101

I am a co-founder of a software startup in the B2B space. I am an engineer and have helped build much of our platform from the ground up. It's been 3+ years since we started doing this and we've raised seed funding + further funding as we've grown our customer base. When we began, we had some specific technology and found a sector of industry that would benefit and we've applied it there for the past few years.

At this point, I am pretty burnt out. I don't enjoy working in the market we are in, and I've taken significant pay cuts (no pay for 1 year, less than 50% market rate past 2), and my time gets split between customer implementations and support and helping manage the team.

My wife and I have made significant sacrifices for this job (location, home, etc.) and at this point I don't see the positives in staying longer. I have no doubt the company will continue to be successful in the future, but I don't really want to be a part of it. More than 50% of the time, I wake up and dread going to work in the morning.

If I didn't have to worry about losing relationships with people here, I would have probably left four months ago. I don't plan on being in management long term as I enjoy being an engineer, and I know I could get double my salary elsewhere and work in a space I care about. I also disagree with how some decisions are made and the company is run with my other cofounders, but that is more of a minor issue. I am torn because I really enjoy working with the people here, and I feel bad for leaving early. Does anyone have advice on how I could leave pseudo gracefully, or offer advice if they've ever been in my shoes?

I am so intertwined with the company since I helped start it, and I can't imagine leaving without burning bridges. I also know it would potentially cause people to lose morale, and I don't want to affect the company too much if possible.

EDIT: Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and advice on my situation. It has given us a lot to think about over the next few weeks. I appreciate all the thoughtful responses here, and maybe sometime in the future I'll circle back in a comment with an update.

  • 16
    What makes you think that quitting will instantly burn bridges? If done correctly, any quitting can be done without bridges burn – DarkCygnus Aug 14 at 17:43
  • 58
    Do you own a portion of the company? Also, if you leave, will the company survive? – Dan Pichelman Aug 14 at 17:45
  • 39
    "I have no doubt the company will continue to be successful in the future ..." - If it continues to be successful, it must be successful now. Do you think the company is successful now? If so, how does that mesh with being severely underpaid for two years? Is it possible the company is only successful because people get paid way less than they should? – marcelm Aug 15 at 10:28
  • 16
    I respectfully disagree this is a duplicate of workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/92/… . Company founders have more and different challenges when they move on. – O. Jones Aug 15 at 11:21
  • 4
    @Pyritie Business To Business. – Hosch250 Aug 15 at 12:38
142

How to gracefully leave a company you helped start?

Speak with the other partners in an open and honest manner. Explain as you have here, and provide a reasonable notice -- say 30 days in this case before departing. This is plenty of time to hire up, knowledge transfer, etc.

Also, if you desire, offer up a per hour consultant role, where you could be available on a per hour basis after your notice period expires. I assume you will seek earnings elsewhere, so make sure they understand your hourly support will be outside of normal business hours.

Your health and mental well being are paramount. I am actually super impressed that you worked for free and half your going rate for so long, and while being impressed by this I would not recommend it. Most people can only do that for so long, so don't feel bad that you have reached your limit.

And finally, you cannot control what other employees do after you leave.

  • 5
    thank you for taking the time to answer. the feedback on the 30 days notice + offering up consulting time makes sense. I would likely offer a significant amount of time for free as a show of good faith - I hadn't realized that post-employment consulting was a practice. And thank you for the reminder to not forget about my mental health, it's easy to lose sight of that when you've been heads down for so long. – opius_pie Aug 14 at 21:41
  • 110
    @opius_pie I wouldn't offer one more second of free time; that's how you got into this mess to begin with! – Michael Hampton Aug 15 at 5:03
  • 55
    I would likely offer a significant amount of time for free as a show of good faith Dude you've given an entire year of free time. Obviously you want to stay in touch, and stay involved in some small way, but do not offer "a significant amount" of time. This is your guilt talking, think of the relationships you need to maintain outside of work, look those people in the eye and tell them you can't see them because you're working for free because of guilt . . . yeah, now which group deserves your time more? – Binary Worrier Aug 15 at 7:45
  • 35
    Whether 30 days is plenty depends very much on field and location. In my field of work, it would be impossibly short and 6 months is more realistic. – gerrit Aug 15 at 8:42
  • 2
    Doing a bit of consulting for "free" might be well paid if it results in a large enough increase (or prevents a drop in) the value of the OP's equity. The thing you have to be careful of, though, is that your next job may not allow you to do further work for your previous company. – Curt J. Sampson Aug 15 at 11:21
44

Too long for a comment, so I just drop it here. On top of Mister Positive's good answer, I just want to add something from another perspective, because I was in a similar situation before.

Your business partner may not be aware of the sacrifice you're making. If he/she isn't familiar with the software engineering market, he/she may not know that you'd make double elsewhere.

Back then, my business partner didn't seem to believe that engineers at my level can make that much when I told him about it. He was polite enough to not question it, but the doubt was in his eyes.

Until I actually found a job that proved my point.

Things got a lot easier after that, of course he understood why I didn't want to work for the company we created anymore.

  • 2
    thank you for this. I don't believe my co-founders are in the same boat, as we pay the rest of our team close to market rates, but they may not realize that this is a big issue than it used to be (a few years ago, I had much less financial responsibility) – opius_pie Aug 14 at 21:37
  • @opius_pie, then you're in a better position than I was – Allen Zhang Aug 14 at 21:40
  • 1
    did you ultimately end up leaving? How did your partner respond? – opius_pie Aug 14 at 21:45
  • 20
    I did leave. He understood. But we're pretty close friends. Not sure how close you are with your business partner. – Allen Zhang Aug 14 at 22:22
  • 5
    thank you for sharing your story. – opius_pie Aug 14 at 22:36
21

It's hard to say without more specifics, but I will suggest that after three years and a customer base, you aren't a startup anymore. So maybe it's time to stop acting like one. Startup is a phase, not a permanent state.

Get together with all your co-founders. Tell them you need to stop working 80 hour weeks. Tell them the company needs to hire more people to do the stuff you don't want to do. Tell them you will create or choose a position that you want (e.g., Chief Architect), and that's all you will do. And you will be paid a market-rate salary. Figure out how to do all this in a positive, constructive way--it's not hard.

You might discover that they agree with you completely, and feel the same way. Everyone else might also be burned out and thinking of quitting just like you are. Or, you might discover you are on a completely different page than everyone else, and everyone will understand that you need to move on. Either way, this is a discussion you need to have.

  • It seems like he is really burned out. So if the discussion goes well, one month vacation then going back to work in good conditions could do wonders. – dyesdyes Aug 16 at 8:08
  • @dyesdyes yes, I am pretty burnt out now. I guess I'm not sure if I'm at the point of no-return and my previous optimism can be recovered or not. I took off 1 week earlier this summer but I'm not sure if it was enough time. – opius_pie Aug 16 at 21:36
  • 2
    @Mohair I also wanted to say thank you for this helpful response, all the others assume that there is no choice but leave (at this point, I am inclined to agree), but I know I struggle with voicing personal needs and I don't want to leave my co-founders without at least some explanation. – opius_pie Aug 16 at 21:41
8

The same way you gracefully leave any company.

But, before you do, you need to step out of the exceptionally deferential mindset that led you to this situation.

Already we can see in your question and in your comments (e.g. offering to work for free after you've left?!) that you are conflict-averse to the point of routinely and habitually worrying more about the company (and the people in it) than yourself and your own family.

You need to stop that. Today.

The good news is that you'll only be switching to a manner of behaviour that most people already follow! You won't be turning into a bad person, or betraying anyone, or turning selfish. You'll simply be ending a very unhealthy pattern of behaviour that, by all accounts, has cost you and your family a huge amount both financially and otherwise.

With this mindset change complete, you can go into work and have a straightforward conversation about how you will be moving on to new opportunities. It does not need to be complicated, or involve guilt.

Where you work is up to you.

  • While you're not saying "everyone else is a selfish jerk so you should be too", you have set up a kind of strawman argument in favor of mental health. Your answer would improve without it, leaving the focus on the description of healthy mentality and the injunction to improve. – Iiridayn Aug 16 at 19:44
  • 1
    I appreciate your honesty. This entire discussion has been helpful in pointing out some personal shortcomings and areas for professional growth and thank you for not shying away from words I needed to hear. – opius_pie Aug 16 at 21:34
  • 1
    @Iiridayn I don't see a strawman argument. This answer addresses the sense of guilt that the OP shows to have, and it's spot on. – Fabio Turati Aug 17 at 0:20
  • @Iiridayn If you really think that working for free for a year then 50% for two years at the expense of ones mental health and family, then finally deciding to leave as a result, is being a "selfish jerk", you are part of the problem. It's really that simple. There is no "strawman argument" here: that is literally the crux of the matter. I hope you will change your views for the benefit of anyone who works for you in the future. – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 17 at 1:28
  • 1
    @opius_pie Good luck! Stand up for yourself, politely. It's long overdue. 🙂 – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 17 at 1:36
7

Assuming that your leaving wouldn't be the death knell to the company, exiting gracefully means... exiting gracefully.

Let them know that your passion is elsewhere and that you want to find more balance in your life, that you wish them success and the best of luck, and that you hope to keep in touch with them as they continue to grow, and mature, and succeed.

If your leaving entices others to leave, then they already have reservations about the long term viability of the company. There's nothing you can do to change that... except to stay.

  • thank you for the thoughtful response. your last point about others leaving makes sense in my head - I guess it is hard for me to emotionally separate my responsibility for that as I helped build the company. – opius_pie Aug 14 at 21:39
  • Say something like "I always intended to invest 3 years of my best efforts, and the three years have passed, so I think it's time to move on/do something else/look for a new challenge/spend time doing X...". – RedSonja Aug 15 at 8:35
  • 2
    @RedSonja, if that’s true, then after three years, they probably already know, and if it isn’t, they probably would know it’s a lie. – WGroleau Aug 15 at 17:32
  • 6
    If one person leaving is a death knell to the company, that's even more indication the company is unhealthy, and thus he could have an even greater moral obligation to his family to leave the company and pursue a more financially rewarding career path, for their sake. – CodeSeeker Aug 15 at 20:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.