Why I quit my job as a co-founder of a successful startup

Max Ritter

Founding a startup is sexy - at least that is the impression you get when you listen to tech media or watch “Die Höhle der Löwen” on German TV. There have been many success stories of startups doing an exit in the multi-million euro range, making their founders wealthy and prominent. But what you don’t read on the media is what is behind every great achievement: Failures and hard work. In this article, I want to talk about my own experience of being an entrepreneur and co-founder of a mobility startup, and why I have decided to quit my job and take another direction in life.

After finishing my masters degree, I have been working in the startup industry in Munich for a couple of years. I got to know a very intelligent and inspiring entrepreneur by accident and got hooked on his vision to start a company and work on human centered AI solutions with top talents. As I just came out of university, I had no idea what would await me in this mysterious startup world, but I was willing to give it a chance and go all-in.

It turned out that I really liked the way startups work: Having little resources and no product, but great people and a common goal to build innovative products. Unlike the bigger companies I was working for during my studies, everyone seemed super motivated, and that was definitely not because of high salaries. What attracts talents instead is compensation over a steep learning curve and, at least for the first employees, (virtual) shares of the company that allow financial participation in the case of an exit.

However, there is no free lunch. The “work hard play hard” methodology known from top consulting companies like Boston Consulting Group or McKinsey is also the common mantra in the startup world. Not by coincidence most people working in those companies are fresh graduates or at least under 30, so they have the energy required to work a 50-60 hour week and on top build up the missing knowledge in their free time to be prepared for the challenges ahead.

I followed this lifestyle for quite a long time and learned a lot while doing so. In 2019, I took the next logical step for me at this time and co-founded my own startup - which was something I always wanted to try out. I gained plenty of business ideas while working for another startup in a niche market and saw a lot of unused potential. So did the four other co-founders and we quickly started a GmbH to turn our ideas into reality.

We were lucky and had paying customers from the beginning, as well as great support from the startup ecosystem in Munich. After some months, we moved from the incubator space into our own office. By that time, we already closed our first investment round and hired a couple of people to scale the business. We planned to expand quickly and prepared our office space accordingly - then Corona hit us hard in March 2020. As a consequence, we cut costs wherever possible, starting with our own, already low founder salaries.

At the same time, some events in my private life put additional stress on me. The countless over-hours and the “sky is the limit” credo started to fire back and put me into a downward spiral. I was not on the driver seat anymore and unable to make the required change to recover - which would have been already overdue at that time.

In May 2020, things became worse. The company slowly recovered from the first lockdown of the pandemic, but my energy and wellbeing was on an all-time low. I though I was just overstressed and it would go away, once I slow down my work a bit and take some days off. But quite the opposite was true: The symptoms worsened over the next couple of days, making it impossible for me to continue my work. I was seriously concerned about my health now and talked to some doctors, who fortunately diagnosed me properly.

Only then I realized that my symptoms did not came out of the blue, but were the result of constant pressure and stress that I had put on myself for all the years working in the startup industry. As a young person, one may think you can cope with it for such a long time, but for me it was just too much and my body responded in a way to prevent me from working and further damaging myself. I started asking myself questions: Am I happy? Is the path I had followed so far leading me to my real goals in life? Or am I only making the people around me happy? The reality at that time was that in other peoples view, I may have been successful; but in my own world I was miserably failing.

I made a hard cut and decided to only focus on things that make me happy from now on. This included a total reorientation of my work-life balance towards taking more free time, cutting over-hours and spending my time on joyful tasks like self-learning, helping others and finding a workplace where people can grow together. I opened myself to mindfulness techniques like meditation and yoga, about which I will talk in another article. After months of spending my time on the right things, my health is steadily recovering and I am valuing it over anything else now.

It took me years to figure out what is really important in life and what is not, to find a sustainable work life balance and to create my own definition of what is success. I hope my story can help you on your personal journey. To health and happiness!