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 growing then exiting a business and the emotional side of that journey.

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 drink with a friend.

“I explained to a friend over a tea 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 started,” said Hackshaw.

“The same friend had previously asked me to go into business with her but the time wasn’t right for me. When she suggested we go into business 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 generally considered a common route to market, which makes Hackshaw’s business journey fairly unique.

But the support of an established business didn’t come without pitfalls for Hackshaw.

“[For me,] The benefits of being incubated were clear. 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,” said Hackshaw.

“But on the flipside, I was expected to build, run and manage a team – which I’d never done before. There was zero emotional support or leadership training. It was a long, lonely and tough first three years with lots of failures, learnings and staff issues.

“I struggled with imposter 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 grown 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 the business growing into such a large team, to be honest I thought I would grow it to a core of five to eight full time employees.

“But I also never imagined we would become one of the market leaders in the sector or have the opportunity to support some of the biggest high street and luxury brands you can think of. 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.”

Seen Displays’ story sounds smooth, but it wasn’t all straightforward for the company’s founder and it didn’t always follow the path that Hackshaw had 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.

“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 less 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 to build a strong, cohesive senior management team I could trust.

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

“Interestingly though by year four, the sense of reactive anxiety I’d experienced in years one to three was replaced by fatigue. Guilt also started to creep in as I wasn’t working as many hours.”

Lucy Hackshaw Founder, Seen Displays Ltd

Making the Exit happen

According to Hackshaw, by late 2017, Seen Displays was functioning well and had a strong senior team in place. She decided that the time was right to trigger her exit. Holding her nerve a little longer she decided to approach it like she would for a client, in a well thought out, strategic way.

Aware of her capabilities and knowledge gap, Hackshaw 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. The exit team I built around me, comprised of a corporate adviser, an accountant, executive coach and a lawyer.

Lucy Hackshaw Founder, Seen Displays Ltd

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 & transition visualisation

Lawyer

Legal support

Lucy Hackshaw’s Top tips when exiting your business

  • 1

    Be clear with why you want this before you trigger anything, and build an exit team

  • 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 one that can be 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 for me. 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 their needs and support them through what could feel like a huge change for them too.

“I made the decision to let them into 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.”

But Hackshaw 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. But 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