June 30, 2021
How to Hack Company Growth Like a Superhero
I was discussing the fact that at my last real job, I had grown the company from 129 employees to 455. This is essentially true since I was in charge of the India operations, but it took a lot of work from a lot of dedicated employees making change and creating a culture that made the work matter.
YEAR ONE: THE STARTUP FAIL
That entire year was really more focused on our first internal startup, iPlaceConnect.com, that failed miserably. We outsourced our programming (which is never advisable for an e-commerce company) and they did a terrible job. We were months overdue, the CEO was calling me daily asking when it would go live, and I was walking up and down the stairs trying to get the product completed. Eventually they banned me from their office and put a different client coordinator in place, Utkarsh, nice guy, who followed up and we finally got something usable to launch.
I had operational staff and marketing staff, all made up of people who had never done anything like marketing or operations before. We created a process manual, did a lot of training while we waited for the software to launch. We were ready. As soon as we launched, we started seeing issues in the process, where each part of the resume had to be individually copied and pasted into a database. Soon after we launched, we also realized that if we had five orders in one day, the tech shut down, sometimes for two or three days. It also meant every single person, operations, marketing, even me, were inputting data to fulfill the service of those five orders. We weren’t making money and clients were overall pretty happy with what they got, but we failed miserably and shut it down after 18 months. It was a terrible product and a lot of people worked very hard to make it happen. A couple people cried when I announced the closure. They didn’t want to go back to sourcing. But back they went.
Our attrition was terrible – about 6% a month. We were hiring people on an ad hoc basis, e.g., whenever the COO felt we needed people, he’d head in to Talent Acquisition and say, “Get me 25 new recruiters by next Monday.” The only people available were people who were unemployed, as India has extensive notice periods, typically 60 to 90 days. I reviewed the process they were using and had my son create some cooler, better written emails that created a “voice” that was young, fresh, hip and friendly.
YEAR TWO: TIME FOR PEOPLE TO STEP UP AND SEE OURSELVES FOR WHO WE ARE
We were bursting at the seams in our old office and we needed to build out a bigger space to for 400 employees per shift. We also added in some great benefits (valet parking, spa, gym coupons, concierge service) and built out an amazing office space. The colours were selected to keep our night shift employees energetic and put in full spectrum lights. Columns were wrapped in backpainted glass to make every space a place to put up ideas or keep track of team progress. When a prospect would talk to our sales team and say, “We don’t want to work with a sweat shop”, we would reply, “Have you seen the photos on our web site? I guarantee our offices in India are better than yours.” By the time we moved in August, we had already doubled in size and needed another space. Luckily, we were able to build out an annex for 200 more employees per shift on the same floor the next year.
I had also started to create and deliver the first of four different leadership development programs. Our management team was just awful. I’m not being unkind. Our Sourcing Manager, once she finished the program, remarked, “I learned so much from this program. I never realized how much I did not know about managing people.” She was in charge of maybe 45 people altogether on the sourcing team. At the same time the CEO was working away trying to get the COO and Operations management to fix poor performing accounts because if you can fix what you’re doing poorly, have conversations with clients about what they could be doing better, ultimately you reinforce the relationship and the clients start to see you as a partner and not as a low cost poorly made substitute.
We changed the internal messaging to our people. We said to them we are better than our clients because we see the industry at the 30,000 foot level. We’ve watched all sorts of business models from different staffing firms and we evaluated what the more successful companies were doing. We began gathering data on what worked for different business models and what strategies they put in place to increase their revenues. We now began to see our business change from merely transactional to more like partnerships. Our clients got bigger. We dropped a lot of smaller clients and started going after big fish. We spoke their language. We understood their competencies and had solutions to many of their pain points.
For example, a very large international consulting firm needed U.S. citizens or green card holders who were fluent in Brazilian Portuguese. Everyone was stumped. The client was asking us how to find them and my people all looked like deer in the headlights. I asked some simple questions:
Where would people with Brazilian Portuguese fluency get that skill? In Brazil, right? So let’s research Brazil. What are the top ten cities in Brazil? Top universities? What else should we learn and add to our search strings? Chances are, if you lived there at one point, or were educated there, there is a distinct possibility that you are a Brazilian Portuguese speaker. By creating connections, thinking differently about where these people would be or had been online or IRL made my sourcers into treasure hunters. And they started finding plenty of treasure. Our clients added more sourcers and recruiters. At this point, some of our clients had become so big, there were no trained managers to manage them so one of our managers decided to have points of contact. This decision caused a ripple effect that disrupted our company in such a profound way, that there was no turning back.
YEAR THREE: THE DRAMA OF RESTRUCTURING
The point of contact deal turned into a complete restructuring of the company that we called Launchpad. It borrowed from MLM schemes, it borrowed from gamification…bottom line, it took management out of the picture. As a Point of Contact (now called a Captain), you needed to increase the number of sourcers or recruiters on retainer to seven, crossing the green line, and you were automatically promoted to Team Lead. You split your team in two, selected two people to be Captains and you earned a star. Once the team split again, you would earn your second star and be automatically promoted to Manager. Eventually we also added weekly strategies to improve performance for clients and those with perfect scores every week could increase their salaries five times in one year. Even without a promotion.
Launchpad became a game changer. In addition to the Leadership Development Program, we also had iMakeaDifference, an innovation initiative that we hoped would bring in more innovation, but the salary component to Launchpad was a direct result of an idea submission to iMakeaDifference. While the end results were very different from the initial ideas, several people were involved in the discussions. From nearly every department.
YEAR FOUR: CREATING THE CULTURE OF SUCCESS
I was now in charge of talent acquisition and professional development, which included the leadership development program. We needed experienced people to run these projects, and they were already there. Maybe they weren’t confident enough to speak their mind or had been burned so many times in the past that they just didn’t care anymore. What I did is meet with the person heading Talent Acquisition and simply asked her, “If you had all the money in the world and the resources you needed, how would you change hiring at iPlace?” Oh. My. God. That woman had been in that position for longer than I’d been in the company and her words came out in torrents… “candidate experience”, “hiring managers never show up”, “asking the wrong questions”, “inconsistencies from candidate to candidate”. She did not hold back. We had to seriously fix this.
Together, we created a completely new process, and spoke directly to the hiring managers and selected only two to do interviews. I got commitments from each of them that they will always be on time. I developed a set of interview questions and a rubric explaining how to score each response. I ensured we hired every first Monday of the month, so we could schedule experienced sourcers and recruiters who had notice periods to deal with. And a terrific Welcome Kit that made people excited to start. The welcome kit lowered our dropout rate down to 2% and people now came prepared with their documents.
So when I left, we had 455 employees and I truly believe that many dedicated employees made the difference.