Brian Hughes is our newest addition to RevUnit’s executive suite. A Renaissance man for the 21st century, Brian’s diverse background and passion for learning make him a great fit for RevUnit. We sat down to talk with Brian—about what he seeks to bring to RevUnit, what gets him excited, and how he spends his time outside of work.
I was so excited to find that the ideal opportunity existed here, in Northwest Arkansas, at the perfect time.
Tell me about your early professional career.
During and after college, I started my career as a software developer in a startup. I loved it. I loved the way you could build something amazing out of thin air with just an idea, a computer, and a keyboard. I really enjoy that creative process of bringing an idea to life, but I decided I wanted to sit at the “buffet table of business” and get my MBA, to continue to stretch and learn.
In business school, I got really excited about marketing, merchandising, and great company cultures, and those interests steered where I chose to go for my first role, at Walmart. I did a leadership rotational program to gain broad exposure to the business, and then pursued a self-directed “applied MBA.” I started as a merchant in the Hardware and Paint business and loved “painting the canvas” of my shelves with compelling and competitive products for customers. When I moved into the next function, Finance, I only intended to stay for one tour of duty, and then move on.
It was tremendous. I got to work on many aspects of sustainability as the company was launching a concerted focus there— on sustainable buildings, energy, waste, solar panels, and new business models. I really enjoyed contributing to some of the most important strategic decisions and transforming initiatives of the company.
I found that Finance is a great vehicle to learn about, serve, and help develop and strengthen all areas of the business. I positioned myself in areas that needed transformation because I’m really wired as a strategist and as a change agent. And so I sought out roles leading Finance teams that worked with Real Estate, E-commerce, Membership, Marketing, Customer Analytics, and Technology, as they were going through big transformations and dislocations.
In my heart of hearts, the purpose of amassing all of that information and experience was to bring it full circle and apply it to a business in the entrepreneurial startup environment. I was so excited to find that the ideal opportunity existed here, in Northwest Arkansas, at the perfect time.
How would you define your role as CFO?
The role of a CFO is evolving quickly. What I try to focus on is much broader than the stereotype of “bean counters” that is associated historically with Finance and Accounting. I prefer the image of a bean sprouter, who creates and facilitates value and opportunity through innovation, while also keeping a steady hand on the tiller and making sure the financial blocking and tackling gets done. Increasingly, CFOs are asked to be much more than stewards and risk managers, but to also facilitate operational excellence, be catalysts for transformation, and strategists that position the business to build and seize opportunities. CFOs can do that by adopting the four faces of the CFO.
Instead of reacting to the future, we can proactively shape and create the future we want.
How will the role of CFOs and industry leaders continue to change in the future?
The critical competency of the future is to be much more forward-looking and future-oriented. There’s a discipline called foresight that has been growing in importance and sophistication. The purpose is to look for signals of what is coming in the future and think through how to position the business to be successful not only right now, in the short term, but over the mid and long-term as well. Instead of reacting to the future, we can proactively shape and create the future we want. This discipline of foresight will be incredibly valuable as we evolve our business model in a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA).
What have you enjoyed working on so far in your time at RevUnit?
I’ve been working with our team on a variety of projects that I’m excited about. As we grow and scale, we’re working to take the next step in professionalizing and strengthening our business, while maintaining and protecting the distinctiveness and character of our culture and way of working.
I’ve been digging into the levers of our business to give us more visibility and understanding to inform the decisions we make. This includes a lot of best practices research on tech professional services benchmarking, on pricing, compensation, KPIs, and business models. We’ve brought some new tools and analysis to bear in a way that brings more insight into how to optimize our business. I’ve really enjoyed the journey so far, and we’ve got a lot of exciting irons in the fire right now.
We act, we learn, and we adapt. This bias to action, and the opportunity to build and create new things—that is so exciting to me.
What do you love most about working at RevUnit?
As I was getting familiar with the company, I was so impressed by how well articulated and vivid the company values were. And I met so many great people who were clearly trying to live those values very authentically. I just really liked everyone I spent time with, and our culture helps the right kind of people to self-select here. It has created a very special place.
I love RevUnit’s “secret sauce” -- build small, learn fast, iterate often. Michael and Joe, our co-founders, built this company on a passionate commitment to agile development, design thinking, and collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams. Our empathetic, human-oriented approach to technology helps us solve the problems that people are grappling with in their work lives. We help people and companies #WorkBetter and love their work, and that is very meaningful to me.
It’s exciting to me how fast we can move. We have a big, transformational, strategic, killer idea. We flesh it out a little bit, and we get together and say “let’s go do this,” and we do it. We act, we learn, and we adapt. This bias to action, and the opportunity to build and create new things—that is so exciting to me.
What is your general approach to life and work?
I’ve always been wired as a generalist. I love the Renaissance man philosophy—learning about different disciplines and figuring out how to fit them together and find elegant solutions. Growing up, I was passionate about things as disparate as virtual reality (before its time), crew rowing, breakdancing, writing, and running a pre-Internet bulletin board system (BBS) from my home computer.
While I was studying computer science in college, I was also studying Shakespeare and leading a campus club called the English Society. I studied abroad in Jerusalem and the Middle East, and I immersed myself in French culture on a service mission in Paris. I love singing and songwriting for my family. Variety, creativity, and undiscovered territory are the spice of life for me, in my personal life and my work life.
What’s on your bookshelf?
I’m reading a book about one of my heroes, Leonardo Da Vinci. How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb speaks to a lot of the reasons that he was such a remarkable learner. One of my personal passions is how to learn quickly and broadly and bring the pieces together to accomplish novel and important things. Da Vinci was the ultimate polymath—a multidisciplinary thinker who was able to find solutions nobody else could.
In a business classic, The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, he says that the only sustainable competitive advantage, over the longer term, is the ability to learn faster than your competitors. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we become intentional exponential learners—we want to be a “living lab” for learning at RevUnit.
I also just recently read a biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance, and it’s been fascinating to see his approach to solving problems -- have a deep-rooted passion, have a “massively transformative purpose,” and use first-principles thinking.
Probably the book that has influenced me the most recently is called Bold by Peter Diamandis. It speaks about the exponential technologies that will bring about a future of abundance if we harness them to solve the world’s big problems.
Where else do you seek out information?
I have shifted my consumption over time from standard news media fare, which is so negative and designed to shock, to materials about the exciting promise of solving big challenges with technology, new ways of working, and by unlocking human creativity. I love spending my time exploring possibilities and solutions instead of wallowing in the despair of perceived constraints.
I recently took a MOOC (massive online open course) around foresight and exponential thinking, from Singularity University. I read a lot of WIRED and Fast Company. I read a lot of Singularity University articles.
A primary message of these institutions is that the future is exciting and abundant because there are technologies and methods that will make it possible for us to solve problems that were intractable in the past. Virtual reality, augmented reality, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, nanotechnology—these are all technologies that aren’t just improving five percent better than last year, but exponentially, and they will affect almost everything we do. They will allow us to address many of the Global Grand Challenges (GGCs) that we face.
When you’re not reading, delving into online courses, or redefining the role of CFO, how do you spend your time?
A quote that really resonates with me is “no success can compensate for failure in the home.” That’s something I think a lot about.
I’m a father and a husband. I have six kids—three boys and three girls. We love to spend time in the outdoors, on the lake, on the trails, and enjoying nature. We have gravitated through the years to making and enjoying music in our family, and that’s a lot of fun. “Joyful chaos” is how we describe the activities and logistics of our large family.
Family and faith are the core. Those are the most important parts of my life and are where I hope to make the greatest contribution. I married a wonderful, amazing woman and we have this sweet family together. Seeing our kids grow and learn and become is really important to me. A quote that really resonates with me is “no success can compensate for failure in the home.” That’s something I think a lot about.
What are your thoughts on living and working in Arkansas?
We think Northwest Arkansas is an undiscovered gem. We absolutely love this area and are excited about being a part of it. It’s beautiful naturally, and it has a low cost of living and great people from all over the world. It’s a tremendous place to live.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.