The day that we officially sold our business, I left our attorney’s office and headed directly to my daughter’s elementary school. I was scheduled to be a parent volunteer in her classroom. The next thing I knew, I was in a classroom of 20 second graders who didn’t know, and more importantly didn’t care, that I had just signed away my business.
It was surreal. I had half-expected some sort of fireworks display or a parade, but it was the complete opposite. I was left to deal with my conflicted emotions on my own. For the duration of the school day, I directed my energy into helping seven-year-olds write and illustrate stories.
That evening, I met up with my business partner Joel Pearlman for a celebration dinner. We were both exhausted. Joel had a horrible cold, and we weren’t in much of a celebratory mood. If we had been looking for signs that this decision might not play out as we hoped, they were right in front of us that day.
After 14 years in business together, Joel and I were approached by a billion-dollar, public company to sell them our managed print services company, imageOne, and stay on to operate it as a wholly-owned subsidiary. We would have an upfront payout, a three-year employment contract, and an additional payout over the next three years if we hit extremely realistic goals.
It seemed that selling would also bring some additional security and opportunity to our employees. Since the proposal would keep imageOne as a wholly-owned subsidiary, we would not have to reduce our staff. On the surface, it seemed like selling was a no-brainer – with access to their 500 salespeople across the country, it wouldn’t take much effort to take imageOne from $6,000,000 to over $50,000,000 in the next few years.
Although we were excited about the offer, I found myself becoming extremely stressed and anxious during the period of due diligence on the part of both companies. We were juggling the daily tasks of running the business while going through the process of selling the company – in what I’ll admit was a rather secretive manner.
We were not sharing what was happening with the rest of our team, which was entirely out of alignment with how we normally ran the business. Joel and I are passionate, transparent leaders, and staying on the same page with employees has always been a key practice. Although selling wasn’t something we had ever intended to do, we moved forward, and within a few months, we had officially sold the company.
Joel and I had been our own bosses since the day we graduated college and started imageOne together. Suddenly, we were employees in a large, public company with more than 3,000 employees.
While there were great people at the company, it didn’t take long for us to realize that we weren’t clicking with this new culture. Joel and I have been entrepreneurs our entire lives, and when we have a vision, we want to act on it immediately. In our new roles, there were chains of commands to follow, procedures, and bosses to whom we had to answer.
It was becoming clear to us that while selling was a strategic move, it didn’t serve our purpose as leaders. Trying to make employees out of two entrepreneurs is like putting a round peg in a square hole. More importantly, the move distanced us from our employees, our community, and our clients.
Soon enough, we were daydreaming about the end of our contracts and starting a new business together. We knew we wouldn’t stay with the company any longer than we had to.
We were ready and waiting to move on and find our next big thing – and then, a phone call. A new CEO had come into the company just over a year into our contracts, and we decided to meet with him and discuss our frustrations. He heard us out, and a month later, he contacted us and said that managed print services – essentially imageOne – wouldn’t be part of their strategy moving forward.
“Would you like to have the company back?”
We didn’t quite know what to do. Joel and I had spent over a year discontent in our new roles, and we were starting to lose our passion for the industry. But this phone call offered us the unique opportunity to buy back what we missed so dearly: the company we had started together, our employees, and the opportunity to build an extraordinary culture.
A Renewed Path Forward
Joel and I did some soul-searching, and in some ways, the soul found us. Amidst all of this, a book called Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead of Big came across my desk. At the same time, I was nine months into my meditation practice (I’m now twelve years in!) and I was learning how to better handle stressful situations and stay open to new ideas.
Curious, I read the book with urgency, absorbing the stories of companies across the country that were doing business differently and succeeding. These companies put people before profit, invested in great company culture, and were committed to their communities—and it gave them great financial returns!
I saw in their stories what Joel and I had been building at imageOne, and what we could still accomplish if we took the company back and committed to purpose-driven leadership. I shared the book with Joel and he was just as excited.
Ultimately, we bought back the company. People are often surprised to learn that, upon reflection, we didn’t regret having sold the company in the first place – we learned a lot about what we want from business and what we don’t, and we were given the unique opportunity to reconcile the two. We took back our company, and we decided to return to the aspects of business that attracted us in the first place.
Today, the company we started in 1991 as eager college grads is a profitable company, and in 2017 we were humbled to receive word that we were listed as one of 25 Forbes Small Giants.
Most importantly, Joel and I now lead a company that positively impacts the lives of our employees, our clients and our community. It took losing our company to realize what we really wanted to build, but the lessons learned made the journey that much richer.