In this economy, many companies we work with are evaluating their staff, retrenching and looking at costs. They are scratching their heads as they try to be smart now and for their futures.

I recently reached out to three leaders in the interactive media industry to learn how they view the state of the business today and what they’re thinking — and seeing — as they look to the future.

What are some ways to create a winning company?

John Durham, CEO and managing partner at Catalyst, a marketing capital firm that provides strategic marketing services for start-ups, entrepreneurs, and companies that think like entrepreneurs, gave his staff a planning scenario project. He instructed his employees not to talk to anybody else in the company, thus enabling diverse opinions. Each person was given a problem to solve, such as cost-cutting measures, hiring two new people, evaluating the mission statement, etc.

The results were “thoughtful and insightful, leading the company in new and strategic directions to better navigate in the current business environment.”

Durham understands that by including your staff in solving the problem, you further engage them while addressing their fears and communicating on a direct and effective level. This is a tremendous advantage for any manager — good for him

Many business leaders believe that a one-year market trend is neither good nor bad — it’s the long-term view that matters. Bill Day, CEO of Scan Scout, a tech play embedded in a video advertising model, believes that in a down market the prospect that good people are sometimes tossed out with downsizing occurs. Day goes on to say that “for the most part, it’s cutting the fat.” He adds that companies should always look to replace people who aren’t performing — regardless of the economy.

Small startup companies tend not to have a management team in place for team assessment. Today’s economy is causing some companies to have a knee-jerk reaction. What’s really essential according to Annette Tonti, CEO of MoFuse, a startup mobile publishing platform, is “putting into place a regular process, whether it’s once or twice a year, so that when you’re evaluating talent, you’ll be able to fairly and responsibly handle the team.”

Tonti adds that this economy actually offers small companies an opportunity to hire “A” players, but cautions that management needs first evaluate their assets before going outside to hire.

What criteria are in place to assure you’re hiring the highest degree of talent?

No one said it better than Lee Iacocca: “In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: people, product, and profits. Unless you’ve got a good team, you can’t do much with the other two.”

Durham looks for future growth of Catalyst and therefore “looks for smart people who focus, focus, and focus on prospecting and delivering flawlessly.” He looks for the type of talent you’d like to give the keys to the company to, so don’t hire people who’ll need constant supervision.

I asked Durham what assurances he puts in place to attain great talent. “I call references, when I haven’t done this step,” he said. Durham admits not knowing in advance how the person is going to behave in some social situations. Most people can improve on their skill level, but rarely, if ever, can you teach humanity, manners, grace, and professionalism. So instead of making a hiring mistake that feels like a tsunami on an 8.8 scale, he never forgets to call references, and he takes prospective hires out to lunch or dinner — because in the end, Durham relies on building successful cultures.

Day of ScanScout seems to have talent solved, “I try to get the person a company never wants to cut — that’s the people I want to hire, not the person who was kicked out of their last stop.”

What does Tonti do to assure she’s hiring the “best” talent?  “Have 4-5 people interview candidates for a wide variety of opinions, and make it a rigorous process.”

Durham, Day, and Tonti all are members of a club of like-minded CEOs such as Bill Gates who believe that “the key for us, No. 1, has always been hiring very smart people.”

How do you motivate and retain the “A” talent?

Managers may want to pay careful attention to “A” players, since companies can’t afford to lose them. Again, Durham, with careful insight, simply reflects on his treasured assets. “I work for them,” he said. “This is their company and their money.” Basically, he invests in the “right” people.

Day feels that communication is the key. “Create a road map with timelines to achieve goals and create clearly defined rewards,” he said.

Tonti points out that the right people should determine the culture of your company. They are the people who set strategy, apply tactics and set the tone, and tone is very important to future growth.

What are the opportunities stemming from this economy?

The opportunity in this market resides in the willingness to go with the flow instead of fighting against the tides, according to Day. Your company needs to provide real and added value. Companies need to provide measurability and accountability while delivering a product that surpasses expectations.

All three CEOs believe that this economy must move us toward hiring the best talent. Access to great talent is the key, and it’s an exciting time for many start-ups such as MoFuse. Tonti states that her company is experiencing terrific viral growth and getting the venture funding needed. Many companies are simply not hiring and many are laying people off. But every company, according to the CEOs, should be looking to replace and step up their talent.

This economy is the “ultimate kick in the pants,” Day said.

It motivates us all to be performance savvy, and the biggest investment will be people.


Erika Weinstein is co-founder and president of Stephen-Bradford Search.