Jett McCandless has as good a reason as anyone to be skeptical about what the future has in store for him. He grew up in a poor part of Chicago with a family that had little money. Through a strong will and deep determination, McCandless forged a career path that brought him to work for a third-party logistics provider.
He helped the company grow to $80 million in revenue and began to accrue all the symbols of wealth. And then in the blink of an eye, he lost it all. In 2010, the company was sold to a private equity firm. McCandless disagreed with the terms of the deal and was fired.
To top it off, he broke his back in a motocross accident.
“I went from multimillion-dollar homes and cars and whatever I wanted to a back brace with generic peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because I was so tight for cash,” McCandless says. “Pretty sharp contrast to have happened in 45 days.”
That was four years ago. Today, McCandless is once again riding high as founder and CEO of CarrierDirect LLC, a consulting and sales company in the transport and logistics industry. In two years, the company grew to $35 million in revenue and now has $3.5 million in net profit.
Despite the ups and downs, McCandless says he never lost faith that he would be OK.
“You cannot be great, you cannot accomplish anything amazing if you live your life in fear that you’ll have a failure or a mistake,” McCandless says. “If you have any expectation other than that is part of what is going to happen, you are setting yourself up to be a total failure.”
Learning from failure
McCandless got his start in business at the age of 12 mowing lawns in his neighborhood.
“I wasn’t strong enough or old enough to push a lawnmower,” McCandless says. “I didn’t do a good job cutting. My marketing and sales skills also were pretty weak.”
He then tried landscaping, but that didn’t work either. But the experiences mowing grass and landscaping taught him a lesson that has stuck with him to this day.
“Make sure you don’t own your job,” McCandless says. “Own a company. When you’re a small business, you own your job and you don’t own a company. We’ve been able to break through that barrier. The core of our business model is we help good companies become great.”
CarrierDirect is a thought leadership and consulting company that meets with CEOs and looks for ways to shape strategy based on the vision and imagination of the leader.
“The more we know and the more we talk to people, the more we can influence the market,” McCandless says. “We’re working with the top brands in the market. Worldwide Express, Coyote Logistics, Echo Global and Con-Way. It’s truly an honor to help these guys grow.”
The fact that McCandless did not earn a college degree is part of who he is, but it does not define who he is. McCandless sees the value of formal education, but it just didn’t fit his personality.
“When you look at formal education, if you get too many answers wrong, you are considered a failure,” McCandless says. “Business isn’t like that. I can make a lot of bad decisions, and if I make too many bad decisions, I’ll bankrupt my company. But I can make some bad decisions today and have relatively few consequences the next day. I can just figure out a different way to do it.
“Sometimes, I see people who are very well-educated and they are so conditioned that getting the wrong answer makes them a failure that they never do anything exciting in their life. They make $150,000 or $300,000 a year, but the idea that they would start their own business and it might not work is too risky for them. For me, there’s no shame in it not working out.”
The price of success
If you come to work for McCandless, you better be prepared to shed your blood, sweat and tears and not expect much in return, at least initially.
“I pay my people hardly anything when they get started,” McCandless says. “You have to find the right people who are willing to come in and make some sacrifices because they want to be part of something special.”
McCandless cites studies that show many entrepreneurs came from backgrounds like he did where they had very little growing up, but made themselves into a success. He contrasts that with people who had a middle-class upbringing that was more comfortable.
“Most of them continue to be middle class,” McCandless says.
One thing McCandless does provide his people is a stake in the company. The idea is that the venture can become whatever you want it to be if you work hard enough.
“I could go and sell 20 percent of CarrierDirect for $2 million,” McCandless says. “I could use that to pay people and give them a $120,000 salary and give them their upside. That’s an option. I don’t like that option.”
McCandless says he gets “incredible” loyalty and drive out of his people who must put in the effort to earn the reward.
“I get challenged by a lot of other CEOs,” McCandless says. “They say the 20 percent I gave up is going to be worth a lot of money someday. I hope I have more vision than that. I’d rather have 80 percent of a company worth $100 million than 100 percent of a company worth $5 million.
“Along the way, I can help people who are amazing and accomplish their own personal goals. I can help them leave their legacy. By helping people accomplish their goals to be part of something special, I’m able to accomplish my goals.”