Businesses are like relationships. Sometimes you just need to move on. But how do you know for sure?
I recently walked out of User Insight, the company I co-founded in 2002, for the last time.
Does that sound daunting and maybe even a little tragic? It shouldn't. This is a very good move for me. It may sound like a cliché, but I am now open to a world of opportunity and have reconnected with my entrepreneurial roots.
That said, the journey to this decision was not an easy one. Like many founders, it probably took me longer than it should have to finally pull the trigger.
One of the main reasons I delayed is that I had successfully innovated User Insight at least three different times in the past decade, taking it from a strictly screen-based usability company to one that solves problems from the perspective of the user. I thought that I could change it one more time to a strategic consulting organization, one that worked closely with the C-suite to apply the research to their product, marketing and experience roadmaps.
This new product, I imagined, would combine a set of technologies into a single unique offer that would unlock the "big data"clients were collecting about their customers.
I was convinced: It was a great idea. The problem was that this change would require a totally different type of relationship with the customer: a retainer relationship, rather than project-based. Delivery would need to change, too, from bottom-up analysis to top-down.
And, there was a another thing: Though I had personal experience with it, building a technology product was a definite departure from User Insight's charter. The most successful way to accomplish this type of goal, I knew, would be to create a nimble, incubator-like environment that relishes uncertainty and can adapt quickly to change.
I had written my own Dear John letter. I decided it was time to build something new, a company that would integrate long term strategic consulting with an innovative technology product that would demystify marketing departments' "big data" into meaningful strategies.
Is it time for you to go? Here are some signs:
You Outgrow Your Company
This happens when you start describing the work that the company does and realize it's not really the work you do or want to do.
This was the turning point for me at User Insight. I was working with a colleague to restate the language on the company website. Halfway through this exercise, I realized I was describing what I enjoyed most: working with our clients to apply what we had learned during the research to their strategic direction. But I wasn't describing what User Insight does best: providing high quality research at lightning speed.
User Insight is the one of the best, fastest qualitative research organizations in world. That's a good thing. I needed to step aside and let the company do what it does best. Instead of trying to make the company conform to me, I needed to create something new that would satisfy my itch for a new product and a different client relationship.
Your Company Outgrows You
This is something that others often have to tell you. You just aren't up to the demands the job is placing on you, or you don't have the vision to take the company to the next level.
How can you tell if this is true? If you find things are not working exactly the way you expect, you can join an organization like Vistage, a peer group of CEOs, or hire an outside consultant to look at your business and give you an unbiased opinion. You shouldn't be afraid if someone tells you that you're not the right fit for the company's next stage--it's not a bad thing. Some entrepreneurs have built an entire career out of starting companies while others specialize on going into an existing organization and taking it to the next level. There is a place for every type of entrepreneur.
You Aren't "Into It" Anymore
When the company you have created starts to feel like a job, it may be time to look elsewhere. A friend of mine says that we entrepreneurs can create "self-made prisons."
You should wake up every morning in love with what you are doing, ready to take on the world. No one will ever care for your company more than you. It needs your fire and very best effort. Once it begins to feel like a job, figure out the parts that are bothering you and delegate them. If delegating and getting yourself into a place of creativity and vision doesn't help, then you may not be in love anymore. And that may mean it's time to go.
When It's Harder Than It Should Be
Remember when you broke up with your college boyfriend or girlfriend? It suddenly felt too hard. Don't get me wrong--I'm not telling you that starting and running business should be easy, but there is a point at which it's harder than it should be. If you're running into roadblocks when you try to move your vision forward, it's time to reevaluate. Are signs pointing toward something new or different?
So what am I doing now? I am in the process of writing a book that is slated to be published in mid-2013. I've started a new company called Laddering Works--based on that new idea--that will uniquely unlock the "big data" being collected by marketing departments. I am also taking my radio show, The "Better You" Project, one step forward to establish The Better You Network, which will specifically help small business owners succeed by providing support through a network of like-minded and like-industry companies.
In other words, I am very busy and very much in love again. And isn't that what it's all about?
ERIC V. HOLTZCLAW is a serial entrepreneur who has founded multiple startup companies, including one of the first profitable Internet enterprises. His last company appeared on the Inc. 5000 list three years in a row. Eric advises clients on the “whys” of business – why customers buy, why teams work and the all-important “entrepreneurial why”. He is the author of Laddering and his weekly radio show, The 'Better You' Project, shines a spotlight on entrepreneurs' individual business journeys and successes. Learn more about Eric at www.ladderingworks.com or e-mail email@example.com. @eholtzclaw