Over the past 2 years I have been developing my own business. Recently we have gotten some traction and are moving forward--code is being written and things are falling into place. I feel very strongly about the problem we are trying to solve and want very much for my business to succeed.
About 2 months ago while at a conference I ran into the VP of Sales and Marketing for a VC backed startup. We had a good conversation about the market and their software. This company is a direct competitor of my business.
Now they are recruiting me. I've told them my situation with my own company (that is just getting started). My partner knows about the situation as well. I haven't given away any IP and have been very guarded with my conversations.
This competing company wants me to use the knowledge and expertise that I would have used to develop my own business and use it to develop theirs as Director of Product Development.
I'm torn. I love my startup and I've been working very hard to see this dream become a reality. At the same time, all of this hard work that I've been putting into developing my own business makes me the perfect candidate for this other job opportunity.
I'm interested in your thoughts and opinions--especially about intellectual property. What happens if I put my business on hold and go work for them for 1-2 years. Can I come out of a competing company and start my business back up? What should I do to protect myself? One day I still want to pursue my dream, but their offer may be too good to pass up.
Working for the VC backed startup, and then going back to your own business in the exact same area of business is .. at least a legal minefield, perhaps simply impossible.
If you don't kill your own company upon joining them, then rumors could develop, undermining your position in the new company. When you join at a VP level, you should expect non-competition clauses in your contract, and clauses that transfer exclusive ownership of all intellectual property you create to the company. These kinds of clauses in your contract are normal for VP/Director level positions. And they're potentially very poisonous if you go back to your own business later. You could try to negotiate them away; but that could easily been seen as evil intentions from the other side, i.e. that you're just joining to 'spy' on their company. At least you should see a good lawyer, and consider the scope / delimitation of these clauses carefully.
Could an outright merger be a solution -- you, your partner, and your current IP injected into the VC backed startup, in return for an ownership share?
What do you know about the people, part 1:
Going it alone is more challenging but the rewards can be more fulfilling.
If you decide to take the joining route, you'll need to start disclosing more so they see the value and want to offer you a partnership. Don't go it as a normal employee, and don't request the partnership, make them understand they're business will be much more successfully with you and your IP on board and they will offer.
If not, I would recommend against joining.
As mentioned in some of the other answers, the best outcome for this situation is for it to be pitched as a talent acquisition with an ownership stake in the competitor for BOTH you and your partner. You didn't really outline the relationship there or if there is economic hardship but I would advise against splitting on your partner. Even if he is understanding, that fact alone could damage your reputation with potential future partners. I know I would be reticent to commit getting a venture off the ground with someone if I knew they had left for greener pastures with a competitor in the past. As well, if one day your partner feels slighted, will you be able to contend with litigation over ownership of your current companies IP?
My view is that offers like this don't come along often and you should take it. You will learn a considerable amount about starting and running a start-up, so use the time wisely to learn.
You can always pick up your start-up if it doesn't work out for you. Just make sure that you don't sign anything that prohibits you from starting your own company if you leave.
It's a tough choice and only you can make the final decision, but best of luck and I hope it all works out for you.
If the two companies and technologies are a good fit and these are people that you want to work with, you could consider taking the position and negotiating shares in the company in return for the IP you will be putting in. This way, you can potentially leverage the work you have already done by using the resources of your competitor and it would still be your company.
Keep your eyes open.
There are already good answers, but here are a couple of other things to consider.
Putting a business on hold for two years usually means that you miss your market window. So I think it really boils down to whether you want to abandon your current effort for this new opportunity.
Key people frequently execute non-compete agreements. That would put a severe damper on what you could do after the VC-backed company. If you do decide to join this new company, that should be something you negotiate up front. Your location also matters. California has some fairly liberal laws regarding work at competing companies.
You mentioned a partner. How do they feel about abandoning your current startup? Regardless of how attractive you find this new opportunity, you have responsibilities to them that must be met.
Assuming you go forward, I would suggest the merger option on the assumption that your current business wouldn't be worth much after two years in hibernation. It's also a way to recognize and reward your partners contributions.