Chances are Jim Walker, co-founder and chairman and CEO of the Wayne-based company, will be looking for more space in the not-too-distant future. Year-over-year top line growth has become routine for the company, which helps life science companies gather and submit data for FDA applications. The company, launched in 1999, posted revenue of $18 million last year, up sharply from 2004’s $12.7 million.
But that kind of growth brings dilemmas, and the task of keeping the entrepreneurial fires burning keeps Walker up at night. For that reason, he’s made the finding and recruiting the right employees a top priority. Through a rigorous interviewing process, the company separates the all-stars from the also-rans because Walker is bent on having things both ways.
“We want to be a big company,” says Walker. “We just don’t want to have a big company mentality.”
Smart Business spoke with Walker about the challenges of fast growth and how he finds the right people to keep the company on track.
What’s been your greatest challenge as a fast-growth company?
The biggest challenge was to maintain the entrepreneurial culture that we started with. Going from zero to over 200 employees in five years is a difficult thing to do, and I think certainly the people you have in the beginning, some are suited for a smaller company, say 25 people. Then, when you get to 100, they don’t have the capability to continue to manage the organization.
I think it’s continuing to make sure that you’re living by that culture as you grow by each iteration. We’ve been lucky enough to have most of the folks that started with us because they have that passion and sense of urgency about the business, and they’ve been able to impart that to the folks that they’ve brought on.
That’s kept us very nimble and very aggressive.
How do you keep the entrepreneurial culture alive?
We make sure that people are empowered with their different lines of business and responsibilities. We’ve actually brought in leadership coaches to help people work through some of those difficult times and to make sure that they have the support of the organization in growing themselves professionally as well as personally.
As we grow larger and larger, the folks that have been with us three to five years have been with us through 50 people, 100 people, 150 people, now 200 people, and the organization’s different at each one of those levels. For people to continue to be entrepreneurial and to propagate that through the organization, that’s the biggest challenge.
How do you identify the right people?
It starts with the strong management team that we have that has allowed us to formulate a methodology where we have team interviews, make sure that one person or two people can’t be fooled by a prospective employee claiming that they can be entrepreneurial. We use a lot of behavioral-type questioning because I think that teases out how you would react in certain type situations.
It helps us figure out and find out what you’ve done in the past, enables us to find out who’s going to be a good fit culturally and who isn’t. It starts with the team we’ve built in terms of our senior staff and middle management because they’re the ones that are taking that message to market and getting those folks hired.
What qualities do you look for when you’re hiring?
When you talk to someone during the interview process, you can generally find out if they’re going to be high maintenance or not. We’re constantly looking at three things as we grow: what is our cost basis, what are our customers doing, and what kind of talent we can recruit.
Even from the customer perspective, there are a lot of people who don’t understand that, at the end of the day, we’re a service organization, and if you can’t give service with a smile, so to speak, you can’t really be part of this organization. There are a lot of people who aren’t used to that. That has always baffled me because even if you’re in a big company, generally you have a customer in a different department that you’re delivering to.
Why are people from large organizations so often a poor fit for a fast-growing entrepreneurial company?
Lots of folks will tell us in the interview that they’re entrepreneurial and they want to roll up their sleeves, but oftentimes after the first week, they’re asking where their admin support is. You realize that they weren’t the right person for an entrepreneurial organization.
It’s a mindset you have to be in. When you get into a big organization, you’re used to doing your work in a functionally isolated way. In a smaller organization, you have to operate very cross-functionally, and that’s difficult for a lot of people to adjust to.
How to reach: Octagon Research, www.octagonresearch.com