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How to Know When It's Time to Quit Your Business

A self-diagnosis can help you determine when it's time to walk away from your company.
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I have found that success in business is, in many ways, an internal game. Everything you do is a result of how you think. In one of my favorite books, "Think and Grow Rich," I learned one of the most important lessons of my entrepreneurial career and life: you become what you think about. If you do not think strategically, you’re going in the wrong direction. If that starts to happen in the course of running a business, it may be time to step aside. So how does a business owner recognize the signs that they may need to pass the reins of their business to someone else?

Below are 4 ways you can self-diagnose and determine whether or not you should quit.

1. You’re struggling to get out of bed each morning.

This is, in many ways, the easiest indicator. It's definitely time to turn over the reins or get out of a business when you find yourself not wanting to go to work every day. A surefire indication of trouble is when you have very little desire to work weekends. Unfortunately, this feeling sort of creeps up on you, kind of like gaining weight. It's difficult for most of us to get our arms around it, because it's a gradual disenchantment. In fact, some people unfortunately stay in business too long, and the resulting bad attitude tends to cascade through the whole company. At that point, it becomes too late to step aside. You've already polluted the surrounding crops. This leads me to the next indicator.

2. You’re lashing out at employees and discouraging them.

Do the minor irritations or mistakes that employees make bother you more now than they did when you first started at the company? When you find yourself getting more and more irritated with the people you’re working with, that may be a sign that your turn is over.

Now, in order to have a clear conscience, I must distinguish between two very separate ideas: The first is managing people and pushing people hard in order to get more out of them; the second is general irritation and negativity that tends to pervade everything you do. Those distinctions can be very subtle. Some of the best entrepreneurs are very hard people; they're hard on themselves and their colleagues. That does not mean that they should turn over the reins; in fact, that kind of drive and willingness to push is vital to the success and growth of most businesses.

But if you find yourself getting fatigued and irritable, and directing this negativity toward employees, then you really need to think about whether you need to be in the company; the last thing that you want to be is a liability for morale. I have a friend who, before he sold a big part of his company, referred to himself as the black cloud, going from meeting to meeting spreading low-grade misery wherever he went. He knew it was time to get out. If you're becoming the Grim Reaper of your office, it may be time for you to get out as well.

3. People who you trust notice a change.

You need people around you who can give you honest feedback on how your behavior impacts other people. I recommend that every company (even small ones) have an independent board of directors, so that you have people outside of yourself, people who you sincerely trust, giving feedback on all elements of your business. This independent board should also include people who know you well enough that they’ll provide frank and honest feedback about you personally. Ask the individuals in this group whom about their perception of your behavior and impact on the office, with a particular focus on your behavior toward employees. They might be seeing something that you cannot perceive.

4. You’re outwardly expressing frustration with customers.

Your attitude, even internally, towards customers is another terrific point of reference. I've already evangelized at length about the significance of serving customers.  They're the single most important element of running a business. They keep the lights on. Every decent entrepreneur knows that customers are the most (if not the only) important point of value. If you're beginning to show irritability toward customers, whether that means complaining internally to people at your company or engaging directly with customers with any kind of negativity, that’s a solid indication that it may be time to pass over control of the business.

There may be other obvious business and strategic reasons why you’d want to step aside, outside of these psychological reasons. But I really believe that it’s your attitude toward customers and employees that would be the largest drivers in determining when you should sell or step aside to allow another person to run the company.

As is true with personal health, an early diagnosis tends to avoid a much more serious problem (if not fatal problem) later on. You really have to be thoughtful in anticipating this irritability/disenchantment. You must be very honest with yourself about your general feeling about customers and employees. For most of us, there’s an inner voice that lets you know what you really think. Hopefully, you have remained invested enough in the initial vision and mission of the company that you’ll be able to recognize the benefits of passing the reins to someone.  

As painful as it may be initially, if that voice tells you that it's time to turn over control, you ought to listen. It will be the best thing for the company and ultimately, for your own happiness. 

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Apr 23, 2014

BRIAN HAMILTON | Columnist | CEO, Sageworks

Brian Hamilton is the co-founder and chairman of Sageworks, an Inc. 500 honoree. Hamilton is an original co-developer of FIND (Financial Information into Narrative Data), which converts financial numbers into plain language.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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