From corporate role to self-made entrepreneur, Sue Hollis exclusive Interview with WILSummit
Sue Hollis’ story isn’t your classic rags to riches fairy tale, it’s not event your conventional corporate role to self-made entrepreneur! The self-titled “Adventurepreneur” packed up her high-flying corporate life with an international airline to start her own company, TravelEdge. Wanting more than the ‘career success trajectory’ had planned for her, Sue was desperate to build something for herself, something many of us always dream of but are too scared of leaving the salary, job security, and corporate benefits that have become so comfortable.
Sue’s story is a fascinating one. In our extended interview, she opens up about building her dream company to over $250 million and then, leaving it all behind to bike across The States, and write her book!
Sue will be sharing her story at this year’s WILSummit and I can’t wait to find out more about this Adventurepreneur!
Hi Susan, thanks for taking some time out to talk with us today. As a founder of the company, your journey to the C-Suite hasn’t been all that conventional. How did it all come about?
I don’t think my journey could ever be called conventional!
I was a corporate heavy hitter with international airlines for over twenty years working in sales, operations and global strategy, where my feet were firmly planted in the career success trajectory! I lived and breathed my work – it gave me excitement and adventure beyond my imagination.
But it wasn’t enough. I realised that I wanted to build something of my own…I wanted to create a values-led business that delivered amazing results for customers and perhaps even more importantly, to create an environment where my people could learn, grow and flourish both personally and professionally.
In 2000, I walked away from corporate life (and all its security!) and with my partner Grant Wilson stepped into the wild world of entrepreneurship to start our own business – TravelEdge – a business that would eventually become a multi-million dollar company.
Initially, Grant and I did everything – there was no delineation between roles as we scrambled to bring our business to life. But as the company continued to grow, specific roles emerged for both of us. Although we didn’t realise it at the time, one of the strengths of our partnership was that despite our core values being totally aligned, we had completely opposite skill sets.
This led to Grant taking responsibility for the strategic development of the company, while I managed of the operations – with my role eventually growing into the CEO for the 5 separate businesses within the TravelEdge Group…and so yes – a particularly unique path to the C-Suite!
What were the big turning points of pivotal moments from taking an idea, a concept, and building it into a multi-million-dollar organisation?
In the past 18 years, TravelEdge has been through a number of pivotal moments – moments that certainly could have gone either way for us…but fortunately, most of them have helped create the strong company we have today.
Key moments for us included:
Getting started: For six months Grant and I wandered around trying to fine -tune our business model to make sure it was perfect. We weren’t prepared to start the business until everything was completely in alignment and under control. But the stagnation began to overwhelm us– until we learnt the invaluable lesson: Start before ready – you’ll never be ready!
Weathering the Storms: In our first year of operation, in one week alone Ansett Airlines went bankrupt – they owed us money…our largest client Gate Gourmet went bankrupt – they owed us a lot of money and then the tragedy of September 11 occurred – meaning all international flights ceased. In a newly minted business, the cash flow implications of these events were staggering…but we dug deep and learnt we could withstand just about anything.
Holding your Values: We stand by our values – they drive every business decision we make and are integral to the success of our company and our people. This means that we’ve turned away potential business where the company involved was not aligned to our values, and we’ve walked away from existing customers whose culture and values have had a negative impact on our people. Even in tough financial times, and in times when the commercial impact was significant, no matter what – we have stood by our values.
Many founders talk about their mistakes and failures as important as their ‘wins’. Has this been the same for you and your journey?
It’s funny – I think I remember the mistakes far more than the wins…because their lessons have been far-reaching and impactful.
A brilliant mentor of mine once told me, that if I wasn’t making mistakes then I wasn’t pushing the boundaries enough. We’ve certainly pushed boundaries in our business – some have been incredible successes – some have been significant failures…but you don’t get to “great” by settling for average.
In our business and for our people, a mistake is only a mistake if it’s repeated. If we don’t take the learning and do something differently, then that’s a failure…but if we’ve gone into something full prepared and have still gotten it wrong – then we chalk it down to experience and move on. But we’d rather try and get it wrong than not try at all.
I guess as a founder, you didn’t have a lot of mentors from within the business. Was there anyone who really helped you on your career path and in building Travel Edge?
I was fortunate in my corporate career to have had two exceptional mentors, and their generosity of spirit, knowledgeable support and unwavering belief gave me the courage to step into the life of entrepreneurship, but after that, I was on my own – although having an amazing business partner helped.
I’m not sure I would have had the courage to have started the business by myself – but having a reasonably brilliant partner sharing the load was a significant bonus!
The beauty of starting my own business though was that it was a real-life MBA learning experience every day…there was no theory involved, just hard facts, tough decisions and impactful consequences…I learnt fast!
When your business kept growing and you evolved into essentially the CEO, was there anything that you found particularly challenging? How did you overcome this?
There were many things that I found difficult as the business grew and my role continued to evolve.
Some of my biggest challenges include:
- Learning to work on the business and not in the business – understanding that as a CEO my role was strategic, not tactical (my safe place!) was hard
- Learning to let go – accepting that I had great people who were infinitely capable of making good decisions without me!
- Not taking people with me – when the team was small, it was easy for me to impact and inspire…but as the business grew, my reach was not as personal, and I had to work very differently in order to ensure everyone was committed to our vision
- Keeping the values and culture alive – again, it’s easy for a company culture to be vibrant when there are 10 people – it’s very different with 150 people. It took the development of systems and frameworks to ensure that our culture is consistent, and our values are lived – no matter how big we become
- Investing in growth before we were ready – you have a choice in business – wait till you get the growth and then put the support structures in place or go out on a limb and establish them in advance so that your business has space to grow. We always chose the latter – but it was a scary place to be!
One challenge many CEOs cite is juggling the work/life balance and you’ve openly talked about this. What is your secret to achieving ‘balance’?
I personally don’t believe there is such a thing as “work/life” balance. I think it’s impossible to expect that you are going to be perfect in all aspects of your life 100% of the time – and striving for that impossible standard just creates incredible pressure and stress.
I’ve learnt to trade “balance” for “harmony” – and to accept that if you’re going to do amazing things in your life and not settle for “average”, sometimes you are going to have to be out of balance – and that’s OK. “Balance” is not for driven people!
Instead of trying to balance everything evenly at all times – work, family, relationships, your personal life – harmony is about tipping the scales one way when you have to, and then swinging them back the other way when you have the opportunity.
Sometimes I’ll need to work on something till 0200 in the morning – and that may mean that my family doesn’t get to see me, or I’ll miss my morning run – but that’s OK. That’s life. That’s the way it is. My performance is better, and I am far less stressed when I’m completely present and focused on the task at hand.
But when the deadline is over, I tip the scales back the other way – and invest in the other vital areas of my life and importantly, I never beat myself up about not achieving the impossibly fictitious standard of “balance”.
You’ve just written a new book “Riding Raw: A journey from empty to full”. The book is a very true and raw tale about finding fulfilment. Why is this so important in achieving success?
I believe there are two types of success in this world – head success and heart success.
Head success is about achieving the traditional measurements of success – the accomplished career, financial security, status and prestige, a lifestyle of opportunity…maybe a little power…it’s all the things that we’ve been taught from an early age to seek – believing they will make us happy.
And whilst head success is great – it’s absolutely fine to strive for head success, so long as it doesn’t define us – real happiness, real fulfilment comes from heart success.
Heart success is about being brave enough to step into the fullness of who you’re truly meant to be in this world. It’s about living a life of purpose and meaning and creating a life that makes a difference – a life that matters.
True success then is then finding the harmony between achievement and fulfilment in order to design a life of epic proportions!
Work/life balance is so important, especially for mental health. Having been the corporate heavy hitter, to the “adventrepeneur” – a term you coined in our early correspondents – what’s your advice for other women out there who are seeking to find this balance?
As I mentioned, I think work/life balance is pretty much an unattainable standard…and relentlessly striving for it creates unnecessary pressure and stress.
The trick in this world – particularly for our own well-being, is to create a life of meaning – a life that inspires, ignites and energises…and we do that by getting clear on what’s important.
I use the phrase “Adventurepreneur” to describe myself because, on my journey from corporate heavy hitter to entrepreneur, I realised that there was one thing that truly gave me joy. And that was adventure – be it racing motorbikes, climbing mountains, hiking glaciers…I realised that when I introduced elements of “adventure” into my world, my life took on a whole new perspective. Adventure completely fulfilled me.
And so, in my commitment to living a life of meaning, I’ve consciously created a lifestyle around my passion for adventure. I have set up businesses and taken on roles that give me space, the opportunity and the freedom to do what I love whilst still allowing me to engage in the “real” world!
Whilst I appreciate that I’m fortunate to be able to dedicate large amounts of time to follow my passions, we all need to find something that’s of real meaning to us and commit to carving out space to step into that place of joy on a regular basis.