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January 22, 2016

How Elite SEM Avoided The Communication Challenges of Scaling Up

Ben Kirshner has grown Elite SEM, his New York City digital marketing firm, from $5 million in revenue to $22 million in the last 48 months and built a great place to work along the way.

At a time when many agencies in New York are battling for talent, Elite SEM doesn’t have to. Making it onto competitive lists like Crain’s New York Business‘s Best Places to Work, it has scaled up from 18 to 150 employees with almost no recruiting costs in the past four years. Kirshner, the firm’s CEO, estimates he’s saved well over $1 million on hiring headhunters because A players come to him—and his 97% retention rate means he seldom has to replace someone.

“If you create a great culture, great people want to work for you,” Kirshner says.

Now, with Elite SEM planning a scale-up to 300 people in three years, Kirshner is taking an aggressive approach to keeping the culture great. “I run my business like I’m going out of business,” he says.

Working with one coach, Cameron Herold, Kirshner recently added Matt Kuttler of Kuttler Strategic Advising, LLC, to his coaching team. Kuttler, a Gazelles International coach, is showing him how to implement the ideas in Scaling Up, my book about scaling a business.

One key early step the firm took was working on its strategic plan. “They did a really good job in getting the vision the CEO had for the company written down in a way that described what the company looked like three years in the future,” Herold says. “Any employees, any suppliers, any customers would be just as clear on what the vision is as the CEO is.”

Herold also introduced a training program to develop the talents of the firm’s managers as leaders. “We got them out of the day-to-day,” Herold says. To raise the firm’s profile, he guided Elite SEM’s team on applying for awards that provide third-party recognition of its great culture.

Now, Elite SEM is also working with Kuttler to build on the strong communication it established for the company’s scale-up. Currently, Elite SEM has seven offices—in New York, Atlanta, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and a new one opening in Austin. When companies get bigger than 150 people, incomplete communication is one problem that routinely surfaces, as Scaling Up discusses.

To prevent this from happening, Kuttler began a comprehensive program, in which the company has tackled important tasks such as defining its quarterly goals. He has also worked with Elite SEM on specifying the quarterly priorities for senior leaders, adding weekly tracking. Elite SEM has done this at the quarterly meetings it has begun to hold under Kuttler’s guidance.

Elite SEM has also begun gradually phasing in the daily huddle—a short, all-hands on deck meeting or conference call—in some departments. Kirshner has worried that adding daily huddles to the company’s highly intrapreneurial, commission-driven environment will annoy star performers—who want to spend their time making money for their clients and themselves. “We have a culture that is very free spirited,” says Kirshner. “To put structure in could cause an issue.” As a result, he has been working with Kuttler to put the quick meetings in place in a way that doesn’t mess with that.

It’s a concern that many companies have when scaling up. However, as I’ve seen with companies like Appster—the fast-growing Australian app development startup that is attracting the hottest talent around—once companies try huddles, they can’t imagine living without them.

Kuttler is confident that Elite SEM will benefit from the huddles, given how dispersed its team is. “They are as committed as any organization I’ve seen,” he says. That is the first step to achieving great results, and I’m looking forward to watching Elite SEM’s progress as it scales up.

Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish is founder of the world-renowned Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and chaired for fifteen years EO’s premiere CEO program, the “Birthing of Giants” and WEO’s “Advanced Business” executive program both held at MIT. Founder and CEO of Gazelles, a global executive education and coaching company with over 150 coaching partners on six continents, Verne has spent the past three decades helping companies scale-up. The “Growth Guy” syndicated columnist, he’s also the Venture columnist for FORTUNE magazine. He’s the author of Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits 2.0); Mastering the Rockefeller Habits; and along with the editors of Fortune, authored The Greatest Business Decisions of All Times," for which Jim Collins wrote the foreword. Verne also chairs FORTUNE Magazine’s annual Leadership and Growth Summits and serves on several boards including chairman of The Riordan Clinic and the newly launched Geoversity. He is an investor in many scale-ups. A father of four, he enjoys piano, tennis, and magic as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.