Spanish cellist and conductor Pablo Casals once said, “To retire is to die.”
It is with discomfort and considerable squirming that I report I am no longer an active entrepreneur. I am a retired entrepreneur. In effect, I have been retired since I quietly passed on my company to my employees at the end of 2015. Yes, I still write this as the Founder of a corporation, but the truth is I am no longer an active practitioner of our noble vocation.
The transition to being a non-owner has been such a difficult and uneasy process for me. I utterly haven’t wanted to let people know I’d decided to hang up my entrepreneurial spurs. I have been unwilling and unable to publicly and proactively declare my change in life direction–or to declare I am letting go an old life. (As Neil Sedaka puts it, “Breaking up is hard to do.”) For example, when an interviewer recently introduced me as CEO of my former firm on a podcast, I simply didn’t bother to correct the impression. I was a closeted retiree. Perhaps this column is my coming out, as it were.
As I look inside myself, I find I am reluctant to give up my professional identity publicly. I haven’t redefined myself yet in terms of the next phase of my life. I sit in the limbo of a vocational vacuum. Though I have told some friends, I have an interior dread that my acquaintances and long-time small business colleagues will not longer respect me or want to know me or to read my column.
I am suffering from a soul fear. My fear is of being seen as an an irrelevancy, an entrepreneur without portfolio, of becoming a crotchety retired guy fading into a curmudgeonly irrelevance.
In fact, I am still an impassioned student and acolyte of entrepreneurship. My belief in entrepreneurship has never been so strong and certain. I have just chosen to not practice it actively any more since last year for a variety of personal and financial reasons.
While my company grew healthily for a number of years–it was part of the Inc. 5000–and enjoyed substantial respect and reputation, the daily process of the entrepreneurial slog began to feel rote. I had accomplished what I personally wanted–to create a through-branded company based in truth, discreet efficacy, service, and profitability. A company based in practical love. A company I could live in. A company that made me and the people it touched better.
However, the truth I is my business attention was waning. And this waning began to show in the bottom line. Profitability was more than lagging. I wanted to do something else, even though I did not know what it was.
So I stopped.
My old company gave me the emeritus title of Chief Culture Officer and kept my phone extension in their system till this year, but in truth I had almost no contact and no duties or power with my former company.
I think the process of withdrawing from your own company is very similar to mourning a death. Note Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief in her seminal book Death and Dying:
Additionally, there are moments when I feel an ego deflation. It’s a change to not be the big fish in my own small pond, to not be king of my own private Idaho. As Mel Brooks puts it, “It’s good to be king.”
My former company was my primary personal community and home to my spirit and lived beliefs. So for me and, I believe, most entrepreneurs, a business leave-taking is so much more than departing a job.
I think most folks believe the purpose of business is to make money, to amass wealth. But that has not been so for me. I believe and have found that business is a vehicle for meaning. Even without the financial rewards, the business journey is a reward in itself. It is a unique vehicle of calling, centering, and service, of finding integrity, freedom, personal dignity, and spiritual reality through an activity most would identify as quotidian and earthbound.
I intend to stay active in the local and national business community, still write this column, and perhaps start another venture eventually. I do want to continue to write and think about how business can be a conduit for meaning. Nevertheless, perhaps one truly needs to let go the known old to open up to the unknown new.
On his retirement from Cornell, Professor Scott Elledge said the following: “It is time I stepped aside for a less experienced, and less able man.” Thank you very much, Dr. Elledge.