I like the audio version better than the written version this week.
Best to listen straight off Spotify though, the browser version is buggy.
I choose to ignore your correct exit strategy advice
Any advisor will tell you that competent business owners need a clear, documented exit strategy. And they’re sort of right.
Yet I don’t have an exit strategy. I have a non-exit strategy. The reason for that was clarified the other night in an excellent pub conversation with an English person, when I learned all about bells. The enormous bronze ones you put in your cathedral.
How long do you think your business will last? Two, maybe three decades would be a pretty solid innings, wouldn’t it?
Not in the cast bell game. Taylor Bells, one of the two main players in that field, is still in business after 650 years. Yes, six hundred and fifty. The other one, Whitechapel Bells, still exists but stopped casting bells in 2017 after 447 years.
I love this so much. It highlights the choice you make with your business.
Long or short game: either is good but it’s a choice
You can create an organisation that fills a market gap, and through hard work and sacrifice makes you enough money to support your family. Maybe even make you a pile of money when you sell it.
Wherever it ends up, however long or short the journey, that is a deeply honourable path to tread.
Or you can go: I will create a business that has the best track record in its field. That attracts staff who are motivated by that. And brings customers from around the world who aren’t looking for a deal, but rather a product that will last a lifetime. Where their purchase becomes a badge of their high standards.
That’s what the bell people do, and I find it very attractive.
A few customers you may have heard of
Have you heard of their projects? Damn right you have. Whitechapel did the USA’s Liberty Bell. Big Ben? They did it. Lincoln Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, New York’s Bell Of Hope in memory of the September 11 attacks. The mega-bell made for the London Olympics opening.
Taylor did Great Paul in 1881 for St Paul’s Cathedral, at 17 tonnes the biggest bell cast in Britain. Canberra’s Carillon. St Peter’s in Adelaide, a city serious about churches.
Best of all, when AC/DC toured their landmark Back In Black album in 1980, before they were proven stadium-fillers and with an unknown new singer, they did not fuck around with any discount bell.
They went to Taylor for an 1100kg beast, so heavy its roadcase wheels punched holes in stages around the world. AC/DC knew the score. Buying a Taylor bell is a statement: we have the taste and expertise to know what’s the best, and we’re prepared to pay for it.
Respect the commitment
Everything about these British bell casters is an inspiring commitment to the work. They still dig a pit and bury the bell moulds in the factory floor earth, a method other bell makers abandoned 200 years ago to save time and money.
“We are convinced that allowing the bell to cool slowly in the earth over a period of days gives a better molecular structure and a better sounding bell – and our discerning customers agree with us.”
I can’t comment on molecular structure. But if customers believe it, their brains will make them hear the below-earth difference.
And the long-term survivors in any market tend to be the ones in the Really Good + Very Expensive corner of the quadrant.
They just get more profitable as their reputation builds over generations.
What would you do?
Building a business to sell creates a very different beast to one that you plan to keep.
How would you approach your business if you wanted it to run for 650 years?
Think about your own answers, though I won’t leave it hanging like a needy LinkedIn post.
Obviously 650 years is a little outside your control, but you have to start somewhere and it’s a good mental exercise.
If you’re playing a centuries-long game, you’re going to really believe in your product. That mindset can swing both ways. Some business people get too close to their product and forget about the customers. But if you understand your customers’ needs, they will pick up on your love of what you do.
This is why businesses under private equity ownership will never outperform privately held ones long-term. Because the customers can smell that all they care about is money.
Sell to those guys, and you’ll announce it with a press release saying: “This won’t change any of those things you love about our brand.” And it will be a lie. They don’t give a damn about a good product, and will restructure the business in ways that stop it delivering one.
What can you be the best at?
My uncle is a long-term business hero to me. He has a very successful 50+ year-old business that he’s still very involved with in his 80s, and he leads a great life.
He told me when I was young and clueless: if you don’t think you can do something better than anyone else, you shouldn’t start a business.
It doesn’t have to be the entire market. It’s stupid to think you’ll be the best in a field that already has lots of players. The art is in finding a specialist niche that you can own yourself.
Then you attract staff who feel the same way. Who are driven by professional pride, rather than just getting paid. Who can do what you do in a few years.
If you don’t have one eye on packaging up the business for a sale, it makes more sense to invest in those people. Both money and your time.
Exits look good but might not be
Businesses take longer to get going than your optimistic founder plans suggest. Our business is really just hitting the sweet spot after fifteen years.
If we’d sold after ten years, we would have been comfy and looked like business winners. High fives all round. And it would have been a terrible commercial result for us.
Even with the COVID interruption, our business is a long way ahead of where it was at the ten year mark. It can take that long for a decent number of clients to see you as a safe option, then the momentum kicks in.
My co-founder and I don’t work in the business so there’s no particular need to get out. And it will produce decent dividends for … 650 years is a bit of a stretch, but certainly for a long time.
We spend a lot of time thinking about succession plans for everyone in the business, and investing for the long haul. There are plenty of great reasons for people having an exit strategy. We just don’t have any of them.
This is not the right advice for everyone. If yours is an all-digital business, sell that thing in a heartbeat before Facebook algorithm whims wipe you off the map. This story is just one guy’s perspective to balance out the prevailing wisdom.
I will miss our talks together
Either way, the money is really nice, but enough is enough. My non-exit plan goes to the core of my soul: I fucking love the businesses. I love seeing people go from trainee to legend in a few years. I love the mental chess. I love the experiments and the gambles. I love seeing how far we’ve come from our corner-store origins.
I’m happy to spend more or less time on the businesses depending on my mood, but I need them there or I’d be bored out of my mind.
I was reminded of this when I read this fine NYT article on design wizard Jony Ive’s departure from Apple. Specifically this scene the day Jobs died:
“Less than 15 miles away, Mr Ive sat in the garden outside Mr. Jobs’s home. The October sky was hazy that day and his shoes were too tight. He felt numb as he recalled the last words his boss and friend told him: I will miss our talks together.”
I will miss our talks together. It brought home to me how much I live for those conversations with people I rate. Specifically my business partners, but also many others. We talk most days, and it is always an uplifting experience, even when the subject is some nightmare problem.
If we sold the businesses, my life would be so much poorer. My personal relationships would suffer, because those around me love how those business interactions energise me.
I’d become one of those people who takes cruises, complains about their rental tenants, and has strong opinions about franking credits.
Honestly, just shoot me if that ever happens.
Could I ask for a gigantic cast bell for the funeral though? That would be cool.
PS Something else that would suck: I’d have to stop writing. I promise that the very day I’m not hands-on involved in business, I will hang up the blog. Because otherwise I’d just be one of those people delivering secondhand accounts of what actual working business people have told them. That just leads to Simon Sinek, and again: just shoot me.
Hey help me out
If this story was useful or entertaining for you, why not help me out by sharing it? It’s a ton of work getting these stories out, and more readers really helps me justify the insane effort each week. Bless you.
Why not buy this nice book?
Want to break free of a job that sucks and live life on your own terms? All that plus more entertainment than your average business book: Undisruptable: Timeless Business Truths For Thriving In A World Of Nonstop Change.
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