Dan Johnston, co-founder and CEO of WorkStep, recently sat down for an Origins interview on The Future of Supply Chain podcast. He discussed how his early experience as a founder of education-centric companies-and his frustration as a former warehouse manager in the supply chain industry — combined to form the idea behind WorkStep; how he keeps his internal team engaged and passionate about the company’s mission; and the one thing supply chain business founders need for long-term success.
Prior to founding WorkStep, Dan founded two other startups in the educational space. He first stumbled into entrepreneurship during college, working as a tutor for local high school students. As his network of middle school and high school families expanded beyond the amount of time he had to tutor, he began connecting his prospects with fellow college students. That’s how Dan’s first tutoring agency, Cardinal Scholars, was born.
At its peak, Cardinal Scholars had about 200 tutors on staff. In 2012, the company was acquired by Course Hero.
Dan’s second startup, InstaEDU, was an online, on-demand version of Cardinal Scholars. Instead of connecting local students with local tutors, students could find a tutor anywhere in the country.
“It was all about democratizing access to education and letting students anywhere work with the best and brightest for a pay-by-the-minute model,” Dan says. “That was my first foray into venture-backed business.”
Over the course of two years, after two rounds of funding, InstaEDU scaled from zero to 10,000 tutors. Chegg acquired the business in 2014.
Connecting Education and Supply Chain Experience to Form WorkStep
Dan formed the idea for WorkStep by combining his early career experience warehousing trampolines with his experience matching students’ tutoring needs with their tutors’ skillsets.
As a warehouse manager near Portland, Oregon, Dan’s team was involved in the Skywalker Trampoline supply chain — receiving products from overseas, shipping them out to distribution centers, and tracking commerce. Dan was frustrated by the available industrial staffing options, and the experience made a lasting impact on him.
With Cardinal Scholars and InstaEDU, Dan says, “We were able to help people in need of skills and time connect with those who had them. What we’re doing at WorkStep is building that for the industrial sector.”
WorkStep’s mission is twofold: to help workers find the most profitable supply chain jobs that are a match for their skills and potential, and to help industrial companies make the right hires for their businesses — when they need them.
How WorkStep’s Internal Culture Empowers its Team for Success
Because WorkStep is focused on empowering positive staffing and career outcomes for supply chain businesses and workers, Dan finds it easy to champion the company’s cause to his own team. As the company grows — and its successes with it — the team’s excitement and empowerment continue to build.
“I think that we have an incredibly passionate, empathetic team,” Dan says. “And everybody at our company brings that to the table every single day.”
Dan calls his team a “candidate community chain” that facilitates training, coaching, and empowerment of the skilled workers they match with the companies that need them. Team members share stories with one another about the impact WorkStep is having on the lives of workers, and the bottom line of the companies they serve. By keeping its finger on the pulse of the company’s growth, plus the responses of the market and the customers it serves, the WorkStep team is continually reinforced and empowered from within.
From that empowerment comes continual growth, which Dan says is essential for continuous improvement.
“The biggest key indicator of a company’s success is the ability for not just the founders, but the whole team to evolve as fast as the company,” he says.
“If you’re growing and you’re not getting better, you’re actually just getting worse. That might not play out for a couple of quarters, but it eventually degrades and the wheels start to rattle, then fall off.
“Something we’re passionate about — not just at the founder level — is for every single employee to be involved in the business.”
WorkStep measures improvement through objectives and key results (OKRs) on the company, functional, and employee levels. In addition, the company recently instituted a 360 feedback process, a quantitative framework that measures hard and soft skills, including leadership, goal setting, alignment, and communication.
The One Skill Supply Chain Business Founders Need for Success
According to Dan, the most important skill that founders in the supply chain industry need for success is a deep understanding of their end customers. In the case of WorkStep, those customers are the job seekers looking for the right supply chain companies to grow their careers, and the companies seeking skilled workers who they can retain and develop long-term.
Dan says supply chain founders should understand:
Who your customers are
Your customers’ goals
What your customers really care about on a day-to-day basis
How your product, technology, or service can help them achieve their goals
Without empathy and a fine-tuned understanding of all the above factors, supply chain businesses risk their ability to grow and scale — and ultimately, their staying power in the marketplace.