I Sold My Business. Lessons Learned, and What's Next

I sold my business

On September 28, I sold my agency of ten years, Express Writers, to a wonderful set of buyers, Adam and Alicia Oakley.

I will be transitioning fully out of Express Writers, and no longer in any sort of role in my business. I'm thrilled to focus on The Content Hacker, writing books, and what I love doing.

Are you thinking of an exit, or wondering what that looks like?

Here's how I sold my business, so you can consider if selling yours is the right move for you, too.

Enjoy!

I Sold Express Writers!

As of today, the sale is complete, and we’re moving our new owners into Express Writers in a transition. Express Writers, my baby of 10 years, is no longer mine. I will definitely miss certain aspects of the business, but it’s been a long, hard ten years, and I'm thrilled to step away for more family time, book writing, and coaching. (Perfect timing: We just announced that our 2nd (human, lol) baby is on the way.)

How I Sold My Business: The Video

 


 

How I Sold My Business: The Deciding Moment

The process of selling my agency started back in 2018.

I remember this extremely pivotal moment when I looked at my husband and said, "I can't do this anymore." 

Our lead manager had just sent us an "I'm leaving" email. It was a Saturday morning, and it was the second manager in three years that had quit suddenly. The mayhem that followed was almost unbearable. Everything landed on me, and I had to spend ten and twelve hour days mending the business, unable to take my kid to school or her after-school activities.

I remember telling my husband that Saturday, in tears, "Why can't I write my own resignation letter to Express Writers?" 😂  We were on our way back from a weekend trip to a science mill, and the devastation at losing a key manager had us silent the whole ride home. In those moments, it feels like everything is crashing down around you. (I'm a very sensing introvert, which doesn't help.)

I was burned out. I felt the call to step away, have uninterrupted family time, and write books and work at my own pace. I’d never had the luxury of that, in the decade I’ve been the entrepreneur behind Express Writers. Running a service-based business is tough stuff. While we’ve set it up today to run itself, and our team has the best managers and staff it ever has (shoutout to Korilynn and Nicole!), this business most often ran me in the last ten years.

Starting and growing a successful million-dollar business is not glamorous, and is in fact very, very hard. Don’t let anyone sugarcoat this truth. Sure, there are easier ways to do what you do, but it’s never fully easy.

However, the brand we built to where it is today is something I'm incredibly proud of. Express Writers is a formidable brand, and has all the makings of an industry leader, which is where I believe the new owners will take it to. From the very beginning, when I was a mere brand-new 19 year old simply building a business to follow my passion, my approach was people-first, at all times. If I had paying clients, and the right writers, I somehow believed everything else would fall into place.

I am shocked looking back how this approach has truly been the catalyst to grow our business multiple times. Everything else actually did fall into place, even if it was messy at times, including our branding, which went through many stages of evolution.

express writers brandingPeople first. Always. Delight your clients. Hire the best team. Solve the problems, actively. The revenue will follow.

Our ten-year growth curve wasn't a straight-up shot. It was slow and steady, and once you took away the drama of the various years (two managers embezzling from us in 2016, COVID hitting us in 2020, etc.); we had a strong upwards trend. We had a strong business.

express writers income graph

Since I was completely new to the idea of selling a business, I first went and asked for great advice from other agency and brand owners that sold: Ryan Stewart (Webris exit), Joe Pulizzi ($13M CMI exit), were two that I talked to, among others.

I received great advice, the best from Joe Pulizzi:

“Be prepared for the hardest month or two of your life in due diligence. It was worse than taking exams for a doctorate.”

My industry friends advised me to find a friend that had an executive role in a big marketing company, and try to sell to them. However, everyone I went to wasn't interested – a combination of not the right time, not the right place. So, we had little choice other than to go and seek outside help.

We started out with unsuccessful attempts at selling for two years, because we had the wrong broker. We were referred to a broker in Austin and kept with him, but he ended up bringing us buyers that weren’t suited to our business, and we had potential deals that all fell through. This would be an important takeaway; never settle with the broker you're listing with. If you feel you aren't getting the multiplier you want, or the value you deserve, walk – or, run.

In the end, I was done settling my own research, and ended up using a brokerage that specialized in selling ecommerce businesses: Quiet Light Brokerage.

We were very happy with the process and work that Quiet Light Brokerage did to feature us. They had an internal list of tens of thousands of business owners and entrepreneurs that had real interest in buying e-commerce businesses.

The rest of the process was quite grueling. It’s hard to describe, more something you have to go through to understand. The stages of selling were these:

  1. Listing the Business (30 days; I had to write a 10,000w memorandum and SWOT analysis, record a welcome video, gather 4 years of P&Ls and financial history, and get listed by Quiet Light)
  2. Meetings with Potential Buyers (1 week)
  3. Picking an Offer (2 days—we were fast!)
  4. Due Diligence (1 month)
  5. Bank, Attorney, Legal Forms Process (Months)

Total timeline: 4 months

5 Lessons (+ a Bonus) from How I Sold I Business: Or, What I Wish I Knew Before I Sold

1. Income slumps related to the economy AREN’T something to fear.

 We got some great advice from Chris at Quiet Light Brokerage. I was afraid our COVID income slump (we lost 50% of our revenue one month that year) would affect us, and asked him when we listed how buyers would see that.

Chris said that on the contrary, buyers expect slumps when an economy is down, and prefer that to artificial inflation that year. So, our downtrend in Q4 2020 didn’t really affect too much.

Our former broker, the one we cut ties with, didn't like our 2020 slump and said very few people would be interested in buying our business. Gosh, was he wrong!

2. What’s important is that you recover from any economy slumps.

 What was important was that we were recovering in 2021, and we could certainly prove that we were. So, if you have a downward trend, don’t be too worried about it as long as you can prove recent growth. And we could. We'd worked hard to rebuild and gain new clients.

3. Rules of thumb: have clean books, clean finances, a clean business structure.

Think about your finances before you sell, not when you sell. Have clean books long before you list. Have a clear structure (we’re an S Corp with only a couple employees, and a team of W2 contractors). We have a bookkeeper, an accountant, a tax advisor—that’s a team of three people just to manage clean finances. And I’ve never been more thankful I pay them for their time. Clean books was a big plus.

However, that said, be ready for a tough process.

I thought our books were clean, but the due diligence process STILL wasn’t easy and quite the bear. Honestly? It felt like watching all your underwear in your closet get turned inside out by complete strangers. Or like an exam you never prepared for correctly because you didn’t know all the roads the questions were going to take. It was tough.

Joe Pulizzi, you were dead on.

4. Remember, you are in control the whole time. Not your broker.

I wish I realized this early on. You, the seller, are selling a great business; don’t forget that. We let the first broker almost demean us. “Your business isn’t worth the trouble for me anymore,” he told us at the end of those unsuccessful two years. He didn’t see the value of his time getting sucked in.

When we saw what a successful broker could do (an accepted offer in 7 days, not to mention our business was one of their hottest listings that spring), I was reminded that we do have a great business. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. In fact, run from brokers that tell you things like this.

5. Make sure your company doesn't depend on YOU to run it.

I can’t tell you how many times I had to explain that Express Writers doesn’t need Julia McCoy to run. It does need its salesperson. It’s content manager. It’s writers. And thankfully, the brand isn’t based on my name, truly—it’s based on the worth, the value, and the team we’ve built it on. So if you want to build a million dollar brand, that brand can’t depend on you. Meaning if you step away, the business still needs to be able to run. Get your processes, delegation, and team figured out if you'd like to exit your business one day.

Psst… I teach that! Enroll in the one-hour Agency & Business Setup workshop.

Last Tip: Go with your gut.

In the end, we picked buyers that weren’t as "good" on paper/resume-wise compared to the other buyers we had offers from. But in the end, I know we picked the right buyers, because we went with our hearts and intuition. Always follow your gut.

What’s Next for Me

It made me smile when Sarah Wood, one of my students, guessed on Twitter that I'd be a full-time novelist.

As I mentioned, creating content that brings impact is one of my core purposes in life. You won’t see me leaving content marketing anytime soon.

I do plan to write many more books. And not just in the marketing genre, although I’ll certainly continue to write marketing and entrepreneurial guidebooks, since I’ve heard so many good things from you all regarding the four I do have out.

It’s in my heart to reach the YA fiction audience, with a series I’ve been dreaming up for a while now. I just announced the launch of an upcoming fiction trilogy I’ve been writing on and off the past year, Earth Begins, a neo-western apocalyptic fiction featuring a magical tree, two different realms on earth, gritty yet surprising characters, and a plot that will have you on the edge of your seat. Surprise, surprise!

The first of many fantasy series I plan to write post-exit. My passion is writing gripping stories, and I’m going back to my roots with the creation of Earth Begins, a neo-western apocalyptic story unlike anything you’ve ever read before.

A scene from Earth Begins.

Get on the waitlist for my novel coming summer 2022: earthbegins.com

My first goal is to take some real time off with my family, especially during the upcoming holidays this year. Although I’ve taken vacations, I’ve never had a true “offline” day in, well, ten years since I started this business. Running Express Writers is too demanding for me to be able to go offline much. Our team is lean and small, but that means I’m usually doing a lot to fill gaps, even on weekends. So, first rule of order, I’m truly looking forward to real time off with the family. We have a second on the way due March 2022, and I’m excited at the chance to take time off when baby #2 makes his appearance and enjoy home and family.

Next, I’ll focus on a part-time schedule working through The Content Hacker™ with my students and 1:1 clients. The Content Hacker is my grassroots, organically-grown community of growth-focused content marketers, where I teach and ghostwrite for high-level clients (that sometimes come back full-circle to work with Express Writers, which I love seeing).

I’m thrilled to venture into more of what I love, and go back to my roots of writing for the sheer enjoyment of creating beautiful content that matters, enriches lives, and feeds the soul. Earth Begins is a pinnacle of all of those things, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

Till we meet again in content. Hasta la vista!

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I sold my business

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