It was one of those moments in life that seems stuck in a time warp, forever feeling like it was yesterday even though decades have passed. It was spring quarter of my freshman year of college. I was standing in line at the registrar’s office, waiting to sign up for classes. When I got to the front of the line I was told that I couldn’t register. “Why not?” I asked. “Because your tuition hasn’t been paid,” came a flat response from behind the counter.
After the initial shock wore off, I realized that what I had suspected might happen for a long time had finally come to pass. Between two parents, five marriages and four divorces, I was about to have the financial rug ripped out from under me at the age of 19. No one had told me this was going to happen (the depths of family denial know no bounds), but I had sensed that paying for college was going to be a problem. The work-study guy at the registrar’s office had just confirmed my worst fear.
My tendency — from a very young age, according to my mother — is to rely on logic to make important decisions in my life. I immediately came to the conclusion that a) I was officially on my own, and b) I needed to come up with some money…fast. I had two assets to my name with any market value to speak of: my 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit and my horse. It was clear that my horse would have to go.
I’d been riding since the age of nine, and being a rider had pretty much defined my entire life up to that point. I spent the first seven years of my hunter/jumper career posting mediocre results at horse shows, but I honestly didn’t care. I competed purely for the fun of it, not for ribbons or trophies. There were opportunities to play other sports, but by the time I got to high school I had sacrificed almost everything for the sake of riding.
When I was 16 years old I bought a horse no one wanted for next to nothing. His name was Raisin’ Kane (Raisin for short). My former trainer saw the spark in the little gelding, but couldn’t convince anyone he knew to buy him. Raisin was young, small, had a bad reputation as a stallion and a deadbeat owner to boot. I fell in love with him immediately. At our first show Raisin was entered in two divisions: he won champion in both, and we came home with a whopping 14 blue ribbons. My days as a relative nobody on the show circuit had ended.
When people heard I was selling Raisin — after three years of tireless campaigning and many more wins than losses — there were gasps of horror. How could I part with such an amazing animal? Most people could only dream of owning a horse like Raisin. Some comments cut to the core of my identity, of how the world viewed me and how I viewed myself: “Barbara just won’t be Barbara anymore without a horse,” I heard them say.
There’s a lot about the Raisin’ Kane story that is analogous to building a business of value and selling it. Here are four things that got me through the toughest sale of my life — much harder than when I sold my business years later as an adult:
1. Get someone else to do the actual selling
It was my trainers who sold Raisin for me. They put the word out and other trainers flew in from all over the west coast and Canada to look at him for their clients. Most of the time I stayed as far in the background as possible. My trainers found the buyer and helped me negotiate the best price amongst competing offers. I paid them a commission for their work afterwards. Selling a business is similar, in that it is best done by someone who knows how to market your business to qualified buyers and get a deal done quickly.
Let the intermediaries run their process. They’re better at it than you are, and you’ll have plenty of other things to worry about.
2. Avoid getting stuck in the present
According to Daniel Gilbert, author of the national bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, humans are good at creating all sorts of mental images, but we are bad at predicting our emotional futures. There’s no denying a sense of loss when you are in the process of selling something you love, but once you are no longer the owner you will gradually start to feel differently about what you parted with. Raisin’s new owner — whose family had much deeper pockets than mine — took him to the biggest shows in the country, including Madison Square Garden. Rather than feeling regret, I was happy that Raisin was able to compete at the highest level, and I knew he was being treated like royalty. Gradually he became someone else’s horse in my mind, and I had moved on with a new phase in my life.
Remember that the way you feel on the day you sell will not be the way you feel a year or two later.
3. Get support wherever you can
Sadly, those closest to you may not be the ones to offer support during this time in your life. The business of selling something you love is difficult. There are many who will want you to retain the asset not for your own good, but in part because they can’t bear the thought of you turning your “dream” into a liquidity event. These people make you feel like you’re in an episode of Pawn Stars, trading something precious for quick cash. Find people who support the larger goal of your life, and understand that while it may be hard to sell, not selling would be downright foolish.
For me, support came primarily from a few friends and extended family members. They knew that the alternative of me not going to college was ludicrous, and helped me focus on how good it would feel to take control of my future, my financial life, and my tuition bill.
4. Consider yourself lucky
I knew then and know now that I was damn lucky to have a horse to sell that would pay for my college education. I was lucky to have the experience of owning Raisin, and I was lucky I could sell him when I needed to. Most horses are money pits. Few owners find a diamond in the rough that sells for big bucks like Raisin did. (I didn’t realize it at the time, I bought low and sold near a peak.) These same principles hold true in small business.
There is a lot of interesting literature about the role of luck in our lives, and how those who consider themselves to be lucky usually are. The same people also have the ability to turn their bad luck into good fortune. Was it bad luck that my parents promised to pay for college and then didn’t? I don’t know. What I do know when I look back on that time in my life is this:
I was, and still am, a very lucky girl.