Walking Away from Something Successful in Order to Explore What’s Meaningful
Last week, I asked the people who’ve opted into my email list some questions and at the end, I invited them to ask me any question they wanted. Overwhelmingly, most asked the same thing: why did you sell your software company last year?
Ironically, this same week, the company that made my WordPress theme business possible was also acquired by a bigger fish.
It has been seven months since the ink dried on the sales agreement for Feast Design Co., and to be honest I haven’t discussed it much publicly, outside of a couple of intimate circles.
The truth is that the dozen or so reasons for selling my company couldn’t be summed up in a 500-word optimized and PR-worthy perfect explanation. And, to be even more honest, I felt drawn towards quiet and stillness after offloading such a very public role.
Drawing inward felt right. And making less of myself, rather than using this event as an opportunity for self-promotion, was incredibly aligning.
Still, it makes sense that going so quiet, even though it felt right for me, probably felt like an abandonment for the people who have been so faithful in following my path for several years.
If you’re like most of the world and couldn’t care less why I made this decision, I invite you to move on with your day. No one will hold it against you. And I honestly would prefer you not waste your time reading this—because you have so many better things to do!
But for those who are curious (I get it), I’m going to take a stab at articulating the process I went through to make such an intense change in my business and life.
Who knows, maybe you’re considering a similar path. Or maybe you want to get your business to the point where this option is available to you too. If I can help with that, I want to.
To understand why I sold Feast, you first need to understand why I started it.
By the time I created my first WordPress theme and unwittingly launched a software company, I had been designing for many years. At first, I was just creating warm and fuzzy graphics for military spouses on Myspace (yes, that Myspace). Then, as the entrepreneurial-minded flooded the internet to make a home online in 2008, I was there to decorate it for them. And, let’s face it, I was merely decorating online spaces at that point.
But, as I freshened up websites and made them pretty, I also felt an innate sense that I was helping people—often parents—step out of the corporate-driven economy and make a living on their own terms. I fell in love with this romantic idea of people building sustainable careers online. And so I dove right into it.
Well, within limits.
At the time, I was in an unsupportive relationship and the work I was doing was often seen as “playing on my computer.” Within that environment, this work stayed merely a hobby that helped supply my family with part-time income (steady, but still not a lot).
The day came when I gathered enough courage to finally ask my husband to leave for the safety of our children. And his income went with him.
What’s a freshly-separated mother of two, with a third on the way, to do?
My mother-in-law suggested getting a job at McDonald’s.
A few well-meaning friends told me to go and apply for government assistance right away.
I couldn’t bring myself to do either.
Rather, it’s almost as if I was able to draw power from this painful situation and create—truly create something new.
I learned how to listen to the needs of my audience and how to give them what they were asking for. It wasn’t rocket science, but it required a tug on my heart and an empathy I could have only understood after going through my own chaotic period of uncertainty—paired with determination.
Within a year, I had launched my first software product and reached the #1 selling position on the #1 outlet for WordPress themes—and the money wasn’t bad.
But, you see, money was never my goal. My goal was to feed my kids and to rebel against the way society wanted me to do it. It was absolutely an eff the system move.
Foodie Pro turned out to be a major disruptor in the industry that I had tripped into.
This product felt aligned with my core. I created it from my own guts—from the pain I was experiencing and needed to turn into something valuable.
And valuable, it was.
It has stayed in the #1-selling position on StudioPress.com for 4.5 years, give or take a few months when a new theme has a successful launch. Other theme developers, and even StudioPress themselves, tried to recreate Foodie’s impact—but they never did. The strength of this product couldn’t be outdone.
So, all I had left to do now was kick back and collect a paycheck, right? That’s every online entrepreneur’s dream. Well, not so fast…
Foodie may have been an out-of-this-world success, but success is one of the most dreadful things that creative people can experience, especially if it’s continuing to ask you to reproduce what you originally created naturally in a way that felt true and authentic. It feels like a sham after a while. This is when you might start to self-sabotage and give in to limiting beliefs. I know I did.
Feast continued to grow year-over-year as we put out several more themes and courses. And I never stopped taking on client work that allowed me to serve in a bigger way. But for me to accept the continued success in my business, I pushed it to its limits in an effort to go deeper—not because my audience needed depth, but because I did.
And when your business starts being more about you than the people you serve, you’re doing something wrong.
That’s a shift that opened the door to what came next. If this company that I built was going to continue growing, it was now going to have to be in someone else’s hands.
Unknowingly, I had already built a business primed for an investor.
The journey towards selling Feast officially started in the fall of 2016 at the Double Your Freelancing Conference in Norfolk, VA.
The babysitter quit the first day of the conference–a conference I had invested thousands into so that I could attend with some of my team. It would be an understatement to say I was stressed after scrambling to find a friend who could help care for the kids so I could finish the 3-day event.
The conferences that interest me are never in my backyard—and this one was just a city away, so I had to make it work.
A dear friend, who always seems to have her life together despite chaos, met me in the parking garage to pick up the car seats. Running back through the hotel, I didn’t realize how much this hot mess entrepreneur needed to hear the message I was about to get. I quietly crept in through the back and found an open seat in the corner.
Thomas Smale had just begun his presentation about leveraging freelance skills to build a business you can sell. By the end of the workshop, while waiting for the punchline, I realized that I had already built this leveraged business he was talking about.
My mind was an emotional mess, but the thought that I could potentially sell my business and have someone else grow it filed itself away in the back of my mind. I mentioned it once to my team and then didn’t think of it again until months later.
It wasn’t long before the books I read, the speeches I heard, and the people I spoke to all seemed to be telling me it was time to move on—for the sake of my business, not in spite of it.
Listening to a pastor one night in a downtown venue, I felt an immense sense of connection and I did something I almost never do. I surrendered.
Sitting in a squeaky folding chair between two people, one a friend and the other a person I’ve never met, I remember thinking very clearly in my mind, “Okay, okay, God. I get it. I hear what you’re saying. This is gnawing at me for some reason. But what do I do with this? I have no clue what to do with it.”
I kid you not—one second later, the pastor leaned into the crowd, seemingly looking straight at me, and said, “He might be telling you it’s time to leave.”
Time to leave?
Logically, I know for certain that this man had no clue who I am or what I was thinking. His statement was broad and could have applied to anyone in that room that night. But, for some reason, it felt incredibly powerful to me right in that moment.
A biblical author might call him Gabriel and speak of his angelic presence if my story were somehow important to the Christian narrative. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was my messenger and I left that night knowing that a big shift was coming.
I was looking for depth and there is no algorithm for depth.
By December of 2016, I had started actively entertaining the idea of selling the company. I downsized my team, honed in on our core products, spoke with fellow entrepreneurs who had been through the process of selling a company, researched my valuation, and I gave myself 6-months of stripped-down attention to Feast before making a final decision.
Sure enough, six months later the company was doing just as well without my antics to try and go deeper. I had stepped away from almost all operations, relying on my one employee and the systems we had integrated years ago—and it ran like a well-oiled machine.
I was ready to move on.
Feast didn’t need me anymore.
I could put the company I loved in new hands—someone with a different set of skills to build upon what I started—and a different vision for what they could do with it.
By June 2017, I had begun the process to find the right buyer. It had to be someone I trusted to actually serve the needs of our audience, even if that meant their vision was different from mine. And I found him.
In September, we started the negotiation process. His offer was even higher than asking, but we were both so intentional about what we were doing that we didn’t sign a final sales agreement until three months later.
That Friday afternoon, December 1, held a crazy mix of emotions. I was excited for where this would take Feast. I was relieved at how this would open me up to explore new territories. I was uncertain about how things would change—which was both good and bad!
So…how have things changed?
Well, I’m going deeper. A lot deeper. Since off-loading the responsibility of running a software company, I’ve had the luxury of taking on projects that lead me somewhere new. I’m focusing a lot on strategy—and in a way that is unique to each and every client, which is so soul-filling for me. I can not tell you how happy I am to do the work I’m doing!
And—bonus—because of the flexibility I’ve built into the new company of one that I now run, I’m able to dedicate 50-60% of my time every month towards pro bono projects for causes that I feel are important. This is a privilege that I hold dearly—and don’t take lightly.
Skylar is running Feast in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do myself. He’s creating new solutions for food bloggers without jeopardizing theme sales—and he’s ultimately serving our audience in a more intentional way. We keep in touch about what’s happening over there and I’ve learned to truly trust his judgement.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also address the elephant in the room—the money.
The reset button that I desperately needed wouldn’t be possible without the release of responsibility and the money.
The financial compensation for selling Feast was absolutely significant. It has allowed me the flexibility to take a step back from a life of hustle, align myself to my true intentions, and build a new path to income that feels more ordered to the growth I’ve been through and the place I’m in right now.
But, to be honest, most of it went straight to Uncle Sam.
You see, when you’re distracted by pushing growth, you tend to make mistakes along the way. And I made a big one.
I trusted a competitor’s relative to help me with taxes after I realized that a significant increase in profit meant a significant increase in taxes, too.
This accountant left me high and dry and before I realized it, I was in serious tax debt and didn’t even know.
I’ll never forget sitting in my current accountant’s office, saying “Okay, how much do I owe? So, if I owe this much, I need to make this much extra this year to pay the old taxes and the new taxes. I do well with big goals.”
At the time, I was talking out of my ass. There was no way I could ever see making an extra six-figures to fix this mess.
But, you see, I was on a journey and had no clue what could become possible.
After selling and paying taxes on the sale (because, hello, the government always gets their money), and giving my team members a profit-share, I paid down the debt significantly. I had already been chipping away at it, but the lump sum payments to knock it down so much further were, in a sense, life-giving.
I also now had the downpayment to build a home in a rural town 30-minutes away. We doubled the size of our home (remember I have 3 kids!) from the small 2-bedroom apartment we were in and actually lowered our monthly expenses by moving.
I could do another whole rant about the emotional cost of debt and cramped living arrangements. But, I’ll save you from that for now.
My point is this—the money wasn’t bad.
But, you see, money was never my goal. My goal was to continue feeding my kids and to rebel against the surface-level way the hustle economy wanted me to do it. It was absolutely an eff the system move.
Our motivations and dreams are gifts that lead us on a journey.
If you’ve read this far, I’d like to emphasize the point that my motivations have consistently lead me somewhere—and each stage of this process somehow gave me something I needed, whether that was through success or through struggle.
I’ve learned to trust that process and go where it leads, no matter how uncertain the path is.
I’m still on that journey. In fact, I’m right in the midst of it. So, I don’t know where it’s going. But I do know that I’m listening.
I have a friend that says, “This dream was given to me.” And I can’t think of a better way to describe it.
I started with a dream to provide for my family in the most rebellious way I could and never imagined that it would lead me to sell a successful company and do something so much deeper.
Think about it.
The potential for creating something new was there at the lowest point of my life.
Success and growth were there when I craved stability.
Opportunities to shift were there when I felt the urge to go deeper.
The buyer was there when I wanted to put my customers in safe hands.
And now flow and freedom are here when meaning has more value than “success” ever will.
If meaning is something you’re into too, stick around.