“From Avocation To Vocation: How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career” With Rob Lee of Swift Passport & Visa Services
An interview with Phil La Duke
Have a vision for 5 or 10 years out. I’m not talking about a business vision where you “strive to deliver the best damned fried pickles,” or a mission statement or business plan. I mean a comprehensive idea of everything that’s important starting at one specific point in the future 5 or 10 years out. Laurie and I have found that writing a detailed vision helps to see what it is you want down a specific detail like “it’s April 20th, 2030 and we have just delivered the world’s greatest fried pickle.” You can then go back through all of the financial, customer, and product/service goals that you have. As you review and edit concurrent drafts you can set precise, measurable goals, both short-term and long-term.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Lee Founder of Swift Passport & Visa Services. Rob Lee is a born traveler. Together with his wife Laurie, he has visited more than 30 countries on 6 continents. The company they co-founded together, Swift Passport & Visa Services, was founded as much on their shared passion as on the struggles they encountered while traveling. A native of Michigan, Rob holds a degree in Forestry from Michigan State University. After graduation, he worked as a forester for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for several years before becoming a wildland firefighter for the United States Forest Service in Montana. It was here that he met his wife — and future business partner — Laurie. Fueled by a passion for adventure and travel, Rob and Laurie soon moved to Central America, where they managed a remote, self-sustaining eco-lodge. After a chaotic passport experience that nearly prevented Laurie from returning to the United States, the couple put their minds together in 2008 to create Swift Passport & Visa Services. They were married that same year. Today, Rob spearheads all efforts related to finance and technology, enabling the management of thousands of documents at once and allowing Swift to cut the wait time for passports and visas from weeks to — in some cases — hours. Rob also manages Swift’s robust website, ensuring customers have the best experience possible and get their travel documents precisely when they need them.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
It all starts with my mother and father. I’m very fortunate to have them in my life, and together they planted the seed of adventure in my mind at a very young age.
Especially in his younger years, my dad was an explorer and world-traveler. The stories he told my brother and I were always incredible and exciting — the places he’d been, the people he’d met, the sights he’d seen. I realized very early on that I wanted to be just like him.
I wanted to be an adventurer and see the world.
My mother, meanwhile, is effortlessly kind and compassionate. She instilled in me the importance of love and empathy, and to this day acts as a unifying presence for my entire family. She showed me the importance of treating everyone around you with respect and understanding.
Beyond the values they taught me, both of my parents are self-made. They both overcame challenging childhoods and worked their way to success, both in their personal and professional lives. My brother and I were always taught that hard work was the most important characteristic of getting where we wanted to be.
I got my first job at age 12, working as a caddy on a golf course during summer. Growing up, I worked hard and played harder. I developed a love for the outdoors, for being outside and exploring.
That passion is still with me to this day, right up there with my work ethic.
Eventually, I wound up at Michigan State University, where I sought adventure through education. I bounced around a bit before I could decide which major was the best fit, going from Geology to Horticulture. Eventually, I landed in Forestry.
That degree ended up being my gateway to a whole new world of adventure and travel.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
Before we got married, Laurie and I lived in Central America for almost two years. At that time, we encountered a bunch of issues with our passports and visas. The most dramatic incident occurred in Johannesburg when we were en-route from Costa Rica to a family wedding in South Africa
Immigration at the Johannesburg airport detained Laurie because all of the pages in her passport had stamps on them. They didn’t want to let her into the country because of that technicality. Crazy, right?
We had no idea what we were going to do. It was extremely harrowing. The only reason we managed to get out of that situation was through an unlikely loophole that worked in our favor.
They wanted to send us back to the United States, but since we’d come from Costa Rica, they were for whatever reason unable to do so. After some crying and pleading, they eventually let us in. I can’t understate how relieved we were.
I have no idea what we would have done otherwise.
We realized that this would keep being an issue and that we couldn’t afford to ignore it. At that time in our lives, we were traveling a lot, so we needed to get that problem fixed — and soon! When we eventually did make our way back stateside, someone recommended “a guy” in Chicago that could add more pages to Laurie’s passport, and could do it in a single day!
Had that sequence of events not happened as it did, I don’t think we’d be where we are today. It made us realize how complex and cumbersome passports and visas can be, and how overwhelming the whole process is without help. Moreover, we recognized how little help there actually is in that regard.
There are no shortages of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
Good ideas are a dime a dozen, so unless you’re brilliant and find the perfect opportunity, most successful businesses start based on the experiments of others. The best ideas aren’t necessarily completely unique, either. They’re typically an improvement to the status quo or an evolution of a business model that’s no longer viable.
Just look at Apple. Steve Jobs wasn’t necessarily inventing or creating new, never-before-seen products. He was improving something that already existed, taking “boring” products that were already on the market and making them exciting. He had an idea of how those products should be, and he transformed them so they functioned how he believed they should.
With Swift, we’re definitely following a model that existed before we came along. However, although we haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel, we are constantly striving to improve. We make a point of constantly listening to our customers and potential clients, and using their feedback to better serve their needs.
We constantly seek new and different ways to advance our offerings based on what we learn from observing, listening, and asking lots of questions. It’s one of the reasons we expanded into business visas and began specializing in travel through China and the Middle East — because those are the areas where business travelers seem to encounter their most frequent challenges.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
The first thing I would ask is, “are you passionate about it, or do you just really enjoy doing it?”
If you have a pastime that’s enjoyable, keep on enjoying it. You don’t need to turn it into a business. However, if you’re truly passionate about that pastime, you’ll naturally start to create a life around it.
Let’s say you really enjoy baking pies. If you worked at a bakery and someone called in sick on a Sunday, would you want to sit around for 8 hours baking pies to cover for them? If that excites you, then that’s passion — maybe you should look into starting your own bakery!
My advice is that if you’re passionate about a hobby, create a business that’s in the realm of that hobby without being solely focused around it.
My idea of a hobby or pastime is something that I can relax and unwind or find peace in. Turning a hobby into a business can take that relaxation away. That being said, I do love to travel and explore, and we’ve created a business that’s in the realm of travel without being dominated by travel.
If I was traveling all the time for work, it would lose its luster. So instead, Laurie and I have created something inspired by one of our hobbies. A business built out of a common struggle we encountered while pursuing our passion.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I’m fortunate in this regard. Whatever my role is on a given day and no matter how frustrated I may be at what I am working on, I always get to see and learn about amazing places and people around the world. I love exploring and learning about people and their cultures.
I’m inspired towards further success because it allows me to see these amazing people and places. I have definitely experienced burnout with my business on many occasions. But I’m grateful that I haven’t burned out on the thing that’s at the root of it all: travel.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
The most enjoyable thing about running my own business is I get to create and build opportunities with my life partner. We’re working together to create a thriving business, and using that to build the life we desire. A side benefit of that is that we’re creating an opportunity for all the amazing people we work with and getting them involved in shaping something that has real meaning and purpose.
I wouldn’t say there are any “downsides” per se. However, one challenge that I face is my ability to disconnect from responsibility. My ability to balance my personal life with my professional life.
I have gotten much better at it over the years. However, there is always a possibility that no matter how disconnected I am I could be called right back into business mode to take care of a situation. This tends to come at less-than-opportune times, so it’s something that took awhile for me to get used to.
The challenges come and go, and change as the business grows and I grow with it. What I’ve learned is that each problem comes with a valuable lesson. I recognize business roadblocks as opportunities to learn, to better myself and my organization, and to clear the way for the next challenge.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
In my opinion, this is one of the greatest misnomers of being a business owner — in many ways, the business owns you. Like many before me, I assumed I’d be working on the business and not for it, especially at this point in the game. But there are a lot of unexpected tasks that a business owner must shoulder.
I believe that as a business grows from its roots as a start-up, the owners will always be switching roles and responsibilities as things shift and change with growth. I was, and still am, a man of many hats. I’ll often have to go from dealing with taxes to managing an insane logistical situation for a customer to fixing a website glitch all in a single morning.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore; I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Earlier this year was really tough for me. I wasn’t enjoying my “job.” I still loved my business, but I didn’t like my role in the company. I faced some huge challenges both in my role and in my larger capacity as a business owner.
I ended up facing some difficult decisions. Choices regarding my personal happiness. And I couldn’t just make those choices with myself in mind — I also had to consider how they’d impact the life I’d created with my business partner and wife.
What I realized was that I was that the answers to my problems lay within me. I was the only person who could help me with me.
There are so many things a “real job” offers that seem really appealing on the outside. But when I really started to dig deep into what I wanted to do, the flame that had started this business was there and it started to light up again. I saw that it was within my power to create whatever I wanted and that I had a successful business to support that.
A 9-to-5 wouldn’t necessarily allow me to create the same opportunities I could as a business owner. With Swift, I didn’t have to keep pursuing a role I didn’t like. I could create a job that I wanted.
That aside, Swift is in the middle of growing from a “small biz” into a well-established company, shedding the baggage that comes with smaller businesses. None of the successful entrepreneurs who I knew or read about would give up now. Working through the mud of life always provides.
From there I was able to definitively decide to stay in my business, and things started to fall into place. Ideas, opportunities, and a detailed vision of what I wanted to create. It’s really a beautiful thing to look back on.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In our first year, it was just Laurie and me doing everything from answering the phone to meeting clients to dropping off applications. I found myself feeling insecure about the fact that we were so small, and felt it important to create the perception that we were bigger than we actually were. I began building an alter-ego to deal with certain people.
As most things do, it started with good intentions. But it all came crashing down when someone I’d been talking to on the phone as the alter-ego called me out for emailing them as myself to follow-up. It was so embarrassing!
I learned many lessons from this. Most importantly, I realized the importance of appreciating who we are and where we are at any given time. I came to understand the value of being true to myself and our business.
With those realizations, the need to use the alter-ego slipped away, and I could talk to anyone as myself.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
This is an interesting question, and a lot more difficult to answer than I thought it would be!
Who inspires me to lead? There are so many areas I look to for inspiration, and I respect and value so many different people for so many different things. Keeping with the theme of what we’ve discussed, someone that’s inspired me to be a great leader is the same person who was busing my dinner table and filling my water glass at the restaurant where he works last Monday.
He not only buses tables and fills the water glasses, but he has also co-created a wildly successful group of businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s working as a bus-boy at this restaurant because he wants to. He gets a better pulse for the business and can interact on a very personal level with all of his team on-shift.
I had the honor of running into him last week — Ari Weinzweig, Co-Founding Partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. Ari and his partners have created an amazing community of 13 unique business all located within Ann Arbor. His stance is that it’s a leader’s job to bring out the greatness in people.
He lives a life of creating and building in the same manner that I envision for myself. He also has a strong community that trusts and looks to him as a great leader. One of his most important messages is about the Self-fulfilling Belief Cycle (My belief -> My action -> Other’s beliefs -> Other’s actions) in both life and business.
He holds that the beliefs of a leader create the actions of others. If the leader’s belief is neutral, you’ll get neutral action; if the belief is negative, the actions will be negative; if the leader’s belief is positive, the actions that will follow in others is positive!
He had one great line that left a positive impression on me. That we should change the saying “I’ll believe it when I see it” to “I’ll see it when I believe it”. What a great philosophy to live and work by! As a leader, what I believe will lead others to actions supporting those beliefs. It’s a fantastic idea, and a really great position to lead from!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Something we’re proud of is that we help make the people on this planet more connected. Right now, we have a network of partnerships in all 50 U.S. states and access to foreign consulates in six major cities — but for us, that’s still just the beginning. The more we grow, the more people we help connect.
This may seem odd, but I believe that connectedness and unity are becoming more and more important in our global community. No matter where we live, what race or ethnicity we are, or what political view we stand for, we are all fellow humans. I believe that the more people that can connect with one another around the world, the better off we will all be.
It all starts with a smile, kindness, and respect. There’s no way to conceive the magnitude of the ripple effect I believe this connectivity can have on the world. If Swift is successful at making someone feel good, that impacts the people they interact with on their trip abroad.
It’s a positive influence that’s immediately possible on a global scale.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Work smarter, not harder. I’ve learned that burnout is a very real and scary place to be. It’s really easy to lose track of self-care when it feels like your career is consuming every last minute of your day. It took me almost 10 years as a business owner to truly realize this. Remember what mom and dad said about working hard?
- Have a vision for 5 or 10 years out. I’m not talking about a business vision where you “strive to deliver the best damned fried pickles,” or a mission statement or business plan. I mean a comprehensive idea of everything that’s important starting at one specific point in the future 5 or 10 years out. Laurie and I have found that writing a detailed vision helps to see what it is you want down a specific detail like “it’s April 20th, 2030 and we have just delivered the world’s greatest fried pickle.” You can then go back through all of the financial, customer, and product/service goals that you have. As you review and edit concurrent drafts you can set precise, measurable goals, both short-term and long-term.
- Use every mistake, challenge or disaster that comes your way as a learning experience. When bad things happen, it’s like coursework for the school of business and life, and it’s a far better education than any degree can offer. Even though all the stress and headaches, my mistakes and challenges were where the majority of my learning took place, both in business and in life. I add life because of the challenges we face in business we most assuredly face in our everyday life.
- Actively seek mentors and fellow business owners to talk to, share stories with and ask for advice. I think somewhere along the way, society has deemed it “bad” or “weak” to be vulnerable about what we don’t know, so we try to do it all. As a result, we end up overwhelmed trying to do something we have no idea how to do, which can start a cycle of self-limiting beliefs. Meeting business peers and mentors has been one of the most critical pieces to the growth of Swift Passport Services. We wouldn’t be here today without them. There’s also a wealth of opportunities that arise when you’re vulnerable and ask for help. It’s amazing what shows up!
- Be kind to everyone, not just your clients. I don’t think I needed anyone to tell me this. It’s always been a pivotal cornerstone of our company culture. In my opinion, customer service is extremely crucial in a business, but there are more layers than just that. Be kind, respectful and helpful to everyone your business touches, especially employees and vendors, I daresay your relationships with them are as important as your relationships with clients.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
There is and has been an unspoken precept set within our society which maintains that life has to operate as a zero-sum game. We find it necessary to always be competing against one another for things, for status or whatever it may be. In simple terms: your “win” is my loss; therefore, I can’t or shouldn’t like you and I need to compete for what’s mine.
With this unhealthy mindset, we have created a frenzied, nonsensical system of labeling one another as “good” or “bad” that’s quickly spiraling out of control.
If I could create a movement, it would be one based on unity, inclusion, connectedness, and acceptance. We’re all humans existing on the same rock, and we’re all trying to live the best life we can with the cards we’ve been dealt. I genuinely believe that it’s absolutely possible to change the way we think as a society — to go from a win/lose mentality to a win/win mindset where one person’s victory doesn’t mean another’s defeat.
With a shift in mindset, we can become united, which would ultimately create the most good for the most people worldwide. For those of you reading this, if that idea appeals to you, let me know. We’ll start the movement together!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The next message you need is always right where you are.” ~ Ram Dass
We’re always looking for signs, messages, or even omens on what to do or how to proceed with life and business. If we take just a few moments to be still and quiet, that message is always right in front of us, whether it be our situation, our feelings, or our finances. The answer is always right where you are in this immediate moment.
Not a year ago. Not 45 days from now. Here in the present.
I’ve found so many valuable lessons in myself, and I love to support others in finding the most obvious message right before them. The quieter you are, the more you hear.
Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Yvon Chouinard Founder, Patagonia.
Yvon Chouinard took his passion for climbing and used it to develop a business that manufactures climbing equipment. It’s really similar to what we’ve made with Swift — a business that supports people who share our passion. But I admire him for more than just that.
Yvon has created a business that’s highly sought-after not just for its products, but also because of the stand he and his colleagues have taken — to have an extremely active leadership role in environmental and social responsibility. They care deeply about people and our environment and make it very publicly clear what they stand for. It’s truly inspirational!
I intend to be like Yvon when I am 80 years old. Able to look and see that what I have created stands for something good and beneficial to all. If you’re reading this Yvon, thank you!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
About the Author
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com