The story behind Wisconsin’s SwanLeap, the fastest growing company in America
Sarah Hauer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Brad Hollister talks fast, walks fast and drinks at least a dozen cups of coffee a day.
The company Hollister started five years ago is now, by some measures, the fastest growing company in America. The Madison-based entrepreneur believes SwanLeap is building the next level of shipping technology and logistics analytics software.
SwanLeap provides its customers with a transportation management system that helps companies decide how to ship goods with real-time pricing, rather than establishing one supply chain plan to use for years.
Inside Hollister’s mind is a whole matrix. He sees all the options for shipping parcels and truckloads across the world.
This year, SwanLeap was named the fastest growing company in the U.S. in the Inc. 5000 list. It also came in the No. 1 spot on Deloitte’s 2018 North America Technology Fast 500 list. The company finished 2017 with $99 million in revenue. It grew a staggering 75,661 percent in the three years prior.
The plan: Continue to grow at lightning speed.
In many ways, Hollister said he feels like the company is just beginning. SwanLeap brought on its first salespeople a couple weeks ago. Until now, Hollister made all sales calls. The company has 90 employees.
SwanLeap is taking over another floor of its building in a brick office park with 1970s-style wood paneling. The company is also opening its first international office in Mexico. The team will grow, Hollister said, but how much depends on if SwanLeap keeps up rapid revenue growth.
Years of work
SwanLeap didn’t take off overnight. The idea came to Hollister after years negotiating shipping contracts.
First, he built Freight Access, a completely open shipping market, essentially the “eBay of freight.” He had a working product and a customer using it.
But he was hurting financially. He poured more than $300,000 into Freight Access. At one point, Hollister sold his 2001 Honda Civic for a couple thousand dollars to make rent.
Hollister told his dad about his financial troubles.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said to his dad. “I’m selling the car — that lady is going to pay me. I hope it goes through otherwise I don’t know — we’re going to be evicted.”
“He goes to me, ‘You’re a father now. If you would just get off that computer and go out and get a real job, you wouldn’t have these problems.'” Hollister and his wife had two children then. He now has three.
At that point, he considered giving up.
Then the outlook brightened. Hollister attracted the interest of investors who were willing to put $2 million into his company. As he was heading down to Chicago to meet with the investors, he checked in on Freight Access. His one customer hadn’t logged into the system for days.
Hollister called the company from the road to see if something was broken. They said it was working fine.
“We’re just too busy for that,” the company told him. Freight Access worked outside of a company’s established system.
“They had to get orders out,” he said. They didn’t have the time to post the freight on a separate website and wait for truck drivers to bid on it. Hollister realized the idea wasn’t going to work.
Hollister told the investors the concept would fail. The business is dead. Companies are not going to use it. He walked away from the deal.
Hollister started taking on consulting jobs, working with companies to assess their shipping rates and practices using his background in the industry. Still thinking about building an alternative system for shipping, he posted an ad on Craigslist.
It caught the eye of Jason Swanson, SwanLeap’s co-founder and chief technical officer, while he was scrolling through freelance developer jobs. The subject line: “I’m looking for the best developer in the room.”
“It’s sort of a cliché,” Swanson said. “Like ‘what’s your project? What’s so important that you’re posting on Craigslist looking for the best developer?'”
“I don’t know what joke response I gave but he’s like, ‘No, I think there’s something here,'” Swanson said.
“We spent 100 hours detailing out the system. I was able to portray that, ‘Yes, I am able to execute what is in your brain.’ And he had something that was actually real in his brain. It’s hard to tell. It took 100 hours to understand all the stuff.”
Then Swanson got to work, waking up at 5 a.m. to program for 16 hours a day for more than a year straight to build the framework for SwanLeap to be ready to take on clients.
Hollister said the company earned its early customers by pitching to competitors.
“We ran out to competitors to show competitors what we were doing and say, ‘You’re good here why don’t we help you with this other area where you’re not so good,'” he said. “We had competitors selling for us.”
SwanLeap has since signed on more than 300 companies to use the technology connected to more than 400 carriers.
“We’re creating a mountain here,” Swanson said. “It’s this thing that nobody thinks you can create and we’re going to create it.”
Original article appeared here.