Episode: Ted Rubin & Todd Smith

Ted Rubin and Todd Smith of Active Engage

Ted Rubin and Todd Smith are the founders of Active Engage, a digital live chat software for the automotive industry. They have grown to 160 people since 2007, and have since been featured on “Orlando’s Coolest Companies to Work for” and “Top 100 Companies for Working Families”.

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 Outline:

Tell me about how the company got started

  • Both working in automotive industry for a long time, and had been doing new e-commerce things in the 90s that had to do with using the internet to leverage to customers…we saw a niche for how to communicate with customers, to digitally communicate with customers over the web.
  • We realized we could do it ourselves with our personnel here. Leveraging our techniques and standards that we had been using for a long time, but on other people’s’ behalf.
  • We’ve evolved over time and improved. It’s has a high rate of return.

How much have you grown?

  • We’ve been the fastest growing company on inc 500 for a few years in a row.
  • Started the company at the best time, the beginning of 2008.
  • Car sales dipped, bankruptcy of companies, awesome time to start a business. We knew the smart dealers would continue to market. We had dealer friends who trusted us with previous products, and we knew they would market through the tough times. Smart money goes in when there is blood. We were able to capitalize on that.
  • We hit steady growth that we controlled. We’re not funded by VCs, so we have to grow as our cash flow dictates. Manage those two sides very critically. And still meat the needs of the market.
  • We were able to do all this with our existing relationships.

Talk a bit about how you’ve managed your employee growth

  • You’d be surprised how flat our org structure is.
  • We had an organic approach. We hired key people towards the beginning of our company, which have developed into leadership positions over time. We ended up growing a tribe instead of just a bunch of MBAs.
  • We wanted to grab people who would grow with the team, and may not have had all the skills when they started but were able to grow into their positions.
  • There aren’t many layers between us and our chat representatives. Not really any hierarchy.
  • Because we’re bootstrapped, we can’t afford to have bodys on payroll that aren’t efficient.
  • Our goal has always been to grow as fast as we possibly can. So we’ve been extremely selective in all of our hiring. Efficient, same ideology, etc.
  • It’s important to always find ways that you can improve. We always wanted to be the best in class. That’s why we’re always forced to keep improving.

How does that mantra get communicated down practically?

  • There’s no one thing. It’s a constant connection with the staff.
  • We didn’t organize our structure as a normal call/chat center. We operate in pods without many layers, so communication can flow fluidly.
  • We do weekly meetings
  • Culture events
  • Spirit week
  • Engaging everyone and keeping them in the habit of communication.
  • Communication runs both ways, bottom to up as well…like when we redeveloped our software. We got a lot of feedback from our staff, and we put that feedback into action.
  • The average call center employee lasts 8 months, we have people who have been chatting with us for 4 or more years.

How did you guys arrive at some of the things that you do?

  • We’ve seen a lot of what not to do. We’ve been in places where we had no idea how they got anything done.
  • We want to have a place where we wanted to be there.
  • You could go find another culture piece that someone else is trying, and try to apply it to your company, and it might not work. Companies are unique. You can take lessons from them, but trying to lay over something that you saw somewhere else is probably not realistic.
  • We tried a lot of different ideas, some of them worked some of them didn’t.
  • We look for seedling opportunities. We try to get ideas from other organizations, but you can’t always transplant those things.
  • The average silicon valley salary is close to 100,000…that’s not our salary. We’re hiring call center people. But we’re still getting very hardworking and savvy people anyways. We have a lot of mobility in the company. We’re adding marketing and HR, etc.
  • We even have people take jobs as chat representatives, who are ultra qualified, just because they want to apply for other jobs with us as they open up.  
  • It’s better to have a process that fits how your organization operates currently, not how you want it to operate in the future.
  • Learn your culture, learn what drives you, and then learn to accelerate it. Every company is unique.
  • We only hire people that want to be here, and that’s why we have an award winning team.

What mistakes have you guys made that you can help others avoid?

  • You can’t force the culture. You can steer it and guide it to a point, but you can’t force it. You’ll get push back. It took a while to settle into who we were.
  • You can’t be afraid of failing at something. When companies grow big, sometimes they don’t want to take chances.
  • We dove into an inside sales model…but failed at it. We learned a lot from that experience.
  • Play to your strengths, not your weaknesses. We went into having the best conversations online in regard to buying cars. Everything else fell into place, and the numbers prove that.
  • There’s more benefit on everyone focusing intensely on their own jobs, even if that leaves a gap in one area.

Relevant links:

http://bestplacetoworkpodcast.com/

https://www.activengage.com/