The Phases of Quitting Your Own Startup
Yes you read that right: I quit. I have done the unthinkable, the one thing startup founders are not supposed to do and surely the one thing I never expected from myself. Never thought this would be the way I’d depart from my creation. Yet I did it.
It feels a bit scary to publicly share such a personal experience, but I hope this can provide guidance to those who perceive quitting as a dogma of failure (like I did). I think we must talk more about the wellbeing of what makes startups worth billions: its founders and its people.
But before I continue, I want to get one important message across.
I remain committed to the long-term vision of my company and I hope to be of help to my co-founder and the rest of team during their growth trajectory. They showed remarkable energy and perseverance despite the shake up that my decision brought them, and I have no doubt they’ll do a great job and further expand the business. I simply won’t take part in the day to day activities but rather let them take the reigns on the way to new milestones.
In this post I want to focus on describing my emotional rollercoaster from the moment I first dared to say “I quit” and how I accepted this decision, but I will not elaborate on the events that brought me to it because certain things are meant to stay private and because my reasons will differ from yours. Regardless of the why you do it, if you choose to leave your company you’ll probably have a similar journey to the one I’ll describe below.
All I can say is that no, I didn’t quit because I don’t believe in the business, because it’s bankrupt or because I’m ready to jump ship. When I left I didn’t have an open offer on my desk nor a concrete plan: I just knew I had to and that I’d figure something out while free falling.
“I will step down from any operating role at the company”.
These words just came out from my mouth and I noticed that my voice didn’t tremble. I’m not shaking, I don’t feel dizzy or in an emotional state. I’m feeling sober, clear-headed, and determined. I talk a lot, that’s part of my job, but I always carefully weigh my words and don’t give out promises I don’t mean. This time I make no exception: I am fully aware of my actions and there’s no U-turn.
Taking a step back? Giving up? This is so not me. And yet, why do I feel that this is the right thing to do? No remorse, no fear, no compromise: I’m dead serious. I’m even surprised at how calm I remained: what is wrong with me?
I go back to my desk, place everything that just happened outside of our office, and get back to my work. Just like I have learned to do since I started the company, just like many other countless times where I faced upsetting moments. I made them slip to the back of my mind. I could spend an entire session describing why I remained so apathetic, but I’ll save you the explanation. I can’t help but notice that this isn’t right, and that I fear it will get worse.
Some people are impulsive and realise the gravity of their actions way too late, when reality kicks in. This doesn’t often happen to me, and surely this time it wasn’t the case either. I didn’t wake up swamped in an odyssey of guilt like after a night of heavy drinking and drunk-texting your ex. I went home and felt no different than in the morning, it was almost like any another day at the office. But I had done it, and something told me this was good for me. I had this soothing feeling of relief that was growing in me, but it didn’t explode into euphoria or joy. On the contrary, it remained subtle and very fragile.
The first signal of the “realisation” phase came several days after, when my mind stretched to a place where it could look towards the future and realise my company is not the one, sole master of my time. You actually realise all your little certainties are vanishing, your plans, your routine, the habits that defined you… Everything will be reshuffled very soon, maybe even scrambled. Having a company is more than having a job. A job dictates your professional routine, but not your personal priorities. A company is very, very close to being your greater purpose in life, especially when you don’t have a family (yet). The company becomes part of who you are, and not having it in your life creates a huge gap. But this gap didn’t fully manifested itself before the..
When you’re the founder of a company, you know every little bit of it. You can recount every decision behind today’s operations. Gosh… How many hours of reading, reflecting and discussing.
Now you have decided to go, so let go Gianluca.
Easier said than done. I’ll admit it: I greatly underestimated how hard this would be. I was ready to hand over responsibilities, of course I was, but was I really? Management meetings, weekly meetings, strategy brain-storming, product updates.. Now I am not in charge anymore and I have to accept that things will develop beyond my sphere of control.
It took me more effort than expected, as my mind was craving involvement like you crave sugar, or cigarettes. In my case the withdrawal phase was not as bad as it could be, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience it. Still, it quickly went away when fear settled in.
Entrepreneurs live in uncertainty. You might call it the out-of-comfort zone. I have been light years away from comfort for so long that I got used to this state of being . Or maybe it’s not completely uncertain, maybe you simply have to generate unique methods of creating some temporary comfort in an otherwise hostile environment. One way or the other, knowing that you’re quitting your only life certainty (your company), for which you gave up all other traditional ones (employment, income, sometimes relationships, sometimes the country you grew up in), still sends a shiver down your spine. I have kept myself so busy over the years that just the thought of having nothing to do freaked me the hell out.
Think about this in these terms: everything you’ve built is gone, and you don’t have a clue what you’ll be doing next, where you’ll be doing it, and when you’ll be doing it. The only consolation is, you put yourself in this situation, no one else put you there, which I believe is a critical condition to reach the next phase.
When grieving, the last stage of the process is considered to be the acceptance phase, but I believe that in situation it comes much earlier as if you follow my steps you’ll be doing a very conscious decision, so acceptance comes much, much earlier. I guess for me came in its largest part even before the first phase.
No the last phase is when you’ll find the inner strength to find your balance, to look at the future with optimism, to regain your smile. I found that strength by isolating myself from the noise of the outer world and listening to myself. I started to spend more time doing only things that I truly enjoyed, despite how little and simple these things might be. I did more sport (which is and has been huge part of my life and has always been therapeutic), I read books, I travelled to see dear friends and loved ones, I spent time meeting people who gave me some much energy without receiving as much back from me, I told me story and first the first time in years voiced my thoughts,I took more time to enjoy a meal, to listen to people, and to explore what makes me excited. I was surprised by the love and acceptance I received from people around me. I am truly grateful because anything I was given was treasured within me.
Today, I have rediscovered my inner self. I rediscovered the person that I am, besides the founder of a company, and I have found that this inner self is much stronger and more mature than it was before the company; I have only gained.
I’m sure I’ll keep on growing and taking the right steps toward happiness, knowing it’s a moving target. Where there was once uncertainty and fear, I now see opportunities. In the words of Oasis, I don’t look back in anger everything I have done led me here and I don’t regret any of that, any. Just like I’m sure I won’t regret that I moved on from my own business.