Great Small Business Owners Know How to Take From Their Business

Great Small Business Owners Know How to Take From Their Business

It’s about sacrifice.  Everyone knows that.

Being a successful small business owner is about working harder, longer and smarter than everyone else.  

And then, if you do that, over and over and over . . . you get the payoff!

But what if it doesn’t work that way?

What if payoff only comes to those owners who have already taken it?

Tortuous Giving Was My Mistake

I worked incredibly hard for 10 years building a small business.  I’m proud to say I viewed myself as a servant leader.   I prioritized the needs of others.  Not just ahead of myself, but instead of myself.  

That seems like noble sentiment doesn’t it?  I still believe that’s how leadership is supposed to be, and in some ways that approach was successful.  My work, and the work of the team, grew the business to 50 full-time employees.   The problem was that giving was exclusionary for me.  I just gave.  I never took.

  • My salary sucked.
  • Benefits were scarce.
  • I worked uncounted uncompensated hours.
  • Building the business was a constant act of suffering.

My noble, unselfish purpose should have protected me right?  The truth is my “nobility” was flawed.  It wasn’t quite as unselfish as it seemed.  It was secretly fueled by an hidden, internal, ultimately faulty belief. 

As I endured all these struggles, I did so believing that I was going to get paid off for that sacrifice.  I thought I was investing in the future where my return would be exponential.  I believed that I was suffering now, but when I was ready, I could sell the business and collect my massive reward.

I wasn’t taking now because I thought my buyer would give me my reward.

Strangely, I was to learn that business buyer’s are the ones who expect a reward for buying a business.

Results are What’s Already In Your Belly

When I first explored selling my business, I learned cruelly fast that actual, tangible, kept and consumed results are what buyers are willing to pay for.   I would talk with a business broker who would seem very interested in my business, and then they would finally ask:

How much profit did you make the last three years?

How much salary did you take the last three years?

I would answer those questions honestly – and find the broker couldn’t get off the phone fast enough.  On stage it looked like I was running a successful business, but behind the curtain the reality was tragically fragile.   When they actually looked at my business results, the brokers realized that I had never really taken a bite.

Not a single one.

And they knew buyers were way hungrier than that.

Take Your Bite

At some point, if you’re serious about surviving as a business owner, or if you ever want to see some tangible pay-back for your investment, you need to stop and tell your business . . .

It’s my turn.  Feed me.

First, let’s state the obvious: you can’t take what your business doesn’t have to give.

You’re burning through your nest-egg, not showing a profit, but still taking a salary of $150,000?

Yep, she was.  And she thought she was worth it even as her two-year-old, small company crumbled around her. 

This is not what I’m advocating.

Taking more than the business can give is stupid, but I learned it’s equally stupid to believe that you can suffer your way to a jackpot.   You have to take bites when you can.  Your business is never going to volunteer to give back to you.  In fact, it’s going to get more and more demanding of your time, money and energy as it grows.  It will take all you give and still demand something else.  There will always be 100 open mouths crying out for that spoonful you are considering for yourself. 

Swallow it anyways.

Take Enough to Be Desirable

Hey!  Mr. Small Business Buyer.  Look over here.

See the income my business generates for me.

Check out the perks of ownership.

I’ve had these for years.

Wouldn’t you like these?

They can be yours for this price.

If you dream of a successful exit, everything else aside, your results must be desirable!  By results, I mean what you’ve already, actually allowed yourself to consume.  Not what simply survived long enough to hit a monthly profit number (but disappeared before tax time).

We made a lot of money last year but reinvested it back into the business.

That doesn’t count.  You need to actually take from your business in retained profit, salary or some other document-able owner’s benefit.  That track record of taking, that proof of your business’ ability to give to you, is what buyers buy.

You Are More Important

I still believe in servant leadership, but I learned the hard way that a business has only one irreplaceable asset.

It’s not your employees – you can hire more.

It’s not your clients – you can find more.

Secret formulas, ideas or competitive advantages . . . these things come and go.

The truly irreplaceable asset your business has is you.   When that’s gone, burnt up, ready to leave . . . the business is done, so . . .

Keep Giving but Also Take

Give to the business.

Grow the business.

Sacrifice, reinvest and work your ass off.

That’s all good stuff, when it happens at the right time, for the right reason.

And then, when that work starts to pay off, you need to take.

Taking is the only way you set the stage for your payoff.

But that Makes Me Feel Selfish

Once I understood how a buyer was actually going to approach my business, I realized I had to change my eating habits.  Taking was the only way I was ever going to create a business someone else would see as valuable.

But when I started taking money out of the business, I felt like I was selling my business and employees short.

If I believed in what we were doing, I should continue maximizing the investment, right?  Why wasn’t I buying the new equipment, or raising wages more, or giving a better bonus, instead of increasing my salary?  In a word: guilt.

Some of you won’t understand that feeling, but it was very real for me (and I know for others).   Nevertheless, I kept taking.  Not excessively, but appropriate to my work, sacrifice, goals for the future, and business results.

It worked.  Ultimately I built a track record of taking that allowed me to successfully sell the business.

Work hard, sacrifice, but remember a payoff only comes to those small business owners who have already taken it.


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