How I grew
then exited my business

How I grew
then exited my business

Business Factfile

Business Owner:

Lucy Hackshaw

Business Name:

Seen Displays Limited

Business Sector:

Retail, Design

Business Formed:

2013

Business Exited:

2018

Growing then selling a business is the ideal journey for many business owners and serial entrepreneurs.

While lots is written about that journey from a financial point of view, the emotional side of things is often overlooked. We spoke to Lucy Hackshaw, founder of Seen Displays Limited, about the emotional aspects of growing then exiting a business.

Transition: From employee to employer

Lucy Hackshaw launched her first business in 2013. Setting up on her own had always been an aspiration but that dream became a reality, unexpectedly, over a cup of tea with a friend.

“I told my friend that I was planning to leave my editorial role to work freelance in retail design and project management. She said, ‘I’ll invest in you’ and so it began,” Lucy explained.

“She’d asked me to go into business with her before, but the time wasn’t right. When she suggested the idea again, I decided to go for it!

“I started the business with one full-time employee – me! – and shared an office with the shareholders I went into business with. They held the majority stake (60%), although I had significant control as the individual with the largest share value (40%).”

Getting an established company to incubate and support an unproven one isn’t considered a common route to market. Consequently, Lucy’s business journey can be seen as unique.

The pitfalls

However, the support of such a long-standing business didn’t come without its drawbacks.

“For me, the benefits of being incubated were clear,” Lucy said. “Premises in central London, client leads, credibility, cashflow and access to a shared financial department are huge advantages for a fledgling business. It provided structure, pushed me with stretch targets and accelerated growth.

“But on the flipside, I was expected to build, run and manage a team – which I’d never done before. There was no emotional support or leadership training. It was a long, lonely and tough first three years with lots of failures, learning, and staff issues.”

“I struggled with impostor syndrome and doubted my credibility constantly as I hadn’t run or led a business before. But as I grew with the business, that changed.”

Lucy Hackshaw Founder, Seen Displays Ltd

Business growth: Ambitions

Seen Displays scaled steadily and, by 2018, had expanded to 20 employees and outgrown its third studio.

“A design and delivery team of 20 full-time employees is considered large in the retail design sector. I didn’t imagine growing into such a big team – I thought there would be a core of five to eight full-time employees.

“But I also never imagined we’d become one of the market leaders in the sector or be able to support some of the biggest high-street and luxury brands.

“We were outperforming the competition and sustaining 15% net profit with 3x growth after year one and 2x growth year on year after that. We never advertised, we simply cared about delivering great work and scaled with demand.”

Struggle

Seen Displays’ story sounds smooth. However, it wasn’t all straightforward for Lucy and it didn’t always follow the path that she’d envisioned at the start.

“I always saw Seen Displays as a chapter of my life and an exit was always part of my plan once I’d delivered proof of concept," Lucy said.

“But my exit came two years later than I anticipated. The first two years were especially hard. I was working six, sometimes seven days a week. By year three I was able to work fewer hours and realised I had more in the tank. It was less stressful and more enjoyable, but I still couldn’t switch off.”

“Approaching the end of year two I was still very reactive – the threat of uncertainty was high, and I felt disconnected as I had very little senior support. I lived in a state of alertness, always primed for that client call, and ready to jump in and support the team with the next inevitable crises.”

Lucy Hackshaw Founder, Seen Displays Ltd

“That all changed when the business reached the four-year mark. By year three I could afford to hire more senior staff and I worked hard to coach them into a strong, cohesive senior management team I could trust.

“In real terms this enabled me to start turning off my email on holidays and not take my laptop home at weekends. It also meant I had people with whom I could grab lunch and explore big ideas that could shape and grow the business.”

Making the exit happen

By late 2017, Seen Displays was functioning well and had a strong senior team in place. Lucy decided that the time was right to trigger her exit.

Holding her nerve a little longer, she chose to approach it as she would for a client – strategically. Aware of the gaps in her capabilities and knowledge, Lucy enlisted a team to educate and support her through her first exit.

“I started by designing a series of exit routes then waited a while to be sure it was what I really wanted,” Lucy said. “The exit team I built around me comprised of a corporate adviser, an accountant, an executive coach and a lawyer.”

Lucy Hackshaw’s exit team and their role

Accountant

Valuation support

Corporate adviser

Strategic support for the negotiation process

Executive coach

Sounding board for exit planning and visualising the transition

Lawyer

Legal support

Lucy Hackshaw’s top tips for exiting a business

  • 1

    Before you trigger anything, be clear about your motivations, and build a team to enable your exit

  • 2

    It’s your exit so do what feels right for you

  • 3

    Design several exit strategies, pick one and commit to it

  • 4

    Be sure of your walk-away number, and hold your nerve

The emotional side of exiting

While exiting a business may seem like a financial decision, the human side of the process is equally important, and difficult.

Relationships are likely to change. The obvious one is with your Board, who you’ll need to have awkward and difficult conversations with. But there are your employees to consider as well.

“Informing my employees was both the easiest and most challenging part of the exit process,” Lucy said. “Technically it was easy — I had two meetings to onboard the senior managers, and a third all-agency announcement.

“But emotionally, it was incredibly challenging. I needed to find a way of expressing my decision which was both rational and emotional. I also needed to be compassionate about my employees’ needs and support them through what could feel like a huge change for them too.

“I made the decision to give them to my personal reasons, which I found hard to articulate as they sat looking at me. To my surprise, they were happy for me. I was overwhelmed by their empathy.”

Moving on

But Lucy hasn’t been put off by the process and has already moved on to business number two, launching Flux, a leadership coaching business in January 2019. Is the plan to launch, grow and exit again?

“I am open to the idea but what matters for me this time with Flux is longevity and social impact.

“Learning from my experience of building Seen Displays, and in my current role coaching entrepreneurs and first-time founders, I’m more mindful about the attachment I allow to form between me and Flux.

“I’m practising interdependency. I do this by thinking and talking about the business differently. Instead of referring to Flux as ‘my business’ I frame it as ‘a business’.

“That way, rather than enduring an emotional rollercoaster with every triumph and failure, I can observe, learn and grow from a healthy distance.”

“A founder’s story is never without pain and sacrifice, but for me it’s the opportunity to experience accelerated personal growth that makes it all worth it. I feel abundantly rich in learnings – and excited to gear up and go again with business number two.”

Lucy Hackshaw Founder, Seen Displays Ltd