Andrew Zwerner of Chassi: “Your whole life should be a climb”

Your whole life should be a climb. There’s no top of the mountain where you take your pack off, and you’re done. Actually, in life, that “top of the mountain/pack off” means death! So, if you’re living, you should be climbing. If you think everything you’re working towards — building a business, becoming a parent, any goal — is […]

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Your whole life should be a climb. There’s no top of the mountain where you take your pack off, and you’re done. Actually, in life, that “top of the mountain/pack off” means death! So, if you’re living, you should be climbing.

If you think everything you’re working towards — building a business, becoming a parent, any goal — is about getting to a defined point, it’s not. Additionally, if you only focus on the “end state,” you’ll never get the chance to appreciate the view, what you’re doing and what you have.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Zwerner.

Former Intelligence Officer who served with the U.S. Navy SEALs, FBI Special Agent and business owner, Andrew Zwerner is CEO of the Phoenix-based SaaS startup Chassi. Furthering their belief that it’s time tech learned its place, Chassi’s product enables manufacturing and distribution leaders to make more informed, faster decisions by delivering real-time, intuitive operational insights. At Chassi, Andrew is able pursue his passion for building meaningful things that solve massive problems while working with and learning from remarkable people, as he prefers it, “in the center of chaos.”

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’m a big fan of choosing the most fun and challenging path, and each jump in my career has been a chance to really push myself and grow.

I graduated college in the spring of 2002, right after the tragedy of 9/11. As a history nerd and a patriot, I knew I needed to be a part of this defining moment for my generation.

I joined the US Navy as an Intelligence Officer, and after a deployment on an aircraft carrier in 2004 and a year overseas in Seoul, Korea in 2005, I successfully screened and was selected to join the Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) Development Group (Devgru), the Navy’s premiere Special Operations Unit. Over my time there, I completed multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006–2009.

I lived for the high-operational tempo and challenging environment there, and I loved being surrounded by incredibly disciplined people on what is arguably the highest performing team on the planet. It was through my time at Devgru that I learned my true passion and calling: solving hard problems while working with and learning from remarkable people in the center of chaos.

When I left the Navy in 2009 and joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a Special Agent, it was a pretty significant cultural adjustment for me that felt like a 10-speed downshift. The agents do incredible work there, but I missed the pace, excitement and challenges I had before. I also missed being a part of a small, high performance team.

I found that again as an entrepreneur, pairing my intelligence knowledge with my drive to learn and grow a business with a former Navy counterpart. We built Prescient, a global risk management and intelligence services firm. I say I earned my MBA experientially there. Between 2010 and 2013, I helped lead Prescient to a 11,500% growth, earning the company the #18 spot on Inc. 500’s 2014 list of “Fastest Growing Companies in America.” During my time there, I helped to grow the company from two people to a team of more 80, split between Washington DC, Chicago and Dublin, Ireland, with annual revenues topping 17 million dollars.

When a merger was in the works in late 2016, I thought it was a good time for me to step away and find my next venture. I still serve as an active Senior Advisor for Prescient.

With my wife, a young daughter and a second on the way, we decided to move to Arizona to be closer to family and start something new. Coming from the East Coast and the Midwest, I didn’t have a single connection in Phoenix.

So, I did what I do best: I built a target deck and started identifying influential leaders in Phoenix to reach out to. In pursuit of the next chapter of my life, I made the decision to bet on myself and the generosity of others. After I don’t know how many meetings, I met Brad Jannenga, who had just started a SaaS startup after successfully building WebPT.

We immediately hit it off, and I joined what is now Chassi as COO. After learning the ropes for a few years, I took over as CEO in September 2019. We’re currently working with a handful of early-adopting customers and partners and will be going to market in Q1 of 2021.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Currently, manufacturing and distribution business leaders are blind when they’re looking for any insight into their operations and any performance issues that are impacting the business. They can pull financial information from their ERP, but the technology was never meant to serve those looking to make better, faster operational decisions.

Additionally, no ERP solution works out of the box, and as a result, no two deployments are the same. They’re cumbersome systems with a lot of functionality that require a great deal of customization, user proficiency and conformity in order to truly function. Even then, they’re essentially a black box for any information that doesn’t have to do with the general ledger. They force customers to adapt their business to the system, and as a result, they too often impede accurate, rapid decision making.

We believe this paradigm is backwards. People should not have to conform to technology in order to drive business decisions. Technology should serve as an enabler. So, we’ve built a product that meets people where they are. We gather all of the activity within a customer’s ERP, we make sense of it and we clearly show leaders what’s going on, right now, so they have everything they need to make the best decisions as fast as possible.

We capture every activity, click and update that a manufacturing or distribution company’s employees make in their ERP. For example: the most an ERP will tell you about a form is when it was created and when it was completed. Our product shows you all of the thousands of interactions any employee has with that form between it’s creation and completion, even when the employee simply opens the form to look at it.

But if we just threw all that information at you, it’d be incredibly overwhelming. So, we also take all that captured data and translate it into an intuitive, live dashboard where business leaders can seamlessly see what work is getting done, who’s doing it and what it means for their business as a whole in real-time. Think of it like we’re doing the work of a GPS for a driver in a dynamic traffic situation. We’re taking in all the relevant information and informing in-the-moment actions to deliver the best outcome.

There’s no other product out there that does this for manufacturers and distributors. Through focusing on making our customers successful, we will show what can happen when technology is truly built to serve people.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

What’s funny is that there were so many mistakes, it’s hard to choose just one! It’s important to maintain a good sense of humor when you bring something to market, because the world will do great violence to it and to your plans. I look back at a lot of the first meetings we took with initial customers and our early whiteboard planning sessions, and I can’t help but laugh at the mistakes we made. The important thing, though, is that we learned from all those missteps.

Frankly, how you metabolize that brutally honest feedback and adapt to it is the first determinant of whether you’ll be successful or not. I like the word “funny” in the question here, because being able to look back at your mistakes and laugh at yourself is a healthy thing. It shows that you’ve grown from where you were, and that you don’t take yourself too seriously.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My dad is the first person I think of. He changed careers a number of times, so we moved across the country a good amount when I was a kid. He would always say it’s about the journey, not the destination.

He was a big empath. He always tried to make people laugh and feel warm. I don’t know if it’s hereditary or from just being around him, but I’ve adopted the mindset of enjoying and appreciating the journey, not being afraid of the next challenge, treating people with kindness and having levity in difficult situations. Oh, and his appreciation for learning. He was such a nerd, such a bookworm. His intellectual curiosity was omnipresent. I’m becoming him in that way.

He passed seven years ago, but he’s with me through all the things he taught me.

Beyond my dad, there are too many to mention. Former football coaches, military leaders. I never had one single mentor, so I’m open to anyone offering!

I more so learned from examples of good and bad leadership. I’d look at how I’d respond to something a leader did or how the team responded. Living through those examples has been a kind of mentorship for me.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I’ll start with when disruption is positive. Anytime it’s upsetting entrenched business models or products that don’t put the customer at the center of their being in a free market, disruption is needed.

Look at the rise of SaaS instead of on-prem. SaaS has to win by delivering value over and over again. They can’t lock customers in with onerous contracts and burdensome software that’s difficult and cost-prohibitive to move away from like previous companies.

However, if any disruption is the result of monopolistic business practices, exploitation of customers or customer data and privacy and/or exploitation of the vulnerabilities of human psychology (i.e. some social media applications), it’s detrimental.

None of this is black and white, though. There are a great deal of potential adverse side effects with many of these businesses. Bottom line: In some cases, just because you can disrupt, doesn’t mean you should.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

1. “Don’t ever give up.”

For me, this comes down to the fundamental question of who you want to be. I try to do a lot of reflection. I like to imagine that I’m older, at the end of my life, and I’m looking back on my life. What does it look like? When that day comes, I want to be the kind of person that cultivated the will power to persevere as things got more difficult. There is no refuge in self-pity. And keeping that in mind has served me well too many times to count.

2. “Improvise, adapt and overcome.”

This is a saying that every US Marine will know. Another way to say it is “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Just about everything that happens is outside of your control. What we can control is our mindset and our approach to external events. If something happens — a customer churns, a key team member walks, a prospective investor bails — okay, something unplanned and not ideal occurred. These three actions create an operating procedure for how to handle anything.

3. “Take time to appreciate the climb.”

Your whole life should be a climb. There’s no top of the mountain where you take your pack off, and you’re done. Actually, in life, that “top of the mountain/pack off” means death! So, if you’re living, you should be climbing.

If you think everything you’re working towards — building a business, becoming a parent, any goal — is about getting to a defined point, it’s not. Additionally, if you only focus on the “end state,” you’ll never get the chance to appreciate the view, what you’re doing and what you have.

On that last point, so many of our problems can be solved by starting with gratitude. Cultivate a mindset focused on not being defined by what’s holding you back or standing in your way but on all that you have and what you’re working toward. Focusing on expressing gratitude — taking time to appreciate the climb — actively puts us in a more successful mental place. That then ensures you’re enjoying yourself, wherever you are on your journey.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Shaking things up is our default operating state! That’s what I do with myself, that’s what our team does and it all starts with learning and experimenting. Everything emanates from that.

We’re going to keep it up too, because we’re systemizing learning and experimenting as a bedrock of who we are. We look for team members who thrive in this environment, and we’re putting structures in place to keep us on this footing.

Always move the goal post in terms of who you want to be, what your team wants to be and what you want your company to be. Set a goal that you’ll never actually achieve because it’s so aspirational. Then, work every damn day to get closer.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

There are a number of resources I consistently turn to for wisdom, growth and refining my thinking. I love the Stoics. There’s so much wisdom in what they wrote that transcends time and period.

I also listen to a number of podcasts, like “Invest Like The Best,” “Impact Theory with Tom Bilyeu” and “OpenView Build.” I love learning from successful investors’, entrepreneurs’ and domain experts’ personal failures and wins.

Somehow, I’ve fallen into a vicious cycle of TED Talks on YouTube. Seriously, they’re all it recommends for me now.

If I had to choose one book to note here, I’d choose Ryan Holiday’s “The Obstacle Is The Way.” The title says it all. This consolidates a lot of what the Stoics teach, and it’s greatly shaped my outlook: The ability to work through and overcome an obstacle is the journey of life. Look for obstacles, and be thankful for them when they’re there. This book verbalized what I knew to be true, and it still resonates with me today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote to live by is this: “Your life is the product of your decisions.”

Everybody faces forks in the road throughout their life. Do I go to school or not? Which school? Do I take this job or not? Do I turn this relationship into a marriage? Who do I surround myself with? Do they make me better? Do I get up early to exercise or not? Do I read a book or watch a movie?

From once-in-a-lifetime decisions to the small daily ones, each choice shapes us. It’s our responsibility to learn so the next time we’re faced with a decision, we know to go left versus right, so to speak. You always have the opportunity to make these decisions, and they’ll ultimately create the life you’re going to get. So, be sure you’re paying attention to what you choose.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire anything, it’d be a movement to own your life. Find your calling, and do everything in your power to pursue it. Make the decisions and do the things that put you on a path to be who you want to be. This starts with personal accountability and constant introspection. When something happens, the first thing you should do is look at yourself.

Nobody gets through life unscathed, and we all have crises at different points. Don’t be defined by that. Know they are obstacles to overcome in order to be who you want to be and have the life you want.

For me, I want to be the best father, husband and leader I can possibly be. I have failures on that journey all the time. But I try to take ownership of them and learn from them to build on those lessons and keep moving forward.

This is a driving force in what we’re building at Chassi. No matter what your role is at a company, the decisions you make matter. Even the tiniest improvements in efficiency can add up and affect the business as a whole.

Our goal is to give leaders, teams and employees the information they need to own their decisions. We’ve already seen the difference it can make, and it’s incredible.

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn is the best way to follow me, and if you’d like to keep up on the latest with Chassi, we’re always posting updates to our LinkedIn page as well.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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