Quit your startup before getting sick.

Dec '13

In early 2012, I started from the ground up a company called UltimateManager with two partners and a seed investor. In late 2013 (a little less than 2 years after), I decided to quit it and let my partners enjoy the ride. Here is why.

The decision hasn't been easy. Like many founders, creating a company is like having your on little baby. You get emotionally attached and want to succeed. Your are willing to sacrifice a lot to see your product fly. But at the end, I started to sacrifice my own health. This is when I said "enough".

Fair enouh you might say. But what led us to that situation ?

Differences in team

One of the first mistakes we made was to think that we could build a team out of thin air. We barely knew each other and were on to conquer the world. But we forgot the essential: Were we aligned ?

We agreed on a deal before describing how each other were working as persons. The seed investor was getting 57%, the CEO 17%, me 14% and the last partner 12% approx. I remember discussing firmly how the (small) salaries and shares should be distributed (they should all be equal in my opinion). The discussion was already quite heated. First sign. We should first have spent some time seeing how people would work before agreeing on any deal to make sure that things would feel good in the long run.

Later, we succeeded an investment round of 1M€. Half of the team (including me) thought that the team was the most important to satisfy. The other half thought it was the investor and seed investor that should be pleased. Not that one way of thinking prevails on the other. But this reveals how we weren't aligned.

The idea guy should be product guy

I said it before, the vision of the founder should be done by someone who can actively be part of the product design. Our team was not shaped like that. Our idea guy (and CEO) couldn't execute on the idea per say. Many factors have been against us. First he was not a technical person nor a designer but just "the idea guy". Moreover, in his role of CEO, he spent a lot of time selling the company to potential investors and trying to make deals with potential partners. And that was a good thing.

But we failed to name a responsible for the product. Naming someone that the team should have followed for the product development. Unfortunately, none of the rest of the team had the vision from our CEO. We had a rough idea of the next steps, but not the entire vision (not even half).

The result was an inconsistent product development led by the culture of As Soon As Possible. This brought us to many dos and undos, many untested features leading to bugs and unhappy beta testers and resulting of a frustrated development team. Soon, one of the partners lost motivation and left the company after 9 months (despite the investment of 1M€).

Where did I personally fail ?

This is the interesting part for me. I saw many of the problems early on but I should have raised my voice louder or at least, more obviously. As the snow ball effect was getting more and more speed, I may have stopped it by asking my partner and active seed investor to change directions. I didn't. Instead I trusted blindly the decisions made. I also prefered to burry myself in technicalities (and bug hunting, oh boy!) and decided that "they know better than me". I refused to take the lead on that. After all, I am the tech guy and they were the business guys. This was the wrong way of thinking, and was by far the most experienced in that field. This probably come from some tensions we previously had when I raised my voice on some issues we had. I kind of let go and hoped for the best. Wrong.

I also should have raised my voice when I started to be pushed to over work (did I mentioned that we had bugs ?), and that my partners were waiting "for the product to be done". Now that I look at it backwards, I understand were we went wrong. At that time, I couldn't see it. I should have stopped, breathed and explain why we were not going in a sustainable direction.

Lesson learned.

Where did we go then ?

In short, we went the bad way. I went on forced sick leaves as my doctor asked me. Diagnosed with intense stress, probabaly triggered by lack of visibility and control over an uncertain situation. After a long battle around shares, money, we finally agreed on a situation where the company wasn't hurt financially. Each partner has to let go a bit. The details would be too long to explain but what I learnt from this negociation is the following: Don't let go when you believe that your efforts should be compensated fairly.

Conclusion

I could have stayed in the company, as there is still some cash in it. I would have pulled my salary and hope things to solve by themselves. But I wasn't in shape for such a ride. And I started that company for the fun that I could get out of it. There was no fun. So I went away.

I wish them well and hope they will make it. If not, thanks for the ride.