One of the first things CEO Jason Caras asks a newly hired employee is: “Do you agree your job is not your life?”
Then he asks the employee for a written life plan. Not surprisingly, no one has pulled one out of his or her briefcase in the seven years since he and Jason Pollner created IT Authorities, a cloud and IT managed service provider.
The questions aren't what you'd expect from the CEO of a tech company. But then, Caras and Pollner strive to be different.
To hit their goal of $100 million within five years, they know the company must stand out from its competitors — an estimated 85,000-plus cloud and managed IT service providers in the U.S.
“The differentiator is how well we do our job,” says Caras, who was the Tampa Bay Technology Forum's tech leader of the year in 2012.
For ITA to be the best, its employees must be the best. Caras spends about an hour in one-on-one coaching sessions with new employees. During this time, he explains the company's expectations and what the employee can expect of ITA.
New employees are given a week to create three things: A letter, dated the day he or she joined ITA, that details the person's best year ever — it could include events as trivial as going to the movies or as significant as starting a family.
The second is a letter dated a year in the future that explains what would be their most amazing year ever. It tells how they will reach their goal and what daily action is required.
Thirdly, employees create what's called a dream board, with photos and magazine clippings depicting what they will accomplish. It's posted in their work areas as a daily reminder.
Two years ago, one of David McCraney's goals when he joined ITA as chief information officer was to learn how to snow-ski. Since then he has skied some of the more difficult slopes in Colorado.
For some ITA employees, their life plan has involved breaking a bad habit such as smoking or eating unhealthy foods. One employee lost 50 pounds.
But just as ITA demands excellence from its employees, maintaining a good company culture is equally as important.
“Who wants to work for a crappy company?” says Pollner.
To manage the company, Caras, 43, and Pollner, 38, work as co-CEOs — an unusual practice that doesn't work at many companies. But it works for some, including national chains Whole Foods Market and Chipotle Mexican Grill.
The men have clearly delineated areas of responsibility. Pollner is responsible for operations, and Caras oversees culture, marketing and sales.
“It is amazing really,” Caras says. “A lot of partnerships don't work out. But we've been through everything together. At one time we lost everything we owned.”
He was referring to the demise of their former company and the loss of their homes. “We bought that company in 2002 and ran it into the ground by 2005,” Caras says.
They were under capitalized in 2006 when they started ITA with less than $5,000, but they had learned important lessons.
The biggest one: You can't be everything to everybody. That's why at ITA, everyone focuses on one thing: the delivery and improvement of managed services.
To help it focus on that goal, ITA has documented all its processes, from how to create an email signature to how to fix a particular issue for a customer. That document, readily available to the company's 50 employees, is continually tweaked and improved.
Pollner is the “genius behind our orchestra of precision,” says Caras, who talks at length about Pollner's abilities (including his writing of classical music and ability to play virtually every musical instrument).
“With documentation we're able to deliver consistency — one of the biggest issues plaguing the IT industry,” Caras says.
Plus, training is easier and employees are more able to work independently. When they have questions, they can usually find an answer in the document.
In addition, Pollner has created a system of accountability with a daily task report showing overdue tasks. “No one wants to be on that report,” Caras says.
To ensure they accomplish their tasks, ITA employees have spent more than 20,000 hours developing a management software system that reminds employees when a task is due, including simple jobs such as when oil changes are due on company vehicles, he says.
The company's co-CEOs believe its organization provides a competitive advantage as it seeks to grow.
In 2012, ITA sales were $5.6 million, growing by only 5.7% after several years of double-digit growth had placed ITA on Inc. magazine's list of fastest-growing private companies.
The company shifted its focus from organic growth to acquisitions, Caras says. But none of the acquisitions worked out.
This year, the company focused on organic growth as well as acquisitions.
In the last quarter, ITA will have more sales than the prior two years combined, Caras says, declining to provide specifics.
True to form, ITA now has documented each step of its due diligence process.
“We will grow exponentially,” Caras says. “We really did grow this company differently than our competitors. We are able to buy companies three times our size. They aren't nearly as organized as we are.”