Sunday, July 27, 2008

Web-Design Firm Uses Projects Employees Pursue in Their Spare Time at Work to Help Win New Business

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In its early days, Chris Wallace's company didn't always have enough work to keep its staff fully occupied designing interactive Web sites for clients. But it didn't want to lose any talent. So he and his co-founders decided to tell employees they could pursue their own interests in their downtime, doing just about whatever they wanted, on the clock.

An unexpected side benefit emerged. Employees spent some of their spare time writing music and building photography and video skills. When the company needed ideas to pitch to potential clients, it tapped into employees' personal projects. Mr. Wallace says he has had meetings with potential clients where 40% of the work he showed them was done by employees in their downtime.

His company, SuperGroup Creative Omnimedia Inc., has grown to 15 employees and expects to post close to $3 million in revenue this year. These days, downtime is less frequent. But management's philosophy is the same: As long as employees get their work done, they're free to pursue outside projects from their cubicles. The company continues to lean on employees' personal projects to help win new clients and expand the work it does with existing clients.

The model works, Mr. Wallace says, because of the company's small size and collegial atmosphere. Most people in SuperGroup's Atlanta headquarters know what their colleagues are working on in their personal lives. Twice a week, the whole staff gathers to discuss both company business and personal projects. "A larger organization wouldn't have that intimate knowledge," says Mr. Wallace, who is the company's director of technology.

That knowledge proved handy last year, when the Weather Channel approached SuperGroup about putting together an interactive Web site to promote its winter ski forecasts. SuperGroup employees insisted they could write and produce the music on the site, but Weather Channel executives "were hesitant," Mr. Wallace says, because that wasn't an area where SuperGroup had a lot of experience.

To prove its abilities, Mr. Wallace presented the Weather Channel team with a CD of employees' original music -- and won the business. SuperGroup wrote all of the music for the project.

For employees, the cross-pollination between their work and their personal lives can be an opportunity to turn a hobby into a line on their resume -- and an ego boost. "I jumped at the chance to put my music out in front of anybody," says Elliott Rothman, a SuperGroup Web developer. Music he wrote and his guitar playing were used in the Weather Channel project.

On average, employees spend about a half-day each week working on outside pursuits. Mr. Wallace says occasionally employees have to be reminded that clients come first and they need to drop what they're doing if a client has an urgent request.

Mr. Wallace is careful to weed out potential hires who seem to thrive on a more regimented structure. For the most part, he says, granting employees more freedom engenders loyalty and hard work. Employees tend to "come in early and stay late."

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