It was awesome! So why the hell did I quit?
Well, I had an itch. I thought I wanted to start a company and ride the coming robotics revolution to fun and profit. The reality was something quite different to that, I just didn't know it at the time. Everybody I knew (and I really mean everybody) advised me that this was foolish. That I had a four month old child to support and a wife who wasn't working. That I had a mortgage to pay. That I had a seriously awesome job and an obvious career path into one of the largest and highest paying companies in the country. That the startup lifestyle is hard work, stressful, and nine times out of ten - fails.
They were all right, but I couldn't listen. I had to learn this lesson for myself.
We did, and it was horrible. Over the next three weeks we talked to lots of potential customers - less than our advisers wanted, but more than enough to discover that our product was too expensive for the marginal improvements over related products. We moved onto product number two, followed the same approach but faster, and found the product to be less useful to people than we'd thought it would. At this point, one of my co-founders decided he'd have much more fun just building things without worrying about whether or not they'd make money, and promptly left.
After three rounds of this disappointment, my remaining co-founder lost interest and went AWOL. I can't blame him. I'd sold the vision of an awesome startup company building amazing technology and enjoying the process. Instead we'd experienced what is likely much more typical; hard work, disappointment, and not much to show for it other than the knowledge that it was better for these ideas to fail sooner rather than later.
At this point I burnt out. In true burn out fashion I didn't realize this, and kept pushing on with coding, meeting people, talking to customers, and the like until my body engaged in a cunning plan to weaken my immune system and make me get sick so I'd stop. It took a full week of not doing anything at all before I realized what should have been obvious at the outset: I don't care enough about money to run a startup business.
I want to work on cool, innovative, novel, and exciting projects with interesting, motivated, and motivating people. Provided I can earn enough by doing that (and enough isn't even that much in the grand scheme of things) I'm not too bothered whether I work for myself or for someone else.
This begs the question however; why did I quit a job that met all these criteria? The easy answer is that I knew I didn't want to be an academic. But since the job was a stepping stone to a similar, higher paying job in industry, there's a more complex answer hiding away in here somewhere. Ultimately, I think it's that I want to move a bit faster, have more opportunity for learning, and to see my work get used by real people. Academia is slow, procedural, and if more than ten people care about your work, you're probably doing well. As an example, since quitting my job, a paper I wrote eighteen months earlier has only just been accepted.
Maybe it's your company - if you need an inventive, capable, problem-solving engineer, get in touch.