Ryan Frederick of AWH: “You need to be able to lead yourself before you can lead anyone else”

You need to be able to lead yourself before you can lead anyone else: If you aren’t self-aware and don’t understand how you think, act, and make decisions it will be challenging for you to help lead and guide others. Self-awareness is a key aspect of leading a company and a team. You have little […]

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You need to be able to lead yourself before you can lead anyone else: If you aren’t self-aware and don’t understand how you think, act, and make decisions it will be challenging for you to help lead and guide others. Self-awareness is a key aspect of leading a company and a team. You have little chance of developing belief in a team and to have them respect and follow you if you are can’t control your own emotions, thoughts, and actions.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Frederick.

Ryan Frederick has had the privilege of being part of starting and growing several software and service companies. He has helped companies grow from inception, to viability, through to sustainability. During the evolution of these companies, Ryan has served on company boards and been instrumental in capitalization activities. Ryan combines a unique blend of business acumen and technical knowledge having originally been a developer who migrated to the business side. He now helps companies build great software products and solve data challenges for competitive advantage as a Principal at the product and data consulting firm, AWH. Ryan is an active angel investor, mentors and advises entrepreneurs and startups, as well as corporate innovation leaders. He launched a non-profit workforce development program to train under-employed adults on digital skills called i.c.stars. Ryan has authored two books. The first on increasing the odds of success in creating products, being a Founder, and starting companies called The Founder’s Manual: A Guidebook for Becoming a Successful Entrepreneur. The second, Sell Naked: And Other Advice for Growing and Managing Services Firms. Ryan speaks frequently about creating software products, building companies, and leadership.

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

I always wanted to chart my own professional path because it seemed the best way to directly connect effort and time with value and impact. I was fortunate to join a startup early in my career that had some success and I enjoyed being part of a small, close-knit team that was trying to accomplish big things. The experience confirmed for me that startups are where I belonged and big companies were not a great personal fit.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

One of the most challenging aspects of starting and growing a company is how much you don’t know. Much of the process is on the job training, yet you have to carry and conduct yourself, especially with customers, partners, and investors like you have the answers and know what you are doing when you don’t. You have to believe you will figure it out and have the confidence to do it, but not knowing is very unsettling. Founders are selling the future to virtually everyone they interact with early on. It can be difficult for many Founders to overcome the selling of something that will be versus the selling of what is. An investor in a company I was a part of starting and I were discussing this because he commented that I was one of the best people he had ever met at getting people to believe in what we were going to deliver and accomplish as compared to what we could provide to them in the moment. I thought about it for a few minutes and told him that I was good at it because I never represented anything, I wasn’t intentional about and committed to delivering on and that I knew the team was capable of delivering on. The difference between selling the future and selling snake oil is whether you intend on and are capable of following through on what you are selling. Selling the future is only disingenuous if you don’t intend to deliver on it.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I asked a friend of mine who is an avid cyclist how he can ride so many miles. He said, “I just don’t get off the bike.” I think this is so relatable to being a Founder and to startups. Founders have to want to get to the next checkpoint for their company enough that they just keep grinding away at it until they get there. It isn’t glamorous and there is certainly going to be a lot of pain and discomfort along the way, but as long as Founders who are working on a valid problem and who have the ability to solve it in a way customer’s value, they just need to keep pedaling.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I’m a Partner in a digital product studio, AWH. I’ve written a book, The Founder’s Manual. I have a second book coming out in January of 2021, Sell Naked and other advice for growing and managing services firms. I speak often on entrepreneurship, creating products, and leadership. Oh, and I do some angel investing. I would say it turned out okay.

It has been a roller coaster, but I never lost sight of what I wanted to accomplish and what was possible for me to accomplish. My definition of success is fulfilling your potential. I am fulfilling my potential.

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?

One of the startups I helped start and build early in my career was struggling initially. I went to the lead investor and was essentially whining about how one competitor, in particular, was eating our lunch because they were better funded, had a bigger team, and could out-execute us in virtually every area. This investor had also become a mentor to me. The investor heard me out and then calmly said, “Sounds like you are jealous of their cookie jar.” I didn’t know what cookies and a cookie jar had to do with what I was trying to convey so I was confused. He went on, “You can’t be jealous of someone else’s cookie jar. You don’t know how they got the cookies. You don’t know if they made them, bought them, or were given the cookies. You also don’t know if the cookies are any good. You just see that their cookie jar is full and yours isn’t.” I started to get the point. “You don’t know how well they understand the problem, how close they are to customers, and if their product is any good. All you know right now is that they appear to have more resources than we do. That may be true, but more resources aren’t enough to win if the other factors aren’t there too.” I doubled down on our efforts to understand the problem better and to spend even more time with customer as a result. Even though we were more constrained than the competitor we ended up growing faster than they did and having a bigger and better company in the end.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At AWH, the product and data consulting firm I am now a Principal, we have seen a lot of competitors come and go over the years. AWH has been around for 25 years this year. We have stood the test of time because we’ve been able to adjust as customer’s needs have adjusted. We started out as primarily an engineering firm and are now an end-to-end product firm with designers, product managers, and product marketers who help clients to create award-winning and successful digital products, along with our elite team of engineers.

When we made the decision to become an end-to-end product firm, there were very few in the Midwest, let alone across the country. It was a risk, but we knew it was what clients needed, even if they didn’t know it yet.

We have two guiding principles. We work in the product and client’s best interest. Note, the product comes first even among those two because clients are flawed and bring ego and biases to a new product just like any team of people does. So if we are working in a product’s best interest we are inevitably working in a client’s best interest even if it isn’t immediately obvious to them.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

This is a counter-intuitive and controversial perspective, but Founders have to be able to emotionally disconnect from their companies. The Founder role is just that, a professional role. Being a Founder doesn’t define the rest of who you are, and a company’s success or failure doesn’t define who you are. Founders who are able to separate themselves from the role of being a Founder and their companies are healthier, happier, and better grounded to actually perform better. Founders who can emotionally detach from their companies are much better able to make decisions about the business.

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?

The first startup I joined changed CEO’s early in my tenure. The departing CEO was a Founder of the company, but the company was not doing well, and the Founder/CEO’s skill did not match was required for the position and company. The board made a change and the new CEO started shortly thereafter. The new CEO and I developed a good working relationship and mutual respect. He had helped grow several companies over time in different industries and was an officer in the Air Force. I was a young lad trying to figure out who I was and how to make my way in the world. He taught me a lot about remaining calm and being emotionally controlled when making business decisions. He also taught me how to be decisive when it appeared all of the information that was going to be readily available to make a decision was already known. He also helped me to stay grounded. I went to him once with an idea about a new product and he said to me, “Ryan, you have a lot of ideas. Some are actually good. This isn’t one of those. Stay the course.” He later fully supported me spinning out a new company and product when the opportunity was warranted.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I mentor and advise Founders and startups. I also launched a non-profit to help under-employed adults to learn how to code. At AWH, we started financing some client products and associated work as pre-seed and seed funding has become more challenging to attain for many companies. Without our financing and funding, these products and companies would not have the chance to get built and to fulfill their potential.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You better become a great solver: Being a company leader is really about being a problem solver. There will be an unending series of problems in starting, growing, and evolving a company. Most people don’t want to live their lives, especially their professional lives, dealing with problems but that is what you sign up when you sign up to lead a company. Running to problems and thriving in problem-solving mode is a skill that every company leader needs to develop.
  2. You need to be able to lead yourself before you can lead anyone else: If you aren’t self-aware and don’t understand how you think, act, and make decisions it will be challenging for you to help lead and guide others. Self-awareness is a key aspect of leading a company and a team. You have little chance of developing belief in a team and to have them respect and follow you if you are can’t control your own emotions, thoughts, and actions.
  3. You matter less than everyone and everything else associated to the company: The team, customers, product, and the company overall come before you do. Founders and leaders who are able to work in the best interest of others before themselves have a chance to build something of value and that people want to be a part of. No one wants to work with or for an egomaniac. Even though we often driven to start and drive companies because of our own ambition and ego, we have to set aside them aside and quickly become ego-less and humble to accomplish what we want of ourselves, our companies, and everyone involved who makes it possible.
  4. Have the rest of your life in order: It is nearly impossible to start and grow a company if you are thrashing in other areas of life. Leading a company can be all-consuming and given the intensity if the rest of your life isn’t in order your chances of being successful are low. A compelling visual around thrashing that really brings it home is to imagine yourself in the ocean, by yourself with no boat and no flotation device and you can’t swim. You will figure out how to tread water for a bit and then the treading water will become more violent and chaotic. You will start thrashing. Once we are in thrashing mode, we consume all of the mental focus and physical energy we have just to thrash. A life in order outside of the company prevents thrashing outside and inside of the company.
  5. Become a great storyteller: Who doesn’t love a great story? No one. The best leaders are great storytellers. Great stories inform and inspire. Leaders who become great storytellers become great at both. Leaders need understand the elements of great stories and how to create a story arch weaving the elements together that moves people to action. The best stories and storytellers make us feel something and get us to act. Recruiting a team is storytelling. Selling is storytelling. Raising investment is storytelling. Every act of consequence involving people around starting and leading a company is storytelling.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

I’m from a small town in Upstate NY. People who grow up in small towns all over the world grow up in circumstances where their world is very small. The internet has helped of course but growing up in “flyover country” still presents enormous challenges for people to get the awareness and access they need to fulfill their potential. I am beginning to evaluate starting a venture fund and firm to invest in Founders and startups in rural areas to foster more entrepreneurship in small towns by overlooked Founders.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: ryanfrederick

LinkedIn: ryangfrederick

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

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