“My highest leverage area as a leader is to help unblock and empower others.” with Ryan Chan and Chaya Weiner

Most of my day is dedicated to meetings with other people. I realize my highest leverage area as a leader is to help unblock and empower others. I love using as much of my time working with others as I can to make sure they have all the tools they need to do a great […]

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Most of my day is dedicated to meetings with other people. I realize my highest leverage area as a leader is to help unblock and empower others. I love using as much of my time working with others as I can to make sure they have all the tools they need to do a great job. To make it happen, I’m usually reading, researching, and brainstorming new ideas as well as problem solving with my team.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Chan, CEO and Founder at UpKeep Maintenance Management. He is a Chemical Engineer from UC Berkeley, was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 for Manufacturing in 2018, and is part of the Official Forbes Technology Council. Ryan started UpKeep out of passion and frustration by the lack of mobility in today’s maintenance management software. UpKeep has now been deployed to over 10,000 businesses and is a leader in mobile-first maintenance management software.

Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I went to UC Irvine for the first two years of my undergrad. I remember a conversation I had with my dad where I asked him, “What is the most difficult major I could do?” He answered with Chemical Engineering, so naturally I started at UCI as a chemical engineering student. I went for it and ended up declaring three majors — Chemical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Economics. I’ve always had a passion for learning and a desire to really challenge myself.

I transferred to UC Berkeley still not knowing exactly what I wanted to do or pursue, but still loved learning so much. Not many people know this, but I went premed at Cal. After graduating, I applied to and got invited to interview at some medical schools, but I never went to the interviews.

I began working in the manufacturing industry. I was a process engineer in a chemical manufacturing plant. At my company, I grew frustrated with the way employees had to collect and re-enter data several times over throughout the workflow. All of the software we used was desktop-based, even though every employee carried their phone with them in their pocket. I saw potential for a mobile solution, and created UpKeep with the end-users in mind. I got into this industry because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to do something where I could keep learning and challenging myself.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

A funny story from after leaving my job to work on UpKeep full-time is when my wife and I essentially did a parent swap. I had just left my job, so we decided to live with my mom in greater Los Angeles to save money while she started medical school at UCLA. I got into YC, which is based in the Bay Area, so I had to move back up North for a few months. Again, I decided to live with my wife’s parents. So then, my wife was living with my mom in LA and I was living with her parents in the Bay Area. Parent swap!

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?

When I first started UpKeep, it was a completely free product. It wasn’t until after I quit my job and was in the industry full-time that I realized you can’t have a sustainable business off a completely free product. I was on this mission to democratize B2B software and make it free for everyone because I was looking at it through a consumer lens. I had to switch perspectives and start thinking about UpKeep as an entrepreneur and not as a user.

Thousands of people were using the software for free, so I had to learn how we were going to make money as a company. I didn’t want any sales people because I thought that this product was THAT intuitive. I learned quickly that it was only THAT intuitive to me in my head. Once we hired sales people to explain the product and sell it, we saw so much growth. It wasn’t what I believed necessarily, but it was what other people around me wanted. I thought prospects wouldn’t need a sales process and demonstration because it’s so easy to use. That’s not what the customers wanted — I realized I could still revolutionize CMMS and B2B software, but I had to do it as a business.

Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?

We recently launched a campaign to sing praises of the Unsung Heroes in Maintenance. The reasoning behind this campaign is to shine a spotlight on a huge portion of today’s workforce all around the world that goes unnoticed. We know what it takes for maintenance teams to do the hard work they do on a daily basis, and we know that they’re rarely acknowledged for it. Maintenance and facility managers are typically only thought of when something is on fire or broken so badly that it’s out of commission. The reality is, though, that maintenance is done in every single building you see, every single industry, and every single country. Maintenance and facility workers make a huge impact on everyone’s lives, but you don’t realize the magnitude of it until it’s not there.

We believe that these are the people in today’s society that help keep us afloat. We want to celebrate them, shine a spotlight on them, and just say thank you.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?

One of our early customers was a guy named Thom Knudsen. Thom’s changed companies since we started working together, but he’s still an absolute UpKeep champion and so supportive of us. Thom now works as the Maintenance Coordinator for American Blending and Filling, a beverages / consumables manufacturing company in Illinois. I’m so inspired by Thom because he views his role as helping people.

We were talking recently and he said, “We fill bottles and I’ve never felt closer to the community than I do now, because the bottles that I support and help make end up at stores right next door to me. I can go into almost any store and find the products that have been made on the machines that I worked on…It’s like making something and giving it to your friend and then they pay you for it — except now I have a lot of friends. I consider them people who trust my work as a mechanic to make the machines make the things they use.” Thom takes his job to heart and I love it. He views maintenance as a way to spread joy, by making things people can rely on and and fixing things in ways that people can trust.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I don’t know about three specific things, but we want to inspire communities around the country and around the world to appreciate all of the maintenance work that happens around us. It all stems from the perception of this field and this industry. It’s a very low perception — people think maintenance is a very simple industry, and it only requires basic skills. This couldn’t be further from the truth though. Maintenance is often incredibly technical, data driven, and dangerous. As a global community, we need to appreciate these people, their job functions, and the impact they make with everything they do. The only way we could really show the impact that they make would be to turn off everything they work on. The world as we know it would stop. I’m not saying I actually want to turn it all off or that it’s a good idea by any means, though I believe that it would effectively boost perception of the maintenance field across industries.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leadership is being able to inspire other people to try new things, experiment, and grow. It’s motivating your team, not just delegating different tasks. A manager is telling people what to do, but a leader is inspiring people to go out in the world and do great things.

Most of my day is dedicated to meetings with other people. I realize my highest leverage area as a leader is to help unblock and empower others. I love using as much of my time working with others as I can to make sure they have all the tools they need to do a great job. To make it happen, I’m usually reading, researching, and brainstorming new ideas as well as problem solving with my team.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Talk to customers. Get in front of customers as much as you can. I was working nights and weekends doing everything from customer support and sales, but I never got to go to a customer’s site to see UpKeep in action. My first experience on site with a customer was at Universal Studios in Orlando. This visit was eye-opening because being there in person is very different than typing to someone on chat. The only real-life application of UpKeep I had seen, or really only imagined, was at my previous job. The workflow at Universal was SO different than my old company. Getting facetime with customers where they are, at their job, in their actual day-to-day work is invaluable.

2. Hiring is not easy. I didn’t understand the difficulties and nuances of hiring. It’s all about building a team. It’s not just about hiring “the best” people that you can find — that’s only half the puzzle. It’s important to find the right people at the right time. There’s different people who will be great at a different time in your company’s life. For example, hire generalists over specialists in the beginning. What you find when you have someone who is “the best” at one job function, but your team is only five to ten people, you’re stuck. You really need that person to be doing more than one job function and, even though they’re great at what they do, they may not be the right fit at that time.

3. Revenue is really important. In the beginning we looked at metrics like number of users, usage of the product, how many free trials, etc. to measure growth. Very quickly, especially once we had investors, everything switched so that it was all revenue driven. I originally viewed UpKeep from the consumer side, so those were the measures I was looking at. In the B2B world, however, revenue is the proxy for the value you’re creating for a business. I realized that value creation is so important and not a number to shy away from. Everything really should be tied into revenue goals — not because it’s the only thing that matters, but because it’s the best proxy to prove the value of what you do for customers and clients.

4. Find your motivation. I have figured out that my motivation in life is to have unique life experiences with people that I like and love. I wish I had realized what motivated me earlier in my career. For me, entrepreneurship is an opportunity to have unique life experiences with people I care about. I love UpKeep and what I come to work every day to do, and it’s so important that I’m doing it with my friends, my family, and my team.

5. Work-Life Balance doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist for me, but I wouldn’t change that. I might one day want to have more work-life balance, but I wouldn’t change how it is retroactively or right now.

You are a person of enormous 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?

I would want to inspire people to constantly improve and never settle. If we all strive to be a little better — just making progress by 1% every day — it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or what area of your life you’re working on. As long as you’re always trying to incrementally improve at something every day, our world can be better and we can be better.

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

I know it’s corny but, “If you can believe it, you can achieve it.” This quote embodies a lot of the things that I believe and what motivates me. One of those things is proving that the impossible is possible. It goes back to my belief that you can achieve anything that you set your mind to; the only thing stopping you is you. It’s often said that comfort is the enemy of growth, and I can see that to be true.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

If I got to have a private meal with anyone, it would be The Wright Brothers. I would ask them about what motivated them to create an airplane and fly. Why take on this task despite all the things that were against you? What’s the purpose? What are you trying to achieve? Why will it be meaningful and impactful? What they did was CRAZY and I want to know more about how they did it!

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Thank you for sharing this!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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