I Got Fired Last Week. That’s a Good Thing. Here’s Why.

Christmas

“We’d like to help you transition out of the company.”

As the conversation progressed and reality sunk in, my ears slammed shut and blood streamed to my head. And since I neglected to bring a jacket for what I thought was a routine Friday morning coffee meeting with my CEO, it was cold and now I was shivering like a dumbass.

I joined the company eight months ago when it was just three guys with laptops, and I’d watched it successfully launch, raise $3.7M in funding, and expand from 3 employees to 13—three of which I’d recruited and hired. I was proud of my first 8 months at work. I ran a viral email campaign that signed up a person a minute for the week preceding launch, and then generated a firestorm of media coverage when the product opened for business. Shit, I had just released a new version of our website two days prior that improved on-site conversions by 400%.

What happened?

It’s painfully simple. I excelled at the company’s growth stage because I had a ton of hustle, a lightning fast ability to learn, and the entrepreneurial wherewithal to juggle 30 skills at once. Now, the company had blossomed, hired a new VP of Marketing with twenty-five years experience, and had reached a point where it “needed specialists instead of generalists.”

The irony did not escape me: as the company’s Director of Growth, I grew the company to the point where it had outgrown me. Twelve days before Christmas.

The walk back to my apartment was long. I called my parents in tears and relived every misstep, looking entirely out of place in the midst of the morning hustle and bustle. When I got back to my apartment at the ripe hour of 9:30am, I strongly considered draining a bottle of whiskey on my balcony and blacking out before noon. But after a hefty lunch, where I specifically asked for a dinner plate “with extra gravy,” that plan changed. Dramatically.

Here I am one week later. I’ve had a dozen interviews, a job offer, and am now actively turning down work instead of looking for it.

It’s possible that getting shit-canned was the best thing to happen to me in 2013. Here’s why:

1. Getting fired lights a fire

This is not the first time I’ve been fired. It’s the second. After the first, I fulfilled a lifelong dream to start my own company (it also inadvertently inspired another epic undertaking). This was not a coincidence. Every late night was fueled by a frenetic energy to prove those doubters wrong. I wanted them to view letting me go as the biggest mistake in their company’s history. It wasn’t of course—not even close—but after every personal victory, I still felt like Reggie Miller raining 3’s in Spike Lee’s weasely face.

I would go so far as encouraging everyone to get their ass handed to them along with an Employee Termination Letter at least once in their life. It’s an unforgettable feeling, and getting kicked in the gut by the unforgiving boot of unemployment is a beautiful thing. As long as you have the resilience to counter it with a roundhouse kick to the face.

2. I learned to appreciate my friends

You remember friends, right? Those things you pushed aside in favor of late work nights? You know, something other than your laptop’s blueish hue? I thought I did too—but after getting canned, that view changed.

After that fateful Friday lunch, I immediately started calling friends. Close friends. Old friends. New friends. Friends in high places. Friends in low places. I talked to over 40 people in 4 days. So many were unbelievably willing to help. They readily dispensed advice, made intros, and lent sympathetic ears. It was tremendously humbling

Those friends knew friends—CEOs, recruiters, employers, and more. That led to job opportunities, which led to interviews, which led to offers. I knew this intuitively, but it’s true: jobs come from people. Not the internet. Not job boards. And if nothing else, when’s the last time you grabbed a consolatory beer with a Craigslist post?

3. I’m a jack of all trades, but a master of none. 

This was a tough one to swallow. But look at the facts: I’m a math major who writes in his spare time for fuck’s sake—I wear more hats than a balding magician. Although I’m very good at a dozen different things, I’m an expert in none of them. And that’s dangerous.

Yes, employees are greater than the sum of their skills, and most organizations—especially small ones—need people who can fill the roles of 2 or 3 people. But get this through your head: if you’re not the best at something, you’re replaceable.

This was brutally true for me. Other than being an affable goofball, there was not one thing I was best at in this last company. Our designer is a better designer. Our engineers are better coders. Our CEO is a better marketer. Our Chief of Staff is a better leader. Yes, I was very good at those things, but was I the best at any one of them? No. Painful, but true.

In other words: I was expendable. That phrase “we need specialists instead of generalists,” already haunts me. It will also be the last time I hear those words. Think I’m going to become a master in my next job? Yep. Better fucking believe it.

4. The grass is greener, goddamnit!

I can’t tell you the number of times I heard some variant of that phrase in the last week. “Something bigger and better is out there waiting for you.” “These things happen for a reason.” “You’ll find something even more exciting.” At first, I wrote it off as conciliatory bullshit. Those pearls of advice are so hackneyed that my stomach acid swirled at every utterance.

But when I took stock of my life and reflected on every failure, there’s a pattern: I’ve rebounded like Dennis Rodman on amphetamines. That failed Chemistry class? Highest GPA next quarter. Fired from my first job? Started my own company. Lost control of that company? Life-changing three month journey through Europe.

So contrary to my cliché aversion, I know this time will be no different. The signs are strong. I can’t see it yet, but I can feel the florescent green, Hulk-strength grass ready to shoot through the soil.

Over the last week, I’ve viewed this exit from every angle. Losing your job will facilitate that type of introspection. But one thought has prevailed over all the self-pity, anger, and dejection:

What an amazing Christmas present.

56 thoughts on “I Got Fired Last Week. That’s a Good Thing. Here’s Why.

  1. This sounds like me last year! Except that I was fired severn days before Christmas rather than 12. And I’d been there 4 years rather than 8 months. Everything else is pretty much on target.
    I took it harder than Alex, but I’m out now and better for it.
    I’m also a generalist. And I agree with this advice. I’m just finding it harder to do…
    But good luck Alex.

  2. Cool write-up on a difficult career event. I also got canned this year under similar circumstances and my “roundhouse to the face” came when my former boss found me working at a client’s offices 3 days later. The surprise on his face that I rebounded so quickly despite his allegations of my chronic failings/shortcomings was the sweetest revenge I could have hoped for.

    • A lot of times, incompetent “managers” project their own failing onto employees. Sounds like this one took the roundhouse to the nose by you proving it was him that was the problem, not you.

      That’s what surprised him.

      • You are very accurate even though I didn’t elaborate on my ex-boss’s own level of competence. This company had a half-dozen employees all of which save one have resigned since he was made CEO. One of them was a superstar sales employee beyond myself. Coincidence, probably not.

  3. Just going through this exact same thing. It’s nice hearing from someone in a similar position. At first, it was scary, then fun, now it’s starting to get incredibly nerve-wracking but your post was a nice respite for the time being. Way to keep positive.

  4. Good for you Alex – not sarcastically.

    I got fired at the end of October and despite a difficult couple of weeks at Xmas and New Year (mainly because every company was shut down and nobody was hiring), I’m getting ready to rip 2014 a new one.

    Onward and Upward.

  5. Congratulations Alex! I sometimes think getting fired is the best way to go about things as weird as that sounds. I think we achieve most when our backs are against the wall. It stokes our creativity and willingness to push things forward. So congratulations and good luck on the next chapter.

  6. This was an awesome read! Great piece. I have not been fired but everything you said rings true in terms of specializing and finding truly meaningful work! My next stop…DC>Berlin. Cheers!

  7. I had almost exactly the same experience when I was expelled from the company I helped start about 2 years ago. Coincidentally, I also studied Math (and Economics) and am the marketing/growth guy. It was an emotionally painful experience for me because the VC behind the company fired me about 2 weeks before my one year cliff … all the while was taking a low salary as a nod to my generous equity package. In retrospect, I’m glad I don’t own any stock in the company because, if the VC and CEO were willing to stab me in the back that blatantly and violently, it’s not worth being associated with them whatsoever. Nonetheless, the professional and marketing experience I got while there was extremely valuable.

    Best of luck man, but it seems like you are already doing fine.

    • If you found a company, you should never vest. This is why they want you to vest- so they can screw you out of your ownership. IT was the cliff that got your fired.

      Unfortunately, so many people doing startups haven’t had the experience to know that following “best practices” is the equivalent of walking onto a used car lot and believing everything the salesman says.

      VCs are worse than used car salesmen in terms of honesty.

  8. You’re a badd ass. This post is awesome. And getting fired is good for you.

    Now you have time to mastermind and design your life for the next little bit.

    I can tell by your attitude that you’re gonna fucking kill it.

    More power to ya man!

  9. Thanks for the awesome, inspiring post. :)

    I’m going through a downturn myself, but reading this helps me stoke that fire and keep it going.

    Rock on!

    -Patrick

    PS. Love the Reggie Miller reference..

  10. What a doucebag company to fire you before you could vest your one year. There’s a lot of crappy douchebaggy startups out there.

    Let me know if you are up for a drink. Cheers.

    • Exactly. For any startup that is just starting, if you’re going to vest founder shares (and I think you shouldn’t, if the VCs think founders aren’t incentivized they can create a pool of additional shares and vest those)…. they should vest on a daily basis during the first year.

      A one year cliff for a company that’s less than a year old is basically ripping you off, and setting you up to be screwed out of your entire share.

  11. “We need specialists rather than generalists” I am dangerously in between these 2 categories myself. I specialized in design but recently I’ve been learning ruby on rails and iOS development, and I gotta say, I’ve been spending more time on those 2 new skills than mastering my design craft. I guess this is something we should all watch out for. Desire to acquire new skills can sometime backfire. Instead of being a master of one, you will end up being a master of none :)

    • It’s a lie. Generalists are more valuable than specialists. Especially when it comes to programming.

      Better to learn iOS which is really valuable than to learn java which is more “general” but also worth a lot less on the market.

      All companies, when the fire someone without cause, make up some sort of lie to try and rationalize the situation.

      “We need generalists” sounds a lot better than “you’re coming up on your one year cliff, and I’m feeling greedy”.

  12. I have been fired twice now. I always get a better job.

    I call it “failing upwards.”

    I think this “Generalist” talk is bullshit. More likely you were deemed to be “in the way” by this more senior executive. Calling you a “generalist” is executive code for “you just got voted off the island.”

    Senior marketing roles are like Highlander at most startups: There can be only one. Senior marketing guys are smart enough to read personalities, recognize “future threats” and act accordingly.

    Either way, learn “hard” technical skills. The best people I know are generalists. They can crack open photoshop, they can hack a bit of html or javascript. And they are the best fucking marketing people on earth because they are smart. Don’t let their excuses confuse you. They didn’t fire you for being a generalist, it was something else.

    • Yes, this VP of marketing or whatever they hired, he’s probably the one whose fingerprints are on the knife.

      But at the same time, this dude founded the company. HE should be VP of marketing.

      Any company that brings in an outside dude in a situation like this is being run by an asshole.

    • “Don’t let their excuses confuse you. They didn’t fire you for being a generalist, it was something else.”

      Decades of experience inclines my vote in this direction.

  13. Generalist here. Was cut by a panel of people reviewing employee profiles at a major corporation 4 years ago. All my managers were stunned & wanted to help me fight it; they were convinced we’d win. Said, “No thanks, I’ll take the severance + two years of unemployment.”

    Traveled the world. Saw exotic sights. Dated lots of pretty girls in lots of foreign countries. These days I run my own business that pays me more than that old corporation did, with all kinds of potential for growth, and I can wake up at 2 in the afternoon every day and work in my underwear if I want to. Best thing that ever happened to me.

  14. Do not stop being who you are. As a matter of fact if you read “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink you will see that people who are capable of doing synthesis type work (combining different things) are the only ones who have any hope for finding work in the future (everyone else will be outsourced to cheaper ‘specialized’ labor).
    People like you who can do many different things and help a company grow like that are like magicians (of real magic). That is a quite unique and oh so highly desirable skill for any company (what would I give to have someone like this in our startup). Same for everyone out there, whose work speaks for itself but doesn’t fit in the old paradigm of corporate thinking. Try to see what made you different and how is that actually special and unique. Your time is just coming.

  15. OK, first it may hurt, but hey: Its christmas and years end, so its not that bad to take some rest and watch out, which mountain to climb next 😉
    Regards

  16. I have exactly the same story. I sometimes feel worse for getting fired but reading this, boy I gotta smile and accept the gift of getting freed to do whatever I want next

  17. Getting fired for the first time was actually a good experience for me as well. I was initially in tears and pretty scared about my future. Then I got motivated to go out that night and had the best sex of my life (yes, that actually happened). Then I found an even better job that led to even better opportunities. I think if you’re an expert in growing a company from nothing to a pretty legitimate one, that’s a good skillset to have. There are many “business people” that think that all you need to do is just advertise a business or go out and buy likes (see how many companies are listed at http://www.buyfacebooklikesreviews.com that do this) and you’ll instantly succeed. There’s a lot more involved with guiding a company from nothing to something – from picking business models to analyzing ROI to figuring out problems with products to improving customer experience to much, much more.

  18. Love the attitude, it’s exactly what one should do when fired!

    I am however no fan of the term “Jack of all trades, master of none.” There is a lot of potential for mastery in crossing trades, just as crosstraining is great for exercise.

    I find my expertise in one field is often complemented by a small proficiency in another in ways someone very focused might not see at all. Specialists can use Generalists to get the most out of their own work.

  19. I also got fired from my last company in which I was the first employee and the reason was that I have written a mail to the team regarding my leave and they found it unprofessional.
    I was disheartened but now I am in much better place with good entrepreneur and thankful to my earlier employer.
    So cheers Alex and have a great year ahead.

  20. I don’t know the whole story about why you got fired, but from what you say it seems you were still contributing extremely positively to the company.

    I’m not sure i necessarily agree with your statement that you need to specialize more. Often the smart generalists are the hardest to come by, and make the best leaders within a company, when that talent is recognized and incubated properly.

    (Speaking Generally) There are always problems that will exist in a company that require a generalist who can just ‘figure it out’. Companies without generalists lose the ability to solve these types of problems, and tend to ignore them or have specialists who can only fixate in their respective fields.

  21. “I’m a jack of all trades, but a master of none.”

    I think you should continue to make this “mistake”.

    Whether you’re self employed or working for others, knowing a little bit about a lot of things is extremely useful. In fact, just about every successful person I can think of was a jack of all trades and NOT a specialist.

  22. All the best to you! I find most specialists are highly over-rated. Anyways, I think you are able to see the good in being fired ONLY because you are not a specialist :)

  23. As a grizzled veteran working for numerous Silicon Valley firms at varuous stages of start-up mode I can relate to Alex’s story but while getting fired, laid off, or displaced in some other nuanced way may ultimately prove beneficial, the experience is very hard no matter how prepared one thinks they are, it’s a disconcerting experience that makes one question everything they have done up to that point. There are of course valid reasons for letting people go that’s just a fact of business life but I started my firm in 2008 because I ws let go from a job I held for close to 5 years , really enjoyed, and performed well at, after that experience however I decided the only person who was ever going fire me again was me. I won’t say the transition was easy, far from it, but 5+ years later I am still running my own firm but working for oneself is not option for everyone who is fired. If nothing else we should have empathy for those going through the experience because it takes a tremendous amount of energy and fortitude to push through those first few weeks of employed to unemployed transition.

  24. Our field of industry moves close to the speed of light (powered by the hot air and farts of hype). When you choose to be a specialist, you’re going to be the first to get obsolete.

  25. This so encouraging, it happened to me six months ago. My contact was terminated and up to now im still unemployed, I’m hopefully of being a manager of my own one day one time.

  26. So you took zero percent ownership over your shortcomings whatsoever? I know I’ll come off like the asshole in this thread, but I’m sitting here going… wait… so this company is like a year or two old and no longer needs awesome people? What startup is this? There are huge companies like Google where the original jacks of all trades found homes in one area and grew… or learned how to manage people, etc. Companies don’t always need heads of marketing with 25 years of experience. In fact, the lead marketer of many seeded startups grows up to become the VP of Marketing of bigger companies. Whenever you get fired, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least take some responsibility for it. Saying that you’re not what the company needs is kind of a fake, or at least lame, mea culpa. The company needed a head of marketing, and the reason why you got fired is because you didn’t show them that you could be that guy. You did awesome at your job, but for whatever reason, they felt like you couldn’t grow into bigger tasks. So are you just going to be first marketing guy forever? If the guy they hired above you had a string of 25 one year stints as first marketing guy, they never would have hired him. At some point in his career, he grew into more than he was. You say that you’re going to become the expert in your next company, but why couldn’t you have done that in this company? I write a lot of things that people call bullshit on and I appreciate it… so I’m just saying what I’d want someone to say. Instead of ra-rahing yourself here, maybe a little more introspection on how you could have stuck around in *this* company might be in order.

    • Respectfully disagree. Alex gained two valuable assets while at this startup. 1) a string of resume-building successes and 2) a cheap lesson on taking care of ME. One year? Heck, I’ve seen people express the same regrets after 20 years with a company. I’ll bet his next job is a better long term fit for his career and negotiated to protect his interests should the company change underneath him again.

  27. Man that was some write up. I mean each and every one who got fired ever in his/her life will be feeling this very same way, like you did. I had the same experience, and was screwed just 11 days before, completing an year, by my asshole CTO n CEO. I was way too frustrated then and i got out of it, but i learned my lesson. All the best to you.

  28. I’m a generalist too. I figure I’d be bored in a bigger company w/ only a narrow and specialized task.

    My dream is to keep helping companies launch by getting them from zero to one, then moving on to the next w/ a little $ and equity in my pocket.

  29. The generalist reason is a crock. No offense, but it wasn’t because you are a generalist, there is something else going on that they didn’t have the guts to confront.

  30. I agree with Wojtek – generalists are entrepreneurs.
    Anyway, I love your style of writing and can’t wait to see where you go from here.
    All the best to you x

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