Why I got Fired from Hack Reactor

March 02, 2014

I had dinner with Tony last week. Tony is the CEO of Hack Reactor and a buddy of mine. I had not thought much about the place for over a half year, but that meeting made me reflect more about what happened. When I talk to companies, people still ask me why I left Hack Reactor.

Truth is I was let go. Here is what happened.

Friends at Hack Reactor

Friends hacking at Hack Reactor into the night

By the way, this is a picture of friends from meetup at Hack Reactor, not Hack Reactor students. Organizing meetups are part of how I got the job in the first place - so if that interests you, be sure to check out the series on meetups.

Floor shifting under feet

I had a pretty good idea I was going to be canned, too - weeks before it happened. Tony used to be my boss, and he let me run the business development show. That is why I was brought in, to make connections and help get the school on the map. When he told me that Shawn would be my manager, I knew something was up.

At the time, here is how I was spending time in my life - basically what I was investing in.

  • 1 - Hack Reactor
  • 2 - Myself
  • 3 - Friends and family

Shawn and I never really saw eye-to-eye, and though I tried to be transparent and communicate, we just weren't right for each other. One day during a one-on-one meeting, he said “David, I have some bad news …”

And I knew instantly.

Fortunately, I had been through tough personal changes before, so I was able to move on quickly and realize it was nothing personal. But, it is never easy, and I never bothered to think systematically about it until now.

Startup employee lifecycle

For a startup, I think different people are right at different stages.

  • Survival - Hustlers and hackers help launch and help the team and the product survive
  • Scale - Others help teams grow into something more than the first ideas
  • Corporate - Basically they have traveled the road; you are managing stuff now

I was lucky that I was able to help the team in its first months and add some energy and insight as they fought for survival. Really, there was a time when there were the five of us - the four founders and I.

But, I was not right for the scale. During the dinner, Tony told me about how much Hack Reactor had grown. Even while I was around, the team had grown considerably and zoomed past ten full-time staff, plus bunch of part-time instructors, etc. We were using a product management software to organize team efforts and kicking ass via media professionals.

I hope you can grow through all the stages and become very successful. But, it is hard. Founders get a free-pass “get out of the jail” card. They own the company.

Tony had hired me saying “tell us what to do marketing-wise.” Looking back, I really was unable to do that. I did not know enough or have enough experience in the space to know what to do. I began to check out a bit as the team grew, I felt less important (and was less important). Basically, I was the wrong guy for the scaling. Here are the things that held me back and unable to adapt.

Why I was the wrong employee at the scale stage

  • 1 - Selfish: I was selfish. It was understood that I would get a lot of exposure to the public as part of the job, but I let that get to my head a little bit. I started representing my own brand as much as I did the team's.

Takeaway: like a good product manager, always ask yourself - how can I add value to the company (not to yourself).

  • 2 - Pride: Hack Reactor was a great product, and sure I got shit done, but really it sold itself and made my job easy. I helped jumpstart a successful and lucrative placement activity and I let it get to my head. I took the mandate and authority Tony gave me a little too seriously.

Takeaway: It is about the team, not about you. I had started trying to own and run everything that fell under business development. Looking back, I should have involved the team more, communicated needs for delegating earlier, and invested efforts training others.

  • 3 - Skills: Of course, as I admitted above, I think I really lacked some basic skills as the business guy complementing a technical team. I have been really impressed with tactics the team used to grow, and I certainly did not teach them that. (Even though I wrote that you don't get paid for skills, you do need to have something to be part of a talented team.)

Takeaway: Keep learning and growing! My mantra!

Concluding observations

Back to the dinner conversation. Hack Reactor is dominating the San Francisco coding bootcamp scene. They have a good team and good leadership. Basically, I needed Hack Reactor more than it needed me. Hubris got in the way of that reality for me, and lead to difference of opinions that ultimately lead to being shown the door. They don't miss me.

Good thing is, I don't miss them either. You learn from your mistakes. For me, one lesson is to improve my understanding of leverage in life. Another is that building something valuable is all about details, contrary to what MBA courses teach. Trick is to stay present and have no regrets.

Are you just getting started? You might enjoy my post about preparations.

Don't give up. Keep looking up!


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David at Crater Lake National Park

A former cube dweller, writing about web products, entrepreneurship, and growth.

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