Most people downplay its importance, but workplace culture is a crucial factor in how well your business does down the line. Your workplace culture, your values, must be an extension of who you are as a person – otherwise, it’s something you deliberately rebel against. Chris Cochran is the CEO of FreightWise. Joining Mitch Russo, Chris shares his journey towards becoming a CEO and how workplace culture has shaped that journey. The story of Chris is compelling and inspiring, and you definitely don’t want to miss it!
How Workplace Culture Shapes Your Work With Chris Cochran
Welcome to this moment in time when you get to chill out, read, and extract wisdom you can use to grow your business with your first thousand clients. Do you know any of the shows that are a two-way conversation? You can talk to me anytime you want and I’ll respond back to you. I’ve had voice messages from all over the world. I want you to click on the button that’s on every single show page that says, “Speak to Mitch,” and I’ll return the favor with an honest and prompt answer. I’ve had messages literally from all over the world and almost every single one of them is insightful. It’s delightful to get your message and in some cases, I act on them right away. Please, Speak to Mitch. It’s worth it.
This episode is sponsored by the Virtual Entrepreneurs Association. I want to say something about this. I have the thing that I normally read, but I want to talk about this. This is an association that I helped build with Daven Michaels. This is an association that serves entrepreneurs. Inside there are incredible resources that no matter what phase of business you’re in, you will use. There are discounts, classes, education, and communities you can join. You can even buy insurance inside the Virtual Entrepreneurs Association. It’s an all-purpose community for people who are entrepreneurs or becoming entrepreneurs that they can use to grow as people as well as grow your business. I would like to invite you for free to join the Virtual Entrepreneurs Association. That’s VEABusiness.com/mitch. Be my guest, come with us and build this community, become part of this community, and grow from it.
On to my guest and his incredible story. His mom and dad worked hard every day and his mom ran a small daycare center in the house. This was his first introduction to entrepreneurship that gave him the flavor and the passion for going out there and being an entrepreneur. Later as he made his way through school, he discovered he was gifted in selling. He eventually went into technology sales for tech companies like Kronos and Oracle and started his own company. Like most of us, it failed but he was persistent and started another and another. It failed again and again until finally he started the company that has brought him to where he is now. FreightWise was number two on the Inc. 5000 list in 2019. Welcome Chris Cochran, to the show.
Mitch, thank you for having me.
My pleasure, Chris. It’s great to chat with you finally. I sent you a copy of the book. How did you like the book?
I loved it. It was great. There were a lot of things that we can reference now about the book, but thank you for sending me the copy.
My pleasure and I’m glad that there are some inspiring things in there for us to chat about. That always makes the podcast much more interesting. Let’s get started Chris with how you got started in this business and in this world. Let’s go back to the beginning.An entrepreneur can keep more of their money legally. Click To Tweet
I grew up outside of Bristol, Tennessee, which is a great place full of culture. It’s at the Appalachian Mountains next to the Blue Ridge trail north of the Great Smoky Mountains. Growing up, I saw a lot of people that had a decent amount of struggles, financially and in the job market. The first time that I saw success in small business and the small business owner was my mom when she started a small daycare. It was in a house on a typical main road in Bristol that ended up turning commercial. She hired a handful of people and started a daycare facility. I learned a lot from watching her run that for many years, which she did. That’s how I got my first flavor of business.
From an early age, I knew that I was interested in business, even though I do go through a period where I thought maybe that I would pursue a medical career. It was short-lived and I knew that business was the path for me. I had an interest in reading about the stock market, companies, and at a young age trying to decipher how someone made money, how they made revenue, how they made a profit from that business. It was an interesting time to be in Bristol. I grew up there and I saw a lot of great things in my family’s ventures.
It’s amazing we all get a start and many of us entrepreneurs have gotten the start by observing our mom and dad. My dad went all throughout New York City opening up candy stores one after the other. I admired this incredible nerve and the guts to pick a location and build a store. I learned so much from marketing, the way my dad created a store and then the brand of that store, and moves on to the next one. We learn from our parents and you learn from your mom. You’re inspired by your mom. What happened after that as you got older?
As I got older, I saw her run and grow the business. The things I saw that stuck with me through it is, first off, I learned a valuable lesson that an entrepreneur gets to keep more of their money. Legally, they get to keep more of their money than someone getting paid on a W-2 because of IRS regulations, tax breaks, depreciation, amortization, and things like that. I always thought that was interesting how the government propels people to be job creators. That’s the life cycle of the United States and how we’re building such a superpower that we are.
I saw that but then also saw on the other side the vast amount of work that goes into having your own business. It is a labor of love. It is not easy and I saw her work herself to death. I saw her work her fingers to the bone and my dad as well. He helped with the business too. Even down to Sundays after church, we’d go shopping and we would shop for our own groceries, but we’d also shop for groceries at the daycare because they provided breakfast and lunch for the children. In a way, she was on the clock. She was working. That work ethic showed me first off that’s what it takes to succeed.
If you were to calculate the hourly rate that she earned as a business owner, it’s probably dismal. I know it was for me and most people don’t realize that. Most people don’t realize how much work it is when you start. I have to say honestly that I did not realize how much work. I started my software company, Timeslips Corporation, when I was young enough and still inexperienced that I was too dumb to realize how much work was going to take. It might have scared me into not doing it. I’m glad I didn’t know better at the time.
I’m sure the hourly wage was dismal, maybe even negative if you look at it. Most people that do it and love doing it like I do and I’m sure like you have from what you’ve told me about Timeslips. You’re not doing it for the money. You’re doing it for other reasons. You have it in your blood and that’s what led me to start a variety of businesses that should have never been started before I got to TracBack or FreightWise.
Let’s talk a little bit about FreightWise. Tell us what type of company FreightWise is.
FreightWise is a logistics platform. It’s a single-tenant SaaS solution that helps shippers that it consumes a lot of LTL and parcels. It helps them manage their cost and everything from the design of the supply chain, how you’re going to make your business rules as to which mode to ship and which carrier to choose based on transit towns, prices. Also, the automation through your VRP and the warehouse of manifesting those shipments all the way down to the accounting portion. It’s an end to end process to help shippers manage LTL and parcel buying in the most efficient way possible.
You don’t own any trucks, is that right?
Do you own warehouses?
No.It's interesting how the government propels people to be job creators. Click To Tweet
Do you own any other distribution facilities in any way?
No, we’re on the technology and the service side of logistics. We do own a lot of intellectual property in our software, client contracts, our knowledge, and things like that but we’re asset-light. We have no trucks, including drivers and we have no warehouses.
You’re like Uber. You’ve created possibly one of the largest freight consolidators or on the way to creating one of the largest freight consolidators in the world without owning a single asset.
That’s the idea. There are some people that have done this for many years like legacy companies that have amassed billions and billions in transportation spend. We look at a lot of those companies as our competition and we have a plan of how to beat them and we’re doing that. Even though we’re a younger company, we’re proud of where we’ve come, what we’ve done and we’ve built a company that is solid around creating value for clients.
Like many businesses, you saw a need in the marketplace and you said, “How can we fill this need?” and you went ahead and did it. That’s what makes great businesses because having and knowing what is needed in advance, I believe that’s the key in many cases to knowing that you can build a great business and putting in the work and making it happen. Was there a need? Did you have that need yourself? Is that where that came from for you?
I didn’t have the need myself in a startup. I worked within a variety of businesses, Oracle, TracBack, and other such businesses that I saw a disconnection in the marketplace to where people needed consolidation of technology around the freight buying process. Logistics is not sexy. It’s not the first thing to get attention in your IT spend and it is not ever going to be in the front of somebody’s budget. That’s where we attacked. We thought we could bring new technology and a lot of time and attention to help people solve that need.
What would you say for readers that are considering starting a business? It’s like a sport. You sit around at the bar and think about, “What hasn’t changed in the last 80 years? Maybe we could start a business around that.” That doesn’t sound like what you did. How did you come to build this company? Where did the idea and the passion for going forward in this business come from?
The passion came from the desire to create something that provided value to our customers and to us and to be on that creation side. The idea and how we came about by FreightWise was a combination of people that knew a lot about the space. From Richard Hoehn, our CIO, his talent in assembling people and building the technology with a forward focus. Phillip Forte and Scott Samuelsen, the new logistics backward and forward and know the good and bad about the approaches in the marketplace and how a customer derives value from it.
Alex Rustioni brought a great sales methodology to FreightWise. We had a core team that we built the company around. The people were different. They brought different skills and that diversity of knowledge and personalities helped us to succeed. We had that together and we felt we were onto something. We felt that we all got along well enough and felt that we have the basis of creating something that would be meaningful in the marketplace and people would go with their feet.
That’s generally called domain expertise where you spot an opportunity and if you don’t have the domain expertise, you hire or bring that person or that domain expertise in. I have a little bit of experience with that. I was brought in to become the CEO of a furniture company of all things back when the internet was hot on furniture. My partners in that business happened to be operators who had built furniture companies and furniture distribution companies over their lifetime. While I never had any true domain expertise in furniture, their domain expertise made it easy for us to create the type of company that later could go out and do well. It sounds like you were in a similar situation. You had this great idea and said, “I’ve identified a problem area. Now let’s go out there and locate the people that could fit directly into this process and help us build this company.” Is that about right?
That’s exactly right. We knew what we wanted to do. We knew that the business plan was viable. We had to assemble the team to make it work. I remember, and this is a story we tell every now and then, I tried to recruit Richard to our startup. We had no revenue, no clients, a plan, no software, and we were trying to assemble the right team. He was in a good spot. He had a lucrative career and I talked to him about it. He thought long and hard, came back and said, “No.” I was going through Dallas Fort Worth Airport and I ran into him randomly.
He was there at the gate and I said, “Let’s go to this Mexican restaurant and get a beer. It looks like we both have an hour before the last leg back to Nashville,” and I kept on. I caught him on the day where he probably was coming off a rough week or month and I said, “How long are you going to continue to work for someone else? We have a chance to create something here. This is going to work.” That was a turning point and we got him on board. He was the third piece of the puzzle. We had to go out and recruit some other people, but we did that and that was the base of how the story worked.
Let’s add some flavor here because this is an important point. I’m going to say something, you may agree with me or not, but I’m going to say it anyway. Chris, that was not an accident. That was a deliberate act by a power greater than ourselves to make exactly what you needed to happen, happen. Do you agree with that?It takes culture to keep people together. Click To Tweet
Maybe. It may have well been. It doesn’t seem to be quite a chance meeting but either way, that was the beginning of it. It was interesting how we tackled it from there forward because that’s not the end of the story. After those moments, it became a heck of a lot of money, work, love and caring. Sometimes it’s gnashing of teeth to get to the point where we even could have our first gooey dish to show a client.
In my world, I think of things as the universe working for me. The universe was working for you that day as well, probably for both of you, to be honest. In this case, this person came along and completed the triad and now you truly had the business, or at least in your mind, you did the business that you were looking for. Sure, it may have been different later and you may have done other things. That person may not have even lasted in the job but it doesn’t matter. It was without him you might not have been able to get going the way you did in the way you wanted to.
This is another important point that entrepreneurs need to understand. Once you make the decision to go into business and you passionately believe that business will succeed, allow the universe to do some of the work for you. That means, put it out there to make it known to the universe that you need something and typically, most people ask for money but usually it’s resources. Watch and marvel at how the universe can bring you those resources. That’s my belief system and it’s worked for me over the years.
A simple example of that is when I moved to Hamilton, Massachusetts, I took a house on the street. There were only four houses on the whole street. One of them besides mine was empty. I moved into mine and two months later, some guy moved in next to me. Long story short, that guy became my partner in Timeslips Corporation. We have helped in this world. Let’s put it that way. That’s my belief system. In your case, it sounds like it worked out well.
It did and I like to think that it worked out for both of us. It was someone we needed, we knew and wanted. We had worked on the relationship and it came to be. There’s no way that we can take the credit for it there. There must have been somebody looking out for us for sure.
What was the first big problem or even disaster that you faced and how did you overcome it as a new company?
The first big thing that we faced was keeping everyone together with one concrete idea and one strategy to build phase prior to the revenue. When you have the SaaS companies, you can’t generate revenue until you have a product and a product is expensive. It doesn’t come out of anywhere. We had assembled an executive and administrative team that all had different outlooks on things and there’s a variety of ways that you can go into business. We could have been more of a service provider or pure-play technology. We wanted a hybrid of both but you also have limited time and money. It’s a race against the clock. Doing all your market research, getting everyone on the same page, through challenges, and maintaining your deliberate focus on what you’re creating. That was the first challenge. It’s a challenge every day.
Chris, what you’re telling me is something that is a problem that many of us would face when building a business and it takes something special. It takes culture to keep people together. That’s my word. You may have a different word. Some people say ethos, but to me the culture of a company and the culture that you created, I believe is the foundation of your success. Tell us more about how you started and built that culture when you first started your company.
This goes to something that you summed up well in your book Power Tribes. It was in chapter seven. In there, you had ways to establish a culture deliberately. We tried to do that from the get-go by putting a mission statement or strategy and values in place that emulated who we wanted to be, what we wanted our clients to think of us, and to achieve when implementing FreightWise. Also, how we wanted for our employees to interact with us, how we wanted them to think and feel.
More importantly, we put some time into thinking about this and had a lot of thought around it. We came to the conclusion that there are a lot of great attributes that many people have that aren’t us and they can create their own culture from it. If we put together values and a culture that is not at the core of who we are as individuals, we will not end up following our plan of setting that culture deliberately. We tried to do things like to be persistent, focused, grateful and intentional. We want to do things within our values in our culture that allowed us to be who we were because that’s going to dominate the culture anyway. All the executives and the leaders within FreightWise were all energetic, aggressive, and fun people. We had to make that a part of our company because that’s going to shine through at the end no matter what you map out on a napkin.
What you said is maybe the most important thing that anyone can do when starting a company. I have to be honest, not everybody does this. It’s a little bit rare that people start the company with a culture. Usually, a company starts when people have a great idea and they get busy on building something and the culture falls to the wayside. It rears its ugly head usually anywhere from 7 to 25 employees later. Maybe a year has gone by and there’s friction. Nobody understands where the friction is coming from. No one truly understands how it started. It sounds like you had the insight to understand this way in advance and build your culture deliberately from the beginning. Tell us a little more about what that culture was and why you chose to do it then.
I felt like we wanted to take control and to do it then because it was going to happen anyway and it was better to happen in a more focused manner. One of the things we focus on is being transparent. We don’t have managerial reports that employees aren’t privy to. We don’t hide things from our clients. Our clients see the actual invoice and savings, which is how we derive our fee. We wanted to start by opening the kimono and letting everyone see exactly what we’re creating so people have ownership, if you will, within FreightWise. Also, in what we’re doing and you’ll care hopefully a tad bit more about everything here like the clients all the way down to the company, the people, health, profitability, and things like that.
We allow people to be a part of our benefits selection processes and have input as to what was needed. We allow people to see revenue reports in the company. We went to lengths of making profit and loss for every department so you can see what you’re spending, generating, and what you’re bringing in or what the company is bearing for your department. We tried to be intentional about transparency. That became a large part of our culture and now it’s expected and the employees, I believe, have made the best decisions most times for FreightWise because of that. That’s something that I’ve been proud of.Build a company that's solid about creating value for clients. Click To Tweet
You should be. Not many people do it and you did. It comes from experience and insight, but it also comes from a desire to have a workforce that is connected. One of the things that I know about you only because I read your website is you’re a person who tends to appreciate the little things in life. More importantly, appreciate the people that you work with and are surrounding you. I have a feeling that was part of the impetus to build this culture. You wanted a place where everybody would not get along, but everyone would thrive together. Am I on target with that or not?
You are. We tried to do that through the main word of being grateful. One of our core values is to be grateful, not only grateful to each other as coworkers for how you’re helping each other and how you’re serving your internal clients, but mostly to our external clients. They’re the ones that pay the bills, keep the lights on and keep payroll working. I have an overall fear that the moment we take our clients for granted, the moment we become ungrateful, that’s when you lose focus on what’s best for your clients. That’s when the investments don’t align with what your clients’ needs or expectations to help them take their business to the next level. We tried to be outwardly facing our gratefulness. We started a Gratefulness Journal, which anyone can post on and they post for quite a while on the Gratefulness Journal and we make them available to the public on our website.
The Gratefulness Journal is a link on Chris’s company’s website. I also want to assure you of one thing, Chris, that’s not going to happen for you. You’re never going to lose a client. You might lose a client for other reasons, but it will never be out of not being grateful for them and their presence in your company because it’s part of your culture and that’s the whole point. When you build a deliberate culture, that means that you’re giving an instruction sheet on how to behave to every single person in the company and you transmit that through your entire ecosystem, including your clients. That’s what you’ve done and that’s why I admire so much about what you’ve done. Not many people do this. I do work with companies to fix their culture and I have been brought into companies when they believe that the culture was completely unsalvageable. In most cases, it takes honesty to fix almost any culture. It takes bolden honesty to completely tell the truth about everything about the company.
In one case, we worked with a client and I was embarrassed to say that almost everything they had told one element of their company had not been truthful. It was a shade of the truth but not the true truth. When I encouraged them to come clean finally, tell the truth and take their lumps, take the people who are going to leave because of that and move on from there, they did that and it worked. Look at what you’ve skipped by doing it deliberately upfront. That’s the lesson. If you’re building a business, start with your culture. It’s going to pay up bigger than you could ever imagine. Chris, we’re almost at the point in the show where we’re about to go deep into some of the questions about you, but before we do, is there anything else you’d have to say about culture and in particular, the value it has brought to FreightWise?
The only other point that I would make is that it does take quite a bit of focused effort to make sure that all of your executive team that is leaders are on page with the culture, the missions that you have there and your strategy because that’s what ultimately makes it happen. It’s the way the leaders act, lead, teach and coach once day-to-day activities happen.
I’m going to make one small correction on what you said for my purposes. In my experience and life, it doesn’t matter what you say. It matters how you act and you said that. What you say is fine, but none of it is true until you act the way that makes it true.
I see it in my children. I’m a father of three. I can tell them all day long the way that I want them to live their life and it’s not powerful unless I’m living my life that way. That’s the hardest thing about parenting.
It is and now that we start talking about that, there are many parenting lessons that can be taken from this conversation. The whole idea of starting off a family with an understanding in advance of how people should act and behave and treat each other, that could change the life experience of your children for all of their lives. I’m glad you brought that up because it sounds like you’ve done that. We are at the point now where we’re going to get to know you a little bit better, Chris. I have a couple of questions here. These are two of my favorite questions in the world because what they do is they help us as readers get to see who you are. Here’s the first question, who in all of space and time would you have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch, or an intense conversation?
That’s a tough one. There are many people who have all of the space and time that I can learn so much from. For the answer to this one, I’m going to have to go personal. My grandfather died when I was in the womb and I never got to meet him, and my mom tells me that we have so much in common. I know that he was a small business owner. I know that he employed a handful of people, had a dump truck business, and evidently a stone business. I’ve heard many stories. You don’t get to know people from the stories and I’m a relationship-driven person. If I can go to all space and time, I would have lunch or sit down with my grandfather on my mom’s side to pick his brain to understand what he was about. Understand the mistakes that he made, what led him to make those, the successes that happened, and what he thought about the world in general.
What a beautiful sentiment. There are many of us, many people who tune into this show and the people who’ve been on this show have mentioned family members as well because that’s who we are. We are the combination of the values that the people in our family have brought to us. That’s why it’s important to help our children create those values early because that makes us who we are. In your case, I wish I could arrange that meeting, Chris. I’m not quite there yet but if I could, I promise I will. We’re at the second question and this is the grand finale question. I call it the change the world question because it uncovers, in many cases, people’s true passion. What is it that you are doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to literally change the world?
Ultimately, the thing that we’re doing to change the world, we’re doing one person at a time. We’re not a large enough company nor do we have a large enough market space to be a Tesla and change the overall climate of the globe and things like that. We have to focus on the small nature of the business we are and the medium size nature business that we serve with our clients. For us, changing the world is changing that employee’s world that needs a great career path and trajectory. Help them achieve their own personal goals like sending that kid to college, buy that house, save in that retirement account, and to do the right thing by our client and our employees to help each one of them change their own world. Hopefully, FreightWise can strive and hit the lofty goals that we put in place for ourselves and if we change enough little worlds, your individual world, hopefully, it can balloon out and it can make an impact on this world that we all share.
Chris, well said. I happen to agree with you completely that changing the world one person at a time is maybe the most powerful way to do it. I also want to add something to what you said, because I know you’re changing a bigger world too and that is the world of providing the things we need and the food we eat every single day. By creating a more efficient structure for shipping and shipping companies, by lowering the barriers for small shippers to get in by decreasing the cost of shipping freight across this country, you are changing the world. Chris, thank you for your answers. Thank you for being on the show. Thank you for changing the world. I’m looking forward to our next conversation.
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- Virtual Entrepreneurs Association
- Gratefulness Journal
- Power Tribes
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