You create a new company, hire a team, and work hard to foster the culture and passion that you need to succeed in turning a great value-generating idea into a business. People come and people go, off to different career choices or because they didn’t quite make the cut, but you are the constant, the driving force, the rock on which your company is built.
Until you leave. What happens when a founder leaves the company they created? It’s something that we don’t often talk about, it’s deeply personal and emotional. But founders do leave the companies they create, and as a founder it’s vital to think ahead so that this isn’t painful and difficult – both for you and your team.
Startup to scale-up
This month I said goodbye to the team that I formed just three short years ago. Back in 2014, I brought together a team of digital specialists around an idea for a new kind of cash flow tool for small businesses. We created the new product, winning rave reviews and awards along the way, and expanded into new channels and markets.
We had our ups and downs, our sales partnerships didn’t work anything like as well as expected and the transition from startup to scale-up was challenging for several of the team. But with a growing customer base and plenty of opportunity ahead, why leave?
This is actually the second time that I’ve left a company that I have founded myself, and the reason was the same both times. Like any founder, I have a lot of my identity tied up in the business that I have created, and so when the business is going in a direction that I personally find exciting and challenging, I’m engaged and can’t wait to take the next step forward. But business isn’t always like that. Sometimes the business reaches a point where, for many reasons, it needs to go in a different direction. At that point the founder has a choice, stick around and grit your teeth, or say goodbye.
Remaining on board
In my first business, a digital agency, I ran the show for around 13 years before selling to a US-based company. I stayed on to run my “division” in the larger company largely because I’d put so much into the project of selling the business that I really didn’t have any other plan at that time.
Founders have a notoriously short tenure when their businesses are acquired, not because they can’t work for other people – that’s a myth – but because their companies become something other than what they created.
In my own experience, the first time around my business became a minor division in an international outpost of a US-based business. This was ok when things were running well over the other side of the pond. We had plenty to do and with the additional resources of the larger parent company, we could invest more and do a better job for customers.
But when things slowed down back at HQ and new projects and hires went on hold, things became very frustrating. The personal view that I had of myself as a founder – ambitious and moving fast – sat at odds with the company’s vision of a general manager who needed to sit on his hands and keep the machine ticking over whilst things were sorted out at HQ. On that occasion I was in post for three years in the larger company before I moved on. My team were, by that stage, well embedded and had a network that would keep them going within the new business, so there was really nothing to keep me there.
Time to say goodbye
This time it’s different. Having been through the journey before, I’m much more able to recognise that things are about to change before I get there, and I’ve prepared both myself and my team in advance, so a quicker departure is in order.
In this case, I’ve given my shareholders a choice up front: I’ve painted a vision of rapid expansion with venture funding and an exciting possible future. But these are challenging times, and so it’s not surprising, perhaps, that in this instance they have taken a safer route to extract their cash.
What that means for me is that the prospect of sticking around isn’t a particularly exciting one, so it’s time to move on. Having invested so much of myself into the company, as any founder does, it’s a wrench to do it, but once I’m sure that each and every member of my team has a good future role, I’m happy that I’ve done my duty as a founder, and it’s the right time to say goodbye.
Martin Campbell might be saying goodbye to Ormsby Street, but it’s hello to his new role at digital fundraising platform Hubbub. Stay tuned for his diary entries detailing his latest position.
Share this story