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What I learned from the first time I was fired

“You’re fired.” Those were the last two words I heard from my boss after working for six months at Potatoes, Etc., my first real job. I smirked, immaturely threw my apron at her (I was 15, after all), and slammed the door on my way out.

My final three words, preceding hers, were, “You’re a b----.” In hindsight, her response was predictable.

I remember riding my bike home the three miles from Prestonwood Mall where I worked. I had no idea what I was going to tell my parents, but I decided I’d just tell them what happened and see where the chips landed. I felt ashamed of myself for being so disrespectful to my boss, even though she had constantly demeaned me and all the other people that worked at Potatoes, Etc. I didn’t have any respect for her, but my parents had taught me better, and I was proud of my ability to suck it up and not lose my temper.

Potatoes, Etc. was one of those local fast food restaurants in a giant shopping mall from the 1980s. Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Yup – that was us, except Potatoes (as we liked to call it) was staffed by the “honors kids.” I think the Greek souvlaki place was staffed by the jocks and the Corn Dog place was staffed by the stoners, but it all blurs together 30 years later.

In hindsight, the Potatoes, Etc. supply chain was pretty cool. Idaho spuds appeared magically in 50 pounds boxes and ended up in a dank, gross storeroom. Each shift, one person was responsible for getting them, cleaning them, putting them on trays, covering them with industrial grade salad dressing, and racking the trays. Another person was responsible for putting them in the convection oven and making sure there were enough potatoes cooking at all times to handle the spikes in demand. Another person manned “the bar” – cutting open the potatoes and filling them with whatever goop and toppings the customer ordered. And the last person worked the cash register. After we closed, we were all responsible for cleaning up.

Since we were honors kids, we had a lot of fun with the supply chain. We did a good job of load optimization. We figured out process improvements to cut, fill and serve the potatoes. We ran a parallel process on cleaning and closing up, so we could be done in 10 minutes. We were never, ever short on cash.

Our boss was a young woman – probably in her early 20s. I remember the smell of smoke and alcohol on her breath. I remember Saturday morning shifts where she would come in at 1 p.m., clearly hung over. She liked to yell at us. Her favorite form of managerial shame was to call someone into the back “room” (there was no door) and dress them down randomly so everyone in the food court could hear.

We were good kids. It took a lot to get a rise out of us. Sure – we’d complain to each other about her, but we bonded together and did a good job regardless of her antics. Every now and then she’d do something that she thought was motivating, like bring a case of beer into the back of the store and offer up cans to us (we always declined – remember, we were good kids). But I can’t remember a single time she praised us – or at least me – for anything.

I had been racking potatoes all day on the day I got fired. I was cranky – I wanted to work up front but today wasn’t my day. I was tired – lifting 50 pounds of potatoes and washing them one by one is a drag. And I was bored out of my mind.

My boss probably noticed I was in a bad mood. A kind word from her would have made all the difference in the world. Instead, she came over to the full rack of potatoes, started pulling them off the racks, and without even looking at me dumped them one by one in the sink.

“You suck at washing potatoes.”

“You’re a b----.”

“You’re fired!”

My parents were gentle with me. They made sure I understood the lessons from the experience, which included the power of respect and not losing your temper with a superior.

But most importantly, this was a key moment that I think back to whenever I consider motivation. My boss never did anything to create a context in which we were motivated. It wouldn’t have taken much. And, if she had, respect – and motivation – would have followed.

At 15, I learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of a boss who had no idea how to create an environment in which the people who worked for her were motivated. I’ve carried that experience, and the resulting insight, to every subsequent thing I’ve been involved in.

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Brad Feld

Brad has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur for more than 20 years. Prior to co-founding the Boulder-based Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and Intensity Ventures, a company that helped launch and operate software companies. Brad is a nationally recognized speaker on the topics of venture capital investing and entrepreneurship and writes widely read and well respected blogs at www.feld.com and www.askthevc.com. He holds bachelor's and master's of science degrees from from MIT. Contact him at brad@feld.com

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