Worst Day on the Job: 1-800-GOT-JUNK founder Brian Scudamore on his toughest decision ever

It's not often that an entrepreneur decides to fire their entire staff

Around Vancouver, CEO Brian Scudamore is best known as the man behind 1-800-Got-Junk. He made his start in the junk removal business in 1989 to help pay for college, and since then has scaled his operation to serve Canada, the U.S. and Australia. He also launched two more home service brands—Wow 1 Day Painting (2010) and Shack Shine (2015)—and now leads all three companies, with 834 employees under the O2E Brands umbrella. But most leadership stories come with some baggage, and Scudamore’s is no exception. He’ll never forget the day in 1994 when he made one of the toughest calls of his life: to fire his entire workforce at 1-800-Got-Junk.

As told to Rushmila Rahman

I had 11 people. I was five years into the business, $500,000 in revenue, and I thought, Why am I not having fun any longer? That’s always been a motivation for me in entrepreneurship—how much fun I have building something great with a group of amazing people. But these people saw the world as glass-half-empty, and I’m a glass-half-full type. They saw 1-800-Got-Junk as just a job, just a paycheque. They didn’t really care about customers. So I said, I’ve got to do something here.

We always started each day with a morning meeting, but this day was different because I said I had some challenging news that I needed to share with the group. And I started with two words: I’m sorry.

I said, I’m sorry I let you down as a leader, that I didn’t give you the love and support that you needed to be successful. I didn’t necessarily believe in you, you haven’t believed in me, and I think I’m going to make a decision to start again.

In a weird way, they understood. Nobody fought me on it. I think they appreciated my humility, my vulnerability to say I made the mistake. I didn’t blame them. I used to hide in my office every day, and from that day, I gave up an office. I spent every day, including today, not having a private office, being out in the open and showing people that I cared about them and that I cared about how we grew the business together.

So the day after that firing, I had a company that was no longer a company. I wiped the slate clean and felt really good about my decision—though it was a hard one. I went from five trucks to just one. I had nobody to haul away junk, I had to rebook all my customers, and I had to rebuild the entire company. I went from having busy 10-hour days to working 16-hour days. It probably took me six months to shift into a mode where things started to feel good. But I realized that if I was going to succeed from here on out, I needed to find the right people and treat them right.

And we’ve used that ever since. When I recruit people into my company, I make sure that they see this as more than a job, they’ve got a smile on their face, they’ve got an attitude where they want to love that customer and make sure the customer is wowed with everything we do. And it’s made all the difference.

We use the “beer and barbecue test.” The beer test is: Do you like the person that you’re sitting with and interviewing? Are they interested? Are they interesting? The barbecue test is: How would they fit at a company picnic? We don’t want everyone to be just like us; we want someone who would make a great addition to our family.

Have I made hiring mistakes since? Yeah, the odd one. But I’ve taken a different approach: I’ve got to find the right people that are right for our business, in the spirit of what we’re building bigger and better together, and turn the worst day into the best years moving forward.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.