Understanding the Emotions of Selling a Business

Successfully selling a business is often viewed as a pinnacle of one’s career.  Many business owners expect to feel a myriad of positive emotions after selling their business: excitement, relief, freedom, etc. – and they most often do!

But oftentimes, the emotions of selling a business also include feelings of isolation, attachment loss, fear of the unknown, a lack of direction, and/or a loss of identity and community.  This is something that many business owners don’t anticipate feeling after being so focused on the process of selling their business, and it can surprise and dishearten them, especially as it’s not often discussed and there are few forums for this type of experience-share. It’s not uncommon for individuals to go through a period of grieving this loss, which can take months or sometimes years to process. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Most owners grow very attached to their businesses and so naturally are going to experience some form of the five stages of grief, which often accompany any major loss. 

emotions of selling a business

Oftentimes, the emotions of selling a business also include loss, fear of the unknown, a lack of direction, and/or a loss of identity.

For many entrepreneurs, running their business is what they spend the vast majority of their time doing. In fact, many spend more time in their business and with their staff than with their spouse, children, friends, or family. Because of this, a deep connection forms, and when that connection breaks, there is a loss that occurs and it is not dissimilar to divorce or death in some ways.

We asked Calder’s present office manager, Melissa Somero, the previous founder and owner of Corridor Coffee (now Morning Ritual) in Grand Rapids, MI about her experience selling. “I was absolutely dedicated to the success of my business. Every day I woke up with a deep drive to make sure that all of the details were in place, the employees were happy and the customers had a great experience,” stated Melissa. “Over time, it became very wearying. I would think about the business from sun up until sundown. I lost sleep and I canceled vacations. I realized that it was taking a real toll on my health and that’s when I made the decision to sell. Even then, it was terribly difficult. When we found the buyers, I knew they were the right fit, I felt it, but it didn’t make the process easier. I was deeply attached to the business and I questioned my decision constantly. I became emotional during the closing. My hands were shaking as I signed the purchase agreement.”

Somero’s experience was corroborated by Calder’s Managing Partner, Max Friar, “I have been part of transactions that got sidelined because the owner had not considered life past the sale. One instance early in my career sticks out. We were representing a foundry. The owner was in his mid-70s. He wore his green work overalls to work every day. Somewhere down deep he knew that he needed to sell, to pass the company on. But he nixed the deal a week before closing. What it boiled down to was, he couldn’t imagine life without his business. He was absolutely attached and couldn’t let go.”

In an effort to gain a great understanding of how to best cope with the emotions after selling, private banking and wealth management firm Coutts gathered insight from a group of both male and female entrepreneurs who had previously sold businesses. 

Coutts found that one of the most important factors to consider prior to selling is preparing for the adjustment. The lifestyle change that comes with selling a business is very abrupt as it completely alters the way you live your day-to-day life. “This is very important in my opinion,” noted Calder Mergers & Acquisitions Advisor Garrett Monroe, “In fact, as part of our qualification of new prospective clients, we ask them what their plans are post-sale. While it’s not critical that they have well-laid plans, it is concerning if they do not have any plans or hobbies. We like to see that owners have put some thought into their post-sale life.”

Some business owners choose to lengthen their exit process in order to adjust to this new change. According to Melissa, “I did not undergo an extended transition. In fact, I felt strange about being involved in a business that I didn’t own. The new owners wanted to make a lot of changes and I felt it was not mine anymore and so I shouldn’t be there. I left fairly quickly, which I think was best for me and for them.”

Oftentimes, owners plan to jump right into a new project shortly after selling. For those entering retirement, getting involved in the community or a group can be extremely beneficial.  This process will look different for every person, but it’s important to keep yourself busy and wake up with projects and activities to undertake. According to Melissa, “I became quite busy after the sale preparing our house for sale, visiting with friends I’d not seen in a while, taking care of the kids. This was good for me initially. I was so used to being busy that I had to find things to do.”

For those entering retirement, getting involved in the community or a group can be extremely beneficial.

After selling, it’s critical to find new opportunities to continue learning and expanding your knowledge in some way. For some that may be involved in the process of starting a new business. For others, it could look like taking up a new hobby that really engages or challenges the mind. “What’s really interesting,” noted Somero, “is that once fall came and the kids went back to school, things slowed down for me, and the separation/loss started to hit. What I learned is that you can’t avoid the processing of loss. It will manifest somewhere in your life if not acknowledged. And it hurts. It just takes time to process and heal.”

 A common theme amongst the majority of business owners and entrepreneurs is a desire to build a lasting legacy. Take some time to reflect upon that which you have built. Are you satisfied with that which you’re leaving behind? If you have the energy and means, you can always consider forging a new path.

“Ultimately, I made the right choice, ” Melissa concluded. “As much as I love being busy and working, having to deal with customers and employees seven days a week is just too much. I’m much happier now and know I made the right decision. The business is in good hands and the new owners are doing very well.”

Coping with and understanding the emotions of selling a business can be a difficult path to overcome. But with the proper tools and mindset, selling a business can be both an expansive and liberating learning experience.

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