Just over two years ago, I sold the business I started when I was 23.
A private equity firm paid £30m for 51% of the company and I sold 75% of my shares upfront, rolling over 25% in the form of a loan note.
Unlike most people who sell their business, my job ended the day we sold.
Getting to that point was a long and painful journey that spanned over 20 months and saw the end of a decade-long boom, economic collapse, a global pandemic and digital tech explosion. We had to restart the process three times as this madness unfolded.
Starting in 2014 as a Facebook page called Viral Thread (VT), Jungle Creations became a digital media juggernaut, with seven owned media brands, an award-winning creative agency and an occasionally profitable eCommerce arm selling anything we thought people would buy.
It had been seven years of constant change, moving with algorithm shifts, building on new platforms, evolving the business model and growing the team as much as we could. At least once every year for five years we would narrowly avoid going out of business.
Then in the summer of 2019, when I was 28, I met my future wife. Suddenly, there was more to life than just work.
I still had no personal assets or money, so I knew I had to take something off the table.
We’d just made a round of redundancies after a terrible start to the year, but things were looking positive going into 2020. We took on Deloitte as advisors and went to work.
After shelving the process for six months during the pandemic, we got going again in September and finally began receiving offers in January 2021.
Every entrepreneur should enjoy the ride and take the time to congratulate any small win
I had stepped down as CEO that month. I’d heard too many earn-out horror stories and needed to prove that I wasn’t the main driver behind the success of the business. I stayed on as founder/director to see out the deal and help the business grow until then.
I also wanted to focus on my next project, something I had been dreaming up since my early 20s and something I thought the world needed — now more than ever.
By the end of January, we had whittled down the offers to three. All were industry buyers.
Then one horrible Friday afternoon, each one of them dropped out. Two were scared off by the second Covid lockdowns and the other chose to buy a competitor.
I felt sick to my stomach. I had no idea what to do next.
We reconvened and decided to focus on growing the business as the economy was suddenly seeing a major spike. By the end of Q1 2021, we thought we might be able to hit £5.5m Ebitda (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) after beating our forecast to £2.5m the year before. Interest started to build as the world poured cash into digital-native companies.
By summer 2021, we had two private equity offers and one of the previous trade buyers from before was back in the mix. After what seemed like months of due diligence, we finally got the deal over the line on August 20.
It turned out to be incredible timing, not that we had any intention or idea at the time. Two months later, the market topped out and by February 2022, Putin had invaded Ukraine, bringing the world’s shortest global economic boom to a sobering end.
It was only because my entire management wanted to stay that I had the option to leave. These were people I had been working with for several years and trusted with my life. The deal was set up to increase their ownership and take the business to the next level.
Every single one of our 150 employees got a payout through share options or a bonus, and being able to share the success with them was an indescribable feeling. I would recommend this for every business owner and I still find it so surprising when companies don’t do it.
Then it was on to the easy part, or so I thought, living out my days in bliss. My primary focus in those first few months was enjoying myself: celebrating with crazy dinners, holidays and experiences with the people I loved. I gave plenty away, which always felt amazing.
I received a lot of unsolicited advice about what to do next, but I tried to fully enjoy the free time — playing golf, tennis, travelling the world and generally just trying to revel in the freedom.
But ultimately it just didn’t satisfy me. I was 30 when I sold up and I just couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt that I was wasting the best working years of my life.
After finally achieving financial freedom, I was lost. My north star had vanished
I would get my head down and bust out a 10-hour work day, only to stop and think: ‘What the hell was the point in selling your business just to work full time again?’.
Whatever I did, I felt like I was making the wrong decision. I was paralysed by the choices I had in front of me.
I became an entrepreneur because I wanted financial freedom. I didn’t want to have to work for anyone. When I was growing up, money was a huge stress for my family, so from the age of 13, I did anything I could to relieve that — from drop-shipping to affiliate marketing to ebook selling.
After finally achieving that financial freedom, I was lost. My north star had vanished. I felt like I was fumbling around in the dark.
Two-and-a-bit years later, I’m gradually getting closer to the right balance of doing what gives me pleasure and purpose, what I’m good at and what ultimately brings value to the world. It is a first-world problem, but it’s something we all need to figure out.
My wife and I recently had our first child. And three months in, I know I’m the luckiest man alive to be able to spend so much time with him without the pressure of work.
The penny really dropped when I realised that I love building businesses. I love dreaming up new ideas, working with talented people, brainstorming marketing plans and figuring out company structures. I love going into the office and getting to know the people I work with and I love putting heads together to figure out how to solve a crisis.
These things have fuelled me for the best part of 17 years and exiting Jungle Creations doesn’t have to stop me from doing that again.
I’m now back in build mode and I’m more motivated and excited than ever, working with five phenomenal people to bring a new business to life. We’ve been able to self-fund, helping us explore without constraint, which has been an absolute joy.
I never like giving advice because everyone’s situation is unique. I think every entrepreneur should enjoy the ride though, taking time to congratulate any small win.
Building a business is an absolute privilege, even if it is hard to appreciate at the time. So be thankful for the journey, smile through the pain and if you do manage a successful exit, be sure to dish it out.