How Do You Know When to Walk Away?

Runa co-founder Dan MacCombie left his company and his relationship in the same year. Here's how he knew it was time...

Only a year ago, Dan MacCombie was living the millennial dream: running a successful for-profit startup that also happened to be saving the world. He was also in a long term relationship with a great match—someone who shared his intelligence, ambition, and passion for entrepreneurship.

You might recognize the silver cans of Runa from the refrigerated beverages aisle of your local Whole Foods, where it chills next to the VitaCoco and Guayaki Yerba Mate. In 2009, MacCombie started the company with his best friend from college. The adventurous duo turned it into a multimillion dollar operation with a direct-to-consumer pipeline feeding back to indigenous farmers in the Amazon.

Then, in a tumultuous flash, a transitional wave transported MacCombie to a new reality. Today he is no longer involved with Runa day-to-day, nor is he in a relationship.

MacCombie’s transitional period is not all that strange. Many creators breakout from superficial success, but Dan’s 180 degree change piqued our interest. So we pried. We needed his take on a question we all have to answer at key times in our lives: How do you know when to walk away?

Was there a single moment when you knew that it was time to leave Runa?

Yes. I met with a guy I know sort of third-hand and we had some conversations about where the company was going. He said, “Are you ready to be in the beverage industry for the next 10 years? Or the rest of your life?” I knew right then, “No.” It took me six months to announce that, and another three months to be in the place to leave.

Dan with Channing Tatum in the Amazon doing a piece for Runa.

Dan with Channing Tatum in the Amazon doing a piece for Runa.

What have you learned about when it’s time to leave something that you love?

Sometimes you just need to trust your gut. I had this revelation during a meditation retreat. Every moment you live is lived once and you need to make the most of it. Do what fulfills you.

You also ended a relationship around the same time as you left Runa. Why do these things always seem to happen at the same time?

I was deeply in love with her. She is an amazing person I respect immensely, and we had an amazing time together. As a person, on a day-to-day basis—it was amazing and we had a great life together, and I’ll sing that tune forever. What I will say now, after having broken up, is that there were some deep incompatibilities in the way we saw life. What I learned from this process is that when picking a partner, I would prioritize how you view life, how you trust your emotions, how you communicate. 

Are you bitter at either of your former partners, romantic or business?

Not at all. Her and Tyler (co founder of Runa) were the right people for me at the right time. I struggled with depression growing up, with not having a lot of friends, had a lot of self-esteem questions. I don’t struggle with that anymore. They held me accountable for the way I shared my struggles and processed things. They are both very coach-like, very tough love. They taught me to be more self-sufficient than I ever was, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. 

At the same time, of course in both cases there were disagreements that were complicated. One thing that I processed is that there is no one person who is right. If someone doesn’t like something fundamental about the way I see things, that’s fine, but that might not make them the best partner.

“If someone doesn’t like something fundamental about the way I see things, that’s fine, but that might not make them the best partner.”

What were some of those fundamental differences?

In my relationship, the biggest was a different view on community. As someone who grew up not having a very big community—I have a big community now and it’s important to me.

Dan at TedxFargo

Dan at TedxFargo

Was that similar to any of the fundamental differences at Runa?

Well, I’m a mediator, a negotiator, a diplomat, whereas often at Runa lines were drawn in the sand. I think that in our society this single genius theory is in vogue, you know, you don’t talk a lot about CFOs or the other people who make businesses work, and I don’t think that’s right. I think that people who are devoting their lives to making and distributing something that will benefit their lives are worth celebrating, and it shouldn’t be that just one person gets all the credit. I’m a community-based thinker. In High School I was a - I hate to say the word - “socialist,” as now I believe in capitalism and for-profit businesses like Runa, but I had sort of a more holistic, communal approach. For me, I get energy from being in community.

I think recently our economy does favor the marketer over more core technical talent, but I hope that’s shifting as we slowly realize that marketing is mostly bullshit…

Don’t get me wrong. Tyler is a poet who creates things out of thin air. At the end of the day, one of the best things in life is knowing how to bend and change the rules—changing how economies work, how political structures work. My vision of leadership was formed a lot on how Tyler grew ideas, and I will run my next business differently because of that.

It seems like in both circumstances, they were not appreciating that you were a nice guy.

I think they both appreciate those things about me, but it was more like, “that’s nice.” That’s not who they were at their core. It’s just not how they defined themselves. How you define yourself is seen through your words and your actions, and I finally decided to make that stand for myself and how I want to live in the world. Those are people I love, but they’re not the partners for me. 

What advice would you give to someone in a relationship or at a job who isn’t sure about whether to stay in it?

There is a limit to how much you can expect someone to change. I have a very strong belief that the human personality is more malleable than we give ourselves credit for. I developed a much stronger work ethic with Runa than before I came in. I learned a level of confidence and self-assertion that I may not have otherwise. I have become outgoing and sociable. When I run into people from high school they’re like, “Woah, what happened to you? You’re like—cool now.” People grow together, and you have to have a partner that grows with you. But you can’t expect them to change all the way into what you want them to be. I made that mistake. 

How did that manifest itself in your relationship?

I’m an inherently trusting person. Generally, I think I’m generous, loyal, give people the benefit of the doubt, I’m forgiving, and I still really believe in that. My former partner felt like I got taken advantage of or was being weak at times. It’s funny, sometimes I look back and am like, “oh, fuck, she was right!” But for the most part that’s just not how I want to live my life. That’s not a judgment on her; everyone has the right to go about life as they want. There’s no one answer. 

“Fulfillment is answers to new questions, maybe ones you haven’t asked yourself yet.”

Is the “right” thing the thing that will always make you the most happy?

I would not say happiness. I’d say fulfillment, which includes happiness. Fulfillment is your needs being met, you being nurtured. For me, fulfillment with a partner means being with someone who doesn’t always want to do the same thing as me, but is willing and happy to compromise. There are some things you compromise, some you maybe leave for interpretation later. Fulfillment is answers to new questions, maybe ones you haven’t asked yourself yet. But it’s also refusing to compromise those core principles.

What kind of communities will you build in the future?

Right now I’m working on creating spaces centered in nature while still being connected to the city. Human beings need to be in nature; I believe that. In New York that’s particularly hard. So, I’m working on a space that brings communities together in nature in a way that’s accessible, affordable, communal, cultural, educational, and connected to whatever physical space is there. I need to build things that bring people together.

At Breakout Detroit

At Breakout Detroit

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