When building a business, there are many moving parts that make it successful. Often, a founder starts their business to solve a problem. That was certainly the case for our guest, Hayden Wadsworth, the CEO and Cofounder of HydroJug. He’s an avid gym goer. A couple of years ago, he noticed that other gym members had milk jugs for water. These jugs are not recyclable. They are not reusable and certainly lacked any kind of personality. Like all good entrepreneurs, he decided to fix this problem and make better jugs, which resulted in the creation of his company based out of Utah.
As he gained momentum, found ways to source and market his product, and started making money, he did what all of us founders have to do. He started hiring good people to join his team. We’re here to talk with him about the fits and starts he had with his team, and how he turned the corner to create a company that is not only profitable but also a great place to work. Hayden Wadsworth, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be on and to discuss more about culture and personnel.
Tell us a little bit about HydroJug. I gave a little bit of that intro, but tell us what started it and what it’s about.
It started from a passion for an active lifestyle and wanting to help others achieve their goals. As far as hydration goes, we saw a gap in the market as you touched on. We’re in our sixth year of business. It seems like every month, the business changes and it’s a little bit different. It has been fun to always be working on different projects and filling a bunch of different roles. It’s an exciting and difficult journey. It has been a good five years.
That’s awesome. It’s such a roller coaster running a business. I don’t know if you felt this way or not, but I have gone through these moments where I think, “Is this going to get easier at some point?” As I realized, it is a roller coaster and you’re always on it. It’s just how intense the ups and the downs are. Your brother is the other cofounder. Is that true? You guys started it together and now, you have another brother working with you. It’s great working with family but at what point did you start hiring strangers or people you didn’t necessarily know that you were bringing onto the team?
Our first hire was one of my good friends from early in life. We went to the same elementary school and everything. We’ve hired a lot of people that we went to high school with or that we knew in the community. The first stranger was probably in our third year of business. We had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t have a formal interview process. We didn’t have any idea on how to hire. I reached out to somebody on Upwork, which is a lot like Fiverr, and they help me come up with an interview process. They reached out and generated leads for me. That was our first outside jump-in.A strong culture is when people can go through hard things together, trust each other, and help one another to become better. Click To Tweet
It wasn’t an easy decision. I remember telling my brother and then Chris who is the friend I mentioned. He does all of our paid advertising. I was like, “I’m thinking about hiring someone for this position.” They both looked at me like I was crazy because I was almost spoiling what we had. It was a small business. It was a couple of friends that went to work every day. It was very informal and we were used to it and set in our ways. Bringing someone in that we didn’t know was a little bit scary. That’s when we made our first outside hire.
How did it go?
We learned a lot from the experience. We built on the experience that we’ve gained from that. It’s a lot of work. Personnel is a ton of work. I wish I would have hired someone to oversee that a lot earlier in the business. In 2021, that took up probably 50% of my time, coming up with performance review processes. It’s super time-consuming. That was our first experience.
It’s very challenging. I find myself switching constantly and juggling. I was not juggling to drop a ball, but juggling. You don’t spend more time on one ball than another. The three things I’m always thinking about are cash, how to find it and where to spend it. The second ball is my products and my solutions. Are they good enough? Are they competitive enough? The third ball I’m always thinking about is my team. Are they happy? What do they need? What else do we need to be adding? How do I have that difficult conversation? Do you feel like you juggle those three things in the same way or do you feel like you focus on one more than the other?
It depends on where we’re at in the business. Right now, I’m not as involved in the people and HR piece. I have a director in that position so I’m managing it from a much higher level. I do think it is something that’s always on your mind as a founder. I’m like, “I need to make sure these people are happy and that they’re performing at their highest level possible.” They’re not just coming in and going through the motions and checking the boxes. To create that is super difficult. I manage it from a different perspective now, which is much better for me and my strengths as a founder. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes, I’m very involved in marketing and branding, and what’s going on there. On others, I’m more involved in product development and how that is moving. It depends on what the project is and what’s going on in the business that gets the majority of my focus.
You mentioned earlier that you wish you had brought someone in to manage the personnel side earlier. We find that all the time as well. A lot of times, people aren’t thinking about the people and the juggling of the balls. The people part is missed. One of the reasons I wanted to chat with you is that you were a unique founder. You start off where you care a lot about what people were experiencing. How has it changed for you with adding in this HR person or this person who’s in charge of the personnel? I’m assuming it’s an HR-type role. Have you noticed a shift in culture? Has it been positive? What has happened with that?
One of the positives that come from it is when a founder is involved in the day-to-day personnel things like any disciplinary action, changing a policy, or anything that could be viewed in a negative light. For some reason, employees will link that to the business. All of a sudden, they’ll be like, “The founder changed this.” They view it as a negative thing. All of a sudden, they’re like, “I’m also mad at HydroJug or the business for this change.”
When it’s coming from my HR director, it’s not like they’re upset with the business itself. It is between two employees. It’s a perspective that I’ve seen. It’s a little less personal. They’re like, “This is the HR person and it’s their job to handle these types of things. They’re professionals at this. This is all they do,” versus, “This is the founder and their business. They’re doing this negative thing to me.” That’s one of the things that has improved. When we make changes, it’s more like, “This isn’t anything personal. We’re not trying to take anything away from you. It’s not like it’s held against the business.” That has been one of the good things for us.
That’s a great point in terms of scaling culture. A founder can’t scale culture. It has to be a team that’s doing it. In this case, bringing in somebody to manage the personnel lets you scale even further. As you grow, you have to change policies. You have to become a little bit more buttoned up and dialed in on a couple of things. I hear a lot of organizations say, “I don’t want to become corporatized. I don’t want to become like a corporation.” I’m like, “I know, but you also don’t want to get fined by the government for some stupid decision that you made. You don’t want to lose people because you don’t have the right career paths in place or a manager that’s trained.” Those are good positive things you can do to create a great culture, even if it is more corporate.
I had the same things. I’ve gone through all those phases where you don’t want to even have an HR person because it’s scary. I never wanted that. I wanted it to be very informal. As you grow and scale, you start to understand why larger corporations do things the way they do. This was a LinkedIn post, so I don’t want to take the credit for this. Being a younger founder, I had this confused, especially in the beginning. The post said, “A company with a great culture doesn’t mean that you work less and get paid more. It doesn’t mean you have ‘nice leaders’ who never give you feedback and everything is happy and there are good vibes only all the time.” That’s what I wanted to build. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing. It could be, but I was like, “This seems like something I am honestly trying to pursue.”
A strong culture is when people can go through hard things together, trust each other, and help one another to become better. That’s what a strong culture is. It has nothing to do with working less, even doing remote work, having the catered lunches, or having the perks. That doesn’t show that a company cares about me. A company that cares about me is when they push me to be the best version of myself. We’ve been dealing with a lot of the remote work piece. It’s not so much now and we’re seeing a huge shift. We do have little impact on the economy. As soon as companies see profitability decline, the first thing they’re going to do is bring people back. They are going to bear down and say, “We need everyone in-house. We need productivity. We need to figure this out.”
With public companies at least, I felt like as soon as they feel any pressure from that bottom line, they start changing things and they push. I always like to hit on that like, “We want people to become their best.” They come in the door at HydrogJug, and when they leave, they can use us on their resume. That means there are going to be disagreements, some long hour days, and some days that are the normal eight hours. Anything you do in life that’s difficult are the things that make you a better person. We view that the same way as far as culture goes.
That’s great. A lot of people do think that good culture means easy, and it doesn’t mean that at all. It means that you’re a community and you go through things together. That makes a lot of sense. What do you feel have been some of your biggest challenges with your team, especially thinking about some of those early days before you did turn the corner?
If you’re founding a business and you’re going through growth, when you’re hiring people, understand your business is going to be a different business in twelve months. I would hire people and be like, “This person is doing so good. This person needs to be rewarded,” and you move them up. That person was good at what they do for the size of the business where it was then. Twelve months later, it changes.A company cares about you when they push you to be the best version of yourself. Click To Tweet
For context, we went from a $12 million company to a $45 million company in twelve months. Even for me, I have the luxury of being the founder, but I feel underqualified. I can’t even imagine having someone in a role and they’re great at it for a $12 million business, but you get exposed when you’re a $45 million business. It’s not the same.
Keep that in mind and have a holistic view like, “I need to be very careful and diligent of how I place people in the business.” Know what their strengths and weaknesses are, especially if they’re good employees. That’s my mistake because I haven’t ever done this before. I feel like I did set some people up for failure because of that. Keep a holistic view of, “Where is this business going? Can this person be in a position in a $45 million business?”
One thing that a lot of small businesses forget is that you can have someone who is great in their job and who you want to recognize. You can promote them into a management role, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re skilled to be a manager. I came from IBM where I was a very well-trained leader because IBM was so methodical with everything. When I came into the real world and founded my business, I started seeing that that wasn’t normal. I had a unique experience.
Many of the people were coming to us because they hated their job because they had a poorly trained managers. That’s another important thing that you’re saying. You want to promote people, but you also want to make sure that they do have the skill to do that work. Otherwise, your culture starts to implode because they’re not carrying the leadership bag the way that you want them to.
I wish I had that IBM experience. I read a lot about IBM. In Built to Last, they talk a ton about IBM.
Also in Good to Great. Both of those are Jim Collins books.
That’s a great experience. I wish I had that but I don’t so I’m learning from the school of hard knocks. This is what works and what doesn’t. Another interesting piece to that is from Kim Scott. Just because someone is great at a job, it doesn’t mean they will be great or even enjoy being a manager. You can promote people in other ways. Corporate America is set up like that. To promote, get raises and do everything, you have to be a manager. It shouldn’t be like that. It should be like, “You can be an operator. I’ll pay you great money to be an operator,” and keep them there. That’s another thing I picked up. You have to make sure you understand people and what makes them tick, and place them where they need to be.
We’ve trained thousands of managers. One thing I’ve learned over the years of doing this is that fundamentally, you got to like people. That’s the one thing you have to have. There are people out there that don’t want to be around people, and that’s fine. Those do not make good managers. As long as you like people, the rest of it can be trained, which is a relief. It is so overwhelming being a founder or being in a leadership role if you don’t know what you’re doing. It is a trainable skill though. That’s the hope for me. Our mission is to end suffering in the workplace, and our mission maker is getting managers trained.
I think back to the jobs that I didn’t like, and they all stem from what my manager was like and then how challenged I was. If I was being challenged, I enjoyed it. I was like, “This is nice. I’m not super busy.” I look back to that time in my life and I’m like, “Even though I wasn’t busy, I was not happy.” That wasn’t a great work experience for me.
We find that there are three reasons why someone doesn’t enjoy a job. There are lots of reasons they don’t love a job, but if they’re not working hard or they’re not fired up about it, it’s usually because the work is too hard. They don’t know what they’re doing and they feel incompetent. The work is too boring, so they’re not all–in on it. It could also be that life is too hard. They’re so distracted. They can’t contribute as much as they want because they’re too stressed about what’s happening in their life.
Otherwise, people want to do a good job. They want to show up and earn their paycheck. It doesn’t feel good to go home at night and know that you screwed around all day or you didn’t give it your all. I agree with you. When you think back on your younger CEO self in those early days of founding, you always hear those questions. If you could go back in those days and give yourself the advice in what you know now, what would you tell your younger self about building a staff?
There’s a lot. It is tough to think of the main thing that I would say because there is so much. If I could go back, what I would do is I would identify key positions and hire experienced people in those positions. I need them to support me. My background comes from doing everything yourself. You don’t pay for everything. You go and do it. My parents own businesses while I was growing up. We didn’t have snow removal services. We would go and remove the snow because they had three boys. We’ve kept that mindset. Going back, I would have let go of the reins a lot earlier and let people that are experienced and had done it, and put them in key roles versus hiring more entry-level because I was scared of big salaries. That’s one thing I would have done for sure.
That makes sense. You mentioned earlier that you weren’t the leader that you needed to be for a $45 million company when you were a $12 million company. That’s one of my philosophies. I’m not the leader I need to be a year from now, but I will work to grow. What do you do for yourself to continue to invest in yourself to grow in your leadership?
A big piece of it is self-awareness, which is super uncomfortable when you’re always exposing your vulnerabilities and knowing what they are. Knowing what you don’t know and then addressing those things is super important. I’ll try to network a lot and talk to as many people as I can who have gone through it and learn from them. I’m trying to learn from them and read a lot of books. I’ll take CEO coaching to always try to improve. It gets tiring and you wonder if it’s worth it. You get worn out. There are days like that. If you’re always on it, and like I’m always trying to get better and sharpen my ax, that’s what does it for me. It’s staying self-aware and always looking to improve.Anything you do in life that's difficult is the thing that makes you a better person. Click To Tweet
A couple of years ago, I started noticing for myself that I would have this head trash. I had this ongoing dialogue around things I didn’t feel I was doing good enough. It was holding me back, but I couldn’t get that voice to quiet down. Every year, pretty much since I opened up my business, I’ve had a coach or gotten some kind of support.
In this particular year, I hired a professional business coach who deals with mindset issues. It helped me a lot, and all of that head trash started to quiet down. It’s always there on some level, especially when you hit challenges. With that in mind, what keeps you up at night that is relative to the business? Not just dogs, kids, and the things that should wake us up.
This is what we touched on earlier. It seems like it’s always something a little bit different. Holiday times are always stressful for eCommerce. During those times, I’m always thinking about sales goals, marketing campaigns, and timelines. I’m wound up tightly about that. A big piece of mine is financials. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to manage a larger business. How do we continue to grow and open new channels? Why aren’t those growing at the speed that we think they should? How can we do better? Who do we need to partner with?” All of those things that have to do with growth and managing a business from a set of financials are different. Before, it was like, “This will work. Let’s throw money at this.” It’s a much different way of managing.
How many people do you have working for you?
We do all of our fulfillment and warehousing in-house. We float between 30 and 40 people there, and then we will have over 30 in the office. It’s between 60 and 70.
That’s great. That’s a perfect size. How do you ensure that people are going to stay with you? What’s your philosophy on tenure? We all have a little different perspective on employee tenure.
I tried to create a place like what we talked about before. I want people’s work to be fulfilling. I want them to feel like they have a say. I want them to make decisions. That is one thing I left out of what I think about a lot. I’m like, “Is this getting done?” Many of our employees are new employees. I’ve been doing this for five years and I still forget stuff or overlook things. I’m like, “A lot of these people have been doing this for under a year and they have pretty big responsibilities. I’m nervous if I dug in here, what am I going to dig up?”
For the most part, it’s good. We have a good team. Something that is on my mind is how people are performing and enjoying their jobs. Do they have good enough direction? Do they feel fulfilled? Those are the questions that come up when you have a bigger staff. As far as retention goes, having the right benefits in place makes a big difference. Having health insurance, 401(k), and different investing options helps.
What’s one of your more creative benefits? Every company has that thing they do that nobody else does. Do you have one of those?
We have different stuff here. I don’t know how creative it is. On Mondays, for an hour at the end of the day, they go into the conference room. They’ll have their laptops and watch two episodes of The Office. We do yoga on Tuesday evenings. We’ve done different things. We used to do group workouts. We have a gym in our warehouse. We have pickleball courts, so we’ve done pickleball stuff. We do summer barbecues. Every other Thursday, we do catered lunches. I don’t know how creative they are, but we do invest in that type of stuff.
Those are great. I love all of those. Those are fun. I said it before, but I went by it fast. You’ll hear people describe their business as a family. I’m always like, “It’s not like a family because you don’t fire your family, but you feel close to people, so they feel like they’re important.” It is a community. I never thought of business as a community before.
We’re based out of Colorado. A couple of months ago, we had that awful fire that tore through a suburban neighborhood and burned a bunch of houses to the ground. It was awful. I couldn’t believe how many people I knew that lost their homes and then how people inside my circle and even 1 or 2 levels outside of my circle were helping each other. They knew each other through my business. I was like, “That’s community.” We may not all work together anymore but we still support each other. That’s what you’re doing with people when they are coming together on Monday afternoons, the yoga sessions, and the barbecues. You’re creating an environment where people feel connected. They feel like they matter to each other and they can care for each other. That’s great.
Those things are super important to do. Some people love them and go to all of them, and some people don’t go. I remember working at some jobs and I would be like, “I have work to do. I can’t go. This is going to put me behind.” Plus being an introvert, it’s not my being to go out and be super social. There’s always the community aspect. The thing that brings people together is those difficult times. That is what creates community and builds those good relationships.
When I have an employee that feels so comfortable that they can tell me that I did a poor job or they disagree with me, I know I have a good community at that point. I have that relationship with a lot of the people I work with. You want to have those times and opportunities where you can bond and talk about things other than work. You want to do team lunches and talk to different teams or people you don’t always work with. It’s super important. That’s one piece to the puzzle. The other piece is when the going gets tough, who’s going to support who and show that they care?Just because someone's great at a job doesn't mean they will be great or even enjoy being a manager. Click To Tweet
That’s wonderful. Sometimes, people ask me questions on this show. Is there anything that’s one of those burning things where you’re like, “I would love some advice on this particular area?”
As far as culture and hiring, I don’t know. I have to think of something on the spot because I know I have questions. I just don’t have anything in front of me. I don’t have anything off the top of my head.
That’s fine. It’s no problem. It’s so wonderful to connect with you a little bit. I appreciate your time. Are there any final words you would like to leave our audience in terms of building a culture and where you turned the corner?
The main thing is to always be transparent and very truthful with how you communicate with your teammates. Don’t go down the office politics and worry about hurting someone’s feelings. People need to know how you feel and what you need them to do. The radical candor piece is super important. That’s the cherry on top.
I appreciate this discussion with you. I also want to commend you for your self-awareness. It takes a strong person to be able to take the time to be as aware as you are. I noticed that through this whole conversation. It was fantastic. I also love what you’ve done with your business. I see this getting bigger for you. Thank you for your time.
Thanks for having me.
Thank you for joining the show. I will check with you in the next episode. Thanks so much, everybody.
About Hayden Wadsworth
CEO and Co-Founder of HydroJug. He has recently acquired ACTA to his company group as well. Both companies are geared towards promoting healthier lifestyles to their consumers. Hayden’s biggest focus is creating better products, customer experiences, and helping his team become the best they can be. Since the founding of HydroJug in 2017, the company has grown from just a handful of employees to over 80 employees and is now in the process of expanding its property for the third time. Hayden hopes to translate the viral success of HydroJug into his newly acquired company, ACTA, over the coming months. Hayden’s entrepreneurial efforts have been covered by Forbes and Authority Magazine, and HydroJug was recently placed as #33 on the Inc. 5000 list.