online store

I Quit A Lucrative Family Business That Made Me Miserable. Here's My Story.

Published on Dec 09, 2021. Last updated on Mar 20, 2022
By Adam Dimitrov in Making Money
Table of Contents

In 2016, I quit as a co-founder of a lucrative and later extremely lucrative family-owned business, because it made my life miserable.

How lucrative?

The company was already making low-mid six-figures in revenue in its first year of business. By the 2nd year (by which time I was gone) it was in the mid-to-high six figures.

And in 2020, it generated over 4 million euros in revenue (= mid-to-high six-figures worth of profits in a year).

A snapshot of my ex-company Amazon sales:

This is what I left on the table.

For comparison, 100-250k annual income puts you well in the top 1% in most developed countries.

This is important because had I not left, I would have been made for life. Yet, here I am in 2021 and I can assure you, I've definitely not made it yet. 🙂

In this post, I'm going to share my thought process behind making The Big Decision - quitting the family business.

I assume you're in a similar predicament as I was if you're reading this. I hope this helps you.

My backstory

I'm from a poor region in Eastern Hungary. Like so many living people in underdeveloped regions of the world, our family always wanted to go to the more prosperous West and live in a "well-functioning" country.

We put our money where our mouth is and made the decision to move to Spain and start a business in the year of our Lord 2014.

Why start a business?

Well, my parents were first-gen entrepreneurs - they were real hustlers. We've always had a small hardware/tool shop - it was operational for nearly 15 years.

Thanks to my parents, the entrepreneurial path was the default path in life for us.

Times do change, and the family business had to be shut down by 2012 due to decreasing revenues.

Fortunately, by that time, my brother discovered one of the "Wonders of the Internet" - selling on the internet.

In a nutshell, he started putting my parents' products online to small classified ads sites/marketplaces - imagine Craig's List, but in Hungarian.

My brother's ecommerce hustle was so successful that online sales quickly overtook our physical shop's revenue. So closing down the business in 2012 didn't mean our family was without income.

We were still small-time players though - we were retailers of local Hungarian distributors.

Eventually, other retailers entered the market - petty competition began, price erosion, and everybody selling the same shit for the lowest price.

Despite the hardships, the experience gave us the idea for our next business - why not go straight to the source, the manufacturer? Cut out the middlemen and become the distributor ourselves?

This is how we arrived at our new business model- what is nowadays popularly called "private label e-commerce".

This takes us back to the whole "moving to the West" story arc. Where exactly to move to? The US? Australia? The UK?

Our collective vote fell on Spain as opposed to the UK where most Hungarians emigrate to.

Why Spain?

In short: Cheap cost of living (outside of Madrid/Barcelona), plenty of sunshine, beaches, friendly/accommodating (impression) of Spaniards, I knew a little bit of Spanish, no legal/visa barriers. It simply made sense for us at the time.

I was finishing university and I coincidentally managed to arrange a 3-month internship at a company in Valencia, Spain. The program I enrolled in provided me with 400€/month aid to help fund our living expenses.

This afforded us a low-risk way of trying-out life in Spain. If we didn't like it, we could always return home. But if it did, we'd be in business.

I went out with my brother (who became my partner) and mother (who provided the funding).

In the end, we got a positive impression of Spain (by now, this has changed).

So we held a family council meeting on the sunny beach Malvarossa and decided that we'd give this e-commerce business a go.

Worst case, we'd liquidate our stocks and shut down in 2 years.

On we went to incorporate our business, went back home to tie up our remaining loose ends, and officially started operating in February 2015.

Our plan worked.

Initially, we had no sales, because we had no products for sale.

In order to keep our costs low, we spent the first 9 months (2015 February to - 2015 November) in a shitty, cramped, and dark ground floor apartment in a not-too-good neighborhood.

Likewise, we rented out a shitty, dusty, and dark warehouse in a bad neighborhood for our fulfillment operations.

We went to the meeting with the owners on 150€ budget Decathlon bicycles!

What a great impression we must've made.

We biked 30km every day back and forth to our warehouse to fulfill 1-5 orders/day.

Our lives were completely devoted to the business.

These were some of the sacrifices we made in order to succeed.

However, the business started growing bombastically as soon as our first batch of goods arrived from China in May.

In the next 40 alone days, we achieved a revenue of about 7000 euros. Not bad for the first month and a half.

Fast forward a year (2016 March), we increased our portfolio to +20 private label products and grew to over 40k in revenue.

We finally reached some success! And more was to come!

Life should have been good, but inside I was deeply unhappy, burned out, and anxious.

The 3 Main Reasons Why I Quit

1.) I wasn't doing it with the right people

The more you live, the more you learn about your preferences.

One thing I learned is that certain people do not mix well, no matter what.

Well, this was the story with me and my brother.

On the surface, we complemented each other well in a professional capacity.

I handled the more frontend and social side of the business - customers, marketing, sales, getting things done that involved people.

My partner handled the backend - finding, creating, and importing new products, company admin, technical aspects, etc.

Despite this, we were not working well together as a team.

As it turns out, we have very different mindsets, personalities, and ways of doing things.

I'm not blaming anyone - I'm simply me, and he's simply him. We can't change who we are, can we?

But goddamn, it was frustrating at the time. It's the daily, little small thing and disagreements that make life hell, such as:

Trying/testing new things (and risk/reward): I like experimenting and trying new stuff, which entails failure/loss sometimes but also wins.

Such as the case when I tried an outsourced telephone answering agency to handle our clients (since I was the one drowning in client calls 7 days a week).

It didn't work out and I also misread their pricing and it cost us 1000 euros instead of a few hundred. Bo-hoo. Lesson learned.

It's my belief that those who experiment a lot succeed more often than those who don't.

Experimenting is exciting to me on a personal level too, which means it keeps my motivation high. I have a reason to wake up in the morning.- maybe one of my bets will pay off today.

In comparison, my partner liked the wins but also hated the losses. As if the two could be separated from each other. Yes, sometimes I make mistakes, but mistakes are human. I think it's a bigger mistake missing out on a lot of opportunities.

Scolding/restricting me for this sapped my life enjoyment and motivation.

Decision-making: I prefer to make decisions at the beginning, then stick to it/implement it vs. my partner who wants to delay the decision-making as long as possible, and even when a decision was made, he'd go ahead and change his mind 2 days later. This caused me quite a few emotional meltdowns.

Customer feedback and bad behavior: I could get past bad customer behavior or other "costs of doing business" easily vs. my partner who takes any misbehavior of customers as a personal insult.

For example, if a customer refused a cash-on-delivery order, I didn't lose too much sleep on losing 5-10 euros on the shipping cost. Like seriously, who gives a shit?

I can't control other people, our profit margins are high and incidents like this happen rarely anyway.

But still, I had to be next to my partner and endure his temper tantrums. Is this adult behavior?

Buying decisions: To this day I prefer, easy-to-set-up, ready-made technical solutions (e.g. Saas) that reliably work that I could set up quickly so I can move on to the next task vs. my partner who has an aversion to monthly payments and prefers one-time payments.

Upfront, he may pay less, but he spends more time on setup and maintenance and then loses a lot more when the metaphorical shit hits the fan. He doesn't seem to take into account opportunity costs.

For example, from my store, I set up a Shippypro as my order fulfillment program. It costs 80 euros a month, which might sound like a lot. But it works without a hitch and it was easy/quick to set up.

The alternative is spending weeks setting up a clunky integration inside my store, set up by an unmotivated band of tech guys at the courier companies that might break down any day.

This latter case happened, and my partner had to refund tens of thousands worth of sales on Amazon, because he couldn't fulfill the orders - he would've risked account suspension due to the influx of late shipments.

So who was paying more in the end?

If this sounds like ranting/complaining, well maybe you're right a little bit, but I didn't mean it that way.

From my partner's perspective, I must have been moving too fast, not thinking things through, reckless, flippant, and "burning money".

The truth is both of us are right and wrong at the same time. There are many ways to skin a cat (or this case, lead a company).

The problem was that the two of us were trying to skin the same cat simultaneously. So one of us had to give - in the end, it was me.

2.) I was working 24/7 and I was burned out

Making a business successful ain't easy. You have to do everything yourself until you reach a critical mass of revenue where you can afford to outsource tasks to specialists or employees.

A beginner business owner has to work in and on the business at the same time - operating it and growing/improving at the same time.

In the beginning, I was taking the customers' calls, messages, and emails myself all day, every day, 7 days a week. I was the person to go to the notary, the bank, and the accountant

We made the stupid decision to fulfill orders every weekday - even though we only had 1-5 orders in the beginning. This meant a 30-40km back and forth bicycle ride to the warehouse. We didn't have a car and public transportation would've taken 2x the time.

During all this, I was working ON the business - finding/capitalizing on new marketing channels, improving the website user experience, managing our ads, improving processes.

As you can imagine, this was exhausting to do, but hey, this is the (lean) way to build a business,

However, when growth and sales picked up as a result of our work by winter 2015, I was reaching my capacity. More like my breaking point, to be honest.

Dealing with customers 24/7 is exhausting for half a year straight is rough, guys.

I suggested that I won't be picking up the phone on the weekends, since I was burned out as fuck and at this point, we could afford it. It would've freed up my time to do more valuable work, business growth activities, and such.

This was met with vehement resistance from my family.

Their suggestion was "don't be a pussy, grit your teeth and keep in doing it".

"Tough love"  isn't my love language, unfortunately.

I was already really miserable at this point since I thrive on positive feedback, recognition, and acknowledgment and I got none of that. I had no social life or friends (we're in a new country, after all). On top of this, as I said before, the average temperament of my partner wasn't exactly positive and cheery.

I was like, "We achieved great success already in so little time, can I get a little break, please?" What the fuck am I busting my ass for if not for the improvement of my lifestyle? And this would even make sense, considering I can focus on working more on the business on weekends".

This eventually led to the failed experiment I mentioned with the telephone answering company since we didn't want an employee yet (all the company did was answer the phone and tell the clients we'd call them back, meaning me - what the hell?).

The funny thing is after I left the company next Spring, my partner tried doing the telephone answering for a short time. He was burned out in 2 weeks. Isn't not as easy as it looks, huh? There you go. They hired an employee shortly after.

3.) I like making my own choices too much

I'm not going to belabor this point too much, but it was the third major component of my unhappiness.

In order for me to be happy, I need control over my decisions, lifestyle, and schedule.

I don't like asking for permission, money, or stuff. I just want to make a decision and do it.

If I make a good or bad decision, I'll live with the consequences. I don't need the extra scrutiny and criticism.

I'm open-minded and listen to what others have to say, but they must be credible in my eyes. I listened to the suggestion of specialists when I was building my current store.

For example, I trust my friends (the growth marketer + ads specialist brother duo) and I often heeded their advice when improving the store and did what they suggested - when it made sense.

But in the family business, a lot of my decisions have been overwritten not because of expertise, but because their subjective decision was thus.

I endured countless such scenarios and I had enough.

So these were 3 main overarching reasons why I quit this otherwise thriving family business. It's unfortunate, but it is what it is. I'm happy with my decision, even if I didn't immediately find a better path after quitting.

5-Step Framework: Why We Work

As the second part of this article, I'd like to examine my decision to quit with a different pair of lens, namely the "Why We Work?" framework that I saw in a video from Ali Abdaal.

I didn't know about this at the time, so I'm using this now with the benefit of hindsight.

If you're at a crossroads for making your decision to stay or leave, do this exercise.

(As a side note, this website is part of my new "career" as a content creator. It's much more fulfilling selling widgets online, I can tell you that.)

Money

The question to ask here is, "Am I making enough money to satisfy my ambitions?"

The original business was doing quite well in its first year (low-mid six figures of revenue) and as we know it went on to quite extraordinary heights (4 million in revenue).

At the time though, I didn't feel the positive impact of my work.

I didn't have a allocated budget of discretionary spending money (i.e. a salary - I've got a gift of coming with convoluted ways of stating simple terms).

I had to ask for money for anything I wanted - be it personal or professional.

This went through the values filter of whomever I asked the money from (i.e. my partner or parents).

This ties into my point about "Autonomy and Independece". If I can't make my own decisions, I won't be happy.

Overall, e-commerce is a fine business model though, with potentially unlimited upside, so no complaints in this area.

Fun

The question to ask here is, "Am I having fun doing what I'm doing? Am I enjoying the process of getting to my destination (i.e. becoming rich)?"

Running an e-commerce business doesn't exactly fall under my definition of fun.

Then again, writing this long article is challenging too, but I enjoy it like I enjoy the workout. It's hard to do, but when I'm done, I'm glad I did it.

What I really enjoy is marketing and growing a store, optimizing on processes and gaining of all those small 1% improvements, that add up in the long term.

Many things weren't too much fun though. Dealing with (bad) customers, menial tasks, order fulfillment, and a lot of behind the scenes stuff.

Even so, I can do a lot of activities considered "boring" enthusiastically if I'm in the right company.

With content creation, I'm having a lot more fun, especially when I'm done with the writing, editing, and publishing part. 😂

Helping People

The question to ask here is, "Am I making a meaningful impact in either scale or magnitude?"

Let's face it - selling aluminum ladders, chainsaws or winches won't make a huge impact in the world, individually or cumulatively.

Unless you're Amazon, which impacts hundreds of millions of people and revolutionized e-commerce.

Purpose/Meaning

The question to ask here is, "Does this give me personal satisfaction, purpose or meaning?"

Everyone has to find out what gives meaning to them.

Obviously, solving problems is what people pay you for, but you must love solving that particular kind of problem, otherwise, you risk being miserable.

Even though a lot of different ways of providing value are valid (since we are all different), but selling hardware & DIY tool products is not particularly fulfilling to me.

And again, there's nothing with it (and it makes good money), but it's not personally fulfilling (to me).

You could make it much more fun though by framing in different ways.

Focus on excellence, creating the highest quality or most innovative product could give you meaning?

Or perhaps having a wildly passionate/engaged group of customers whose positive reaction is what makes your day?

Compare this to the meaning I get as a content creator, who makes a connection with their audience and helps them navigate significant life decisions - it's provides much more meaning to the writer. 🙂

Social Status

The question to ask here is, "Does this give me the kind of social status I crave?"

Most people outside of a small segment of business circles don't give a crap about owners of online stores.

Unless you go to an e-commerce summit and you're the keynote speaker, you're not going to be showered with flowers like Alexander The Great entering Babylon.

With the type of content creation I'm doing, I'm hoping to impact many many people on a personal level, and if I get the adoration of some of these people, great!

I already got a small flavour of social status - namely likes, messages and praise to my past content.

Follow-up Questions

"Do you think something could've been done to salvage the situation? Quittinseems so final and drastic."

Yes, I did try salvaging the situation.

I proposed that I'd go back to Budapest and lead the company remotely from there. I could still take calls, answer emails and run the company.

I'd get a 1k euro/mo wage (which we could've afforded, not even taking into account the growth trajectory of the company).

I'd be physically separated from my partner's toxic aura, but we could still work together over Skype.

Unfortunately, this wasn't acceptable for my partner/family.

(In all fairness, this was a relatively big ask, but it's different making decisions while you are in the situation/heat of the moment vs. reflecting on it 5 years later with the benefit of hindsight.)

I was done arguing at this point, and I volunteered to quit the company. I was really unhappy*.*

In a hindsight, renting a separate bedroom/shared flat would've been a good alternative solution, for starters. At least I literally would've gotten some breathing space.

Having the weekends off would've definitely helped. I stand by that request.

Naturally, my partner didn't want to take the calls in my place on weekends, but for some reason expected me to do so? A bit arbitrary, isn't it?

Case in point, the situation was unsustainable - I was deeply distressed/unhappy, I simply couldn't remain in that situation for long.

Something needed to be done, but everyone else was like "Take it like a man". Well, this Rambo attitude is not healthy - we're humans, not machines.

If you feel miserable, I implore you not to accept the situation and do something about it. Nobody can expect you to remain in such a negative state for long, and if they do, offer them your place.

How did you go about quitting?

We talked about it with my partner/parents, agreed to do it, and went to the notary's office to formalize the decision of quitting the company. It took a few weeks, it was tedious and cost us a little money, but there it is.

What did you do after quitting?

I returned to Budapest, Hungary. I got a few months' worth of savings in my bank account.

I found an entry-level position as a "self-service center agent" - we offered tech support for the employees of giant companies (e.g. reset passwords or fix printers).

This was my first and ever "real" job. I stayed there for like 6 months, by the end I felt unhappy again, so I quit. I moved back to my family in Spain to live free of cost for a while.

Let's just say my path wasn't very linear for a few years and I was lucky I had the option to arse around a bit at my family.

Did you feel bad/guilty for leaving the family business?

I had negative and positive both present - feeling like I betrayed my family, leaving behind a great opportunity, but at the same time feeling it's justified since my needs were neglected.

Today, I enjoy cordial relations with my family. My partner/family continued grinding on with the business - I joined to help in a smaller/bigger capacity at different times.

We look out for each other, but it's better for us to love each other from a distance if that makes sense.