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Should a startup have an exit strategy?

Written on: Oct. 19, 2015

Director magazine recently published a video and transcript of an Institute of Directors roundtable breakfast discussion in which I participated in London over the summer.

I was one of a number of business owners discussing the topic of exit strategies, trying to answer questions such as "when should a business owner start thinking about an exit strategy?" and "what’s the best exit strategy?" The idea was that our answers might prove useful to new directors and entrepreneurs. If you are interested in these topics, or just want to laugh at numerous shots of me trying to eat politely, then you can watch the video below or read the full write-up.

When our PR team asked if they could try to get me in as a participant my immediate reaction was "Breakfast and talking are two of my favourite things - sure!" but I warned that my advice on an exit strategy would be "Don’t have one". Perhaps this is why I soon received an invitation to attend - they probably pictured me as a maverick from Brighton who was likely to disagree with everyone else. I’m sure roundtable arguments are much more interesting than roundtable discussions.

On the early train up to London I started planning what I would say, based on my own experience. When Eric and I were running Bright Interactive in the early days we didn't have an exit strategy. Our aim was to build a sustainable business while enjoying what we were doing. This wasn't really deliberate - we didn't make a strategic decision not to have an exit strategy - it just didn't occur to us at that time. We were too busy trying to find clients and then deliver successful software development projects for them. So I planned to deliver my advice in two parts:

  1. Your business is much more likely to succeed if you are doing something you are passionate about and enjoy. And if this is the case, why are you so desperate to leave? Do you really want to spend the rest of your life sipping cocktails on a beach? (Ok, maybe don’t answer that one).
  2. You should focus on building a sustainable business - obsessing about profits and how to sell the business for £££ is unlikely to be helpful with this.

For Bright Interactive a sustainable business means seeking out and delivering real value to our customers, looking after and growing our team, and being a valuable participant in our communities (local, national, and global, including online). Profitability is important for us as without it we can't do any of the other stuff but it is certainly not our singular objective. If you start a business with an exit strategy that involves making lots of money you risk creating a business that puts profit above all else, which can lead to unhealthy behaviour and short-termism.

I had finished my planning notes by East Croydon and so, with about 20 minutes left, I settled back to continue reading about Sociocracy and Holacracy. Both are systems of organisational governance that aim for distributed authority instead of a traditional management hierarchy - which chimes with what we do at Bright Interactive. I was studying them to see if they contain any ideas or techniques we might want to use.

About a year ago we restructured our company into self-managed teams and our current structure looks a bit like Spotify’s (which is described in this great video about Spotify's Engineering Culture), although we’re probably not quite as cool. Our reasons for this were in keeping with our company philosophy of sustainability and team happiness. We hire really clever people who have great ideas and want to solve their own problems- and the culture produced by a hierarchical management structure is not well suited to this.

I was thinking about this as the train drew into London Victoria and I realised that by working towards a company that runs itself, through self-managed teams, in fact Eric and I have unconsciously formed an exit strategy for our business, should we want one. It is a healthy one that I would recommend to anyone running a business- aim to make yourself redundant.

So, when it came to it, my advice became: "Do something you are passionate about. Build a sustainable business. Grow by distributing authority so you can exit easily if you ever want to".

Hopefully this message came across ok. My delivery may have been slightly off - I’ve never been filmed eating breakfast before, and I was concentrating on looking like I know how to eat a bacon sandwich. (Bear in mind this was just after that photo of Ed Miliband).

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