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It’s not you; it’s me. Well sometimes it’s you, and other times it’s me. But wait, if I say it’s me, and it’s really you just to spare your feelings, does that cause any harm? It’s all so confusing, and these days happens more than it used to. What am I talking about again? Oh yeah, leaving your job.

I grew up in a rural community where if you are lucky enough to have a job, you hold onto it. Practically forever. Or at least until retirement, whichever came first.

So, you can imagine my confusion when I moved to San Francisco and joined the startup world to see individuals leave companies after only a few years to take on a new opportunity. This was a foreign concept to me, and still is to many outside of the startup or tech world. Why would you leave a perfectly good and stable job after you’ve only been there for such a short time? While the answer isn’t simple and most of the times the reasons cross many chasms, most departures are for a few core reasons.

Drumroll, please…

Reason 1: Inspiring Mission

We are now in an age where the “why” is becoming more important than the how. What is your “why”? What problem are you trying to solve with your product and is it inspiring? This is very subjective. What is very inspirational to some, may not inspire others.

Moreover, what inspired some at the beginning of their journey in the company may not be true in the future, as your product and company evolve. There is no shortage of people that have left because they no longer believed in a mission. I am sure if you think hard enough you may know a few. Maybe you are even one of them.

Reason 2: Money

Many say that money isn’t everything. Almost every person I interview, when I ask them the range of salary that they are seeking, they become sheepish and tell me it’s more about the opportunity. While I am sure that is true in some cases, the reality is you need money to survive. Also, if you live in an area like San Francisco, where money doesn’t go very far, every little bit can mean the difference between you and living off from a Hot-N-Ready pizza all week long (you know you’ve been there).

Startups do not generally have deep pockets. Most of them do try to make up for the lower wages with equity, and other perks. However, until the company has some sort of exit, those options that you have are generally not worth anything and are not going to pay the bills.

It’s a risk-reward situation. Are you willing to live on Hot-N-Ready pizzas until those shares are worth something? If you are, the reward could potentially be substantial. However, some are not and leave the minute they receive an offer for more money.

Reason 3: Professional and Personal Growth

While startups are a breeding ground for both professional and personal growth, you can at times find yourself lost if you are not someone that works well without structure. On the other hand, if you are someone thrives in a startup environment (little structure, lots to do), you will have the opportunity to wear many hats and try many things. Early on, you will be able to get involved in building out the core of the business. You will be challenged professionally and personally. You will learn how to see things from multiple perspectives and see that there is more than one way to solve problems. Most importantly, you will come to see the value that diversity in thought can bring.

Some folks love it when things become more structured, and they can specialize and focus on a few things rather than many. However, others don’t. Others feel as if this is when their growth becomes stagnant, which isn’t always 100% true. However, once things become more specialized, it does mean that you will need to navigate your growth differently and be more vocal about your desires.

Reason 4: Company Phase

So this leads us to the company phase. Every company, startup or not, has stages. However, startup stages feel more pronounced and can happen in a relatively quick manner when growth is on fire. I have rarely met a person that loves or thrives in all phases. As the company grows, expands, takes in more money, the roles tend to specialize for scale and consistency. You can talk about stages in regards to funding series, company size, product maturity, or many other ways. For this article, I am going to talk about team size. I generally break the phases down like this but have seen it spelled out many ways:

  • 1-10 employees = Ground zero team. They do everything from put chairs together (yay we have chairs), set up utilities, answer support tickets, pay the bills. Everyone is pretty much playing on equal ground here. It’s all hands on deck for everything. It feels like a family.
  • 11 – 25 employees = Still the ground zero team, but a structure is starting to form. Yes, you still do everything, but now you are beginning to see groups form. It soon becomes apparent that if everyone owns everything, at times things slip through the cracks. So you slowly start divvying stuff up. Engineering is answering less customer support tickets (they deeply exhale a collective sigh of relief) and someone is becoming more and more focused on how certain situations should be handled. The first semblance of structure is forming.
  • 26 – 50 employees = Teams have formed. Yep. It’s happening. You are now hiring folks that specialize in certain things. Like Sales, Support, Recruiting, so on and so forth. You may still clean out the refrigerator, or put a chair together, but it’s happening less and less.
  • 51 – 100 employees = Teams start forming into departments. And wait, who is that sitting there? I do not recognize that face. Also, wow… so much process. What do you mean I can’t just do it like that. I have always done it like that. Yep, things are changing.
  • 100 + = There are now layers upon layers forming. The CEO, you know the one you used to compete against in tip cup and late night ping pong games while noodling over ideas, is now in meetings… all day long! As a matter of fact, many people are in meetings all day long. What’s cool is there are a lot more resources, but damn, even though we are still building and iterating, you are noticing it does take a bit longer to move that needle.

Of course, this is not 100% accurate for every organization, but some version of this does tend to happen at every startup. Some folks love it and thrive, but most know their sweet spot and join at a certain size and as well leave at a certain size.

Me cleaning out the refrigerator at work.

Reason 5: Culture

Every person you add changes your culture little by little. Until one day, you wake up and realize that things have changed so much you don’t recognize the company that you joined. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It just is what it is. Even companies that are very deliberate about their culture early on will experience shifts and changes. It is up to everyone in the company to be guardians of what they collectively hold dear, but also evolve as change happens. Some folks love this, while others find themselves staring out the window reminiscing of the way things used to be. In the same vein as the mission, if the culture evolves to something that no longer resonates or feels like home, people will leave.

Yes, one time I wore this amazing outfit (roller skates too) to work (it may have been Halloween)!

Reason 6: Product Fit

Startups move quickly out of necessity. What is true today may not be true tomorrow. Many products have started out going one direction only to pivot. At times the pivot is due to a change in the market conditions or something learned along the journey.

Whatever the reason for the pivot, team members may wake up one day and realize that their skill sets do not entirely match where the product is headed or currently at and leave. More companies have pivoted than we most likely are aware of and have come out to be very successful, but that doesn’t mean the same team members took them to that success. Before Nintendo became known for electronic games, they tried everything from taxi services to making vacuum cleaners. There is no right or wrong here, it’s just knowing who you are and who you aren’t. What value you bring and the ROI you can offer the company that you are with.

Reason 7: Burnout

Some of us in startups work 60, 70, 80 hours a week. Yep. Not kidding at all. And some work more than that. Most of us that join startups make the team and company part of our lives (at least I know I do). We eat, breath and sleep thinking about how we can build and improve whatever it is we are working on. While at the moment we don’t realize it, all of those extra hours do take a toll. Many folks leave citing that they are seeking a better work/life balance. While chasing this mythical creature from company to company, you will soon realize that the power of a work/life balance lies within your control. This change must start with you.

Yes, there are companies out there that do provide the subtle guilt trip if you are heading out the door at 5 pm, but it is up to you to push through the guilt and head home. As long as you are adding value, getting your work done, and kicking ass overall, don’t let optics of you burning the midnight oil actually burn you out. And if it’s more than optics and you have too much to do, seek help from your manager (I know, easier said than done).

People may come and go, but one thing will always remain constant in startup life and that is change. If you are with a company for a year or for 20 years, a little part of you will always remain. Always give your all and leave a great legacy behind for those that are to come.