Startup Founders Get Fired
August 7, 2014

Startup Founders Get Fired

by Brian de Haaff

Most startup founders get fired before their company ever makes it big. If you have been working long enough for startups, you have gone through this. And you know that it is painful. Even if you did not particularly like the founder (or even if you had a hand in getting him fired), you are always at risk once your boss is escorted out of the building. That’s because everyone knows that the new boss has her own people and you are forever tied to what was broken.

The next 30 days after a founder gets fired generally set you up for success — or your own two weeks of severance. The key is not to panic and to stay calm. The first time a founder got fired, I had no idea what to look for or how best to help my new manager get going and be successful.

Five years after I first went through it, it happened again at another company. Three years after that, I went through it for the third time in my career. I finally understood what to expect.

And it is a good thing because my new CEO had his own people and was looking to replace nearly all of his direct reports — including me. He nearly did so after calling each one of us into his office and asking, “Which one of your colleagues should I get rid off?” I changed the topic. Through experience and some good fortune I survived, only to see the board of directors send him packing a year later. Dysfunctional CEOs get fired too.

Here is what I have learned over the last 15+ years in Silicon Valley and what I suggest you do to survive when a founder hits the road.

It is also worthwhile to point out that these suggestions are relevant regardless of how you might be assigned to report to a new person.

Do not pontificate (Do share facts) You likely do not know your new boss and she does not know you. So, do not tell long stories that sound like New York Times opinion pieces. You should always start with the simple facts that are quantifiable when possible. Drama is not what your new boss is likely looking for as she tries to figure out what you, the team, and she is supposed to be doing.

Do not change the world (Do small acts) You may think that the changing of the guard is the moment you have been waiting for to fix everything. Your new boss will have his own anxieties and concerns and is likely going to be strained to get up to speed. He is not going to be looking to change what he does not understand. So, this is not the time to storm into his office and ask, “Can I restructure this entire process or group?” That’s probably not the right question to ask in the first 30 days. Rather, suggest a few small actions that you want to take that will make things a little better. Pile up the wins and roll into the bigger efforts over time.

Do not talk about your colleagues (Do explain how the team works together) I know this one is so tempting, because the founder had trusted favorites and even if you were one of his pets, you want to make sure your new boss knows that you are a superstar. But now is not the time to talk about how Joe never hits his deadline or how Sarah’s work has suffered since she broke up with her boyfriend. Focus on how the team works together and balance the telling of its strengths and areas for improvement. And do everything you can to avoid talking specifically about your colleagues, even when asked.

Do not ask for a raise (Do your job, well) You may very well be underpaid and your old boss may have even promised you a promotion that never came through. “You will get it after we raise the next round,” he kept telling you. It happens all the time in startups. But your new boss does not care. She is waiting to see who works hard and puts the organization above themselves. You need to prove that you are a valuable member of the team for at least 90 days before you even mention compensation. And even when you do talk about a “raise” it should be in the context of taking on more responsibility and benefiting the company in additional ways.

I have worked for a lot of founders over the years. A few changed the course of my career and helped me become a CEO of multiple successful companies myself. One was paranoid, one cruel, and one was out of control. But in every case I benefited from the relationship and when any boss leaves against his wishes it’s tough to watch.

How you handle yourself in the midst of a change in management will tell your new supervisor a lot about you and where you are headed.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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