in Professional Issues

How I Got Fired from a Hot Startup

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I wrote this article over three months ago. It’s taken a while to hit publish.

I’ve wanted to share my story and be truly transparent but getting fired is a hard thing to talk about. Not just because it’s a bit embarrassing and might hurt my reputation, but because it involves other people. I don’t want those people to think I’m just airing dirty laundry.

I’m writing this because it’s an experience that a lot of people go through every day but it’s so rarely discussed. As a result, people miss the warning signs like the ones that I and my managers should have seen.

If you know me, you can probably guess what company this is but this post isn’t about the company, it’s about me and my experience.

This is the article I wish existed for my former self at the time I was fired. I can only hope that by sharing my experience, anyone else who’s going through the same thing will be better prepared to handle it.

So let’s start with my experience… 

When I’m at my worst, it’s because I feel like I’m irreversibly behind. I’m constantly catching up, treading water, taking sips of air but never quite getting my head above water.

In the last month before I got fired, I found myself in that scary place while working at a well-known startup. It’s hard to say how I found myself there exactly. Lack of communication, my own inexperience, confusion around direction, loss of motivation, focusing on the wrong things, taking on way too much work, the way I managed others, the way others managed me…I could go on.

I was in a funk. My alarm would go off and I would snooze for as long as possible. I’d wake up with 15 minutes to get out the door, take a speedy shower, grab a banana for breakfast and rush to the office.

I loved my team and the best part of the day would be saying hi to everyone when I walked in, but as soon as I got to my desk, the daily downfall ensued. I had so much to get done that I would start every day completely overwhelmed. The length of my todo list would be comical. I’d let the tasks I disliked most remain on the todo list day after day. I’d have 40 tabs open, occasionally browsing Facebook and doing what James Clear calls “half-work“.

I was in a perpetual state of distraction and constantly playing catch up. I’d start my day late, I’d get my work done late and it would keep piling on so I could never get ahead of it. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. And I couldn’t communicate my situation with anyone because it was a fast moving startup, and I felt like everyone was too busy for my problems.

I was stuck in a downward spiral, unable to step back and gain perspective. It became impossible get back on track. I was just in over my head working on whatever fires I saw first. I got stressed, depressed and eventually I crashed.

I got fired

I remember the moment vividly, every word, every emotion. It felt like the world was crashing down around me. I had failed.

The couple months after that day, I became even more depressed, questioned my abilities, my motivations, my work ethic…everything I strived for felt like it was swept out from under me.

I blamed myself more than I should have. Later on, Dr. Hindsight showed me that while there were certainly a lot of things I could have done better, this was clearly a bad cultural fit for me at that time. As soon as I picked myself back up and starting working again, I felt much better.

Very few people are honest about getting fired and I was no different. When asked why I no longer worked there I’d usually say something like “we parted ways” or “it just wasn’t a good fit”. The company would say the same thing when asked.

Today when people ask, I’m usually honest. I don’t feel ashamed anymore. I realize now that it happened as a result of those countless compounding variables, some in my control and many not.

Fast forward to today and I’ve successfully worked with several companies and have started my second and third companies. Both through my experience getting fired and all of my professional experiences since, I’ve learned a lot about how to deal with situations like the one I found myself in before getting fired.

Should you find yourself in this position where you’re in over your head on a path to get fired, what can you do?

Hopefully these tips help…

1. Force yourself to take a step back and reflect

I felt like there was no way I could waste an hour to reflect. I felt like if I wasn’t working, I was doing something wrong.

But I wasn’t really working. I was distracted and tried to juggle multiple tasks, working at 50% efficiency at best.

I should have taken more time to reflect, which makes the rest of these tips possible.

Now that you’re committed to reflecting…

2. Get better at reflecting

Reflection can come in many shapes and forms.

Today, I try to maintain a habit of writing down answers to these 7 questions every Sunday.

You can take walks once each day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.

Unplugging on weekends and getting out to nature is another great way to reflect.

Or taking a longer vacation may be what you need, so get your PNW waterproof backpack and get going, a backpackers’ experience should be fun.

I also like to use calm to clear my mind every day in the morning or at the middle of the day.

3. Think about the bigger questions

Sometimes when in over our head, we reflect on the wrong things.

Before I got fired, I was only looking at the short term challenges in front of me. How can I make this manager happy? How do I get this task done? How can I quickly make a big impact and prove to everyone I’m awesome?

Instead, I should have asked bigger picture questions like:

1) Is this environment healthy for me? Am I happy?
2) What are the goals of the company and is my work helping them achieve those goals?
3) What are my personal goals and is my work here helping me achieve them?

Look at yourself, the environment and the people around you while thinking about the long term vision for yourself and your company. Often you’ll find that the problem isn’t just you, but the environment you’re in or the path you’re on.

4. Ask for help

I was an idiot and just wanted to do everything myself. I wanted to look like a badass and didn’t want people to think I didn’t know what I was doing.

I should have asked my teammates for help more often. I should have asked my mentors. I should have been more honest with myself, accept that I was deep in the shit and ask for help.

5. Accept the possibility that it’s a bad fit

I’m really bad at quitting stuff.

When I was in over my head, I was still convinced that I was in the right place. All the obvious signs just escaped me. The culture, the team and the product were all so attractive at the time but in hindsight, they weren’t right for me.

For me, all the problems seemed to lie in myself. I blamed myself for everything. The thought that the environment could be impacting my situation never crossed my mind.

It’s hard, because I felt like I was given great opportunity and I didn’t want to squander it. Now I know, there will always be more opportunities, and the face value of an opportunity isn’t always what it seems.

Sometimes quitting is the best thing you can do to move forward.

6. Change up your system 

My system was clearly flawed. I needed to change something up in order to get out ahead of the game.

Back then I had no idea what to change. Since then I’ve become a bit more patient and aware.

Here are some things that have worked for me in my more recent experiences where I’ve felt overwhelmed:

1. Prioritize

There was no way I was going to get out ahead of things while trying to do everything at once. I should have sat down with my manager and prioritized. It would have been hugely helpful to make sure we’re all on the same page about what needs to get done.

In startups it’s not often what you do, but what you don’t do that will decide how well your companies does. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the get shit done mentality and make sure the “shit” you’re getting done is of highest priority to your team’s goals.

2. Plan

Today I like to create timelines to accomplish each of the projects I prioritize. If I did that back then, I could have shared my timeline with my manager. I could have showed them that I was thinking strategically about what needed to get done and give them a system for holding me accountable.

Make it easy to track your progress both for yourself and for your team to see you’re getting your work done.

3. Embrace teamwork

As I mentioned before, I felt like everyone else in the startup was too busy, and it was all up to me to figure my issues out. I was wrong. I should have asked my team for help.

It doesn’t matter if the person you ask for help doesn’t have expertise in your field. They’re probably smart people who can help you think logically through any challenges you’re facing.

7. Take a stand

I was hired because the founders and team respected me, not because I’d blindly do what others tell me to do.

But that’s not how I acted when I was in over my head. I disagreed with the way some things were being handled but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have the courage. I just went with the flow.

If you find yourself in that position, say what’s on your mind.

Be blunt. Be honest. Tell it how it is. Either they’ll respect your courage to speak up and address the challenges you bring up or they’ll condemn you for speaking your mind (which probably means you shouldn’t be working there anyway).

8. Remember that getting fired isn’t the end of the world

I remember the time leading up to that moment when I got fired. I had a feeling it was coming, and I thought that getting fired would be the worst thing that could ever happen to me.

Do you know what happens to most people who get fired? They end up being grateful because they learn from their mistakes, they realize that it was a bad fit in the first place and they become motivated to find a place where they can thrive and prove everyone wrong. Getting fired shakes things up, forces you to reflect on your path and makes you more self aware. It can also light a fire or create a chip on one’s shoulder to propel you toward whatever it is you do next.

I was blowing the situation out of proportion at the time but that’s pretty natural. I was so deep in the situation that I had very little perspective. I felt like getting fired would be the end of me.

It’s not, I promise. And if you had the perspective to see this moment in the grand scheme of things, you’d realize how little it means.

So if you’re in this position and you are deathly afraid of getting fired, change your paradigm. Think of it in a different light. Look at getting fired as a positive opportunity to reflect and grow. An opportunity to find a place where you can thrive. A reason to kick even more ass in the next thing you do.

When you no longer fear getting fired, you have nothing to lose. The funny thing is, that might be exactly what you need to save your job.

Thanks to Nadia, Max and Hiten for feedback on this post.

Photo Credit: photolibrarian via Compfight cc

  • digital_sweet

    Nice read David and and that is encouraging advice because entrepreneurs fail and so do people at assessing other people, situations and outcomes 😉 Thus we all have to “keep on movin” and continue to live our passions…..One important note is that startups can always hire and fire top talents of course, but just in the same,  top talents will always be themselves no matter where they go or where they start so their best asset is often themselves and believing in themselves and recognising what they have to offer and contribute to the right people, teams, ideas, and companies. Rock on and have an awesome 2014!!!! Hope to see you around soon at the next tech gatherings…

  • clayhebert

    Excellent post, David. The more you write, the better your writing is getting. It’s been fun to watch. 

    Probably the most impressive thing about this post is that you didn’t (even once) take a swipe at the startup, the founders or their demands, which is extremely hard not to do in a post like this. Of course, blaming the startup or the culture is the easy way out and you did took the more difficult path of introspection. 

    Proud of you, brother. Hope our paths cross again soon.

    • http://whatspinksthinks.com/ DavidSpinks

      clayhebert  Thanks so much Clay, that means a lot coming from you.

      No reason to take swipes! That doesn’t help anyone and no one was malevolent in the situation. People just pursue what they believe is the optimal path and when things are moving so quickly, it’s easy to take the wrong turn.

      I’m in NYC for the next 5 weeks so let’s make that whole crossing paths thing happen asap (=

  • http://janetaronica.com/ JanetAronica

    David this was a wonderful post and so very brave. You make some really good points in here. I think one that’s key to reiterate is that it’s okay (and sometimes best) to leave if something is not a fit. For obvious reasons we don’t want to just leave as soon as the going gets tough and we certainly don’t want to be seen as job hoppers. But startups change so quickly. Thanks to pivots or new management, the project or role you were hired for six months ago may not exist anymore today. It’s also great advice to encourage people to speak up if they disagree with how things are being run. At any given time, you probably only have a year of runway in the bank. There’s no time for avoiding tough conversations. It’s better to leave it all on the table even if it doesn’t work out in the end than to let a startup flame out knowing the whole time you had suggestions for how to do things better.

    • http://whatspinksthinks.com/ DavidSpinks

      JanetAronica  thanks Janet. Yeah leaving is always a good option but also one of the hardest ones to pull the trigger on. Takes a lot of perspective and willpower to make it happen and to do it gracefully.

  • emeyerson

    Great piece, David. Thanks for publishing this — there are lessons here for everyone, both for those who don’t feel like they’re performing to their potential, and the managers who are supposed to coach them.

  • ryanmathre

    arikhanson DavidSpinks Great post David. Much respect for having the courage to do what 99% of people (including myself) wouldn’t.

    • DavidSpinks

      ryanmathre arikhanson thanks so much guys. Glad you enjoyed it.

  • JesseBouman

    Great post. Points 4 and 5 really resonated with me.

  • LaurenHolliday

    Thank you for hitting publish.

  • janaboruta

    DavidSpinks I love this post for so many different reasons. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • DavidSpinks

      janaboruta (= Thanks!!

  • alexproaps

    DavidSpinks Thank you for sharing – it’s such an important read.

    • DavidSpinks

      alexproaps thanks a lot Alex!

  • sarahjukes

    DavidSpinks you’re welcome! Similar thing happened to me. I wrote about it too.. here: Ready? Aim! Fired. http://wp.me/p30e6I-l

  • http://diginomica.com/ dahowlett

    so very few people offer this level of candor. That takes courage and humility. Well done.

  • http://sethgoldstein.net sethgoldstein

    Thanks David for your insights and candor. Keep you head up you’ll do great!

    • http://whatspinksthinks.com/ DavidSpinks

      sethgoldstein  Thanks Seth, hope all is well by you.

  • StaceyHood

    Having been there myself, Dave, I completely get it. Great post!

    • http://whatspinksthinks.com/ DavidSpinks

      StaceyHood  Thanks man! Long time! Hope you’re doing well.

  • Chris Moody

    Your close is so true. I had the “your position has been eliminated” thing happen to me not too long ago. I went through the exact same range of emotions.

    “When you no longer fear getting fired, you have nothing to lose. The funny thing is, that might be exactly what you need to save your job.”

    • http://whatspinksthinks.com/ DavidSpinks

      Chris Moody  for sure, when you’re working in a constant state of fear of getting fired, it makes it super hard to be proactive. You just become responsive and defensive.

  • http://www.ericajayne.com/ ericajayne

    David – Fantastic post.  It resonated with me on so many levels, I’m definitely going to save this one to my favorites and come back to it again and again.  Thanks for putting this out into the universe.

    • http://whatspinksthinks.com/ DavidSpinks

      ericajayne  So glad you found it helpful. Let me know if you ever have any questions or need someone to bounce feedback off of.

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  • ShivaBhaskar

    David, great thoughts. It’s rare to hear from someone who is able to be so reflective and honest with themselves. Took a lot away from this post. Wishing you all the best on your next opportunity!

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  • Sam

    Thank you for posting this. I got fired today from a small startup and I was in denial of the fact that the cultural fit was not good for me. I have already started looking for other jobs and I think I am going to be more mindful of what kind of work I pickup this time.