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john warrillow

I'm an old man. I'm much older than you think. I can't go on forever. I've got no children of my own, no family at all. So who is going to run the factory when I get too old to do it myself? Someone's got to keep it going – if only for the sake of the Oompa-Loompas. Mind you, there are thousands of clever men who would give anything for the chance to come in and take over from me, but I don't want that sort of person. I don't want a grown-up person at all. A grownup won't listen to me; he won't learn. He will try to do things his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child. I want a good sensible loving child, one to whom I can tell all my most precious candy-making secrets – while I am still alive.

That quote is not from the founder and patriarch of one of the million or so Canadian baby boomers planning to exit their businesses in the next 10 years. It's from the 1964 children's book Charlie and The Chocolate Factory written by Roald Dahl, and it is from an exchange between Willy Wonka, the Chocolate Factory owner, and his young protégé, Charlie Bucket.

I read the passage to my six-year-old son last week and was struck by how well Mr. Dahl captured the sentiments of many founders facing retirement today.

Building a business is an intensely personal experience. For most of us, it takes years, if not decades, to create something worthwhile. You make decisions about how to treat customers based on how you would like to be treated. Employees become friends and your family name – whether actually or figuratively – is emblazoned on your product for the entire world to see.

So when it comes time to move on, the idea of someone else caring for your baby is worrying.

But you can't think like that.

Just as every parent has to eventually let their kid go, businesses owners must also let their babies grow up and move out.

Make no mistake, your business will change once you leave:

If you give your business to your kids, no matter how good a relationship you have, your children will eventually want to create their own legacy and do things you wouldn't have.

If you sell your company to a set of your managers, they will want to make the changes on which you overruled them on. But they won't manage your business with the pride of being a founder. They'll be foster parents trying to give your creation a decent shot at succeeding.

If you sell your creation to a big company, it'll want to integrate your business into its own, eliminate any redundancies and your quirky management idiosyncrasies, in favour of its system.

If you sell your company to a private equity investor, it will bring in a young executive, trained at the right school, and ask him or her to "professionalize" your business, which means doing all of the things they talk about in textbooks without necessarily understanding the soul of your company.

The only way to get a business off the ground is to take it personally, so how do you suddenly turn around and divorce yourself emotionally when it is time to go?

I don't know what it feels like to have a child leave the house, go to university, get married, and so on. I'm sure it's excruciating at times. I bet I'll want to step in at every moment and help my children avoid the mistakes I made.

But I'm also quite sure my kids will reject advice coming from the old man, based solely on the source of the information. At some point, I guess we all just have to let our kids make their own mistakes and hope we gave them sufficient coping skills to get up on their own two feet.

I think the same is probably also true of the businesses that we start. Eventually, unlike Willy Wonka, we do have to let go.

Writing for The Globe and Mail over the past two years has been a treat for me but I've decided it's time to stop talking about running a business and get back to actually running one again. I've recently launched a new software business and will be dedicating my time to it and so this will be the second-last week that I will write my column. My last column will appear on Nov. 30. Thank you, readers, for sharing your time with me.

Special to The Globe and Mail

John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. You can download a free chapter of his new book, Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You.

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