Leadership Lessons and Founder Stories with Scott Allan: Former CEO of Hydro Flask

Remember the water bottle craze a couple years back, when everyone had to have a Hydro Flask? You can thank this man right here:

Scott Allan, former CEO of Hydro Flask.

Meet Scott Allan—former CEO of Hydro Flask, and renowned executive on the board of many very successful companies. As a high tech Silicon Valley executive that later pivoted to outdoors brands, Scott has proven his leadership skills and adaptability across over ten different businesses.

I’m super excited that Scott sat down with Fetti this week to teach us how to approach networking and business as a young professional. As a self-described “shy, self-conscious” kid, he shows us that leadership and business acumen are not skills that you are born with, but something we can all cultivate with the right mindset.

Could you tell us a bit about your background and career journey?

My uncle was a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He was like a Chinese Steve Jobs. And I really looked up to him and wanted to follow in his footsteps. So I went to the same school, got that same degree he graduated with, and then realized I knew nothing about business coming out of college. So I went into different areas and decided to learn, got an MBA, and like him, spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley. I spent nearly 20 years in high tech and worked my way up to being a senior executive and ultimately became CEO of a tech company. About 12 years ago, I pivoted from that. 

I was convinced by some friends to give up a high tech career to become CEO of a then-small water bottle company called Hydro Flask here in Bend, Oregon. My initial answer to the request was “no” for the first three times. It seemed risky. My uncle, my childhood role model had his whole career in high tech. 

But at that time, my wife was battling breast cancer. And my daughter was going to college the next year. I was in high tech at that time, flying everywhere, Korea, China, Europe and basically, living in offices. That led me to think that this was a sign that I needed to be here more, as Hydro Flask is based here, and that it was time to transition. 

Ultimately, I agreed to it. I spent eight years at Hydro Flask and four years later, I am still in the industry, but mostly serving on advisory boards and doing some interim CEO work as well. So, my career trajectory changed from high-tech to outdoor products. I'm really grateful that it did for all the right reasons—just being part of a great brand story, a great team building, being part of a community, helping build something useful and spending more time with my family in the process, too. 

If you could go back and give advice to your younger self when you were just starting out in your career, what would it be?

I would tell him that failures and setbacks are part of life. And they have a ton of value. First, there are no highlights without lowlights right? You can't have these great moments and fully appreciate them unless you've seen what the opposite of that is. 

Also, they tend to be the best teachers, as you learn so much from setbacks and failures—despite how hard, discouraging and frustrating they are. You're going to come away stronger and way smarter from them. 

Scott [center] with his friends in college. PHOTO: COURTESY SCOTT ALLAN

Can you share a failure or setback from your career that taught you a valuable lesson? How did you bounce back from it?

In 2002, there was a venture back payment company that I was the COO of, and we ran out of cash. We ultimately sold the company for basically nothing and had to lay off around 80% of the employees. A few of us still had jobs as we were acquired by a bigger company. This was right around the same time my first marriage ended. So I found myself as a single father with two young kids, a career that shattered startup dreams at the time. And I had to really think about so many things. What's important in life? How can I become better? How do I become a single father? What is a single father? What do I need to do to let my kids know how important they are? What's this opportunity within this bigger company? Can I go prove myself and make something good happen? 

For me, part of overcoming it was to think, “Okay, for the 30 people that are left. How do I secure those people's jobs? How do we take advantage of this opportunity that exists with a bigger company and new resources?” I decided let's go for it, let's be successful, let's go make things happen. And we had a good year and a half, two years within that bigger company. I learned a lot about myself, about how to endure hard times and how to find opportunities in difficulties. Try and figure it out. Failure is not an option.  

Which leadership qualities contributed the most to your success? How can young professionals develop these qualities?

Mostly, by failing and not being a very good leader at first. *laughs*

There are so many things to learn, but it's like anything else. You just get better with practice. You get better by learning what you're good at and not good at. One of the things I almost forced myself to develop was this ability to connect with people, relate to people and build relationships. The irony of that is I was really shy and self-conscious as a kid. So when I graduated I decided to learn more about business by taking a sales position which would force me to go out and meet people. Business is such a people and relationship game that I just knew that building relations would be important for me. So that was a starting point. 

There's just so much more beyond that. In Silicon Valley, everything felt urgent. Nobody sits down with you and tells you more information. If you're managing people, they can't read your mind. They don't always see things the way you do. You do need to explain things better. You need to talk about not just what you're doing, but why you're doing it and really kind of spend the time to engage them and bring them along, get their buy-in and feedback to improve the plan. 

Scott and his son Ryan at a World Surf League event. PHOTO: COURTESY SCOTT ALLAN

How do you approach networking, and what advice would you give to young professionals looking to build their own professional networks, especially when starting from scratch?

Practice makes perfect. So go to workshops and events, where you can meet people and practice meeting people. You need to get good at listening, really hearing people, and making sure people feel understood when you're interacting with them. It's just something you get better and better at. 

Your next big career opportunity can come from just having met somebody somewhere on a plane. People come away happy when someone shows interest in them if they’re commuting to work or doing something. We're all busy, but at the same time, a good connection with somebody when you didn't expect it can make you both feel good and go a long way.

Are there any specific habits or practices you recommend for continuous learning and professional growth?

I enjoy it, so that helps a lot. Then, workshops, speakers, and listening to other entrepreneurs or business leaders, so I'm always taking things away, comparing notes and so forth. So much of the learning and development is around your own self-awareness. It's not all about managing the bad things. 

It's ultimately determining and learning what your superpowers are. And how can you leverage those more and more? And then where are your blind spots? And sometimes, that comes from personality profile testing. So if you're part of a company where they're doing that, run to volunteer and sign up for it. Learn more about yourself, and that will help you grow a lot. 

Scott and his wife Annie at a local concert in Bend. PHOTO: COURTESY SCOTT ALLAN

Are there any books or podcasts that have had a profound impact on your approach to business and life?

I’ll say the “How I Built This” podcast on NPR with Guy Raz. He talks about all these household name brands and their interesting success stories and just how hard it is. Business can be hard and it's refreshing to realize that it takes a lot to build these companies and create these successes. But I always come away inspired by people's perseverance and what you know people do to make things happen. So there's a lot of great lessons in that. 

More recently, I came across a book, “Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown. It was somewhat cathartic for me because early in my career, the leadership models were handed down from business school leadership models, which are based on the military. So it's very much a command control, male-oriented structure. The reality is today, no one wants a robotic leader who has no emotion and is perfect because that person doesn't really exist and isn’t really showing their full self. So it's okay to be vulnerable. It's okay to show that you're not perfect. It's okay to have a weakness as long as you're managing it as a leader. I could be a better leader by being more human and letting other people be that way at work as well. So that's a great book for opening up that human side of leadership. 

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