Why I’m quitting my 5 y-o successful startup

5 years at 1001pharma at a glance

It all began with a naive idea. At the end of 2011, Cédric and I started to work on the launch of the very first marketplace for pharmacy products in France. Indeed it was terribly naive, given how reluctant the market was to change, and how inexperienced we were. We were both just completing our education and 1001pharmacies.com was our first “real” job — and what a job it has been!

Cédric and I at the very beginning of the venture: kids!

Since 2011 we have grown from 2 founders to a 30+ team. We moved from a 12m2 office to a 500m2 one. We raised €10M through several rounds of funding. We gathered 1,000 merchants —and guess what, most pharmacists have stopped kicking us out when we visit them! We make millions of Euros of sales on our eCommerce platform. And so on: today 1001pharmacies.com is recognized as one of the fastest growing startups in France. And this is just a beginning!

Nevertheless… my role at 1001pharma is coming to an end.

Why leave? One corporate reason, one personal reason

Let’s make things clear straightaway. After these 5 hard years:

  • At last, I have a decent salary,
  • I’m provided with quite a social status now, because running 1001pharma’s operations has become something to be proud of,
  • The company has never been so financially stable and its perspectives are exhilarating,
  • My cofounder and I get along very well together,
  • I don’t have any plans yet for what’s next (and obviously no unemployment benefit).

So there were only two legitimate reasons to leave in this context: (1) the sake of 1001pharma and (2) the commitment to my personal beliefs and philosophy.

(1) Protecting 1001pharma from founders’ misalignment

Nobody expected any of the cofounders to quit, but the problem was becoming obvious to many :

As it grew, the company was more and more split between Cédric’s entrepreneurial philosophy and mine, beyond differing management styles or operational approaches.

The team had been pointing at “the 2 contradictory visions” for months. Constant compromise doesn’t make for an efficient organization and happy founders. So when my guts told me that we would never align, we had this difficult conversation. One of us had to leave, in order for the company to follow one clear, consistent, unique path for its future growth.

As Larry Page put it: the collaboration between him, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt “works because we have tremendous trust and respect for each other and we generally think alike”. Cédric and I have the trust and respect, but most of the time we do not have the similar thinking.

I offered I’d quit.

(2) The case for my beliefs and philosophy

Together with Cédric, we walked away from many traditional business and management practices. But when times get harder (as they always do), we do not handle the situation the same way. Cédric would take one (little) step back to a safer, proven ground. I would persevere, trying to fine tune what did not work (if not going one step further).

Credit: Brett Florence

So an alternative to my leaving was that I got back to a (slightly more) classical approach to management and company growth. This is precisely where I do not want to compromise any longer. Instinctively, I would take my values and beliefs as a starting point and iterate around them until we reach performance. But by lack of self-confidence and of managerial culture, I have shut up what my guts told me to do for years. Instead, I followed the more academic, well-rounded, classical management doctrine.

“Command and control” has always felt wrong to me, but I thought if every other organization works this way, there must be a good reason to it, right? Well… not really in fact, and when I started realizing this, there was no way I could continue as before.

This implies that a lot of common management practices feel absurd to me. Specifically, I came up with some opposite practices:

  • I let people make the decisions whenever they have more expertise than I have (= often!),
  • I don’t try “motivate people” individually (by money, by threat, by pressure…). I want to build fulfilling work environments — (eco)systems, that spur peer-emulation, learning opportunities and fun at work.
  • I think people — and organizations — do not need bosses (who command and control). They need leaders, though, and they need identified decision-makers (as many decision-makers as team-members in fact :) ).
  • I trust my coworkers to take the organization’s best interest at heart — even when it is not their best interest.
  • I want to work for something meaningful, something deeply valuable for its users. This is also what most teams crave. It’s OK to make some financial sacrifices in order to get to the bottom of this vision.
  • I prone kindness and care in the workplace (“bienveillance” in French). I see them as conditions to building trust, wellbeing and productivity in a team. This does not come in the way of making the tough decisions.
  • Eventually, building a workplace where people flourish is an end in itself (not the only one though).

Actually, Cédric and I agree on most of these principles. But disagreeing on just a few is already too much because it mirrors a mindset, a work (and life?) philosophy. If you don’t share it with your cofounders, it will appear in each of your words, decisions and actions. This blurs your corporate culture and it’s really, really bad.

And in addition, having raised (a lot of) money from people who do not share these principles makes it even harder…

[Edit: Does this remind you of self-management? You may want to read this later post]

Conclusion, what’s next and a few takeaways

So: misalignment that keeps the organization lagging behind its potential + impossible to give up on my controversial beliefs → best for the organization and for me that I leave. It’s fine, I do trust Cédric and the team to take 1001pharma to great new heights!

For my part, before diving into a new, exciting and yet unknown venture, I’ll be writing about these work principles.

I’ll explore work principles and practices that fuel people’s desires (the desire to work at the organization, to use the product, to recommend it, to invest in it…).
Credit: MamiGibbs

How they work concretely, how you put them into action, how you deal with the troubles that come along the way (because I lacked those answers very much). I’ll go through examples of various organizations with such cultures. Any ideas of inspiring organizations, anyone?!

And to end with, a few advice I would give to my younger self:

  • When considering partnering with someone, make sure you have the same human expectations for the venture (along with the vision, commitments etc.). WHY do you do all this? Talk about this regularly, as one’s expectations change over time.
  • Good old management wisdom (“command & control”) is not the only way. Ask yourself which one suits you. It does not have to be black and white.
  • Trust your guts, they can’t be always wrong (unless you are the wrong person for the job!).

Thanks for reading :)

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