Wayne Sleight, Chief Operating Officer at 97th Floor, joined me on the podcast this week. In this episode, Wayne talked about how 97th Floor has built a network of talent to continuously hire the best team and the company’s process for establishing core values.
He also discussed 97th Floor’s status as a ROWE-certified company. The idea behind ROWE, a human resources management strategy, is to give employees 100% autonomy in exchange for 100% accountability.
Speaker 1: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast with Adam Robinson. He’s talking to today’s industry leaders and entrepreneurs about the people side of their business.
Adam Robinson: Welcome to The Best Team Wins podcast, where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson and for the next 25 minutes, I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring.
Adam Robinson: Today, on the show, we have Wayne Sleight, chief operating officer at 97th Floor located in Lehi, Utah. Founded in 2005 by Chris Bennett who currently serves as the CEO. Wayne and 97th Floor currently have 70 employees and are looking forward to a strong finish to this year, I’m sure. Wayne, we are excited to have you on the program. Thanks for being here.
Wayne Sleight: Yeah, thanks, Adam. Thanks for having me.
Adam Robinson: So, a couple fun facts, it sounds like, under your stewardship, the company’s created a pretty amazing culture, which I’m excited to dive into with you. You’ve been recognized as one of the best in the country by Inc., by Entrepreneur, and Fortune magazine, so congratulations there. I see you are recognized as a maverick of the year at the American Business Awards a couple years ago, and Utah Business magazine had you listed in the 20s list. There’s a lot going on there. What does maverick of the year mean? Tell me about that.
Wayne Sleight: I have no idea, Adam. Honestly, a lot of people inside the 97th Floor and people that know me, know that I hate awards. I think it’s just all a joke. I mean, even if you go to celebrity, like Grammy’s and that kind of stuff. They all serve a purpose, and in the business world, they serve a purpose, but they’re probably even more so phony. It was just one of those awards we have a team that does them.
Wayne Sleight: For the longest time, I thought and I said, you know, 97th Floor, I never want us to do, you know, submit for awards and whatnot. But I do see, you know, there is a benefit to them for new employee’s, clients, they look to those types of things without researching too much about the company and it’s kind of like that quick little testament. That particular one was just, I think people that just do things a little different in the business world instead of the status quo and that’s 97th Floor. I just happen to be the one that they put the name on. I think 97th Floor does do things quite differently than most companies. I think it fits us.
Adam Robinson: I look forward to diving into all of the things that you’re doing well and in an innovative fashion. Before we dig into that, give us 30 seconds on the business. What are you guys are focused on?
Wayne Sleight: Yeah, so we’re a marketing agency, digital, which most marketing is digital these days, so it’s kind of redundant to say digital marketing. Anything from SEO, paid ads, like AdWords, Facebook ads, any other social network. We create a lot of content, so we have designers, developers, video, pretty much anything to help companies grow through a digital channel, that’s where we can help them.
Adam Robinson: If listeners want to learn more, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Wayne Sleight: Just our website, 97thfloor.com. Yeah, it’s easy enough.
Adam Robinson: Okay. All right, let’s talk about the people side of the business. You and I were talking before we went live that it was about four years in when you joined the business. Give us a lay of the land of the business then and as it pertains to operations, including, you know, talent, hiring, and retention, then what was it like? You know, today what’s different? What have you done that you think is improved that part of what you’re doing?
Wayne Sleight: Perfect. Okay, yeah. Chris Bennett, like you mentioned, he started the company in 2005. We’re coming up on our 13 year anniversary here next month. I joined about four or five years in, in 2009. It was just us two. When I first joined, it was just Chris. He started 97th Floor as more of a lifestyle company, like a lifestyle entrepreneur where, you know, he was doing great work for clients, had some pretty decent sized clients for himself. He used some contractors to help him, but for the most part, you know, he just wanted to work from home, be able to travel with his family, be there for family, and kind of manage things himself.
Wayne Sleight: I’ve known Chris my whole life. We’re actually related now. I just wanted to get in the business. He gave me some little side projects. Long story short, it naturally developed into a full time [inaudible 00:05:12], just us two working from our homes. It didn’t feel like a real company if you will, but like we said, we did good work. We had some pretty … a couple of big national clients. Things were good, but in terms of a company, like, no insurance, no other employee’s, no office, like none of that type of stuff.
Wayne Sleight: No real plans, just to grow. We didn’t need to grow that often. We didn’t lose clients often. Things were very easy. About six years ago is when we started taking things a little bit more serious and wanting to change it from just a small, you know, two-person shop, working from home, and some contractors to a natural office, and try to grow. Over the years, things have changed quite drastically these last six years.
Wayne Sleight: I always say we’ve been a brand for, you know, 13 years now, but a real company for about six. We’re still a little bit new to it. When we first started hiring and you know, building out the team, and had the office, and all that kind of stuff, all the policies, and like the HR type stuff that came with it and neither Chris or I had any experience in that, we defaulted to, well, what was the last three jobs that each of us worked at? Like, what were the policies there? Okay, what were the benefits that I had? What were the perks? And we just implemented all of that typical stuff that we had at our previous, you know, jobs.
Wayne Sleight: It was fine for a while, but there was, you know, certain things, I probably say like the one story of the straw that broke the camels back, if you will. We had this one employee and Chris actually was about to fire this person the next day and we were talking about it. It was just a weird like out of body experience. Like, what are we doing? This employee was a designer. Amazing, probably, you know, at the time, our best designer. He’s helped us so much through the years.
Wayne Sleight: The reason we were going to fire him is because we had a clock in, clock out policy and this person showed up about five or ten minutes every single day late. That was one of our policies that you had to clock in at 9:00 am or 8:00 am. I forget, but exact time. Anyways, so we asked ourselves, why are we about to fire this person just because they’re, you know, not following one little rule that we only implemented because that was our last, you know, jobs had, had this type of rule.
Wayne Sleight: It’s finally a time where we started, you know, picking up our head and out of the dirt and questioning everything we did. Well, why do we do this? Why do we do this? Basically, it came down to before we, you know, when we were just working from our houses, just the two of us, and even Chris before I joined him, he really loved his job. I love my job when I first started working with Chris because of all the freedom because we got to do what we wanted. We didn’t have to focus on, you know, all these lame policies, and rules, and what not.
Wayne Sleight: So, that’s what started changing it for us. Actually, Chris talked to him the next day about being late. He opened up and he explained that the reason he was late, he lives a bit further away from the office, our office at the time. He wanted to help his wife get the kids ready for school before coming into the office. That’s why he came in a few minutes late every single day.
Adam Robinson: It changes your perspective a little bit.
Wayne Sleight: Exactly. Both Chris and I are family men and a very family-oriented company. That’s something we want to support our team members and being a good wife, being a good husband, being good parents. Anyway, so after that, we started changing everything we’ve done. Like I said, over the years, I mean, still to this day, but especially that first year, I mean, we just ripped everything apart and started putting in things. Basically, the mantra was like we need to make this a workplace that both of us still love to come into. If a policy doesn’t fit our lifestyle and what we’d want to be happy with, then we’re not going to do it for the rest of the team. That’s kind of our guiding principle to this day.
Adam Robinson: You’ve hired ten people or so, for the last six years since, as you said, started to get serious about it and make this your real business. What’s the experience been for you? You know, one a month, approximately. You know, in six years, adding 70 people, that is not easy. It means something is going right from a sales and delivery standpoint. How do you keep all that moving? You know that backfilling roles, adding new roles, managing that process at 70 members on that team, that becomes approaching a full-time role.
Wayne Sleight: Our business model, we warrant [inaudible 00:10:04] an agency. It’s a service based company, so I mean, we have some tools that we use for our clients, but it’s not like we’re selling those tools. It’s all, you know, manual labor if you will. Let me backtrack, I guess. When we first started hiring, that was a huge pain. I remember going through hundreds and hundreds of resumes. We put out job ads on LinkedIn, the local service here. In Utah Wikinews and a couple of other things.
Wayne Sleight: I go through tons and tons of resumes, taking me a ton of time. I’d probably invite 30 people in for interviews. It was crazy. That took so much time just to hire, you know, one person. Same with the second round of interviews and what not. Over the years though, not the last two years, maybe three years, we haven’t done any job ads. We get about 200, at least 200 resumes a month. It’s because of the … and we don’t have to really hire from resumes that often for key positions.
Wayne Sleight: How we did that is over the years, first, we started implementing an internship program, where we actually use them as employees. They’re paid. It’s just, I mean, they’re not doing the most complicated tasks. At that point, as people, you know, graduate, we are building out in network so we know when we do need to hire, we already have a network of people. And then, from that, we started, we called it, kind of like our farm lead. There’s a lot of different names for it, but basically like a minor league in a professional sports, you know, team like NBA, G league where at first, we only accepted clients that met a certain requirement. We called it enterprise, a minimum monthly spend, the size of the company, that type of stuff.
Wayne Sleight: We turn away a lot of business that, not necessarily like mom and pop shops, but you know, smaller businesses with smaller spends and what not. About four years ago, we opened that up to where we started taking on those clients and we’d have people before they got in a leadership position, they had to be a leader on that team. Before they started working on our main accounts, like new hires, they would come in and work on that one. It’s almost like a bridge between an intern to a full-time employee. I mean, they work full-time, benefits, all that kind of stuff, but they weren’t working on our main accounts, the ones truly keeping us in our business.
Wayne Sleight: We still have that today. At this point when, you know, a key position on like a key client, someone leaves or quits or we have to let go of them for whatever reason, we already have, you know, people that are, you know, on deck to come in. At this point, hiring really isn’t a headache for us just because we bill out that two layer, you know, network.
Adam Robinson: I mean, what a competitive advantage. I was talking to someone yesterday here in our office who is a director of talent acquisition at a creative agency, who said, precisely the opposite thing to me. They told me that recruiting for creative talent and account focus folks was impossible and it was a constant battle and firefight. Everyone is always trying to take people and pay another, you know, $1,000 a year to, you know, get people to move and that it was a total war zone.
Adam Robinson: It sounds like you have the exact opposite experience because you built a farm system. I guess my question is, what prompted you to do that? I mean, it’s not easy to do, but boy, what a payoff.
Wayne Sleight: Yeah, and I guess I will backtrack. That was an issue, what person the other day was telling you. That was a big issue for us and we still see it a little bit in more senior level positions, I mean, we do try to promote from within first. We do still hire externally for that from time to time and that gets a little bit more competitive and your traditional months-long process, going back and forth. But, we used to get poached a lot. At this point, we don’t investors. We don’t have, me and Chris have 100% control of the company, so we’re able to pay people what we want to pay them. We’re able to make the margins we want to make.
Wayne Sleight: We’ve had CPA’s over the years, you know, tell us that we need to cut our spend in payroll to have industry averages and what not. We’d rather not have to go through that, which we did in years past, where we’d have people being left, or be poached away from us. Between benefits, pay, perks, I think we’re or I know we’re extremely competitive because it’s pretty rare for us to lose someone to a competitor. One, we don’t have much turnover with employees. If it is, they’re, you know, starting their own company in the year, or something like that, that there’s nothing we could do. In fact, we encourage them to do that kind of stuff, pursue their dreams.
Wayne Sleight: Yeah, that’s kind of why would say we’re not battle that very often, at this point, just because anytime people get offers from other places, they’re already making more money, or it’s about the same, but the perks and benefits at 97th Floor are better, so.
Adam Robinson: That’s incredible. I mean, you’ve hinted at it. It’s having a strong set of values that drive the business. Do you have formal core values that you can share with us and if so, how do you make those real in a daily operating sense?
Wayne Sleight: That’s a perfect question right now. We just are redoing those. We’ve never like had them plastered, like plastered on the wall over the office because we used to be under the mindset that that is just a bunch of words and we are all about action. We are doers, not just talkers. We were kind of anti that, but now that the company has grown and I know we’re still a small company, you know, about 70 employee’s, that’s not huge. But, not everyone gets to, you know, talk with Chris all the time, or me, and or some other leader in the company.
Wayne Sleight: So, we’re actually doing that right now. We did a big survey, company-wide, to see what everyone, including interns, what they thought our values were. And then, the other question was what they would like our values to be. We’re actually collecting that right now. Next month, we have a leadership retreat that we’re going out of state for and we’re going to go through those and finalize them and have like our official ones that we were always so anti against. Even though we’re doing this, we still want to and maybe that will be one of the values. I’m not sure exactly what word would best describe that, but keep that mentality that we’re doers and talk is cheap. You know, throwing words up on a wall means nothing.
Wayne Sleight: How we’ve kind of done it in the past of showing values is well, this person was promoted, or this person was hired, or this person, I guess, bonus, you’re not publicly, you know, typically, publicly, addressing that, but individually you are. Giving them reasons why that promotion happened, why that hire happened, or if it’s individual, why that bonus was given.
Wayne Sleight: We back them up with values, so that was kind of our way of broadcasting our company values was by showing it in who we hire, promote, or even terminate, in certain cases if it was warranted to make it, you know, publicly known. At least in terms of the company. Well, why was this person terminated? That’s kind of what we’ve done before, but yeah, now we’re getting to a point where we will have those, you know, four or five, or however many core values that we all memorize and what not.
Adam Robinson: I’ve heard it said on the show a couple of times, that core values are the path by which you scale the culture of the business once you hit 70 or so people. To what extent was that weighing your mind, as you thought about whether or not to go through this process, because it’s not a small, I mean, surveying the whole company and arriving at an end result here, is a big effort? You know, what was on the mind of you and Chris as a reason to do this?
Wayne Sleight: It actually wasn’t either of ours, it was other people in the company asking for it. I think that right there, I know it’s a small example, but I think that says a lot about our company is, by far the majority of good ideas that come out of the company and that we implement, it’s not Chris, it’s not Wayne, it’s not you know, Paxton, and Shantaya, or any other senior-level leader in the company, it’s the rest of the employee’s. So yeah, it was just asked for my multiple people.
Wayne Sleight: I fought it like I typically do always, but they convinced me. They brought up a lot, you know, good points. One of them that stuck with me the most, it’s very simple, is just, you know, yeah, Wayne, you know what the values are, what matters to us, like Chris does, people that have been here for years, but go ask that intern that’s been here two weeks and see what they say. It’s true. I do that. They don’t know. They say what they hope 97th Floor is.
Wayne Sleight: You know, through the interview process and reputation in the community, they know of some, but they don’t know of all the things. I do think, as you get to a certain point, I mean, we haven’t done it yet, so I can’t say for sure if it’s going to be good for 97th Floor, but I think it will because, you know, 70 employee’s, it’s just hard to spend one on one time with them all the time. We’re busy, you know, doing work, so we can’t do that all the time. It will be good for them to be able to see it and be reminded.
Wayne Sleight: Hopefully, they understand that’s just talk, that’s just words they read when they first are hired, or maybe it’ll be on a wall or something. Hopefully, they start believing it as, you know, the months go on, years go on at the company and they see they’re rewarded because of those values. They see that other people are brought into the company, and that’s when the trust and belief start coming.
Adam Robinson: I want to ask you about something that I read about on your blog. You’re a ROWE certified company. ROWE stands for results only work environment. From what I understand, it’s a human resource management strategy, created by two individuals. The idea is to give the members of your team 100% autonomy to do their work in exchange for 100% accountability. Talk to us about what that means. That’s fascinating.
Wayne Sleight: Yeah, I mean, you summed it up very easy right there. It’s 100% autonomy that the employee gets, 100% accountability that the employer gets. There’s a lot of reasons, like I said, back so we wanted a place that me and Chris enjoyed working at instead of, you know, just have our own set of rules and everyone else has to obey other ones. For us, we wanted to maintain that freedom that we had when it was just us two and we wanted to give that to everyone else in the company.
Wayne Sleight: That said, there are some things that we customized for our type of business. I think any business that is going to be a ROWE or similar, they kind of have to figure out exactly their business model because everything is different obviously. But yeah, I think there’s also a part of it is that we didn’t want to get in those conversations, which we were and I think both Chris and I are nice guys.
Wayne Sleight: When you have excuses of why this piece wasn’t designed on time or you know, the client wasn’t notified, or an email wasn’t responded to here, like, little things that occur in our business, there was always excuses. We always hated dealing with excuses of personal lives. You’d heard about, you know, well, I was sick, or this was happening, and we couldn’t, you know, hold anyone into the fire for that because we felt sorry for them. Where with ROWE, you don’t feel sorry, because you never talk about that type of stuff. I mean, you do if you’re like friends and you’re just shooting the breeze.
Wayne Sleight: When it comes to work, you don’t talk about personal stuff because you can’t say, “Well, I didn’t have enough time because we don’t track time. There is no time.” So yeah, that’s kind of why implemented it. We did it really slowly over about three years. About two years of testing things out, trying different things before we fully implemented it. It’s been about four years now, I want to … three or four years now. We track three different things before we implemented and then after.
Wayne Sleight: They were things like employee retention rate. Seeing how often people turnover, along with their happiness levels, which is just a one to ten surveys that we’d send out. I think at the time it was monthly. We’d look at client retention rate to see how well the work we were providing to customers. And then, the last one was revenue per employee. Basically, what we do, see if we’re being as efficient as before. All three of those metrics have increased from after implementing this.
Wayne Sleight: It’s been a big success for us. A lot of people recognize that. That’s kind of what our culture is about. It’s definitely one of the biggest aspects of our culture, but it’s not it completely. There’s other factors that make up our culture, obviously.
Adam Robinson: As we wrap up here, what would you say is over the time you’ve been there, the greatest lesson you’ve learned about managing the people side of a people focused business like a creative agency?
Wayne Sleight: Yeah, I think the main one, I’m not sure what is the best too, kind of cheesy way to say it, but it’s basically just to treat people how you would want to be treated, right? That golden kindergarten rule, I guess.
Adam Robinson: It holds up over the years, doesn’t it?
Wayne Sleight: It does, right? We just put ourselves in their shoes. I mean, we’ve even cut positions away at 97th Floor and services that we’ve wanted to do because we see an opportunity in the market. We have clients asking for it. We’re like, oh, that’s a way to make money, so we’ve done. We’ve, you know, hired for it. We’ve asked people to do it and then once we started realizing, we’re like, that’s a crappy job. Like, we don’t want to do it. How can you manage someone if you’re not willing to actually do it as well?
Wayne Sleight: We actually cut that out. That might be a bad business perspective from a profits standpoint, but every position that we have in the company, Chris or I, or anyone else would be happy to do if we haven’t done it already, ourselves. At least for sanity, and again, our goals are different than I think a lot of companies. We do want to grow. We set growth numbers, in terms of revenue, but that’s just, I tell people this all the time, if we don’t hit those, I don’t care. There’s other things that actually matter to us.
Wayne Sleight: That’s our mission. That’s our vision. Numbers, like revenue numbers, that doesn’t matter. If we stay at 70 employee’s and we’re doing just under $10-million in revenue this year, if we stay at this point forever, we’re happy. Revenue is just kind of a side thing. Treating people like people and like yourself, that goes a long way. You change how you think about policies, and rules, and perks. Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of company’s do a lot like, I love ping pong, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve written a lot about ping pong because a company I worked at before here, was heavy into ping pong and I think it represents a lot in the business culture.
Wayne Sleight: I think a lot of companies and like leaders think like, I’m just going to fun policies because that sounds cool. You never see them playing ping pong because they don’t care about that, right? They’re going home and they’re with they’re friends and family, you know, taking the boat out or whatever. Like, well yeah, that’s what other people want to do too. They don’t want to be like slaves and having to play ping pong in this office all day. Maybe some of them do. Basically, try to put perks in, and rules, and policy that you would … because that’s what your team is going to enjoy as well, for the most part.
Adam Robinson: Well, ladies and gentlemen, that is the final word you’ve been learning from Wayne Sleight, chief operating officer at 97th Floor. Wayne, thank you so much for being with us on the show today.
Wayne Sleight: Thanks, Adam.
Adam Robinson: That is a wrap ladies and gentlemen for this week’s episode of The Best Team Wins, where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders, who’s exceptional approach to the people side of their business, has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, author of the book, The Best Team Wins, which you can find online at www.thebestteamwins.com. Thanks for tuning in and we will see you here next week.
Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to The Best Team Wins podcast with Adam Robinson. You can find out more information about Adam and his book, The Best Team Wins, Building Your Business Through Predictive Hiring at thebestteamwins.com. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.