As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brad Hollister, CEO of SwanLeap, one of America’s fastest-growing private companies.
Under Hollister’s leadership, SwanLeap delivered an unprecedented 75,660.8 percent growth in revenue from 2015–2018, catapulting the now 6-year-old software company to the №1 spot on both the 2018 Inc. 5000 list and the Deloitte Technology Fast 500.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Right out of college, I sold airplane parts internationally before working for a domestic trucking company. Eventually, I received by self-proclaimed Ph.D. in transportation pricing policies.
My AH-HA moment was seeing BIG companies using standard spreadsheets to handle their supply-chain logistics with no clue or real analytics about efficiency and cost.
Millions of dollars were at stake and no company was offering them a solution. I knew I could solve this problem.
I had a plan but I needed help making the software. So I did what any normal entrepreneur would do; I found a computer programmer on Craigslist.
Jason Swanson is clearly more than a computer programmer. He is an amazing human being and with a group of unbelievably smart people on our team, we have grown SwanLeap.
We are a success because we are all obsessed with learning the problems for our clients.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
My first idea to revolutionize supply-chain logistics was to make a marketplace site where shippers could go and find the best prices. I was about to meet with some investors and sign a term paper for two million dollars. Before I left, I logged in to the site and saw my top client had not logged in for a few days.
I called and asked if everything was working okay. They said, “Brad, it’s working great. We are just too busy right now to use it. We’ve got to get these shipments out.”
Here I was on my way to sign a deal for a solution that wouldn’t work for the client if they got too busy. Even though they were saving money, they didn’t have the manpower to find the best deal every day and getting the shipment to their client on time was more important.
I went to the investor meeting and said, “Sorry guys. I can’t sign my name to this new venture. This marketplace ultimately isn’t the right solution.”
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I tell my staff two things all the time.
- “The hard thing is always the right thing.”
We can’t take short-cuts because the customer deserves more. Our toughest customers are our best teachers.
- “I’m going to be dead in 90 days.”
We must have a sense of urgency. The clock is ticking.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. You’re the last to get paid and the first to go to work.
With the first marketplace idea, I ended up selling one of our cars just to pay the bills. I knew I was close to finding the right idea and thankfully I found Jason Swanson to bring it to life.
And thankfully, my amazing wife Lisa stayed with me. We had three small mouths to feed and it was a scary time.
2. You have to grow as a person even faster than your company does; plus still stay humble.
With every new hire, I have had to become a stronger leader who can deliver a clear vision for our staff at SwanLeap… and ultimately for our customers.
All the accolades about being number one last year on the Inc. 5000 fastest-growing private companies list is tremendous, but if you come to my office, I will probably be the one getting you a cup of coffee.
3. When people put you down- you know you’re on the right track!
As you climb and grow yourself and your company, you will probably be teased and criticized by your friends, your family, or your competitors. See that as a good thing. See it as a sign, you are getting better.
4. Work with good people ONLY — trust your gut instinct about a person.
Once I had a lunch interview with someone I thought would be a ROCKSTAR hire for SwanLeap. When that person insisted on paying the bill and used their current employer’s charge card, it broke my heart. There was NO way I could bring them into our company.
5. Customers are your greatest mentors!
Some CEO’s love mastermind groups, or have other mentors, but truly your greatest advice will come from the customers. Let them shoot holes in your business and you’ll be better for it.
What advice would you give to your colleagues, to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Take the time to think about the bigger picture. We are so involved in the daily pressures and weekly struggles to accomplish the goals that when it doesn’t happen in our timeframe, it’s frustrating.
You need a strong trust network. You need safe people to release some of your frustrations and be okay with taking a break.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My wife Lisa is my greatest supporter and without her, my family, and I would be a mess.
As far as the business success we are experiencing at SwanLeap, there is NO question I wouldn’t be here without our co-founder Jason Swanson. He is on a different level when it comes to the caliber of a person. He’s a life-long learner and I aspire to be as open as Jason.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Life is a continual improvement and you’ll never be 100 percent complete. The goal is to keep getting better.
I don’t believe in structured product launches because technology is going too fast. There will always be something bigger and better. My goal for our business, and now that I think about it, this plan works for life too — build to 80% and then leave 20% for adjustments and improvements.
Ultimately, I want to hand over those tools and the success to the people around us.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I’d like people to say they were better off for having known me…even if I was a pain in the as$.
Hopefully, my desire for greatness pushed them further too.
I also have a morbid sense of humor. SwanLeap’s Director of Marketing knows if I die while traveling, we have to have a destination funeral. If I drown, they should plan a pool party.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Everyone is dealing with something. You should try to reach out to people and lend a hand of kindness. I teach my kids to understand you never know what someone is dealing with in their lives. We are all broken. If you see someone hurting — go and be a good person.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You bet! I’m most active on LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/in/bhollister/