Deciding to step down as CEO is one of the most difficult decisions a founder will ever make. So Informilo asked three founders who did it how they coped with the change.
“There is no right timing,” says Arnaud Bertrand, co-founder of Housetrip, a global holiday home rental company. “At some point you just need to do it.”
Bertrand, who co-founded HouseTrip in 2009 with his wife JunJun, was the company’s CEO until earlier this year. Like most founders he had to run just about everything in the beginning because there was no choice. “But my policy has always been to remove myself from roles when we had a better person to handle them,” he says.
The CEO role was no different. After a few years it became apparent that George Hadjigeorgiou, the man Bertrand hired as his chief operating officer, “would be an amazing CEO,” says Bertrand.
“The decision was made when I had lunch with our chairman. I shared my thinking that George would make a great CEO. The chairman spoke with George, George was very open to it, and we spoke to the board.”
Bertrand, who remains the company’s president, says he doesn’t regret it. “I am still very much full-time in the company but it is a different role.”
DataSift founder Nick Halstead and Michael Acton Smith, founder of Mind Candy, the company behind the popular game Moshi Monsters, have also transitioned from being CEO to new roles in their companies, although Halstead only temporarily vacated the hot seat.
DataSift needed to build up its operations in the U.S. Not only did he not want to uproot his young family from the UK and relocated thousands of miles to the west in the U.S., he acknowledged that he was not the best person for the particular task of building a U.S. management team.
“The U.S. is such a hard thing to crack,” he says. “With me not being well enough known in the U.S., trying to build a U.S. team with major players around me would have been very hard.
“Add to that that I was not living out there. It’s a difficult sell to say, ‘hey come and work for me’ when I don’t live in the U.S. That was never going to be something that worked.”
Halstead says he decided to take a pragmatic view. “I love running the company,” he says, “but for the good of the company I needed someone who was big in the U.S.”
“It’s a very personal thing,” says Halstead. “[For] any founder or co-founder, their responsibility is to decide who are the right people in the right role in the company. Not everyone is subjective enough to look at themselves and say ‘I’m not good enough’. That is one of the hardest things to say to yourself.”
DataSift’s founder says he never stopped setting the direction and worked closely with Rob Bailey, his replacement CEO.
“But there is no question about it, it is an emotional thing,” he says.
“The hardest thing was to cope during this period with that slightly less degree of control. The stress of not being in control is actually more burdensome than actually being in charge. I would prefer to be in charge and have everything fall apart and know that it was my fault, then look from afar.”
After Bailey, who remains a board member, successfully built a strong U.S. team Halstead resumed the CEO’s role earlier this year.
I Love Building Things
Acton Smith reached a point where he says he was no longer enjoying being in charge.
“One of the keys to life, and being successful in life, is realizing what you are good at and what you love doing, “ he says.
“I love building things, I love start-ups. But after 10 years I had reached a point where I was spending more time doing the things that I enjoyed less, and I wanted to get back to my heart, my essence, and that is creating stuff.”
“I’m very lucky. I work with an amazing woman called Divinia Knowles. We effectively ran the company together for many years. So not a huge amount has changed at the moment. She has the title, but it means I can spend more time scribbling in my notebook, and less time planning 2017 budget forecasts, or worrying about what’s going on with our tax issues in countries overseas.”
Mind Candy’s at a point where it needs to create new and exciting products, he said. “I wanted to free up more by time to go super deep on that,” says Acton Smith.
Hard as it is to step down it is not the same as stepping away. “I thought hard about it for a while,” says Acton Smith.
“But here’s the thing: it’s not as if I given the keys to someone else to drive off into the sunset. That would be soul destroying.”