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I left the company I co-founded

The startup thing is good. It’s good to do the thing you like. It’s fun also. But take a step back and look at the bigger picture — where is it taking you. It should take you somewhere. If you’re not moving (you must personally move along with the company) then it’s going to be very dangerous

A lone red boat swimming in a vast blue ocean

I quit to start a new chapter in the book of my life

I stumbled across this article in November 2016 and I carried it in the back of my head ever since: Leadership and Legacy: Leaving the Company You Founded

The opening paragraph punches right into the gut:

“After years of identifying your company’s values, creating a culture and implementing scalable systems, your company should be able to carry on without you.”

It came as shock and surprise to many people when I told them I was leaving Expresiv.

I co-founded Expresiv Studios back in July 2013 and it had been my playground/bread-and-butter ever since. Things were good — we were running one of the coolest design companies in town. People knew the name, people knew what we were doing; and we had that “edge” in terms of user-friendly and aesthetically beautiful tech products. I fitted as the completing piece of puzzle; and one of the two engines that propelled the company forward. We did some pretty exciting projects for Nepali clients; as well as those in Silicon Valley and further. For the amount of work we did; we made decent income. Though we were labeled as notoriously expensiv design company at home; we clearly had an advantage for providing design solutions to Valley startups for cheaper than that they would pay otherwise. Good clients, retaining clients, happy clients — then why this departure? People asked. Well, my departure has nothing to do with the profits the company was making; or the prospect it had. This is a very personal decision. Since we began the company in 2013, up until July 2017 — my role was primarily head of UI Design. Expresiv was a small and a humble company — a no-frill company solving niche problem; serving focused clientele here and there. I would typically use the analogy of a boat and a ship here. A boat serves specific purpose, is deliberately designed to be small and moves at a specific speed. It shouldn’t go faster as it will crush itself if it does. A ship is much bigger, is compartmentalized and moves faster. I had a certain destination in my mind and that boat would take me ages to get there; so I decided to throttle my career and board a ship instead.

I swam against the ocean current. While most guys were quitting bigger companies to start their own start-up; I dropped out of my company to join a bigger workforce.

I joined Leapfrog. Leapfrog was beaming with this promise; and it was doing exceptionally well. I had seen this company grow from a modest company to 100+ people strong right in front of my eyes. At the rate it was growing, I became pretty sure that this should be the speed I must tag along — and thankfully Leapfrog welcomed me with its arm open. It’s not something that happened instantly — there was a number of things to consider and manage before I could make the switch. I took more than two months making sure my departure would not shake the bases at Expresiv; and I was also making sure I would fit in Leapfrog.

The biggest force that helps maintain your integrity and sanity is the belief that you are moving. The moment you stop moving, you’re dead.

I reached that plateau of stagnation where as the co-founder and the pivotal person in the organization — my career wasn’t headed anywhere. It has been at the exact same point where it was in the summer of 2013. I could see the juniors who joined Expresiv much later improve, iterate and grow. I was hopefully a factor for their growth; but me as a source wasn’t growing much. I did the same thing everyday. I could not learn new tools. I had no time to read (or write) — I woke up with angry client emails; and those emails made me nervous all day and thus reduced my productivity. I was late to work and early to leave. All in all; nothing was really headed anywhere. It scared me that I hadn’t done much to push myself further. I wasn’t twenty-something anymore; I couldn’t take risks anymore. I had no time to wait and see if something worked. Everything moves very quickly, and if you can’t keep up — you fail.

Oh, by the way, I quit movie poster design too.

That’s another story but it’s related. Both departures source from the same problem. I cannot be everywhere, I cannot please everyone and I cannot do everything. Movie poster design looks fun and games, but it’s rigorous. I was further tiring my mind that would already be very tired from the chores at Expresiv; and it wasn’t worth it. A film basically pays you around 50K ($500) and it takes around 4 months to complete. You do the math if it’s worth the time and energy; and also the “poster” thing is slowing going away because everything is going digital now. Everyone is promoting their movies online on social media and poster designs are slowly becoming the thing of the past. I wrote a Facebook post about it couple of weeks ago (turns out I’ve deleted it, so couldn’t post a screenshot here). I have done some pretty incredible things relating to movie poster design in Nepal, and I can actually go to the grave with that. But this is not my occupation, that’s why there is no obligation for me or adequate motivation for me to continue doing it. Thus, I quit.

Couple of things happened after I left Expresiv.

  • I wasn’t working in the morning. That gave me good time to work out and get ready for work. I stopped snacking and sugar-based drinks during the day. I was losing weight. I clock in at 9 am. I clock out at 6 pm. It’s more disciplined.
  • There are no movie posters to design at 9 pm. I could speak to my wife. Though I occasionally have clients call to take (because of the time zone difference), my evenings are less chaotic.
  • I can read and write. The fact that I got all the way till this paragraph without quitting is an accomplishment. Trust me. When you have 100+ people working around you, you get to see perspectives. The diversity of ideas and personalities just makes your life a bit more vibrant.
  • I have only one thing to think about. I just have one job — that’s all. I’ve successfully cut down all the extra noise around my life.

So here’s my net-net takeaway

The startup thing is good. It’s good to do the thing you like. It’s fun also. But take a step back and look at the bigger picture — where is it taking you. It should take you somewhere. If you’re not moving (you must personally move along with the company) then it’s going to be very dangerous. Salary and recognition are external stuff — assess the gains you’ve made at personal level. If you feel that this is tying you into something, or if you start feeling uncomfortable fitting into the shoe you bought for yourself, that’s the sign for you to move on. I moved on. Everyone has to move on. I just opened Chapter IV in the book of my life. The book is nowhere complete.