I'm a developer in my mid-twenties.

About a year ago, I accepted a CTO position with an early-stage tech startup. The position is completely unpaid, I receive a 10% equity stake in the company.

I was in between jobs at that time and figured that maybe the position could help me fill the employment gap on my resume and make it easier for me to transition into more senior/management-level roles.

At first, I was really motivated and excited. But lately, I just can't find anything to motivate me. I highly doubt that this startup is going to take off anytime soon and I'm sick of working for free. My priorities have changed. I want money.

I've been looking for "real", paying programming jobs. The first thing interviewers ask me is how, if, and why I intend to step down from my CTO position at my current startup. They're never satisfied by the answers I give and it's cost me every single job I've interviewed for so far.

To make matters worse, I've putting such little effort into the startup recently that I don't know if I could even ask my cofounders for a reference.

  • 2
    What answers have you given that didn't satisfy them? If you simply say "I want money" to them, then that is probably going to dissuade them...
    – HorusKol
    Jan 17, 2018 at 2:45
  • 8
    I don't see a question here. Jan 17, 2018 at 3:03
  • 5
    What specifically makes you think their problem is the way you would handle your resignation? What is your usual response to their question? Jan 17, 2018 at 11:58
  • 1
    you’re overestimating the delta between cto of a micro startup and a developer. it’s essentially a lateral move in many cases. unless you’re overselling the title no one will give it a second thought. Jan 17, 2018 at 19:26
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    That's odd. "Because I want a regular salary" was exactly the reason I gave when I decided to leave my start-up and get a regular 9-5 job, and every interviewer I spoke to agreed that was eminently reasonable. Jan 18, 2018 at 10:20

2 Answers 2


Focus on the positive

If an employer asks you "Why are you leaving?"

Something like "The startup atmosphere is great, but I am looking for something with more security and stability."

You don't even have to explain that you aren't currently paid. I would keep that out of it. If potential employers ask you how much you are currently making - redirect the question.

"How much do you currently make?"

"I am looking to get compensated the market rate for this position."

If they press on it say repeat the answer. Most employers won't press too hard on this.


Simple: remove the job title from your resume, or change it to something more like the position you're applying for. If I hear of a "CTO" in his 20s, it makes me think one of two things:

  1. It must be of a BS go-nowhere home business I've never heard of.
  2. He's an ivy-league over-achiever who's lucky. too lucky for us.

Neither one is really what you want to go for as a developer. Say you're a programmer for the business, or lead developer, something fancy like that. Of course, you're an officer in the company anyway, you can create a actual position if it helps you sleep, they are free for unpaid staff like officers.

If they ask about leaving in general, make "polite" comments that imply there's something dreadfully wrong with the company, but that you're too professional to bad mouth an employer; "well... It's not progressing as i expected", "I have concerns about the long-term direction", etc.

  • 1
    Yes, the "CTO" title is a problem.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 17, 2018 at 21:31
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    "I'm essentially the lead developer, but as it's a very small company I'm on the board as the CTO" might also fly. Jan 4, 2019 at 8:30

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