Lidia Yan is co-founder and CEO of NEXT Trucking, a logistics platform that uses predictive tech to connect shippers with carriers. In addition to Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese and English, she is conversational in Italian—which she started studying so she could properly order her favorite foods.
I like to tell people to “work for a cause, not for applause.” It’s important to solve real problems. At NEXT, our early adopters helped us figure out what that looked like. They gave us genuine feedback, and that allowed us to improve and reshape the product until it truly catered to their needs.
That gave us the confidence to know we were doing something that actually made sense—and it also helped us be more resilient, which was especially important in the early days of NEXT. I was the exact opposite of what people expected. I’m 5’2”; I’m Asian; I’m a woman. I looked pretty out of place next to a 40-ton truck. Trucking is a tight-knit industry. Everyone talks to one another, and we benefited hugely from that word-of-mouth. Because we’d taken good care of our first customers, they became our first spokespeople.
Like a lot of founders, whenever something goes wrong I’m often asked, “How are you going to fix it?” My usual approach to problem-solving—and decision-making in general—is to act once I’ve gathered about 80% of the information on the issue and then evolve as quickly as possible. I try to fail fast and recover faster.
When we first started NEXT, for example, we launched a product where the drivers posted their availability and the shippers picked them, but we realized pretty quickly that drivers actually preferred to look for loads themselves. So literally two months into the business, we switched to an entirely different model, where shippers post loads and we target them based on drivers’ preferences and historical data. It was a very quick change, and that speed is still part of our culture today. Every second counts in logistics, so when we identify an opportunity, we want to get it out to the market as soon as possible and start gathering feedback.
My whole family has a business background. Both of my parents own small companies. So growing up, I learned a lot from seeing the challenges they faced and how they pushed to win. And I was always competitive, even as a kid. I remember once, my kindergarten teacher told the class whoever finished their meal first would get a little trophy—and even though I was usually the slowest eater in the room, I won!
I think that competitive nature is part of the reason one of our company values at NEXT is “passion to win,” but it’s not just about beating the other companies in the market. It’s about beating the status quo. What keeps us motivated is knowing we’re changing people’s lives. We have one driver who always wanted to own a small business but had struggled for years. He’d been bankrupt and homeless, and even after he finally saved up enough to buy his first truck, he often had to spend seven hours at the port just waiting to pick up a load. It was so inefficient. With NEXT, he’s able to create the trips he wants. He’s making more money and has started his own fleet, and he’s also able to spend more time at home. To know we helped make that happen is incredibly rewarding.
I like to ask candidates about their flaws. It’s a good way to gauge their self-awareness, but it’s also helpful to hear how they’re working to address those weaknesses. In general, I ask a lot of questions that are tied to our company values; for example, one of our values is to be a change agent, so I might ask how they’d talk with their manager if they wanted to do something differently. Finding those opportunities is important, because even the best organizations always have room for improvement. The way you approach and communicate those opportunities is just as important, because change is something you have to manage. It always takes time.
I usually listen to audiobooks, because I live an hour away from NEXT headquarters, and there are two I’ve been listening to that I’d recommend. One is Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which is about how to influence other people’s decision-making and behavior. The ultimate goal is to help people live better, healthier lives. But I think it’s especially helpful for me right now because NEXT is growing. I can’t just make all the decisions myself like I did in the early days. With a bigger executive team, decision-making becomes more of a process—and an art.
I’m also listening to The Advantage, by Patrick Lencioni. It’s about building healthy organizations and how that doesn’t just boost morale; it’s also a competitive advantage. He breaks down the process into four steps: building a cohesive leadership team, creating clarity on that team, over-communicating that clarity to the rest of the company and reinforcing that clarity. A lot of founders don’t realize how important that is—it’s something I didn’t learn until we were a few years in, because when you’re small, communication happens naturally. Everyone knows if you’re making a change or launching a new product. But as you add layers to the organization, it’s easy for information to get lost. Where a few years ago we might have just sent an email, now we send an email, a Slack message, talk about it in our monthly town hall and then share a recording of the town hall with the entire team.
I had a startup before NEXT, back in Shanghai—a flash-sale website that brought American fashion brands to China. We were profitable very quickly and had all these happy customers saying great things about us online. But then literally hundreds of competitors launched similar websites within a few months, and many of them had raised millions and didn’t need to make money. They had massive advertising budgets and sold merchandise under cost, which we couldn’t afford to do. So even though we were first, we failed miserably.
The takeaway for me was that good ideas are important, but execution is key. So for the first couple of years of NEXT, we were super-efficient and watched every dollar. Our office was in a warehouse and we did everything ourselves, including putting together the IKEA furniture. It was a challenging time, but it also brought us together and gave everyone a sense of ownership. And by the second year, we were profitable and growing very quickly, which is how we got attention from good partners like Sequoia.
Teleportation! I don’t know if it’s possible, but that would be so great. I travel a lot for work, visiting ports and terminals or speaking and doing panels, so I’m usually on the road about five times a month. I’d love to save all the time that’s wasted in airports and on planes. Plus there are so many beautiful places I’d like to go to and so many amazing things to see. I’d visit different countries, different churches, different museums—I can spend a lot of time in a museum. I’m hoping to do lots of that when I retire, but it would be awesome to be able to travel the world whenever I have a free evening.
- Fail fast; recover faster
- Create clarity
- Execution is key