How I Went From Fired to CEO

In an excerpt from Create & Cultivate founder Jaclyn Johnson's new book, WorkParty, Johnson shares how she bounced back after getting laid off. Hint: pizza.

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Courtesy Create & Cultivate

When I was 23, I moved from New York to Los Angeles to work in PR at a growing digital media company. I knew what I was doing, but a few weeks into the new job, my ideas were constantly met with a head-cock and a “That’s interesting, but….” Idea after idea was rejected, my enthusiasm stuttered. Still, I kept pounding at the pavement.

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Of course, I worried. You’re only as valuable as the value you provide to the company—and in those moments, every time I hit a brick wall, I was at a value deficit. And yet I took the nos and kept moving forward, being slightly more aggressive in my approach.

Mistake. (Sort of.)

Shortly after, I got laid off. Politely laid off. “Let’s go for a walk” laid off. I wasn’t a good “cultural fit.” I was too eager. Too aggressive. They used all sorts of polite euphemisms, but alas, they said the position was no longer needed.

My first big blow, the whole life face-plant, was happening to me mid-upward-trajectory. I had uprooted my entire life and moved cross-country to establish my career, sacrificing my personal life to work harder than ever imaginable. Naturally, I did what any 23-year-old in a similar position would do: I fell apart.

I love working hard. I had always identified as the girl crushing it career-wise, never the girl with the perfect hair and polished outfit or the one for whom success came easy. I was the striver, the try-hard, the career-woman—and now I was jobless? Self. Identity. Screwed.

Praise be social media hadn’t hit its glorious stride yet, because this was not a ’grammable moment or Facebook memory that you wanted to be reminded of. I did not need to livestream the depression that came next, nor did I need a feed of #goals to compare myself to.

I was the striver, the try-hard, the career-woman—and now I was jobless? Self. Identity. Screwed.

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Throughout your career, there will be many moments when you will have to look at yourself in the mirror and opt for either a pep talk or pizza. In that particular moment, I chose the latter. Obviously. Extra cheese, all of the cheese. Every single time.

I slept in, stare-in-the-mirror-and-watch-yourself-cry cried, ordered pizza, stayed in PJ’s, repeat. I was ashamed, embarrassed, but also knew that I needed to pick myself up. About three weeks into Pizza Cry-Fest 2009, I begrudgingly emailed my contacts, letting them know I was free for work, looking for a job, and open for opportunities. A sinking feeling accompanied the moment I hit send on that email.

I must have paced around for hours before that definitive, final click. I had convinced myself that once I sent that email, everyone would know I had failed. They’d all be talking about me. I’d be a joke: “Jackie moved to LA and thought she was gonna MAKE IT.”

Jaclyn Johnson in 2010 at the office opening of her first company, (No Subject).
Courtesy Create & Cultivate

But guess what? The world didn’t end. My career wasn’t over.

Plus, I wasn’t totally screwed. I had severance, and my rent was ten times cheaper in L.A. than in New York. I'd also kept my blog, Some Notes on a Napkin, alive during my move, and brands were starting to look at blogging as more than a hobby. For two months, I kept blogging, taking random deals like an on-air gig as a style host on a commercial interstitial with TBS and brands would send me products to write about. Not cash, but it was something.

I was working from home and freelancing various marketing gigs for several months. I had no pals. I had pizza. I would literally go to the gym just to find some human interaction and, duh, work off the pizza. One night, to beat the boredom and try and make new friends, I took myself out for a blogger meetup event hosted in the Fashion District and I met someone.

No, not that kind of someone. Even better. She was a soon-to-be fellow entrepreneur, Amanda*, who was on the verge of quitting her day job, looking to launch her business in events and go freelance as well.

We were both young, social go-getters. The normal “What do you do?” question came up and Amanda told me she was looking into getting an office space to launch her event business. She asked if I wanted in. At this point the elliptical was my BFF, so meeting Amanda felt like another push in the right direction from the universe. I leapt without looking.

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Before I knew it, Amanda and I were working out of our very own space in Downtown Los Angeles. It wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds: the guy on the building’s top floor hosted raves on the weekend; the second floor was an artists’ commune/gallery space with a wood-working area; one morning, while I walked into the building, a man looked me right in the eyes as he performed his “morning ablutions,” to put it politely; and we shared the space with a dude who had invested all of his bar mitzvah money in Apple stock and was now making alternative music videos and documentaries about Joshua Tree.

But it didn’t matter. We had two thousand square feet of loft space that cost $800 a month. There was no AC, but we were living our dream, sweating it out together in plastic Ikea chairs.

We were excited, scrappy, taking a risk and reaping small rewards. We got an intern. We were learning about each other’s business—mine, at the time, was primarily marketing and social media. Amanda's was event production. It was us, cheap furniture, laptops, and unfettered enthusiasm.

You’ll never feel more unsure, naïve, or excited by what could happen than when you first start out on your own.

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In the beginning we weren’t business partners. We simply shared a space. That soon changed when we began approaching prospective clients together, under one name.

For the sake of storytelling, let’s refer to the small marketing shop we set up as Serious Business Venture 1.0. You’ll never feel more unsure, naïve, or excited by what could happen than when you first start out on your own with a brand-new company. We barely had any clients, just a few local bars and businesses that came to us to help them grow their online communities. Happy hour would start at 4 p.m., when we’d walk to Cole’s in downtown Los Angeles and drink Pimm’s cups.

As time in the space went on, we realized we’d be stronger together. So we joined forces and started an official company. I knew NOTHING. Or as close to nothing as humanly possible. I can still hear the LegalZoom partnership agreement printing from our slow AF printer. We both signed the agreement fast, furiously, and went out to our daily happy hour to celebrate. Agreement signed, Pimm’s cups up!

We were now CEOs.

Adapted from WorkParty: How To Create & Cultivate The Career Of Your Dreams by Jaclyn Johnson, founder and CEO of Create & Cultivate. Available August 21, 2018. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

*Name has been changed

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