'Why I Had to Fire My Co-founder, CEO and Close Friend'
At 3 am on June 13, 2016, I sat wide awake in bed. The most difficult conversation of my life was scheduled for 9 a.m., when I’d fire my co-founder, CEO and close friend from the company we had built together, Rumpl.
We started the business in January 2014, after we came up with the idea to make cozy blankets that felt like sleeping bags -- more comfortable, more durable, less annoying than duvets. We enjoyed quick success, raising nearly a quarter-million dollars via Kickstarter. Our product received praise from our earliest customers, which resulted in partnerships with several premium retail channels and strong direct sales.
Two years later, Rumpl was still experiencing fast growth, but my relationship with my business partner had stalled. We were severely misaligned in our vision for the company: I wanted to grow strategically, perfecting one product before launching another; he wanted to expand into new categories, and fast. On separate occasions, our three employees approached me with concerns about his leadership. As a result, my partner and I tried to get on the same page. We had meetings, camping trips, late-night talks over a bottle of whiskey -- but it felt as though our differences had become insurmountable. For the business to continue, one of us would need to step away.
I had been given advice from several mentors on how best to handle the communication, but I was extremely nervous -- I even googled “how to break up with a co-founder” and waded through endless forum threads. But what transpired that day was an amicable and effective conversation, which led to a quick end to a toxic partnership.
There were a number of steps that ultimately made the talk a success. In addition to knowing I had the support of our small team and obsessively rehearsing every word I wanted to say, I was prepared. I had consulted external legal counsel (since our company’s lawyers served the entire company, which still included my co-founder), and I had selected a public space for our conversation to take place. I presented him with a severance offer but made it clear that I was willing to negotiate. We bought back a million shares of equity and offered him an advisory seat, which would serve both of us -- he did help create the brand, after all, and he deserved a chance to offer input and ideas, should he want to. I didn’t sweat the small stuff -- taking away a company phone is just kicking someone when they’re down. If it’s not of material importance, let it go. Be kind.
After our talk, I returned to the office alone, updated the team and we did a shot of whiskey at 11 in the morning. We took a day to regroup but then quickly hit the ground running. Within a month, we were accelerating at more than two times the pace we had been before. We grew 170 percent that year. We now have a team of 18.
As for my co-founder, he’s doing better, too. Rumpl’s brand was built on the idea of travel and wanderlust, and that got to him -- he’s been traveling throughout South America in a van, sharing his adventures on his podcast, Wheel Travel Far. Our friendship is pretty good; we don’t talk a lot because he’s been in Chile and Mexico and at Burning Man, but generally speaking, we’re fine. We’ve each helped the other out in different ways, and will continue to do so. Parting with him professionally was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but it’s made me stronger. It was the first time I really put the company in front of my personal interests -- and the results helped me realize that I always need to prioritize my business.