The Problem with "Getting Out"

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Periodically, I facilitate groups of interior designers who are 60+ years old and want to develop "exit strategies."

These days, I can't help but wonder with trends caused by the coronavirus, if even more designers (and owners of any type of business) aren't harboring similar thoughts. Maybe they envision some sort of simpler life, perhaps retiring to a more reclusive lifestyle, or what I have termed as the "luxury of solitude."

Spoiler alert: what I have discovered by working with these groups was that few of them really want to get out, no matter what they say. As soon as I start describing steps they could take, the objections start flying:

  • But I want to stay involved in the industry, you know, with sort of an emeritus status;
  • But I want to still be able to cherry pick great jobs from time to time;
  • But I still want to be able to come into the office every now and then
  • But I still want to attend all the cool trade shows and serve on committees
  • But I still want to receive enough income to maintain my current lifestyle

In other words, they don't really want out at all; they want something else entirely. Most likely, they want to stop dealing with the details, the problems, the responsibilities, the logistics, the software and systems. They imagine someone managing everything (except for final design selections, of course!) while they float above the fray, still earning a full income and parachuting in on the best projects just in time to apply finishing touches and receive the praise.

The more objective ways to exit, of course, are to either turn out the lights and leave, or sell to someone else. The latter outcome is rare, but can be done. The most likely scenarios are to sell to a competitive firm, or to an employee that you have groomed and/or recruited expressly for that purpose. I have also worked with clients to sell to a larger firm, such as an architectural firm that wants to bring design services in house.

I've written at length about how to wind down a firm, maximizing cash flow and scaling down projects with a horizon of, say, 3-5 years.

However you exit, it will take years to plan it well. I used to give seminars all over the country teaching business owners how to value and sell their companies. One of the jokes I was trained by the company to use was to ask the business owners how they planned to leave their businesses, and then add: "Horizontally?"

I'll continue to offer discussion groups on "Getting Out" and much of it will be about how to phase out, more than how to get out. That's a much more realistic strategy for riding off into the sunset. Check in to see when new groups are forming at www.idmba.org.

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