Everyone earns same salary at growing tech consultancy

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Indianapolis-based Design on Tap LLC—a small firm that helps companies improve customer experiences in the software-as-a-service field—has more than doubled in size in the past year and moved into new downtown offices in the Station Place building.

The expansion—which occurred in part through the recent acquisition of Carmel-based Simplexity Marketing Group—gives Design on Tap a staff of 10 now working in a 2,000-square-foot space at 200 S. Meridian St., above the Old Spaghetti Factory.

But what’s most interesting about Design on Tap is not that it has been growing quickly since its founding in 2014 (revenue has doubled each year) or that its client list includes local heavyweights HC1.com, Emplify, Delivra, USA Football and the Indy Chamber.

It’s that everybody—really, everybody—at the firm makes the same salary. And there are no specified work hours, or vacation schedules, or even a set hierarchy for decision-making.

Sure, there are owners—founders Joel Smith, 31, and Josh Mitchell, 33, who were running small web-design companies when they met. But they insist that once employees are welcomed into the “family”—a process that involves giving them a beer-themed lamp—they are invited to agree or disagree with anyone else at Design on Tap. Everyone’s opinion is valued.

IBJ talked to Smith and Mitchell about why they chose to put their staff on a level playing field and how it’s working out.

IBJ: So, do I have this right, that everybody at your company makes the same amount of money?

Mitchell: The way that we structure our team is that we build our workloads together, we decide on how we're going to solve problems together. Everything is very much about looking at what is your contribution as a team member and is that contribution making an impact on our clients' businesses? This is all about giving people the voice and not trying to introduce too many dynamics that create a hierarchy. We try to keep things as flat as possible. We just are focused on the contribution and impact.

IBJ: What do you mean when you say you’re trying to keep things as flat as possible?

Smith: You know, you have a boss and then your boss has a boss? In a typical agency format, you have an account manager and all of the communication flows through the account manager. So then the account manager works with the client and … basically, it seems like the goal is to keep the people doing the work far away from the client. That's not what we do here.

The account role at Design on Tap is about facilitating a conversation between the people solving the problem and the people that have the problem. So, getting to this level, a flat sort of organization, means everybody is empowered to have their contribution. The information flows depending on what matters at the moment in order to complete the mission.

IBJ: You guys are the founders, though. Are you guys in charge? Would your employees say you're the bosses?

Mitchell: We do have ownership of the company, but the team is more than comfortable, because of the family dynamic that we've created. I hear Angela [Burns, the firm’s client operations manager] push back on Joel all the time, and I hear other people on the team push back. Everybody has a voice. What Josh and Joel say is not necessarily truth or the way we have to do it. And, actually, we encourage them to push back, because a lot of times, they're closer to the problem and they're going have better ideas, better ways to go about it than even we do.

IBJ: Somebody sometimes has to ultimately make the decision. How does that happen?

Smith: That's an interesting question. I think it depends. I mean, nobody has to pull the boss card. Nobody has to pull rank. A good idea gets thrown out and it lands on its own merit. It gets debated. People will disagree and will work out the disagreements. Sometimes you gotta have a tie-breaker. From an account perspective, you might have to say, well, between this idea and this idea, it feels like this is the right path to go. But there’s not anybody pulling rank.

Mitchell: Sometimes there are two really great ideas, or multiple ideas, and we'll actually bring both of them to the client, and allow them to consider an A/B test or a multi-varying test so that we let actual users using the product or the website make the decision.

IBJ: You also have no set hours and unlimited vacation time. How are you finding that that works?

Mitchell: I think this is pretty common, that lot of people are having this problem where unlimited vacation time actually causes some employees to not ever go on vacation. So we've had to encourage a few to do so. So that's a dynamic. That's something that we're still kind of experimenting with. And right now, we're kind of playing with a new idea where, when people want to go on vacation, they present it to the team during the daily stand up, so that everybody is aware of the vacation, everybody can plan around it.

Smith: It’s evolving as we're trying to feel each other out as a team. Another thing … we're experimenting with is minimum vacation time. You need to go on vacation. We want you to be happy. … It's all in experimentation. There's no handbook, right? It's just people trying to figure out other people and how we work together.

IBJ: Have you found that as you've gotten a little bit bigger, some of these things have been a little more difficult to deal with?

Smith: Certainly, the principles are still there. The principle is still there behind it, but we're constantly integrating with the procedures, the policies, what’s acceptable for our culture, it’s always in flux.

IBJ: So when you brought on the Simplexity folks, were there pay issues? How did that work?

Mitchell: There weren’t any major issues. There was one teammate that we had some concern about, and we've been working with that teammate to figure it out. When you have everybody making the same amount, you've got this challenge of, everybody has to be an A player. So you don't really have room for hiring people that do meaningless or repetitive type work.

So you have to figure out: How do you build systems and processes to automate a lot of that, so that way we can move that out of the way? We actually did this pretty early. Angela—who was our first hire—was hired to do project management, and that was her full-time role. And as we were growing, she was getting stress tested. Eventually, we created a system that does the majority of the heavy lifting of project management and that freed her up to now pursue a different role. We just keep doing that. We just keep iterating, keep adding processes, and we grow that way. We grow in skill that way instead of through a number of people.

Smith: A really interesting dynamic with our team is how much they're willing to evolve. Who we were even a year ago is completely different, just as far as how we think and just ongoing experimentation and iteration. And what's amazing about this team is that they've risen to the challenge every time it's been called of them to help Design on Tap, and their own careers, and their own personal development, so we can get to the next level.

IBJ: Do you two take a salary in the same way that everybody else does? Or are you paid through your ownership differently?

Smith: We have the same salary as everybody else has. We can technically take owner withdrawals being that we're an LLC, so depending on profitability and depending on changes that are happening within the company, there are opportunities there. But, for the most part, we are a startup, so a lot of that is being reinvested into Design on Tap as we grow.•

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