If the ship is sinking, go the fuck down with it.
You always owe that much.
To quote the Talking Heads, things fall apart. It’s scientific. Companies, startups, relationships— they collapse, and they disintegrate, they leave a trail of destruction in their wake. The same thing happens to founding teams. It can happen for a wide number of reasons. You run out of funding, your product is completely obliterated, your staff desert you, or you just make one too many fucked up decisions.
When it happens, you have a responsibility to make it a clean, honest end. You have a responsibility to stand by your people, your co-founders, your shareholders and your supporters, and hold their hand as everything goes to shit. Because as a founder, you aren’t there just for the good times. You aren’t there just for the safe times. You aren’t there to enjoy the ride.
You’re also there for when times are bad. By starting a project, by being a founder, by running a company, you have made a commitment to the people who rely on you that you will be steering the ship and going down with it if you have to. They need to know that you won’t bail as soon as a storm appears.
I’ve been in a position where I’ve watched founders completely abandon their people. They knew the writing was on the wall around six months before the end. They completely withdrew, and wouldn’t interact with anyone. They barely came into the office, even while the sales managers were heavily recruiting new talent and promising them jobs.
When the cracks finally showed and the teams realized the reason they weren’t being paid was that the company had run the fuck out of money, the founders proceeded to blame each other, blame the investors and blame the staff in a series of public meetings full of threats and screaming.
I was fortunate enough to not be a staff member. At the time, I was an external consultant the investors had brought in to analyse where the startup had gone off the rails, so I knew going in that the end was nigh. For the staff members who were caught by surprise, it must have been heart breaking.
They’d put years of their lives into a software platform that was going to fracture and be sold for parts. There wasn’t even enough money left to pay severance packages. The entire debacle lasted for a few months, and one guy lost his house. If anyone asks you what the wrong way to wind up a company is, give ‘em my number. I’ll be telling this story for a long time.
I wish I could say it’s unusual, but it’s not. Look at Powa in the UK. A company whose investors were roundly lied to. A company so far fucked that the staff weren’t being paid, and the only communication they were receiving from management was a company wide email from their CEO containing his David Bowie tribute photoshoot — in full Ziggy Stardust makeup. Don’t believe me? It happened.
The collapse of London tech business Powa Technologies is getting stranger and stranger. The former CFO of the company…www.businessinsider.com.au
But wait. There’s more. What about Zirtual, who went burning into the void over night? Literally, over night — when they deleted all social profiles, shut down their website and ceased operations. Their own employees were so badly informed they didn’t know the company was dead until their clients told them. Seriously. That happened.
When your company is coming to an end, you have to be a human being. You have to be open and honest with the people who have given a slice of their very limited time on this rock to helping your dream become a reality. They need to know if their jobs are about to cease existing. They deserve to know. They have a right to know.
You need to help them get through it. Give them room to find a new role, and move on without the carpet being pulled out from under them.
You have the same debt of decency to your investors, your founding team and the people who have supported and believed in you. Your mentors, your advisers. You have to communicate with them, too.
When your company is coming to an end, you can’t just take your hands off the wheel and let it happen however it happens. You have to be trying to do your best to keep moving forward right up to the last moments, looking after the clients and customers you have and taking care of the company right as you’re shutting it down. I’ve done it before. I’ve done it twice. If Creatomic or my consulting company fail, I’ll do it again.
If you’re starting a company right now, you’re going to have to be prepared to one day walk through an empty office, stepping over the few possessions your staff left behind, when all the energy and the happiness and the promise is gone. You’re going to need to be ready to take one last look around and say “lights out” before you walk away. The last one to leave.
If it sounds like going down with the ship, that’s because it is. You’re the captain. It’s your job.
Jon Westenberg has appeared and published in Business Insider, Inc.com, TIME and dozens of other publications, talking about startup entrepreneurship, writing and innovation. Jon has helped hundreds of businesses worldwide grow their audience and take control of their future. Jon is an investor, an entrepreneur and a digital publisher. He is the founder of Creatomic, a globally recognized communications firm.
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