Dear SaaStr: When Is the Best Time for a Co-Founder to Leave a Startup?

The best time to quit is the earlier of (x) 6 months from the time you’ve decided to move on or (y) at any time when the other founders ask you to.

If you’ve truly decided to leave, then it’s time. It’s now time to move on.  First, though, make sure you aren’t being too emotional.  And that you don’t just need a 2-week vacation.

But if it’s time —  likely, your other founders already know, at least on some level. Everyone always knows these things in a small company.

What isn’t clear often is whether an abrupt change, a gradual change, or something in the middle is the best:

  • Sometimes, engineering or other expertise is critical to keep on for a while. The site literally can’t stay up without you, a key feature can’t ship, etc.
  • Other times, it’s best to get a founder or other employee whose core accomplishments are behind him out sooner. Just a few weeks’ transition may be plenty fine here.
  • And other times, it’s just toxic. You need to leave now. Even if the toxicity isn’t your “fault”.

But the best thing for the company, and for you, is to be flexible. Let emotion go and let your co-founders decide. Work out an agreement, both in spirit and on paper, where it’s up to them.

You’ll commit to staying up to say, 6 months. But if they want you at any time to leave earlier, all they have to do is shake your hand and say, “We’re proud to make you an emeritus member of the team.”

Then you can go off and be a proud founder (that title is always yours) and alum.

Put differently:

Treat everyone (founders, investors, employees) the way you’d like to be treated in this scenario. Let all emotion and drama go. If you do that, even if it’s suboptimal for you in the short term (6 months may sound too long) … it will pay off in the long run.

This is generally the right way to go if your startup is acquired.  Get a Bit Zen.  And if you’ve decided it’s time to go after an acquisition, be supportive of gradual change and be flexible.  In the end, it won’t matter much to you if you stayed a little longer than you wanted.  But it could make a real difference to those that worked with you.  And bet on you.

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