Look at your social feeds: Facebook, Twitter, Path, whatever rows your boat. Find your friends. Look for when they talk about a bad experience they had on the job, like a customer that put them in a torrid mood or a manager who won’t stop doing that one irritating thing. Look for a picture of a cube-mate smiling while delicate company info hangs blurry in the background. All of these individual things may seem pretty harmless, but it wouldn’t take long for someone you know – or simply someone who has access to your comments and pictures – to build a case of insubordination against you, one that will be nearly impossible to refute. You can lose your job.
It’s been nearly a thousand days since my ten-plus year employment with Best Buy was terminated and I’ve gone to many of my friends in the media hoping to bring my story to light, not out of any sort of sense of revenge, obviously my digs are far fancier now, but as a warning to others. Companies pretend that they’re training their employees on how easily their social media policies can be violated, but there’s rarely a reprimand when such a violation occurs; the solution is usually termination. This seems particularly important in an age where we’re sharing information faster and more often than ever before. The events surrounding my own dismissal were incredibly personal and highly embarrassing, but in the end, I had to be the one to tell my story.
At sixteen, I didn’t want to get a job, learn to drive, or become a responsible adult by any means. I was happy to spend my last free summer skimming Newgrounds and playing video games. Pressed for a decision, I sought to work at my favorite store, Best Buy, where I could talk with customers all day about PC games. I was an enthusiastic youth who didn’t seem to mind those 7AM monthly meetings so long as the food they provided – usually smashed Egg McMuffins or grocery donuts in those early days, was plentiful. As it would turn out, there’s no real way to spend an entire shift talking about PC games, so I wound up learning a lot about music, movies, and, with some resistance, console gaming. By Christmas, I was a formidable gaming expert.
My plan was simple: I’d work inside the big blue box for five years. I would go to The Art Institute of Colorado, earn my Bachelor’s degree in animation, then work on movies for the rest of my life. Simple. I had no aspirations of becoming a supervisor or manager in the store, I just wanted to be the guy who got to set up new releases and talked about gaming, which became a passionate spar when it came to matters of the Xbox versus PlayStation 2. Despite the weird retail hours and moderate pay, I really enjoyed my job. As my sphere of interest expanded, I began to learn about televisions, cellular phones, and digital imaging, but I never hopped out of my comfort zone. Why would I want to spend my days explaining what phone contracts and Compact Flash cards were when I could talk to my customers about all the cool stuff I saw at E3? Despite my five-year plan, I learned about and kept tabs on the company’s executives while learning much about the Best Buy’s structure and long-term plans.
Time To Escape
As a 22-year old college dropout in 2006, my spirit had drained out. Art school is expensive, but rather than bide my time in hopes of returning to school and adding more to my debt, I endeavored to learn everything on my own. I took up my first lines of credit to buy a camera and audio equipment with dreams of shooting a documentary about the world’s largest gaming exposition, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, and eyes toward shooting my own feature-length movies. I took what school learning I did receive and applied myself in graphic design, which kept me off the sales floor and intimate with a copy of Photoshop during even the busiest holidays. I even learned screenwriting. Not good screenwriting mind you, but it was a start.
I felt stuck. My passions didn’t amount to much aside from impressing my artistic abilities onto my store’s managers, who rotated out on such a regular basis that I had to make my case repeatedly. I didn’t have much formal training in anything, I wasn’t much of an expert in anything, and while I could’ve made a lateral move to a call center and made more money, I wouldn’t have been any closer to what I really wanted to do. I knew my place in the grand scheme of things – nowhere – but I wasn’t interested in going to waste. I wanted to do something drastic.
I wanted to fix Best Buy. Well, how Best Buy sold gaming at least, which was a mountain of minor offenses that left my company as a last resort for game purchases amongst my friends and fellow employees.
Over the course of two months, I drafted a white paper on how to change our entire gaming business, all the way up through the corporate levels, to compete with nimbler competition like Gamestop and a volume goliath like Walmart. I polled fellow employees and customers for insight. I called it The Escape Plan, named after a boutique rentable game space concept in Chicago that the company had wanted to expand across the country. The Escape Plan required sweeping changes in how the category was organized, both in terms of physical space and in manpower, as well as a powerful new logistics backend to match or exceed Gamestop’s capabilities in pre-ordering games and managing inventory. I wanted educated, dedicated labor and specialty gaming items that Best Buy hadn’t been interested in. Best Buy created the warehouse retailer business in which ‘stack ’em high and let ’em fly!’ was the rule of the land, but it rarely amounted to respectable specialization. I wanted Geek Squad, but for gaming.
I poured all my energies into drafting the forty-page document, assembling two physical copies upon completion. My store’s employees loved it. We were tired of letting our customers down on a regular basis, whether it was inventory or specialty, and they vouched for the changes. Both binders made their way out of the store, up through the levels, but feedback from my bottom-up approach was nil. Eventually, one of those higher managers came through on a tour to our store and suggested ‘it wasn’t going to happen’, citing cost concerns and market shift.
I was crushed. Here I was, trying to change the world, and I wasn’t even given a chance to make my case. I never heard another word about either of those binders.
Blue Shirt Nation
During a corporate video at a (now irritating) morning meeting in 2007, a mascot with plastic hair suggested that employees provide feedback on some work-related topic through a new web site called Blue Shirt Nation, created by Steve Bendt and Gary Koelling, social media gurus in the upper flanks. I was comfortable with web forums, so the idea of taking my Escape Plan to a place where I could disseminate its content and my intent, accessible from any home computer, seemed like the best thing in the world. That evening I was on, registering my profile and uploading large Word documents. Traction was slow to start, but some of the responses were so clinical that it was obvious that corporate employees were interacting with us directly.
Within a few short months, I was having phone conversations with them, culminating in a bright opportunity: I’d been invited to present my ideas to corporate in early 2008. Over the course of several months, I flew out to Best Buy’s corporate campus in Richfield, Minnesota with the intent of infecting my mothership-based colleagues with the dire need to change how we handled our gaming business from the top-down. I never had an opportunity to pitch my plan directly, but so long as my insight was requested, I ran my mouth as long as possible to try and stir some change.
I met some fantastic people in that time, ultimately flying 14,000 miles for the company – more than I’d ever flown in my entire life beforehand – but it was obvious that the culture was far too different to understand the desperation I felt. If I couldn’t fight and win, who would? Who could? Knowing my time was probably limited, I redrafted The Escape Plan to include new corporate-friendly language and ambition, including an expansion in scope, such as personalizing the online and store experiences on an individual customer basis and creating a digital gaming magazine that offered dynamic content based on your learned gaming profile, gained through in-store purchases or deliberate profiling.
With this second draft, I was pitching a Hail Mary: I wanted to not only change how my company interacted with my gaming customers, but how Best Buy interacted with all of its customers. At a time when the company was trying to consolidate its store operations, merge departments and expertise, and eliminate middle management, this seemed far too good to be true. This plan, in part or in whole, seemed to be of interest to my corporate contacts, but it buckled under the weight of muted optimism. “You’ll never get those labor dollars back” and “we can’t afford that” were common retorts from a company that, at the time, was trying to double in size to an $80 billion operation over the next five years, having completed the same feat over the previous five. Those who managed customer insight and relations at the corporate told me that my insights were wrong, despite the fact that I interacted nearly a thousand customers a week. Even ideas from fellow store employees who had come to corporate on a similar path to mine started with humble ambitions and were quickly ravaged by attempts to monetize that sucked the soul straight out of their original idea. Whatever magic The Escape Plan had would need to sustain some pretty critical hurdles to even catch on to some circles up there.
I sought the highest levels of the organization for face time: then-COO Brian Dunn. Thankfully, he used Blue Shirt Nation so a meeting was a mere matter of scheduling. With a freshly-printed copy of the second edition of The Escape Plan in my bag and a matching aqua-colored tie, I had half an hour with Dunn to deliver my most intense sales pitch ever: a play to keep Best Buy’s gaming business – and perhaps even the entire company – relevant for years to come. (At the suggestion of Koelling and Bendt, I interviewed with Minneapolis-based journalist Dan Haugen who documented the whole trip in an article about Blue Shirt Nation for Twin Cities Business magazine.)
During my last corporate-sponsored outing in Dallas before the holiday of 2008, a meeting where entertainment vendors showed off the latest games, movies, and music to media supervisors flown in from across the country, I met one of my district managers. “Your store manager tells me about you,” she said with a drunken slur, “you’re one of a special few that’s really passionate about gaming, doesn’t want to do much of anything else, and there’s no way for you to advance this way. There never will be.” I was flattened. During my trips, it was revealed to me that corporate had their own limited version of what the future of gaming was, based on whatever shoestring budget they were allowed. The company would finally install a dedicated register in each gaming area, there would finally be a few dedicated employees in a segregated gaming department (something that wouldn’t last as further consolidations came) and yet none of these would be implemented until years later, at which point they were a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.
The Escape Plan, of course, never happened.