Gathering opinions Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

When an employee presented Bill McAlister with a study on why the office walls should be painted pale blue to stimulate the brain, he painted the walls blue.

And when each of his female employees shot down his idea for a new hair product, he too dropped the idea, returning to the drawing board.

For McAlister, founder, president and owner of sales and marketing firm Media Enterprises Inc., employee input is an essential part of business.

“I think that’s the biggest part of the success of this company is that everyone is involved,” he says of the firm that posted 2008 revenue of $50 million.

In essence, McAlister has created an infomercial enterprise by involving his eight local employees, and 40 nationally, in nearly every step of the process from determining product ideas to launching the commercial.

Giving your employees a voice comes down to determining what decisions you want to involve employees in and creating a culture that supports that ideal.

Smart Business spoke with McAlister about how to involve employees in making decisions.

Know when to make decisions yourself. If you’re the president, CEO, owner, you have the experience to pick whatever your next deal is going to be, and lots of things are involved in that. In our business, it could be the price of the product, it could be the distribution of the product, it could be where you make the product.

You have to make what the best decisions are based on what your company’s future is going to be, what your company model is, so that has to be done by the person who is involved, which is me.

After I make that decision, I then get the employees involved.

Empower employees by involving them. I value the opinions of the people in the office. In our business, 39 out of 40 commercials that go on the air fail, so the success ratio is very small. In our area, we’re about 60 percent success ratio in our company. I think it’s because we do things like bounce it off of our employees, get their opinion.

Our employees are the people that buy off television and that’s important. We use the value of their opinion, and we get them involved right away.

You have to get employees involved where you think it’s going to help your company.

In our case, our employees are actually our customers, as well. I like to get the employees involved because they feel like they’re part of the process, and in fact, they are. I don’t care if you’re selling a widget or if you’re selling Mighty Putty, it’s always good to have your employees involved in the decisions or feel like they’re involved.

Little things, like we have customer service people in this office. Anybody could pick up a customer service call, and we’ve sold 20 million sticks of Mighty Putty, but anybody in this office (can take the call) because everyone in this office knew from the very beginning what Mighty Putty does, what it doesn’t do, what it works on, what it doesn’t work on, and that’s important.

Involve employees at all levels. It’s a small office and everyone is aware of everything we’re doing. They’re involved in the naming of it, the packaging of it and their opinion on the script of the commercial.

All eight or 10 of us have something to say, so everyone is involved from the receptionist all the way up to me. That’s what keeps everyone in the loop, and everyone feels like they’ve contributed to the commercial because they have.

It’s kind of fun because you have different opinions, from different people, from different places in the country as well as different age groups. I thought one product would be very good, but it was a female product and (all the) females rejected it — they said it was horrible.

That’s one thing, I know what I don’t know, and I don’t know anything about female products. So I let the experts tell me, and they rejected it.

Keep the employee number small. Other people in our industry, or who are the same size company as we are, have between 50 and 60 employees. I believe most people that get to that go out of business. For me, I keep it under 10, and we do the same amount of volume with people who have 60. We outsource a lot of our things.

The team concept does work. Once you get too big, you lose it. I’d rather keep my company this size and continue to have one hit a year or two hits a year than grow bigger and try to hit 10 because you lose it, your company.

All these big, huge companies, it’s impossible to keep (an inclusive) culture when there’s that many employees.

Create an idea-fostering environment. We’re a very relaxed culture here. We have a lounge area instead of a conference room with big cushy chairs with a TV and people can go back there for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

If you’ve ever been to Microsoft or any of these large companies, it’s like a think tank. People have to be relaxed. They have to have their brains think. They can’t have me telling them what to do, so we’re the opposite of that.

When we hire people, we tell them basically what their job is, but there really isn’t a job structure. We are a think tank here, we’re only as good as our last product so we need the next product, and everyone in here, anyone who has an idea, we listen to it.

But that’s just the nature of what we do, and that seems to help everybody work together.

How to reach: Media Enterprises Inc., (800) 471-6123 or www.mediaenterprisesinc.com