You created it, raised funds for it, nurtured it, made it a success, and spent all of your time and energy growing it. And now you've sold your business.
You should feel great—proud of your accomplishments, but instead you feel a little bereft. Why?
Selling a business can be a "psychological trauma" akin to losing a loved one, says J. Michael Haynie, Ph.D., vice chancellor for innovation at Syracuse University, and an expert on entrepreneurship. "For entrepreneurs, their very identity, their sense of self, becomes defined by their venture. They say, 'My business is my baby.'"
The emotional fallout of selling a business often has a lot in common with postpartum depression, says Michael A. Freeman, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco and executive coach who specializes in helping entrepreneurs.
"There's a huge amount of loss and grieving when you basically give up your baby," he says. "As a business owner, you have a sense of pride, accomplishment, and the respect of the employees, customers, and suppliers, and you have a position of authority and power, and the ability to implement your creative ideas and execute on your vision and strategy. And you have status—people seek you out." When you sell your business, you go from having people who report to you, chase you for your advice, and make no move without your blessing to sitting alone in your house wondering what comes next. Unless you have planned.
"Selling a business does not happen overnight; it's an exit strategy. And some of that strategy should include human terms," Freeman says.
"The most successful entrepreneurs are able to identify a new mission, new passion, new opportunity," Haynie says. And it's not money that's a motivating force, but a desire to tackle a problem. Entrepreneurship, at its core, "is really about solving a problem in a new and novel way that changes the world." Finding your next chapter is about the same thing. Just as you pay special attention to investing and managing the profit from the sale, you need to manage your personal transition:
Plan, Plan, Plan: Ideally, before you sell your business, you should plan for what your life will look like afterwards. It's similar to retirement. "You don't just retire from your career, you retire into what's coming next," Freeman says.
"Purposeful planning related to 'what's next' for the entrepreneur goes a long way toward undercutting the stress and anxiety sometimes associated with venture exit," Haynie says.
Investing well will protect your financial health while personal planning can help your mental and physical health. People who don't plan "get lonely and depressed and may even suffer cognitive decline," Freeman says.
Find Your Meaning: Successful entrepreneurs make purposeful meaning of their lives. "This is not something that comes to individuals in a mystical and magical way, complete and fully formed," says Haynie. "Instead, it's about looking at the resources you have to create something new and novel. It's about trial and error. It's about incremental creation." What passions do you have? What energizes you? What are you free from now that will allow you to do other things? Answering these questions can go a long way to guiding what you do next.
Stoke Up Your Social Networks: Reaching out to friends and business colleagues, especially those who may have gone through exactly what you're going through, may help you navigate the ups and downs that come with selling a business. The more you socialize, the more likely you also are to be inspired.
Don't Dwell on The Past: The people who struggle most after selling a business are the ones who obsess about what they've lost and get mired in their "glory days," says Haynie. Some suffer from what psychologists call "counterfactual regrets," a tendency to create "alternative" versions of the experiences you had in your entrepreneurial life. You may wonder if you got the very best deal for your company or whether certain decisions you made could have been done differently. Often, this is related to a fear of losing status and identity, Haynie says. Don't dwell on what might have been. Instead, look forward and be open to learning from others. "The myth of the lone wolf entrepreneur is just that—a myth," he adds.
When you sell your business it may be tempting to go on a permanent vacation or imagine you'll play golf for the rest of your life, but as someone who thrives on intellectual and cognitive challenges, as most entrepreneurs do, you will not be happy doing that. Instead, join organizations, clubs, boards, or philanthropies whose missions align with your own. Once you start getting more involved, you'll strike onto what's next.