The Emerge Digital Group (“EDG”) is one of the fastest growing advertising and marketing firms in the United States—in August it was ranked by Inc. Magazine as the #2 fastest growing private company nationwide in the advertising and marketing industry. While its growth holds lessons about digital marketing, of particular relevance to California’s workforce community is its unconventional hiring model.
The company was co-founded in 2009 by Chase Norlin and Alex Rowland. It was a bootstrapped operation, with financing coming from the founders and their families. In the first years, it had no major outside capital investment.
By necessity, its first hires were persons who were willing to work for small salaries, in return for the prospect of growing with the firm. This is common in the technology field in California: tradeoff of current pay with the upside of sharing in company growth. In this case workers accepted lower salaries in exchange for the promise of unlimited upward mobility, and for many of them it worked.
EDG in its hiring gave little attention to the formal degrees or certifications of applicants but instead emphasized the scrappiness and ingenuity of would-be future leaders. Instead of the widespread Silicon Valley “hired gun” approach (trying to poach staffers from other companies), EDG kept an open mind regarding the background and experience of job candidates. Norlin believes that an employee’s ability to learn on the job, to “naturally and organically move towards what he or she is most talented at”, is equally if not more important than the degree or certifications on a resume.
In some cases, he sought out persons who might be unemployed or underemployed, but who were motivated to learn and to grow with the company, who were not technology workers but who were “adaptive, ambitious, and multi-skilled”. The result: EDG was named the fastest growing company in Silicon Valley and the 8th fastest in America according to revenue growth.
Today, the company has around 50 employees, in San Francisco, Sydney, and Singapore. Even as the company has grown, Norlin has maintained the same unconventional model. If Norlin or others at the firm can see a fit, some area of the business that the job seeker can add value in, that person is likely to be given an opportunity to show what she or he can do. Norlin compares it to a high tech version of the Hollywood talent agency mailroom training program (which was Norlin’s first job).
The model isn’t for everyone. In most cases it requires a willingness to start at modest wages, and there is no certainty of advancement. However, in the New Normal of employment, with greater and greater job competition, getting in the door becomes more important than ever, especially in New Economy industries.
This model enables the individual worker to do precisely this, to get in the door, to get around the guard posts of job boards and human resource officers. From a collective viewpoint, it allows for broadening the pool of job creation. In many cases, workers will not just be filling a vacant job slot, but carving out a position and a career based on their natural talents.
Is the model applicable to other California businesses? Norlin thinks so, and is looking at ways to promote this model, perhaps through a non-profit. Listen to his explanation, and see if he doesn’t capture a number of the employment dynamics in California technology today:
“One of the biggest problems in California today, and America for that matter, is the lack of local job creation. High technology is a big growth driver but doesn’t serve a purpose if the majority of jobs are still outsourced. America needs real job creation that incubates real intellectual property inside the DNA of our local workforces, which in turn produce new workers with new skills who work their way up the ladder, opening the door for newer employees, rinse and repeat. It’s natural that as tech companies get larger they become more intricately tied to our financial systems and the drive for profits; but, this won’t matter if all we have left at the end of the day are massive tech companies and no American workers to support them.”