What To Do When You No Longer Care About Your Startup

Stefan Palios

What do you do when you have customers and employees–but realize you have lost your passion for your startup? This is an experience Kevin Sandhu had in 2019 before selling his company, Grow Technologies, to ATB Financial. Speaking with TechExit.io ahead of his Vancouver conference talk, Kevin shared more about what he did when he stopped caring about his startup.

Key takeaways:

  • If problems happen and your response is apathetic, you might have hit a wall where you have lost passion for your startup.
  • When you hit this wall, it’s critical to plan your exit strategy before you run out of energy or burn out completely.
  • Exiting a business is not just about the financial element; it’s also a deeply personal journey for founders

Common advice says to not start a tech company unless you want to build a unicorn, deca-corn, zebra, centaur, or any other animal-turned-startup-descriptor.

It’s advice Kevin Sandhu believed in when he founded Grow Technologies, a B2B fintech platform, in 2014. Yet in 2019, he hit a wall–he lost his passion–and sold the company for what was a life-changing amount, but a far cry from the billion-dollar exit his ambitions wanted.

Speaking with TechExit.io, Kevin shared more about the raw emotional journey of figuring out the right next step once you realize you won’t reach your grand ambition.

Founder shrugged

After working in investment banking and private equity for a few years, Kevin started Grow Technologies in 2014 with all the hallmarks of a unicorn-in-the-making: a B2B financial platform for banks with a high average contract value and over $8 million raised from investors. This was, after all, the ambition Kevin had when he founded the company. It was the story he told early investors and how he enticed employees away from cushy jobs at big tech companies.

From 2014 to 2019, Kevin built the business; the journey resembled many tech companies’ early stories filled with high highs, low lows, and multiple pivots. While the company’s mission may not have been his life’s passion, Kevin got immense joy from seeing his customers succeed, from growing the business, and from giving his employees a great place to work.

Then a moment came in February 2019 that threw everything off course.

A large customer churned and the product roadmap hit a snag. Normally, Kevin would “roll his sleeves up” and fix the problem, as he had done countless times before. But this time was different: he didn’t want to.

“I appreciated my customers and I wanted to deliver value to them,” said Kevin. “But the reality is the business and product had changed so much and it wasn’t something I could get excited about anymore. I just stopped caring about the business. I still cared deeply about the team and had many friends and mentors as investors. I wanted to do right by them all. But I just didn’t care about the business anymore.”

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Planning the next step

Almost immediately, Kevin realized two truths about his work with Grow Technologies. The first is that he still had energy left–he wasn’t entirely burnt out–so he could still navigate the company into its next phase. The second is that he had a massive ego response to handle.

“I was deathly afraid of being called a quitter,” said Kevin. “Those who knew me would say, ‘This isn't the passion that we said a few years ago. You said you were going to build a category-defining legacy generational business. And this is a base hit, not a home run. So why'd you quit?’ And that would be a trigger for me.”

Figuring out how to remove himself from Grow Technologies either meant selling or shutting down. So he “called back old suitors” who had previously expressed interest in acquiring the business. Luckily for him, his small business was a drop in the bucket for a potential buyer.

“We’re tiny to them,” said Kevin. “The average contract value versus buying the business altogether was not actually material to them.”

An exit made the most sense for Grow Technologies and for Kevin personally: Alberta’s ATB Financial acquired the company in late 2019.

The slightly more difficult challenge was understanding his own needs as a CEO and founder. His first step was to reframe and redefine “quitting” to say he was not quitting a life’s mission–the business was never mission-driven–but instead was stepping away from a project. And stepping away was ok because the trajectory of the business meant investing five more years (or more) would not have materially changed much for him, his employees, or his investors.

“We had a successful sale, everyone did well,” said Kevin. “I knew I was not going to disappoint anybody and we weren't going to hit a wall.”

No embarrassment of riches

On the surface, Kevin’s current company, Otter–a financial platform for freelancers–looks similar to Grow Technologies. Both are in the FinTech space, both are investor-backed, and both beginnings started with grand ambitions.

But there’s a subtle difference this time: Otter is borne of a personal mission for Kevin to make entrepreneurship less privileged and more accessible to everyone.

During his Grow Technology days, Kevin said his only source of motivation was extrinsic: caring for his employees, investors, and customers. But when the gut punches of entrepreneurship kept coming, that source proved inadequate. Now, Otter benefits from the same extrinsic motivation as well, but there’s also the deeper mission driving him through the rough days.

Staring down middle age, Kevin admitted he’s beginning to think about his overall legacy. He’d also be remiss if he didn’t admit–just a little–that he wants to become rich and famous. But there’s something simpler at play this time around.

“The day-to-day driver is actually pretty simple,” said Kevin. “I’m mission-oriented because I really want this product to exist in the world.”