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Encouraging passion Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

When Eric M. Elfman founded DataCert Inc. in 1998, he didn’t have enough money to buy a laptop computer and admits he had no knowledge of how to raise money.

But he did have the tenacity to stumble along, knowing better days would follow. And sometimes, that’s all you need, says Elfman, who serves as president and CEO of the company, which handles invoices from law firms.

“Start-up life kills a lot of people who underestimate how overwhelming a lot of the early days are,” Elfman says. “There are too many foundational building blocks that have to be in place before this market truly takes off.”

DataCert grew from annual revenue of $9.2 million in 2004 to $14.3 million in 2005 and now has 120 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Elfman about why it’s important to encourage passion and ambition from your management team.

Q: How do you recruit top talent?

I empower these guys to go do their jobs. I point them in the direction and then get out of their way. When I first started my career out of graduate school, I went to work for someone who didn’t do that, and I saw how limiting to the organization it was to artificially constrain people.

I’ve got to set the vision and the strategy. But I really try to let these guys do their jobs.

What I think keeps top talent is letting them work on interesting problems and respecting them as individuals. You get your job done, and it doesn’t matter when you do it or when you walk in the door. We respect people, and we don’t have to set boundaries.

We’re not trying to drive a big philosophy that way. We’re letting a lot of that happen naturally.

Q: What do you look for when hiring?

There is only so much you can see on a resume. We’ve all hired great resumes with limited success.

We spend a lot of time with a lot of people talking to potential candidates, especially at the leadership position. Prior success is a key indicator.

We want to make sure there is a social fit. Is this someone I can see walking into his office at 7:30 at night and spending an hour talking about a problem? Is he that type of guy?

Q: How do you identify leaders?

I love ambition. There are always one or two people in my management team who have ambition to be sitting in my chair.

I’ve worked for people who have been fearful of that. As a direct result, they keep ambitious people further away from the center of thinking.

Smart people who can really get you where you want to go have ambitions to do other things. We always like to do what I call hiring above the position for our administrative assistants.

I want people that will come in and excel at that job but participate in other teams and eventually have ambition to move somewhere else in the organization. If you want to achieve on a big vision and build a substantial company, you’ve got to surround yourself with people who are going to have their own ambitions.

What you want is honest and genuine ambition. You don’t want divisive ambition. You don’t want someone that you fear is going to go knock on the board’s door and talk about you. It’s got to be people you trust.

Q: How do you avoid being insecure about your job?

You don’t ascend to a level of authority unless you have really earned it. You earn it by really becoming peers with the people that you eventually want to manage.

It would be hard to blaze a trail behind you of fire and destruction and hope to ascend to a position where you’re actually managing these people. The culture around here is one of communication and cooperation. If you can’t do that, not only do you not ascend, you don’t succeed at all in the organization.

There is a culture around here that professional respect in this job is earned. Everybody comes in with a level of respect.

You have to earn your ability to sit at the table and say, ‘No, that’s all wrong.’ You can’t walk in day one and start making assertions like that.

Q: How do employees at a fast-growth company avoid burnout?

I make people take vacation. Two years ago, when I saw we were just crushing people with work, I stood up and said, ‘Here’s an extra week of vacation, and you are taking it this year before the year is out.’ The next year, I made it permanent.

We really encourage people to take that vacation because it’s too easy to burn out when you’re flying like we are. I think I have a better perspective on that than some of the people who work for me.

It’s a continuing struggle for me to get people to understand that.

HOW TO REACH: DataCert Inc., (713) 572-3282 or www.datacert.com