’ve been able to say something that has helped you. If any of that could be true, I can tell you, for me, it’s only because I stuck with it. I stuck with this firm-building thing through many, many ups and downs. There was elation at times with amazing wins. And there were some sickeningly scary things that happened over the years too. Add in a lot of difficult personal journeys as well (which we can all claim). Either way, here we are. Still building. Still going to work every day. Still leading teams. Every. Single. Day. And we’ll keep doing it every day – you want to know why? Because we are not building to sell.
You can get really good at almost anything by simply doing it consistently for a long, long time. The good stuff comes 20 years later. I’m telling you. I know. When I’m giving you advice about building firms for 50 years – remember that it took me 50 freakin’ years to give you that advice. Remember I told you in this article. Stay with firm-building.