Getting Out Alive

There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing something you’ve started thriving in your absence.

Earlier this year, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the launch of ICE.

It’s five years this summer since Mandy and I exited from ICE to launch TownSq and look at how we take the lessons learnt there to other communities across the UK.

How’s your day?

I remember the day that we finally concluded the formalities and I went down to Magic Wrap on Cardiff Bay to get my lunch. The guy at the counter asked how my day was and I responded with “I just sold my company”. I didn’t quite know how to feel, it wasn’t so clear to say that it was a good day or a bad day, but that feeling in the moment was strange.

Letting go of something that has been all-encompassing over a significant period of time is not as much of a relief as you might expect. I’d probably describe it as feeling numb.

It’s something that for the longest time you’ve felt solely responsible for, so abandoning it feels irresponsible.

Since becoming a parent that feels like the closest parallel but it wasn’t something I fully understood at the time.

When you’ve had a role which felt 24/7, which was your identity, which was your purpose and in many ways felt like a calling, the departure doesn’t feel like a time to relax but a time to reflect and face the prospect of having to create that all over again.

But one thing that feels particularly satisfying is that — five years on — the team are still going strong and doing more good stuff.

After sharing so many embarrassing photos of everyone else this last week I figured I owed at least this one of me

Exit strategy

People talk about exit strategies, but that doesn’t normally address the sustainability of an organisation that can be at the core of a community and responsible for paying a lot of peoples’ mortgages.

I realised recently that of all the companies I’ve worked for over the years, the only company that I’ve worked for in the last 20 years that is still in existence is the one I co-founded — Welsh ICE.

I think there’s a big perception that starting a business or joining a small business is a risky move, but I think we’ve seen in recent years that there’s no certainty whether large, small, independent or publicly listed.

I talked a bit about this in Make Yourself Redundant — one important part of an exit strategy is to have backfilled with a competent team who can take the organisation forward. But there’s also a loyalty here to the people who created the value that investors and founders are cashing in on.

Companies shut down or companies ditch staff. Loyalty is not judged when you’re creating value for your boss but when the rain comes.

But there’s a bigger challenge here in understanding what the founders’ or owners’ intentions are for the medium and long-term.

What will it take for exit strategies to include accountability and a plan for the team’s financial security and service delivery post-sale?

When you’re writing your exit strategy the current default here is to write something that explains how shareholders and investors can extract value from the organisation. When do I get my big payday to justify the initial backing or support?

Why do we not have exit strategies that focus on how our communities continue to be served and have those priorities locked in for future generations of stakeholders.

When will we have exit strategies that map out how the founders can depart while the organisation continues to thrive?

My personal view is that being a B Corp could play a role here but it isn’t a suit of armour.

People often ask me if I’m proud of what we built but I don’t believe in pride. I’ll write more about that in a future post. What I feel satisfied by is that the foundations have been solid and I really hope we can look forward to a big party for the 20th anniversary.

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.