Podcast: The Entrepreneurial Journey, an Interview with Kelly Caldwell

By Ryan Tansom
Published: January 11, 2018 | Last updated: March 21, 2024
Key Takeaways

Kelly takes us through the whole process of starting a business from why to the inevitable exit. Learn from her experiences and perfect your process!



About the Host

Ryan is an entrepreneur, podcast host of the show Life After Business and the co-owner of Solidity Financial. Having personally experienced the hazards of selling a business, he joined up with his friend Brandon Wood to educate others on the process. Through their business (Solidity Financial), they provide a platform for entrepreneurs called Growth and Exit Planning that helps in exit planning, value building and financial management.

About the Guest

Kelly Caldwell is a successful entrepreneur who has held jobs ranging from Senior Vice President at a publicly traded company to Elephant Rider at a zoo show. She is a proud mother to two wonderful daughters, a happy wife to her husband and a semi-retired mentor and speaker. She is proud to have built a business that employed nearly 200 people and received national recognition but she would much rather tell RV stories or help others follow in her entrepreneurial footsteps.


In 2002, while working at a large engineering firm, Kelly and a Senior Project Manager, Amy Gonzales, decided to form their own company. AK Environmental was founded out of the frustration of working through the bureaucracy of a large company to service the clients Amy and Kelly had relationships with. Clients noticed. Soon this two person operation grew to over 175 employees. Organizations like INC Magazine, Ernst and Young, Zweig White, and Women Presidents’Organization recognized AK for their growth. Ultimately, in 2014, publicly traded company NV5 purchased AK.

Kelly is now semi-retired and working in real estate investment. She is proud that she started a business at 25 years old and sold it before reaching 40. That has provided her a platform to help others fuel their passion to be entrepreneurs by mentoring with several organizations, angel investment, and public speaking. Kelly is always looking for the next opportunity but it may include an RV trip.

If you listen, you will learn:

  • The first decision that Kelly made in order to jump into entrepreneurship with both feet.
  • Information about Kelly’s early career experience that led to her starting her own business.
  • Some of the challenges and milestones that Kelly met shortly after starting her business, including how she handled the cash cycle.
  • The direction that Kelly wanted to go in as the business grew, as well as how she shifted from growth mode to big-business mode.
  • Some of the considerations that Kelly had to keep in mind as she looked forward to selling, as well as what she thought the probable outcome would be once she sold.
  • How Kelly kept her employees in mind as she considered interested buyers.
  • What Kelly wanted in terms of both price and terms from a sale and how it turned out.
  • The emotions that Kelly went through when she went through the sale and integrating with the new company.
  • One thing that Kelly might have done differently on her entrepreneurial journey.
  • What Kelly is doing now in her life after business.

Full Transcript

Announcer: 00:00:06 Welcome to Life After Business, the podcast where your host, Ryan Tansom, brings you all the information you need to exit your company and explore what life can be like on the other side.

Ryan Tansom: 00:00:16 Welcome back to the Life After Business podcast. This is episode seventy-five. Have you ever wondered what the entire entrepreneurship journey looks like from starting it? Why someone started it, how they grew it (some of the ups and downs) and then the actual journey throughout the exit and then what it's like on the other side? Well, the greatest part about this episode is Kelly Caldwell who came on the show, walks us through the entire journey, start to finish, and what she's doing today, and I actually had an amazing time because of how well she articulated in the amazing story that she gave. She started from a wildlife science degree and working in a zoo to running a $25,000,000 business with 200 employees juggling cash and then growing it to the point where they sold it to a public company successfully, and now she's on the other side in a life after where she is exploring investing and doing other things. Kelly's got a great story and I hope you enjoyed the episode as much as I did, so without further ado, here's my episode with Kelly.


Announcer: 00:01:19 This episode of Life After Business is brought to you by Solidity Financial's growth and exit planning. Their proven process gives you clarity on all of your exit options and how those options impact your financial success, timing and future happiness. Sell your company on your timeframe to the right buyer at the price you want.

Ryan Tansom: 00:01:19 Kelly, how are you doing today?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:01:19 Good, how are you?

Ryan Tansom: 00:01:46 Doing good. I'm super happy you're coming on the show. You and I were sitting in palm springs and we – I think there's a big concert going on – and we met at the EY conference and we got talking and you had a really cool story and I'm excited that you're willing to share it with our listeners. So for their sake, if you can maybe go back and what was your first decision you made to jump in to becoming an entrepreneur? Where were you and how did you end up deciding to actually formalize it and jump in with both feet?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:02:18 I was working at Foster – a company, a large company, an environmental consulting firm with my business partner, who would turn into being my business partner, Amy. And um, we were, um, just working on a lot of projects together, really enjoyed working together, worked really well together, and she was really becoming frustrated with the company we work for and just felt like we had so much red tape we had to go through. She felt like we could just do things so much better if um, you know…

Ryan Tansom: 00:02:18 You ran it?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:02:46 Yeah! Actually it was my idea. I said to her, I said, "well, Amy, you know, you should just start your own business." And um, and she said, "well, I could never do that." I, she joked, "I can't even balance my own checkbook." Um, and I, you know, I noticed she was teasing, but I said, "well, I could do that for you." And it was funny, we were like in Maine, you know, I'm on a project just having a few drinks at night and we just started talking about it. Um, and so, so we just kind of laughed and thought, well, that could be cool. And then, you know, a few weeks later we continued talking about it and um, started thinking what the business name would be and how would we do this, how would we talk to the clients? We didn't have non-competes, which was good for us.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:03:24 And um, yeah. And so, um, so yeah, then actually something happened at our company where one of her managers actually took about ten individuals and moved to a large- another competitor of ours. Um, and so I called her up, she was actually on vacation. I said, Amy, if we're going to start a business, like we should do it now because they just left, everyone's worried about this, if you and I just take one client, like maybe two like, nobody's going to care, nobody's, you know. And so that's what we did. We started the company then and um, and yeah, I think people thought we were kind of crazy. I think they kind of were, you know, my, my supervisor, because Amy was not my supervisor; we worked together, she was a senior manager. But my supervisor said, "OK, well, you know, good luck, but if, if it doesn't go well, you're welcome to come back." Like, you know, it was, there was not much confidence, but it was, it was awesome because we started off with a few clients right away and just kept running from that point forward.

Ryan Tansom: 00:04:26 So describe for us… What was the nature of the business because I think it was really, it's a really interesting business that you guys had. So what was the industry, what were you, what services and things were you guys doing for the clients?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:04:35 We provided, um, environmental and construction management services primarily to the energy industry, like natural gas primarily. And so that means when a pipeline is being built, we would do all the field studies, um, identify, um, what kind of wildlife that's there and what kind of endangered species, um, wetlands and anything that needed environmental permit from the federal and state agencies. That's what Amy and I did working with this other company and then we added services along the way with, with AK, our company, AK environmental. So yeah, we just, we helped our clients build their projects and in compliance with all the federal and state regulations.

Ryan Tansom: 00:05:19 It is interesting how you got there, too, actually becoming an entrepreneur because based on what you and I were talking about, you mean you've got an interesting education, right? Because weren't you, was it a biologist or a zoologist? It was, wasn't it your kind of ambition and all of a sudden you're an entrepreneur?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:05:33 Yes. Yes. No, so my major was wildlife science and um, I thought I was going to be working at zoos. I love animals and exotic animals. I actually had internships at the Cincinnati Zoo and Indianapolis Zoo – I'm from the Midwest – and worked with really cool animals like elephants and ostrich and Kangaroos and, and so I just, I, what ended up happening from that part of my life was I realized that it wasn't challenging enough for me. And so I started trying new career paths and in new fields that would fit my degree. And so I, um, from the zoo a I went to like state and federal permitting, working for a state agency and reviewing the permit applications, um, you know, when things are being built. And so just getting the approval. And then, um, and then again, that kind of wasn't as challenging for me as well.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:06:23 I just, um, I wanted to do more out in the field and experience it with, besides sitting behind a desk. And um, and so, ah, somebody actually had mentioned when I worked at the federal government, um, they thought, you know, Kelly, you would really like consulting. That's, you know, they get to do all the fieldwork they need. They identify the wetlands and they do these insane dangerous species surveys. So, so I, uh, had a connection through, through that contact to interview at a large company and so that's where I met Amy was I worked there for two years and just really, really enjoyed it. And really, um, there was room to grow and um, I liked taking on more responsibility. I liked the challenges and learning new things and um, and yeah, I never envisioned myself being an entrepreneur.

Ryan Tansom: 00:07:13 You know what you just described? The resume of an entrepreneur. So it makes sense now, in hindsight, doesn't it?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:07:18 Yeah, I'd never thought about it that way. It's just that I, yeah, just um, yeah, wanted to feel challenged. And then also helping- I mean the thing with Amy was, I mean I saw her potential, like I knew she could do this on her own.

Ryan Tansom: 00:07:31 What was her role versus yours in the company?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:07:34 I was just like an entry level biologist at the beginning. So I did all the fieldwork. I did the grunt work. I would travel to the different states and identify the things that we needed to and then do the permit applications. She was more senior manager, where bringing in the clients and then reviewing all the, the things that needed to go out, the documents that needed to go out to the clients. So, so yeah. So we um, she had that sales experience. She had all the contacts, she had all the clients [Ryan interjects: bringing in the business.]. Yeah, so when um, I said, "hey, I'll help you." It just was a good fit. We just really worked well together. We, you know, when we started the company, we really did pretty much everything, you know, both of us did everything, you know, we were both in the field where she wasn't necessarily doing that as much in the past at the large company, but we both did field work. The one thing she didn't do was the finances. She hated that!

Ryan Tansom: 00:07:34 You're balancing the checkbook.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:08:24 I was like I can handle that.

Ryan Tansom: 00:08:27 Speaking of challenges, what year was that?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:08:27 We started in 2002.

Ryan Tansom: 00:08:35 Obviously we're in 2018 now. The challenges that you experienced by- what were some of the bigger challenges and milestones that you think you guys hit and ran through?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:08:45 I think cash was always an issue with us because we're a service business. So like, um, it was, I mean we were um, we have great relationships with our clients and so, and we were doing well and they were happy and so they were asking us to provide more services and so more services is more people and so, you know, it was great because they set us up for our growth. I feel like our clients definitely did that for us. It wasn't as challenging to grow as fast as we did because… because of our clients and our relationships, but it was just the cash, it's just, you know, to be able to pay for every one every two weeks, you know, that was the challenge. [Ryan interjects: Payroll.] We, yeah, exactly. Payroll. And so we um, I mean we started the business with like, you know, we had to put some kind of money in the bank account just to be official, you know, as our LLC agreement or whatever.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:09:33 And so I think we started it with like 1,600 dollars or something because I remember the lawyer said, you know, our, um, our, uh, Amy and I were 60-40. That's what part of our deal was. She was sixty percent owner, I was forty percent owner. And um, I think she had a number that she was going to put in but I couldn't match the 40% so that's why it came up with a weird. Because I was only like 25 at the time. It was just me and my husband and, and so. Anyway. Um, so we started out with not having that much, but we were making…

Ryan Tansom: 00:10:05 1,600 bucks and the attorney's fees are probably two grand to set it all up, right?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:10:10 Yeah. But it was um, it was great because we were, we are always making money. We were always profitable, which was awesome. But it was just um, that once we got larger, like just being able to cash flow. And so, um, I mean there was definitely times where Amy and I didn't pay ourselves for like months. Like, I mean I feel like half of a year because we grew so much in different times. Like I think 2007 was a big year for us where we grew from like 10 to forty, which now doesn't seem like much [Ryan interjects: Employees?] 10-40 employees, sorry, and that didn't seem. I mean, now thinking back, that doesn't seem like much, but that was so hard because…

Ryan Tansom: 00:10:10 That's a lot of salaries.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:10:52 Yeah. And they were, you know, everyone's paid decent. It's not like, you know, $5 an hour or whatever. It was a lot of. So, um, so that, that was a big jump for us going from 10 people to about forty people and um…

Ryan Tansom: 00:11:06 Could we dive into that a little bit because I think it's, I think it's an important thing because there's a couple of things that you, you touched on that I think- first of all, cash is always a challenge, but it's interesting because your clients are providing you the opportunity to grow. So maybe walk us through like the cash cycle because are you building projects upfront that allow you to hire these people or did you have to invest in 30 bodies and then go sell it? Because I think and the reason behind that the question was that I think some service business, they have to hire the people in order to sell it versus because of when and how their clients pay them. So there's that whole jug of the float. So how did your guys' situation work?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:11:41 Yeah, that's a good point. So no, we… where we started growing in that year was during our inspection services, so we had, um, so those staff are a hundred percent billable. So, um, and so I think, I think that was the year… so we won a project where we were going to provide 20 staff and so they weren't part of our stuff yet. So 20 inspectors, I'm sorry, but we had the resumes of them and that's kind of our industry was um, we, we had a network of people that we knew we could pull when we were ready, when we had the, the job. Um, but, uh, so yeah, so we knew we had the people, we just didn't have to pay them until they were working, but still they're working for us for, you know, probably at least thirty days before we get paid. So our clients were actually awesome about paying within thirty days, which, you know, I've learned [Ryan interjects: is not always the case] exactly! But they were, they were awesome.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:12:37 Like, it's, um, you know, if you, I was very, um, in the beginning, I'm the one that did all the invoices, you know, it was just Amy and I were the, the leadership, so like everyone else that worked for us was billable and they were scientists or they were inspectors and so I didn't invest in having somebody else work, doing all the finance stuff, until later on, which I can get to later because I think I waited too long on that one. But, but, you know, I had to get invoices out by a certain date so i knew the money would come in before the payroll, you know, I had it all timed out because it was that critical that, um, you know, we only had, you know, you know, maybe thirty days before, you know, I was calling somebody for money.

Ryan Tansom: 00:13:18 That's a little bit different than balancing a checkbook, isn't it?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:13:21 Yes, that's true. I didn't know. I didn't know what we are getting into. It's like, oh, I can help you, Amy. But I didn't, I didn't know what that meant but, but we, uh, but we survived. But yeah, that, um, I don't know if I answered your question…

Ryan Tansom: 00:13:32 Yeah, it's the challenges of the, I think the cash is always a challenge and as we dive more into the, how the valuation and eventual exit, but you know how when, when cash comes in is always a big deal because it also dictates your reliance on a bank and other people and how fast you actually can grow. So let's, let's go actually into that, you know, why, you know, when, and how you hire that finance person and you know, what do they do for you and why do you think you waited too long?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:13:59 Well, um, they, they helped with a lot so, so we were services. So most of our staff, um, you know, we're billing out on an hourly basis and sometimes, um, so there was a lot of um, time-consuming invoicing and even though we tried to automate stuff, we were invoicing every two weeks to get, to get the cash flow going. And so our, our clients were fine with that. Most of our clients were fine with that. I, um, that was something we changed um, earlier on. I was being creative like, how can I get more money coming in faster so I was invoicing faster and so, so that became our strategy and so I guess they're- the finance piece, hiring somebody, it's just I was just doing too much on my own and a lot of what I was doing was finance. It was all the invoices, it was payroll.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:14:50 It was, uh, you know, just the daily books, all that stuff. I feel embarrassed to say it now, but I felt like I couldn't trust somebody else to do it. I remmeber first saying that article and I was like, I can't believe I said that, but it was true. That's how I felt at the time. Like I just felt like this is our business, this is, this is a critical piece. Like if we screw up on not paying people, they're not going to come back and work for us. At least I wouldn't. And so, um, so I just was really nervous to hand that over to somebody else. But then what I learned was, and I did, I did try to hire a few different people and that was again, my bad of not knowing what type of person I really needed and how- I ended up using a recruiting firm because they knew the exact, they knew my company almost better than I did because they'd seen different companies and they knew what stage I was in and I didn't know if I needed a cfo or just a, you know, a director of finance or a controller. I mean. And so, so that was really helpful. Um, it just happened so… a lot later than it should have. And when I say… nothing happened to the business that was detrimental. It was just my stress [Ryan interjects: I was going to say, your sanity, right?], my family. I mean, my husband will say that, like the woman that I ended up hiring was, her name was Diane and he's always like, Diane, you saved our lives. And she was, I mean, I love her and she was great. But yeah, it was just more my sanity. Yeah. But I was just really doing way too much.

Ryan Tansom: 00:16:21 So then as we continue progressing down the timeline, you go from 10 to 40 employees and you grew all the way up to two hundred. What were maybe some of the revenue benchmarks and employment benchmarks as you're growing and how did your… So what are the benchmarks and then underneath that, what was your thought process and where were you trying to go? Are there certain benchmarks that you're trying to hit and you know, maybe shed some light into the thought process?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:16:45 Yeah. Um, so we hit…. we hit like 18 in 2008 I think. I think that's right. And so that was like, that's when we started getting all this recognition for how much, how fast we've grown. And um, and so, um, then we started because of all this recognition that that was actually helpful to get us exposed to all these different business networks and then to learn more about what we should be doing differently or how others at our size are you know, managing things. And so, um, from that point we kind of fluctuated. I think we went to like 19,000,000 and then we actually had a dip in 2010 to like 14,000,000 and that was our first ever, like, you know, we've been just on, you know, that hill going straight up or the hockey stick or whatever. And so, um, and so having that dip, like was… it kind of concerned us.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:17:45 But it was funny because we were still getting all that recognition from the years before, um, that, um, it was great because I think it helped us turn 2010 to just turn it around in 2011 and I think, um, so, OK, I'll fast forward. So we ended up in 2013, um, being close to um, 2012. We ended up being close to twenty five million, was like 24 point something, close to twenty five million. And um, and so our goal was to try to get to 50 million and that was our goal. And um, and that wasn't necessarily a number of employees or a number, I mean because we had different employees, um, different service lines. So it wasn't necessarily…

Ryan Tansom: 00:18:29 Because you were back-filling services. So it doesn't necessarily tie to any kind of success because of how you're. Yeah.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:18:35 So, um, but yeah, so 50 was our goal just because, um, we had started, we had already started thinking about, um, how we would sell the business. That kind of came about in 2010. Just how we would exit because amy is, I'm at a different stage in her life. Um, she was closer to retirement age and so we knew that this, we felt like what we've learned through different business networks and experiences that was probably our best way to exit. And for her to retire.

Ryan Tansom: 00:19:05 How did you start talking about it? Sorry to interrupt. But it's, I think it's, it's a, it's a conversation that I think a lot of people are freaked out about, you know, was it, was it the dip in revenue that got you thinking differently or what? Like where and when, how did you shift from growth mode to big strategy mode?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:19:23 So, in 2010, it wasn't because we had a dip. It was actually because, um – we did have a dip, but we were approached by a competitor that year to be purchased. And so, um, and, and it was a large company that we knew very well and um, and I, and I remember talking to my accountant, like, as some advice, should we really go through the, you know, even talking to them because we're not there yet? Like I don't even know, you know, I knew that we had this dip. The company probably didn't necessarily know, you know, we saw it coming, but, um, but they knew, um, of all these awards that we've received and how fast we have grown since 2002 and what we doing and our clients. Um, but anyway, she, she said, you know, the advisor said you should definitely go through what the process, it'll be a learning for you, um, you're probably going to do this at some point. And so going through that process was very educational and realizing what our value was and then how to really build it to where we were ready to exit. Like, you know, because um, there are so many things I didn't know about the cost of the sale, um, you know, how they would value us, you know. And so that was. So I don't know if I answered your question or not…

Ryan Tansom: 00:20:28 I think it's fantastic because I think there's, you know, a good chunk of the people that would – the first time they sell or this is the first time they go through the process. So, you know, because we ended up selling a couple of branches which kind of gives you that, oh wow, this is way more than we thought. So when you say you learned a lot, maybe explain some of the process and obviously you and your partner are having some epiphanies throughout the process. What were some of the main things that you took away from that process that you then applied?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:20:58 Probably at that point was that Amy and I were really the bigger- the only real managers of the company, like we didn't have that leadership team is what we'd call it, our senior team, really below us. Like we had a lot of, a lot of doers and then there was us, but we just didn't have as much of a structure for the leadership underneath us. And so, um, so that was one of the things that we changed after that point. And 2010, they actually made us an offer, but we, yeah, so they made us an offer even the way we were, but it wasn't, it wasn't a good, um, it wasn't something we were interested in dollar-wise. And so it was still very flattering though to go through that and have this company that's a competitor, a large competitor, value no matter what the way, you know, it was still I thought was very flattering, but we learned that, you know, we need to have this structure in place so that we are more valuable and to diversify, maybe. Try to get maybe, you know, we had probably two clients that were 70 to eighty percent of our revenue, which is hard. Um, and it's not- with our clients, they're working across the country, so they're working on various projects at one time. So it's not that we only had one project with those two clients, but it was just that they knew us so well and it was that repeat work. It was great, but just really trying to broaden our base so that we were, again, that would be more valuable to a buyer.

Ryan Tansom: 00:22:26 Are they telling you that throughout the process? I'm curious like did that competitor value, you more like a strategic mind of OK, we can, they can scale and they had a dollar amount because of a return on investment? Or was it like a multiple of EBITDA? Or like how did they come to that number and then how did they explain to you the, the reasons you know, like the client concentration, your management, how did you come to those realizations and how they affected the numbers? That make sense?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:22:49 Yes. I don't think, I mean I know how we were valued when we, when, when we did sell eventually. I don't remember… I mean, the number that they came up with wouldn't have been a um, um, I don't think it would've been a, um, a multiple of EBITDA because the number that… So I think, I think what that client, what that potential buyer was doing was buying some of our big clients at that, you know. And so, um, so I think that's why the value was lower and they, and then they would also be… for that client or for that customer or that potential buyer, uh, they, they probably wouldn't have used a lot of our staff. They probably would have just combined the contracts and then not necessarily keeping our staff because they already did what we did and they had the staff to do all that. So, um, so I think that's where the value was, was lower and, and so, so what was helpful to us was that that investment banker that was the one that approached us for this potential buyer, I thought they were very helpful because I think they knew, um, that we could be working with them eventually in the end.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:23:52 And so I kept in touch with that investment broker because I realized that they were kind of niche to our industry, like specific to environmental engineering consulting. And so they knew a lot of people, um, that could be potential buyers. I know… and not just the competitors that we already knew about, but just, you know, a big base of potential buyers. And so I kept in touch, but we kept in touch with them over the years, um, just like on a yearly basis, like, here, here's my financials, this is what we're doing. Like I just, I wanted to learn from them as well. And so I just felt like I knew that you had to pay for their services, but just keeping in touch with them like that I felt like it was probably beneficial to them to know what's going on with us. And then also it's beneficial to me to see what kind of comments they have. Um, and so I got as much free advice from them as I could over the years until what we ended up doing was going with this broker or this investment banker in 2013 because we built this relationship and um, and they did start helping us with some things and um, you know, just through conversations. And then, um, in 2013 we were ready. We decided to go ahead and sign with them for them to help us sell the business.

Ryan Tansom: 00:25:02 I think that's fantastic because a lot of people don't… First of all, it takes so much trust in a relationship to when you're going through that process to have someone that understands you, can actually speak on your behalf. And it was this individual giving you advice kind of on the management team and the client concentration and some of those tactical things? Or was it more of the higher level, here's what's, here's what I think you could be worth, here's what, you know, where were you getting those strategic decisions that you're making on where you're going with the business?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:25:32 Well, I think with the investment banker, they gave us more of a higher level of, you know, this is what, how you know, these, this is what you could be worth if you, um, at this size. And um, you know, they did probably help us. They did definitely give us some feedback about the, um, in a broadening the base of our clients, which we knew that, but it's just, you know, being more focused on doing that. But I think with the, the other being more strategic with our leadership, I really got that from some of the business networks that I was part of and specifically [unclear] that one was like a light bulb went off when we started talking about something and just having that, that team underneath me. I think, I think we knew we needed to do that, but I just always felt like, oh, do we have enough money?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:26:18 Like it's going to be hard. And you know, I knew it was going to be hard at finding that right person and trust and things like that. But, um, I think um, being, being with other business owners and seeing what they had gone through and talking about it and how they'd come out on the other side like that, that was key to us to be helpful, to really think about building that strategic team. And then, and then just thinking bigger, like we really didn't have a number in mind. Like, you know, that's where we kind of came with the 50,000,000 was like let's just go for it. Like let's really try to be aggressive. And so …

Ryan Tansom: 00:26:53 I think that's really cool because I know as you're envisioning, as you're kind of shifting your mindset throughout going through that process and now you're thinking differently, so to go from 50,000,000 as a revenue number to having these conversations about value and timing and all that. So how did your goals change mentally for you or both you and Amy? Was it a net dollar amount that you want? Was it, uh, you know, keeping your employees? Was it selling at a certain timeline? I mean, I think know how did you determine what was important to you in that eventual eventual exit?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:27:26 Yeah. So it did change my mindset. Like I think, um, when Amy and I started the business, and this is for me, I mean, I never envisioned we would sell the business. When we first started talking about it, probably before 2010, I thought who was going to buy our business. That was so foreign to me. So I didn't go into it thinking we'd even be able to sell the business. And so we were just doing what we love to do and doing it the way we wanted to do it and felt like we were treating the clients well, we loved our employees and like we felt like we were, that's how we felt like we were able to grow faster was the loyalty with our employees and the employees actually spreading the word. I mean, I, I, um, talked about the clients, um, you know, helping us grow, but our employees as well.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:28:11 I mean, you know, when we were looking for other staff, I mean I had, I had, um, employees that were funding this other work too. I mean like our employees were awesome, you know, because everyone, everyone has their own network. And so, you know, it was just, I just remember one employee in particular said he was approached by one of our clients and said, I want you to come work on this project. And he said, well, you know, I'm not, I'm not going to go work for you unless you hire me through. He called, he was an older gentleman and he said, I'm not gonna work for, uh, for you unless you hire me through the girls, like he called Amy and I 'the girls' and I just thought that was funny. He was so sweet. He got us more clients because, you know, he had the network. And so anyways, I, I, I felt like we, um, the loyalty with the employees because we treated them well we paid them as best as we could and we provided them as many benefits as we could as well if we felt like that was important. So I really just got off…

Ryan Tansom: 00:29:03 just show us is important because actually you're kind of alluding to the reason I asked the question because if you… the first person would've bought you, you know, they would've taken the contracts and the clients. And that was one of the things that you and I were talking with Bobby Martin had issues with that. Right? And how that was not necessarily something he was aware of what was important to think about. So you've got the, you know, the gross dollar amount that you might sell the company for. And then there's the net dollar amount, which sometimes people don't realize is significantly different. And also what happens to the employees and who you might sell to? So as you're reformatting your mindset and you're looking at what's important – Obviously your employees are important – but how are you determining how to interact to all these different conflicting decisions sometimes?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:29:49 Well, that is, that's kind of where. Thank you for reminding where I was going. Because it did change my mindset. Once we knew we were selling, Not that I, um, I'm, I'm, I still cared for the employees and everything, but it definitely became for me like working for AK, it was now like I was working for AK. Like AK was my company and it was what I did and I loved it. But then once we decided we were going to sell and we really moving towards that path, it was really like focusing on the numbers, which I love numbers and… but it became a different way of looking at the numbers. And so that I think, um, I don't think I could have avoided that. It's just that's um, that's where I became burnt out faster because things just changed. We were looking for the end for good reasons. I mean, because, you know, we, for amy to retire and I, and I definitely didn't want to go on without Amy, it wouldn't be the same. We started, the company was AK environmental, A for Amy and K for Kelly…

Ryan Tansom: 00:30:46 So you just buying her out was not…

Kelly Caldwell: 00:30:48 I didn't want to do that. I just didn't feel like. Yeah, I mean that could've been an option, but I just didn't feel like that was the right option I didn't want to do that. And so starting to move forward to the sell, sell the business. It was, it started to becoming all about numbers and you know, um, we were always profitable but like, can we make our margins better? And so it really, um, it did turn, and we're still treating the employees well and we're still giving them all the benefits. Even though our margins through better, we never sacrificed like, OK, well let's cut 401K. We still kept those um, benefits. But um…

Ryan Tansom: 00:31:24 Keeping the people that you just want to hangout was on payroll for no reason becomes a little bit different, right?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:31:31 Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, yeah. So, uh, so yeah, to find a buyer, I mean it just, it definitely changed the field for me.

Ryan Tansom: 00:31:41 What was the timeframe between the, you know, OK, it was a mental shift. We're looking at the numbers. We're marching this direction. What was the timeframe from when you decided that to the actual event?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:31:55 Um probably from 2010 to 12. It was like, you know, you know, doing our best to change things to get things in place. But then from like 12 through 13 – we sold in 2014 – that's when things became started to become like, just paranoid about the numbers because, you know, just because of like, because we have gone through that dip before when when we hit, um, about twenty five million in 2012, you know, for seeing what 2013 would look like. I just didn't see significant growth and we had been growing significantly we felt like. And um, and so I thought, well, I know what I know what I, you know, I know a little bit now about what it would be like to sell your business. You want to always be going on a high, you don't want to sell while you have this dip. Trying to find out, trying to just be realistic of the right timing to sell.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:32:42 Um, and, and then also how Amy and I were feeling in the business, like I definitely was starting to get burnt out in like that timeframe, um, you know, the larger you get, the more problems you have and it just, you know, um, it just was getting exhausting. So I think I was emotionally kind of getting burnt out and I was just, you never know when the right time to sell is. And so, you know, just constantly thinking about that and talking to you about like, are we there or you burn out? You know. Um, and so, so when we decided, um, 2013, um, we met with the investment broker probably that first quarter and we discussed things with him and then we decided, OK, we're going to sign the papers with him, with them. It was a group, um, you know, the, during the fourth quarter, we're going to, we're going to do this. So we, we, um, you know, thought about it seriously for that pretty much for a majority of that that year in 2013 and when we signed with them to help us sell, I think we signed like in September and then we were done. We sold the company out of the company by… it was March twenty first of the next year.

Ryan Tansom: 00:33:52 Yeah. Pretty excellerated. So, and by the way, when you're feeling burnt out like that, it becomes a lot less fun to not pay yourself and to be juggling cash. It's not for a blind passion because you love what you do. It becomes more of a, it's a totally different dynamic, isn't it?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:34:04 Yeah. I like the way we were paying herself then, but it was, it was just a stressful. Stress is not fun. I mean, I know people can, people thrive on it. What I'm learning is it seems like a lot of people thrive on stress and it really affected me like physically and emotionally and I just didn't want to live like that and you know, so…

Ryan Tansom: 00:34:34 I've been there, I totally get it. So when you're, when you're… the emotions, when you sign that, you're probably already having a little bit of relief that you made the commitment to go that direction. Did you guys have an idea because you had already been talking to investment banker throughout the time, I'm assuming they were kind of shedding some light, but who and what the options were? Was it like financial firms like private equity? Was it a public company like yeah, I think you eventually sold to? Was it a competitor? What was the idea in your head of what your probable outcome was going to be?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:35:01 Yeah, I think in our head when we signed with them, we figured it would probably be a competitor, but this is interesting now because I mean, again, like you don't know what you don't know. I mean there's this whole world of what they do and I mean he, when we signed with them and they're like, OK, we're going to set up this executive summary for you, go through your financials. But then we've got this list of like, you know, hundreds of people or hundreds of companies within our network, um, that we know are either looking or have bought companies in the past. Um, and so, um, and like I said, they were kind of niche to our industry so they knew us very well, but they were going through, we spent time like going through this list with them and writing each company by whether we knew them. Um, if they're interested in there, there were international companies that we've never heard of. Um, and so, so we spent time, like a few days just like going through that and, and, and then, um, so that just was like eye opening because there was just so many companies I never thought, you know, why would this company in Australia be interested in us. But, um, and so we narrowed it down to like twenty-

Ryan Tansom: 00:36:04 Sorry to interrupt, I think it's important because everybody buys a company for various reasons, whether it's a return on capital because they're coming from a PE firm or strategic reasons as they're explaining why these people are… What were some of the, you know, oh, that makes sense, that you might have heard? And then that was my first one and then I got another one that ties off after that.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:36:23 OK. Yeah, I think most of them are interested in. So, um, our clientele was natural gas and energy. So like energy, I feel like there's always big but especially big then and I still now but so I think they were interested in what our clientele and so like there are international companies, that just wanted to maybe get another, um, to get a footing in the US. And so they thought with, so there were some that were interested in- that they thought would be interested in us because of those reasons. Um, none of them were PE, PE firms [Ryan interjects: private equity] but they were held. Yeah. Sorry. Um, but most of them were engineering or construction, um, other environmental consulting firms. So, so in a way competitors, but probably not our space.

Ryan Tansom: 00:37:06 And difference in products and services and buying clientele so they could overlap selling and stuff.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:37:11 Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ryan Tansom: 00:37:13 So then, uh, as you're going through reading that and you're, you know, going back to what your, your passion for your employees and such, I mean were you getting any kind of guidance on how each person would treats the employees or the acquisition. Did you have any idea when you're rating them or did you find that stuff out later with as you're talking to people?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:37:34 We knew some of them, like some of the companies that were in the US that were large, we had an impression on some of them just based on past acquisitions of other companies. So we heard through the grapevine like maybe what- had an idea of what would happen or something that maybe we avoided because of that. But otherwise just in that initial- until we met with the companies until we met with the companies that were specifically interested in us. That's when we started to get a better feel of like, you know, maybe how they would have, [Ryan interjects: go through it, yeah.] would have happened with our employees, yeah.

Ryan Tansom: 00:38:09 So with the investment bankers and in your head when you and Amy sat down, was it, hey, this is the number we both want because was it a net number, was it a gross number and then what were the stipulations like don't want to work there or don't mind or have to keep your employees, you know, like what was it that you described that you wanted and then maybe that kind of jumps into the second part of the question which is how did it actually turn out?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:38:31 Right. So we definitely had um, we had a net number. So we went in knowing like, and again I think because of our experience we knew there were going to be costs. And so I think a lot of people I've talked to don't realize like some of these significant cost when you sell a business. And so we had a net number in mind, but when we decided like this is the time we're both burnout, like, hey, I don't know how much our revenue is going to grow next year. We knew, OK, we're probably gonna not going to hit that number, but we had already, Amy and I had already kind of decided that before we went in with the investment banker and then, and then they broke it down and then they said, OK, here's, um, I think your multipliers are going to be between here and there and, you know, hopefully I think they're going to be at the higher end because of these reasons.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:39:10 So, but still we felt like we were probably going to be less than that net number that we, we said we wanted. And one thing that I tell people is like, just know what you need because I mean, it's, it's probably hard to also figure out what you really need. But we were hoping to. I mean, Amy was retiring and this was her exit. I wasn't sure if it would be the end of my career. I didn't think it would be. Um, I didn't think I would continue on with the company. That was not my goal. Um, it wasn't. So it wasn't Amy's goal to continue on with the company. I mean, we were open to a few years, but um, we didn't, we were selling to exit ourselves, you know, um, um, so, and that was kind of tricky too cause you know, knowing how to say, I'm not sure what the other company is looking for as well, like do they want me to stay or do they want me to exit?

Ryan Tansom: 00:39:58 How much are you willing to pay me for how long and what are the terms and conditions, right?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:40:00 Yeah. Because I think I'd, we met with a few companies that were um, I think were interested in me staying and I made it clear that I wasn't, that's not my goal. And so, you know, sometimes I'm thinking, well maybe I was a little bit too honest, but that's just, you know, I think it's better to be honest than not. But you know, going through like you're kind of not necessarily dating, but in a way you're like trying to get to know these people like very over a short period of time and it's a major deal. And are we going to work well together and you know, how much should I really share with you about, you know?

Ryan Tansom: 00:40:33 Am I going to have to shoot myself in the foot by not getting the certain dollar amount or certain terms and conditions because of what I said. I think, you know, based on your process of how many buyers were coming to the table. First question, how many buyers that came to the table and then how did that impact the negotiation and getting what you wanted?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:40:52 So we ended up having the, we, we had like 20 people review our document, we had 15 people that we- or, 15 companies that we met with like within one week, which was crazy meeting all those companies within one week at a time was crazy. Um, but then after that, then it was, there was one buyer that was on a time crunch. So like the other, there's other buyers that were interested but not ready to do it before the end of the year. And um, and so we only had, we had three people come to the table at the same timing and as this more aggressive buyer. And so instead of, because the other company, there was a few other companies that were interested, but they wanted to wait and maybe that was their nice way of saying like, it's just not gonna work, but it was our impression that it just wasn't the right quarter for them. Um, they were, you know, gonna need a little bit more time.

Ryan Tansom: 00:40:52 Could be negotiation tactics, too, sometimes.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:41:42 So yeah, so we had three and then, but there was really just one that was very, very aggressive, very serious. And um, the other two weren't, um, uh, the offers weren't as, they didn't compare. So I mean, you have the three but the, the, um, the one we ended up going with was the definitely the bigger, the better deal.

Ryan Tansom: 00:42:04 Did they shoot over like a number? Was there a letter of intent that had a bunch of, you know, kind of here's the outline of everything and then you dove into due diligence? If you could maybe give us a couple of milestones with the timing of that.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:42:16 Yeah. They sent us over, um, eleven, 10. And I think if I remember this correctly, I think that they sent us, they want to close by the end of the day that year, so we met them at the end of September and so they, at first they were the only ones that came back within that timing. And I felt like we should wait. And so we didn't know if we were missing a deal, but we just went back and said, OK, we're not ready yet. But then that first quarter they were still interested after we said- because we were waiting for those other two offers to come in. And um, and so, um, so, so they had… They ended up sending us a second letter because, you know, that first one had a timing of the end of the year. So when they sent us a second letter and we felt like, OK, we're ready to go because we saw these other offers.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:42:58 And, and so once we signed the letter, um, we did, I mean, there was some negotiation on that letter of intent, like how the deal was going to be broken down. That's the whole learning process too, because you think, I'm like, OK, we're just gonna make it cash. I feel like that's what I want, you know, like that's what I, you know, and so what the process of that because they actually wanted to give us more stock than what we were wanting to take. And um, and so our deal was a mixture of um… I'm getting ahead of myself.

Ryan Tansom: 00:43:29 I think that's all part of the negotiation. I actually have a, there's a one of my episodes I interviewed this gentleman who was kind of on the advising side and it was like, you tell me the price, I'll tell you the terms because it's like, hey, here's millions of dollars, but like, it's not in cash. There's all these caveats. So, you know, how did you guys go to figure out what, you know, what was it, a combination of stock retention or non-competes or cash or like- how does, how did they actually go about negotiating that? And then what did, how did it actually end up getting structured?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:43:57 Yeah. They, um, I, you know, we had, um, you know, we had our, part of our team was our M&A lawyer and M&A accountant amongst, with our investment banker and um, and so, you know, they came back with, you know, I think it was stock cash and then a note, I think the note was always in there, um, employment agreements and so we're just, we're kind of trying to figure out what, what we can live with and what we felt most comfortable with. So we went back and forth a few times and so what we ended up was, you know, a percentage of cash up front and then a smaller percentage of stock than what they originally had said and then, and then, um, note payment over three years, um, and I wasn't familiar with what a note was and I'm like, OK, are we really going to get that money?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:44:38 But, you know, they're, they, you know, the lawyers and everything, you know, unless they go bankrupt, you're going to get that money. So, um, but it's all these things, you know, trust, you know, like this is such a big deal. And it's just, you know, so it was great to ask my network, not even just my advisors, but just ask the network of people that I know as well that have gone through this. Like what kind of, what, what did your deal look like? Does this sound right? Like, my advisors are there for me, I know, but I'm paying them as well and they want the deal to go through, too. So it was nice to be able to reach out to some other women that have gone through this and, and get their feedback. But um…

Ryan Tansom: 00:45:13 Did it change in between the… your negotiated LOI? And explain maybe in a couple sentences the due diligence process.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:45:24 Due diligence is not a couple of sentences that, I mean, God, I thought I was stressed out before the sale.

Ryan Tansom: 00:45:32 What I love is your face reaction. What the people, the listeners don't realize, is that we're actually on video right now. It's, it's a, it's a big deal, isn't it?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:45:36 Yeah. So, so due diligence all that kind of goes back to like, you know, Amy and mine original agreement. Like she didn't like all the, you know, numbers and Blah Blah Blah. So that like really fell on me, which I was totally fine to handle, but we're growing a business, there's a time constraint, you have to get all this stuff. And then it for the way we, we did everything was it was secretive. We didn't tell any of our staff until the day it happened. And, and that was what was recommended to us and I understood why and I felt I agreed that that's what we should do, but you know, so I had to run my normal day-to-day and then, and then behind the scenes I was doing all this due diligence and it was just, you know, it's a stressful. All the questions they are asking you and you try not to be defensive and you know, it's just like, it's just business, but it's like, you know, they're picking up things and why do you do it this way?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:46:27 And then the terms that you might not, that's why it was great to have like an investment banker to help me through that because um, I know people do it different ways, but like that they made me feel more confident that they could help me, you know, these guys that were buying us had bought multiple companies and they built this, they built a company before and then sold it and now they're building another one, you know, they, they're so experienced and then there's just me, you know, and, and, uh, and Amy so, um, so it was definitely, I mean, I, I had no clue how stressful it would be.

Ryan Tansom: 00:46:27 It's like a full cavity search.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:46:58 Yeah. Yeah. And I mean we didn't have anything to hide, but it was just a lot. It's a lot of information and it's…

Ryan Tansom: 00:47:09 How would you go about… when we were going through it, they were looking at contracts and stuff like that for us or even like our clients and anybody that needs to see the contracts. And so, you know, when you're going back and requesting information from your employees, how did you- first of all, how'd you feel about that cuz you feel like you're kind of hiding something? How did you feel, then how did you actually go about getting the information without telling them?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:47:29 I don't know if there was anything. I'm trying to think if there was anything I had to go back for my employees. I don't think there is stuff that I had to. I mean the, the main person I had to go around or through was my, at that point, I thinks he was director of finance, so she would, you know, um, luckily I liked that stuff and I was doing a lot of this stuff myself but like just running reports and different things like that. So sometimes I'd have to ask her can you run this report for me? I need it for whatever. Like, I tried not to lie, but, and, and, but I, and I didn't want to be suspicious, but I, I just feel like it was best for everyone if we didn't share and the reason why I felt like I just know people get scared and, and um, and I mean this is a hard topic because like, you know, Amy are a great match because we have different strengths and she, I would feel like is more the emotional, like the bigger heart.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:48:24 Like I think I'm a good person, too, I think I have a good heart, but she was really, really, like she felt worse about not telling the employees than I did because she felt like we were lying to them. But I had to remind her, I said, I don't want this to sound cold, but this is our company. Like you and I started this by oureslves. We didn't pay ourselves for six months. We, we, you know, we mortgaged our houses or like all this is on us. And so like this is our exit. Like I, and I don't feel that we're setting up. I, I agree that I don't want to, you know, I'm not going to just like send them off on their way and not care what they're doing. I feel like we're going to set them up for success and I know that they're all, I mean they are, they are all highly qualified, they're all, they're good at what they do, so they're going to be valued and I just really felt like that. And so, but I felt like for this transaction, this is about you and I, Amy, and you know, this is, this is what we built. Like sometimes I just felt like I was more of the…

Ryan Tansom: 00:49:23 you were rational, very rational. I really mean that, Kelly, because, you know, even though your best employees are there, they still… people go into survival mode and next thing you know, you got your key employees looking for jobs because it's unknown and people are freaked out about the unknown. And then it's bad for everybody. So it's the prudent thing to do, but it is difficult. How'd you guys tell them then?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:49:43 So that's, yeah, we um, so we, I flew in, so our main, I mean I'm in North Carolina and I, our main office was in New Jersey, um, we started in New Jersey and I moved down here later. So anyway, I flew in that morning and um, and the, the team that was the company that was buying us was moving er flying in later that afternoon. So we had set up a leadership meeting with our senior staff. We called them our leadership team and it was just like five or six of us. And so we had already planned for everyone to come in because most of our staff, like a lot of us were remote so like we had staff in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but then we get staff across the country. And so we had people, other people flying in from different states for this leadership team meeting. And so that was the first thing. I mean, we were so nervous.

Ryan Tansom: 00:49:43 The stomach ache is terrible.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:50:29 And um, and I was like, I just hope we don't cry like you and I knew it so. But I, but we didn't. And honestly, the way we explained it, and I still believe it, it's just like we felt like we saw the potential in where AK could go. We kept growing, but we felt like we were almost kind of blocking the way. Like I just felt like there needed to be… I felt like we had kind of gotten it as far as we could have gotten it. At least that was my mindset at that moment. And um, I just really felt like I'm burnt out. Like I just don't know how much more I can do. I don't, I don't feel like it's fair for us to just level out at wherever we are or if we'd dip again, I don't know. And so I felt like we're positioning, you know, selling the company to another company who is buying us strategically because they don't do what we do.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:51:17 So they needed all of us. They needed our staff, they needed, they needed their expertise. I felt confident that we're going to be part of this bigger company. You're going to continue to do what you're doing, but it's going to be more opportunity for you, more, you know, bigger client base. You know, more management… ability for them to move up. I mean, you know, things like that. So, so that's how we explained it and I, and I feel that way but I mean it's also hard too because I mean that's what they loved about our company though too. I mean a lot of our staff came from large companies and so they liked the family feel they liked that they could call me at anytime and you know, people would say, you know, I've never been able to talk to-My title is vice president and Amy and I are co-founders, but she was president, I was vice president – and we had staff that were like, I've never been able to just call up the vice president and talk to them whenever I wanted to, or the president. Amy and I were always available.

Kelly Caldwell: 00:52:11 And, and, and so we did have that family feel. And so I think they were nervous about that. Um, but we told them, hey, we're going to be here. And that was something you asked me and I didn't answer was Amy had a two year agreement and I had a one year agreement. And so I said we're going to be here for the transition and again, that's another thing we didn't tell them, we didn't tell them we have a two year agreement and I have a one year agreement. We just said, hey, we're going to be here, you know, we're gonna keep to help, continue to grow and Blah Blah Blah. And um, because, you know, just because we had a one year agreement didn't mean that that I had one year agreement didn't mean that I couldn't stay longer if things were going well. So I feel like there's, my strategy is just never tell people too much if you don't need to because you don't necessarily know the, you know, you don't know what it's going to be like in a year. I mean maybe… maybe I would have been there. Right.

Ryan Tansom: 00:52:58 All right, let's go back to the, what was it like Kelly when you signed, like what was the emotional state and what were you thinking when that happened?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:53:11 For me, I was um, it was like, I felt really like I felt like I said I can, there was just so much stress building over the last few years and of those years, um, and I have young daughters and um, or they, they were younger at the time and I just didn't want my life to be just work all the time. So like for me at the moment, I mean I wasn't sad, I was happy. I felt, um, I felt relieved. I felt like we did it. We made it here and we sold and um, and you know, what's next, but I didn't feel, I didn't really feel sad. Um…

Ryan Tansom: 00:53:48 How did that change as you built this baby and everybody refers to founders that have to pass on their baby. As you're going through the integration with the new company, how did it feel giving away everything you built?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:54:01 Yeah. Um, the hardest part was like, I always felt like I wasn't a control freak and so maybe maybe I am and I didn't realize it, but it was more the fact that I was able to solve problems. So that's what- When I lost control of… like when I integrated all the finances and all, everything that I had my finger on before and if an employee called me and uh, you know, I could fix it right away. And so once that, once everything was integrated, so we, we sold like in March, I mean everything was integrated by August. It was, I feel like it was fast, it was within a few months and then when I get a call from an employee that this happened, I can't do anything. So like I call, I call them, I called, you know, the owners now and say hey this happened and I was open to how can I help you with this?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:54:49 Like I know I have no tools to be able to do it myself now, but can I help you solve this problem? And that was the hardest part because the way they solve problems is not how I would solve them. And I feel like they made it… I feel like, you know, that was, that was the harder part because I think a lot of us just like to, you know, that's, that kind of goes back to the beginning of the whole business is like, I just wanted to help Amy. Like I knew she could be successful. So I just wanted to help her and make this, make this company, but you know, just so not being able to help somebody is just like [Ryan interjects: paralyzing.] yeah. I'm like, oh my God, it's so frustrating. And so yeah, that was a hard, that was a hard time that my year that I was with them, um, after I lost control and I even hate saying lost control, but it was.

Ryan Tansom: 00:55:45 Entrepreneurs are control freaks and we're willing to deal with crazy amounts of stress and risk just to be able to make a decision on her own. Even if it's wrong!

Kelly Caldwell: 00:55:50 And that's what it is! Being able to make that decision. Yeah. It's just… and I wasn't, I couldn't, and they didn't even really necessarily want my advice, either. You know, you meet people and I don't know their whole story. I don't know all the things they've gone through and different acquisitions, you know what I mean? So I can see that they probably have gotten bitten by things that they did in the past and trying to do different things with us. But um, but yeah, that was hard. So that was frustrating.

Ryan Tansom: 00:56:18 When you look back, that was one thing that you might have done differently?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:56:26 For the sale or just in general?

Ryan Tansom: 00:56:28 You know, if there's, if there's one thing that you say, you know, what, you know, throughout growing the business or you know, throughout the sale or even, you know, that kind of leads into my second part of the question, which is what you're doing now. You know, maybe a better question is, is there, is there anything you would've done differently?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:56:43 I think the only thing I kind of talked about this before is it's just hiring the senior leadership underneath us. Like I, I, I was just naïve to the fact that, um, you know, I don't know. I knew that I didn't know everything, but I guess I felt like nobody else would care as much as I did and I think you can find the right people and um, that have the passion that you know care as much about the company as you do. And so I think I definitely waited too long and I think um, I mean at least for me using a recruiter for these like really strategic hires that was key. Like if I would have met that recruiter like three years prior, I would have totally hired somebody then. I just didn't know what I needed to hire and recruiter helped me, um, with the confidence of like, this is really what you need and I know this because of this and then interviewing multiple people for this, like, like a controller cfo role because our company was growing and it was just like, I don't, you know, I don't know what kind of level of finance person I need but that…

Kelly Caldwell: 00:57:45 And I think that goes for any kind of senior level position, is that just having that team underneath you because it really alleviates the stress then I think I may have, I may have been able to last a few years longer. You know, I mean, Pete my husband jokes that like, and he's just joking, but you never know what the right time to sell your business. But um, you know, I, I mentioned the fear of like, OK, we have about 25,000,000 and 2013 was about the same around twenty-five million, so I wasn't sure what 2014 was going to be like and we had to make a projection for the sale and all that and that's hard. Um, so projected you conservatively, but we blew that out of the water. We like hit 30,000,000 that year and Pete's like man, you should have sold then, but you never know! [Ryan interjects: don't think about it] But I think um, I was just so burned by that time and I think going back to your question, it's like if I would have had that support system underneath me and it's my own fault. I mean it's nobody else's fault besides myself. It's just not really getting that right support staff.

Ryan Tansom: 00:58:47 I think a lot of us are very much in the same boat. Where you, I think you nailed it when you said it's about caring. It's not necessarily the control, it's about caring as much. So now that now that you've been out for a couple of years now, what are you doing now? How was life after business actually been treating you and how have you adapted to the new version of what you're doing?

Kelly Caldwell: 00:59:07 Life is great. Like I, um, so my husband said, you know, once, once it was done, once I had finished with the company that bought us, he's like, just take a year off, don't do anything, don't worry about anything. Just, you know, relax. And, um, and I've always loved to volunteer and so I just started doing more volunteer work and um, um, and so that year went by and I'm like, OK, I still don't know what I want to do and now it's almost been three years since I left. Um, it'd be five. And um, and I, you know, I think what I've decided is, or at least at this moment, um, you know, I really enjoy mentoring other businesses. Um, uh, you know, if that's either through volunteer programs, like, um, there's different, um, groups within the triangle. I'm an angel investor with a group here. And um, so I, I like being part of the entrepreneurial community and learning about what others are doing and seeing if I can be helpful in any way. Um, I, I just, I, I kind of explored like, could I ever work for somebody and I right now, I don't think I could.

Ryan Tansom: 01:00:29 You know what someon said to me once? And I just loved it, how they phrased it. I think it was Norman Broadsky's podcast: I'm professionally unemployable.

Kelly Caldwell: 01:00:35 Yes, I think I am! I think I could get along with people, but I think it's so hard to not be in control. It's like being able to make that decision on your own and I don't want to have to ask somebody.

Ryan Tansom: 01:00:35 Even if it's a colossal failure, at least I did it.

Kelly Caldwell: 01:00:51 So yeah, now I'm just uh, yeah, I'm just enjoying my time. I've gotten to do more traveling with my family. We went on a cross country rv trip like a summer, not last summer but the summer before, which was awesome. And um, so just, you know, and my girls are now like 10 and 13, which that's a whole nother podcast if you… you have a daughter, right?

Ryan Tansom: 01:01:19 Twin girls that are one. Yeah, I'm going to have to get some serious advice from you on other topics later.

Kelly Caldwell: 01:01:25 It's so nice to be available and present, you know what I mean? Like I, um, that was something I talked about with some friends last year. Like, I just really want to be present with my family and be home because I don't know if it's just something I need to work on, but you know, when I've got a project or when, you know, with AK, it was always in my head, it was always on my mind and if we're sitting at the dinner table and, you know, uh, you know, even though I worked from home a lot, you know, I turned off the computer at five and come out, but it's still going on in my head, you know. And so I always felt like there were things that I just missed in conversation. And I think now, especially with Senara being a teenager, um, it's just so nice to really try to be present and understand what's going on.

Kelly Caldwell: 01:02:04 And um, and I know not everybody can do that. So I feel like, you know, what I should take advantage of this time. Like if I can, which I, I can, I think, yeah, I don't want to rush into doing something, keeping myself busy with something else. I want to just try to be more present with my family. And do the things I'd like to do, which is like volunteering and get to know other, um, entrepreneurs. I mean there's, there's people I meet that um, I mean there could be potential businesses happening, but like it'll just, it'll just happen.

Ryan Tansom: 01:02:34 Your relationship with those potential business might be a little bit different then though based on your experience.

Kelly Caldwell: 01:02:39 Yeah. Yeah.

Ryan Tansom: 01:02:40 Kelly, what's the best way for our listeners to get in touch with you?

Kelly Caldwell: 01:02:43 Um, I think Linkedin. Just like Kelly Caldwell, I don't even know.

Ryan Tansom: 01:02:49 Yup. And then they'll have it all in the show notes so they can get in touch with you there. Well, thank you so much for coming on. I absolutely had a blast.

Kelly Caldwell: 01:02:57 I had fun, too. Thank you so much for your interest in my story.


Ryan Tansom: 01:03:01 I hope you enjoyed the interview with Kelly. I had a blast talking to her and she did an amazing job walking us through all the different parts of the entrepreneurship journey. And if I had three things that I had to take away from the conversation that we had, the first one, and I think the most important one is the mental shift from that dry run with that potential buyer that happened with Kelly and Amy because it is crazy important that you look at your business differently even though it might not be as enjoyable as she said, you know, the passion and the way you treat things might be significantly different. But getting yourself to look at the important things and the right things. And it took time. I mean Kelly and Amy, it took them time to get to the point where they were like, yes, I'm ready.

Ryan Tansom: 01:03:46 But they had been mentally going through the process and looking at their books differently, looking at their people differently and then looking at their options differently because they'd been thinking about it because it's a mental process and you can't just immediately pull the rug underneath you because if you do certain things are going to be processed after the fact. Like the last episode with Bobby Martin. So mentally getting yourself ready. And so the second main takeaway that relates to that is looking at a dry run and looking at a potential buyer, how do they look at it? What do they view your company like? What are the things that they would change? How would it be valued, and even if you don't want to sell, looking at it that way, we'll give you the calibration and need for how long is this going to take? What are the things that I might need to do? So you can actually work on it and mentally get yourself into that different state of mind so you can do the things that are necessary to get you out from underneath your business to a place that you've got options.

Ryan Tansom: 01:04:42 And the third that I think is always a relevant issue is how important your employees are. Your employees and your culture or your family, but they're also the people that bring your customers in and that is something that the buyers look at and it's fun while you're there, but it's also something that the buyers are going to value because of the stability that you've built and the team that is underneath you that can deliver the services that you want your customers. So until next week, I really hope you enjoyed the episode and if you like it, go on itunes and rate it, but otherwise I'll see you next week.

Speaker 6: 01:05:28 Yeah, yeah.

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Written by Ryan Tansom

Ryan Tansom

Ryan runs industry-specific podcasts on his website which pertain to mergers and acquisitions, and all the life lessons he wish he had known then. He strives to bring this knowledge to his listeners in a way that is effective and engaging by providing new material each week from industry experts.

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