When Is It Okay to Quit On Your Startup?


There is something of a stigma around quitting these days. We value hustle, commitment, and pushing past obstacles so much that quitting is nothing less than an embarrassing failure — proof that you, your idea, or your business just wasn’t good enough. But the truth is that so often, you’re probably much better off if you just owned up to the mistake and moved on.

There are many good reasons not to quit when things get tough, and it’s absolutely true that nothing worth doing comes easy. People have accomplished great things only because they refused to let a barrier stop them and they worked their ass off until they got where they were going.

And yet, we can run into a lot of trouble when we thoughtlessly dedicate ourself to the gospel of hustle without really thinking critically about where we stand. Sometimes it actually isn’t worth pushing against a brick wall that just isn’t budging. Sometimes you’re way better off if you just turned around and looked for another path.

We shared a story on 13p5 recently about Alex Fishman, who decided to shut down his startup even though he was really happy with the work he was doing. He summed up his decision to call it quits with one, short, powerful phrase: “mediocre success is worse than failure.”

To me, this is the perfect encapsulation of why sometimes it’s smarter to quit even if your startup isn’t figuratively or literally burning to the ground. When you’re in a state of mediocre success, “just okay” success, or whatever you want to call it, it is so much easier to get stuck.

As Fishman puts it, “when things work out great — it’s obvious what to do. When things don’t work out at all — it sucks, but again, it’s clear what to do. However, there are no obvious answers when you are stuck right in the middle.”

So even if you’re not quite growing and not quite succeeding, you hustle and you keep trying, and it never really gets better. Growth happens at a glacial pace or not at all. Before you know it, you’ve wasted precious time and energy on an idea that never turned out to have the potential you thought.

Quitting is actually incredibly difficult because it means admitting that you weren’t on the right path after all. It’s not the easy out or the escape or the lazy thing to do. It’s a hard decision — perhaps the toughest decision you’ll ever have to make.

Part of the reason that quitting is so hard is because it’s viewed as so unacceptable. There is no actual reason why failure has to to be scary. It can simply be an important lesson, a milestone in life that you can always come back to whenever you’re faced with another decision. They’re not selling you a story when they say that failure and mistakes are essential to growth. It’s true.

But it’s also true that we’re not perfect, objective automatons. We can tell ourselves that failure is actually good, but I don’t think we’ll ever really be convinced. We want to do a good job, we want to get things working, and we want to prove that we can turn it around. We don’t want to quit.

But sometimes we have to. I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say that it’s easy to let go of something you’ve invested blood, sweat, and tears into. It’s not, and it never will be.

It’s going to hurt, but if you’re in a state of mediocre, “not quite” success, it’s still going to be worth it.

Because you’re capable of so much more.

— ZK

Ed LynesComment