First posted to Smart Company.
Gary Ng founded E-Web Marketing in the 90s, but switched from design to SEO in 2005 as he noticed a greater shift towards search engine optimisation. It was tough for awhile – Ng practically worked 24 hours a day – but it paid off, with the company now turning over $6 million a year.
The business has also been noted for numerous “best place to work” awards. Ng attributes part of that to a decision to get rid of all management, saying it’s made staff feel much more in control of their own performance.
Can you give a brief history of the company?
I came over after living in Hong Kong, where there was a lot of pressure to do very well. It’s all about what you do when you finish university and what job you’re going to have. Status is quite important.
So after I came here, I started getting very interested in business. One of my first ventures was buying cheeseburgers and selling them at a higher cost to primary school friends. I had a few different ventures like that.
When I graduated in 1998 the internet was booming, and it’s not often you get to partake in a boom. It’s always easier to work in a growing industry than a mature one, so I started doing web design and got a lot of business.
But eventually search started taking over, and in 2005 we eventually shifted our focus and stopped doing web design altogether and then focused on online marketing. That’s how it was born.
So describe how you came up with the idea to get rid of managers.
When you’re a smaller company, you treat each other like family. You have a common vision on what it is you want to achieve, but as you start to grow, there is a point where employees start seeing it as “us versus them”. There’s nothing you can do about that, it just changes as the company grows.
We’ve had a structure of having managers, because we’re a fast growing company and that’s what we need to do.
All the different department heads have seniors, and campaign managers, and juniors, but we’ve found that because of this structure we end up being slower to react to change after all this growth. We’re like a big gorilla that just can’t move, so we’ve made a conscious decision to get rid of all the managers.
What brought you to that decision?
I come from a belief that if you empower people, every single person that is able to do the work will give it their best. You can guide them. But the problem is that we’ve created a culture that allows you to make a mistake because there is always a manager to fix things.
So if a client quits, there is this mentality of “I’ll just talk to my manager”. There isn’t a desire to deal with the client directly, because someone else will do it. It’s like being protected by a parent.
So what do you do instead?
Instead, we have a panel of experts that people go to for advice. Every single employee has a mentor or leader that helps them with their career progression.
We sit them down and ask, where do you see yourself in five years? Where do you want to grow? And we help them with that.
What was the system you used before this?
Before this, we had a production team, and salespeople, and different groups. But what we’ve found is that when something doesn’t work, there is a lot of finger pointing because the other department is holding them back, or whatever the blame is.
Doesn’t that still exist if there are different departments?
What we’ve done is break the company up into much smaller companies. We’ve broken up the existing company into 15 sub entities within the business. Each of those is made of a salesperson, a campaign manager, a different number of production people, and they each have their own name. They look after their own profit and loss, forecasting, planning, everything that you would do in a normal company.
So each of these little companies has their own clients, and managers, and so on?
They all have plenty of clients. It’s a great system. If a pod member is late, we used to have the manager asking them why they were late, what was happening, and so on. But now, you have one of your peers coming up and asking you.
It’s good to have someone in your own team saying something to you and telling you why we need you here. These teams know if they are performing or not, and what a difference they can make to the group.
How does recruitment work now? Do you still interview people?
Recruitment is done internally as well. So we guide people on how to interview, what they should be doing, and the attributes they should look for. But they do all the work there.
It sounds like you’re training your staff to be entrepreneurs.
We call them “intrapreneurs”. Every single person that starts, I give a presentation to them and I ask them, why are you working here? The most important thing is that all of our employees have vision.
Are you worried about this getting harder as the company grows?
I’ve found that we don’t need to worry about this because it just comes naturally. So every single person, we get them to run a staff meeting. We get them to take responsibility, have their one perspective and get them to share. The goal is to make people want to care about how we can improve the company vision.