The elephant called Exit

The elephant called exit - image for article by Greg Alder

In the town of Hope there is the usual mix of small businesses – butchers, bakers, real estate agents, fashion boutiques, cafés, motels, accountants and dentists.

Every one of the business owners works hard at his or her business. Every one has hope, which is appropriate for a town called Hope. Each hopes that next year will be better than the current one. Each hopes that there’ll be enough business to keep food on the table, kids in school and a roof overhead.

Each works harder than he or she had hoped when starting out. It’s not uncommon for each of them to work sixty or seventy hours a week to keep their hopes alive. Each of them takes each day as it comes. Each has fallen into a daily routine, rising at the same hour, opening the front door at the same time and closing at the same time. Each of these routine days has fallen obediently into routine weeks. The routine weeks have become routine years.

Now, in December, each business owner reflects on the closing year and comes to the conclusion that it has really turned out to be pretty much like the previous year – even though, back in January, each hoped it might be better.

Now, in December, each is tired. Exhausted, even. But come January, hope for the new year will reinvigorate each of them – if only briefly.

In the town of Hope there is also an elephant. You might think that an elephant is unusual in a small town. Remarkably, it isn’t.

The elephant in the town of Hope is named Exit. This elephant has magic powers. For starters, it is invisible to two out of three business owners. They see the shelves stacked with merchandise, the order numbers, the modest profit on the bottom line. But they cannot see the biggest thing in the room.

For the one out of three business owners who can see the elephant, it possesses another potential magic power, the power to give them a life of comfort. Sadly, many of Hope’s business owners will never discover this magic power, because they haven’t realised the one thing that determines whether this magic is fulfilled.

They are so busy taking care of the minutiae of day to day business that they don’t think about the elephant. Occasionally one of them might notice it, but chooses to pretend it isn’t there.

After a lifetime of building a business, each starts to think about retiring. Each wonders if they will be able to sell their business. After all, that’s what they hoped when they started it – to grow it into something of value, something that a younger person filled with hope would buy.

And this is where each of Hope’s business owners realises what he or she has spent a lifetime doing – each has bought an income and built a business, but nothing more. Each has created nothing of enduring value.

For many of Hope’s business owners, their business is valueless without them in it. For the lucky few, their business has made enough money consistently that a hopeful youngster will buy it, for a price dependant on recent profit.

Whilst sales negotiations take place, Exit the elephant stands forlornly in the background. She knows that her magic won’t be revealed in this room, to this business owner.

She thinks about the four decades she has silently watched the business owner go about the day to day routine of running his business. If she could have caught the business owner’s eye – just once – she could have revealed the secret to her magic powers. She could have given the business owner the advice that would have dramatically changed the outcome.

Here’s what she would have told the business owner:

If you want to exit your business with a comfortable sum of money, stop focussing on building your business and start to focus on building a brand. Brands endure. Brands have value. People pay a lot more for a strong brand than a healthy business.

She knows what the business owner’s response would be. Every business owner’s response is the same:

I’ve got a logo. I’ve got a big neon sign that can be seen a block away. Everyone in Hope knows me.

Exit will explain, patiently:

A logo isn’t a brand. A brand is a complex magic potion. It is all the things that help your business stand out from all others, not just in Hope but in your country and the world. It is your business’s personality, the language it uses, its values and attributes and benefits. It’s an emotional feeling. It’s a grand vision. At the end of the day, when all other things are equal – price and product and packaging – people will choose the brand they like best, the brand that understands them best. It is more than a transaction. It’s a residual positive feeling.

Of course, this conversation doesn’t happen. Exit stands ignored, watching the business owner being busy day after day, week after week, decade after decade. She thinks,

I could have changed the outcome. If only.

When the time comes to retire, and no hopeful youngster makes an offer, the neon sign is turned off, the doors close, and the business owner goes home.

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