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

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 felt the call to step away, have uninterrupted family time, and write books and work at my own pace. It started then.

Running a service-based business is tough stuff. While we’ve set it up today to run itself, and it truly does – our team has the best managers and staff it ever has (shoutout to Korilynn and Nicole!), this business took up the majority of my creative energy on a weekly basis.

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, and we set those up; but it’s never fully easy. Sometimes it’s not in the workload, because you can diminish that, but it’s in the ability to have creative freedom – which you cannot have when you’re responsible for million-dollar client accounts.

The brand we built to where it is today is something I’m incredibly proud of. Express Writers is a formidable brand, and it is an industry leader. We grew it to that pinnacle across the last decade.

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 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 our branding, over the years.

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, 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 went to a broker.

We were referred to a broker in Austin, 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 one broker. If you feel you aren’t getting the multiplier you want, or the value you deserve, get a new one.

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

We were very happy with the process and work that Quiet Light Brokerage did to feature us.

The process itself 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.

Chris said that buyers expect slumps when an economy is down, and prefer that to artificial inflation. So, our one-month heavy downtrend in Q4 2020 from COVID budgets didn’t really affect anything too much.

Our former broker, the one we cut ties with, didn’t like this 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. We filled the income and added double. Boom!

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.

But me there in the day-to-day? Well, I never had a single client meeting – except the ones I took for fun! I also didn’t even meet with my team. We just chatted in Slack.

I created a sustainable brand that wasn’t based on my name—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.

free class

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. 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 will be full-time coaching students on their best success now, via Content Hacker. Learn more.

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.

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 my students. The Content Hacker is my grassroots, organically-grown community of growth-focused content marketers, where I teach people how to build sustainability in their content and businesses.

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. Hasta la vista!

About Julia McCoy

Julia McCoy is an entrepreneur, 6x author, and a leading strategist around creating exceptional content and brand presence that lasts online. At 19 years old, in 2011, she used her last $75 to build a 7-figure agency, Express Writers, which she grew to $5M and sold ten years later. In the 2020s, she's devoted to running The Content Hacker, where she teaches creative entrepreneurs the strategy, skills, and systems they need to build a self-sustaining business, so they are finally freed up to create lasting legacy and generational impact.