Quitting My Job

A rite of passage for every entrepreneur is the day they must quit their job or drop out of school. Leave the warm comforts of the familiar for the cold uncertainty of your startup. I’m often asked how do you get the courage to quit your job. I really don’t know. But I can tell you the story of how I quit my job.

I had been working at Bookham while launching Distil. My story at Bookham is one of survival — I had survived rounds of layoffs at Nortel, survived our division being sold to Bookham (see My $100B Team), and survived further rounds of layoffs through Bookham’s efforts to get control of their massive expenses. Those of us that were left had worked together for years. It was a team I didn’t want to leave.

But I had been working on Distil evenings and weekends for the past 18 months. It was my dream. The past 6 months we had been pitching every chance and we were close to closing our seed round. Distil was nearing launch.

At the same time my wife and I were expecting our first child. I was excited (and scared) for two impending births, the birth of my daughter AND the funding of my company. It was a pretty exciting time.

The week when we were to find out if Distil was to be funded, Bookham made a major announcement to its employees — for the first time ever, Bookham would be break even for the quarter. This was exciting news. Jobs were secure. Managers had smiles on their faces. There was even talk of bonuses. We had made it through.

Friday I go the call that Distil was going to be funded. The investors were putting in $250K. Two pieces of good news in one week. Then over the weekend my daughter was born. This was to be an unforgettable week.

Now I had a dilemma. On the one hand I had a great job that was looking more and more secure each day. Being a new parent, that responsibility was weighing heavily on my shoulders. Staying would be prudent. An easily defendable decision to family and friends.

On the other hand if I didn’t quit my job and join Distil full time, it would fail. First, the investors would probably rescind their offer. Even if they didn’t, the odds of succeeding without me would drastically diminish. If I chose this path I would be following me dream, but at significant risk to my family.

A nice benefit of working in Canada is that new fathers can take paternity leave. One of benefits was that they would top up the government’s paternity payment to 80% of my salary. I had already let Bookham know that I was planning on taking a month off around the baby. Maybe I could just take my paternity leave, see how Distil was progressing during that month, and then make my decision at the end.

The idea was tempting. I wrestled with it all weekend. Do I say nothing on Monday and buy some time? Or do I just quit? Deep down I knew my decision was to go with Distil. It wasn’t going to change a month from now. I really wanted — needed — to see Distil through. Not telling my friends and colleagues at Bookham would be dishonest. I had to let them know.

Monday I met with my manager. He thought we were just going to work out the details of the parental leave. He didn’t know what was coming. I told him about Distil. How we had just raised our seed round of funding. And how I was planning to leave Bookham and work full time on Distil. He was caught off guard. This wasn’t just a boss but a friend. One I had been through the best of times and the worst of times with. We both were blinking back tears. It was hard.

“Given that I won’t be coming back after my leave, I understand if you don’t want to pay the paternity top up,” I offered. It felt like the right thing to do.

“No no that’s fine. You’ve earned it,” he said. I could then see the managerial wheels spinning in his head. What was he thinking? I waited. “You know, why don’t you take you leave, think this over. We won’t do anything now. When your come back then we can discuss this. If you still feel the same way we’ll process your resignation. Ok?”

“Fine,” I said. “But it won’t change my decision.”

I left, went home to my beautiful new daughter, and started my new life.

This would be great place to end, but there is a relevant epilogue.

About two weeks into my parental leave, I got a call from my manager. “I didn’t want you to hear through the grapevine,” he said. This is usually not the start of a happy conversation. Bookham had made an accounting error. Something to do with inventory and currency exchange rates. Bottom line, they weren’t cash flow positive for the quarter but had lost quite a bit of money. Bonuses were off the table. But the worst was to come.

“They have decided to close the Ottawa site. Everyone except for a handful of sales people are being laid off.”

I was shellshocked. This was not what I expected. I recovered as best I could. “Since I didn’t technically resign, does this mean I get a severance package?”

He laughed. It was good to hear he still had his humor through this. “No! You quit!”

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