Leadership Story: Will Dawson

Company Leadership Will DawsonWill Dawson is CEO of Hurricane Labs, a managed security service provider (MSSP) in Cleveland, OH.

Will found his way to Hurricane Labs through Evergreen’s executive-in-residence program, which empowers talented leaders to take on an executive-level role early in their career. After graduating from Harvard Business School in 2022, Will matched with Hurricane Labs, a member of the Helix family. Here, Will reflects on what prepared him to lead a company shortly after receiving his MBA and what he’s learning along his journey.

Tell me about your background. Did you always want to lead or found a business?

My first job, and the job that inspired me to want to one day lead or start my own company, was working in a deli in high school. For 4.5 years, I worked at a local, family-run deli. I started in the kitchen chopping chicken and cold cuts before eventually managing the store. It was my first real job, and it shaped how I thought about the role businesses play in their communities. After college I worked in an investment bank, where I enjoyed the high velocity pace and work. Most of my time was spent on driving inorganic growth through transactions like M&A (mergers and acquisitions). More and more though, I found myself wanting to drive organic growth strategy and operations. This led me to work at Viacom Inc., a mass media conglomerate (now known as Paramount) for four years. My role gave me a variety of responsibilities from operational and strategic planning to driving organic growth to M&A to business development.  These strategy and finance experiences inform my current role as CEO of Hurricane Labs. I’ve also benefited working in two large, public companies. I’ve brought many of those learnings to the smaller, more entrepreneurial Hurricane Labs, and in turn, learned much from working in a small business.

How did working in a deli inspire you to lead a business?

When working in the deli, I saw how a small, family-run business touches a community. It’s impressive to see what a small business can do from an employment perspective – almost half of all U.S. employees are employed by a small business. I also saw how local businesses influence people’s lives and connects a community. This inspired me to want to create a similar impact as a company leader.

What’s the name of the deli?

Garden Catering – they span from East New York to Connecticut along the Long Island Sound. They hands-down have the best chicken nuggets.

Tell me more about your business, Hurricane Labs.

Hurricane Labs is a an MSSP based out of Cleveland, OH. At our core, we deliver cybersecurity solutions that protect our clients from bad actors. We consider ourselves Splunk experts. Our solutions rely on Splunk, a data platform for searching, monitoring, and analyzing large datasets. We offer two primary services: 1) traditional managed security services and 2) managed Splunk services, where we optimize and better enable your Splunk environment.

Hurricane Labs is a great example of a business that has made its impact locally. Within East Cleveland, it’s known for treating employees right as well as fostering authentic and strong connections within the business community.  It’s a great company. I was fortunate to step into my role when the original founders wanted to take a step back.

At Helix, we hold companies in perpetuity because we believe in driving sustainable, predictable growth. What does sustainable, predictable growth mean to you?

Sustainable, predictable growth means executing and delivering on what you sold the customer. You’ll never grow with your customers if you can’t deliver on your promises. This means executing well in all phases from sales to service delivery to customer relationships. This sets up a virtuous feedback loop where your customers love your service. This generates word-of-mouth referrals, earned media, and facts on how you improve customers’ experiences – it’s an unstoppable flywheel. This allows your brand and service to speak for itself in the marketplace. And it’s grounded in a simple premise:  build relationships, maintain trust, and operate with integrity.

What is your motivation for wanting to scale your company?

Part of it’s personal, I want to help people live better lives. I want to create pathways for our team at Hurricane Labs to grow, personally and professionally, as the company grows. I want them to be able to provide for their families. I also want to help them see the importance and impact of their work.

From a professional standpoint, I believe in our product. I want to set a new quality standard. I truly believe that Hurricane Labs, unlike our competitors serves a portion of the market that is extremely dedicated to quality. We’re committed to treating the customer right and delivering on our promises. We have the opportunity to create a new standard for MSSPs where delivering a generic, average service isn’t enough. In our work we interface with customers’ most delicate, sensitive information. We protect our customers from bad actors. Being average doesn’t cut it, and we have demonstrated to customers our willingness to go above and beyond to deliver quality.

What do you find most interesting about working in technology?

I always feel like I need to learn more. I’m behind the eight ball if I’m not proactively learning. Our business and industry are ever changing. It forces us to be on the cutting edge. It forces us to be unafraid to fail. There’s something to be said for predictability in a business. When you work in a large, bureaucratic company, there’s comfort in knowing what 9-to-5 looks like. It’s different in an entrepreneurial, technological environment – you’re always on your toes. It’s challenging and exciting. This pushes me to be a curious, and ultimately, better leader.

I felt comfortable leading a Helix company because I knew that I would get the right mix of support and autonomy. That made me feel excited. We can’t do any of this on our own, but we also want to be challenged to grow. This opportunity gives us the latitude to take risks and fail on our own, so we learn and improve.

Why did you choose to join a Helix company?

The first time I spoke with Helix leadership, I knew I was working with handshake-type people. I was working with people who would do what they said they would do. They would trust me and let me work in an autonomous and decentralized manner. I felt comfortable leading a Helix company because I knew that I would get the right mix of support and autonomy. That made me feel excited. We can’t do any of this on our own, but we also want to be challenged to grow. This opportunity gives us the latitude to take risks and fail on our own, so we learn and improve.

How has or how do you expect Helix to help you grow?

Helix gives me no ceiling. Whatever I want to make of this experience, I can make. I’m taking calculated risks to drive organic and inorganic growth. I have a support system that makes it safe to fail. Helix is unique in that it creates an environment where incentives are aligned between Helix leadership and operators. We’re all invested in the success of Helix and its companies. It’s a true partnership.

What have you enjoyed the most about working at a Helix company?

Accountability, while sometimes stressful, is one of the most rewarding elements of my job. I’m accountable for driving improvement initiatives, growing the company, stewarding the P&L, and creating a great work environment for 85 people. This sense of ownership is highly rewarding when approached correctly. Because I can catalyze change in my role, I need to be dedicated and deliberate in my approach. My decisions can create an outsized impact on people and processes, and I don’t take that lightly. I’ve also enjoyed taking a risk and stepping out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know Cleveland until I moved here for the role. I didn’t know the MSSP space until I joined Hurricane Labs. These experiences push me to learn and grow.

What’s your advice to current MBA students considering a similar career path?

There’s no right answer to anyone who wants to be an operator post-MBA. You can participate in a search fund, start your own biz, or join a team like I did with Helix. It’s most important for current MBAs to understand a) your risk appetite, and b) yourself. Where are you in the phases of your operational journey? What do you find most rewarding? What do you want to get out of this next step post-MBA? I knew many of the responsibilities of a CEO were highly rewarding for me, and I felt prepared to do many of them. At the same time, there were areas where I wanted and needed support to get to a level where I could lead autonomously as a CEO. This is what made Helix the right fit for me.

What’s your life philosophy?

If you can look at yourself in the mirror and be honest with yourself, nothing else matters. This engenders confidence in yourself, which engenders confidence in your relationships with people around you. At the end of the day, you’re all that you’ve got. If you aren’t living a life that’s honest with who you are and upholds your values, you’ll never find success. This is most critical to remember when bad things happen – and they will happen. The hardest moments in my life, I have driven happiness and joy because I know who I am and trusted who I am.