A bike company CEO explains how he keeps his company together when his employees are so far apart.
Niner Bikes is based in Fort Collins, Colorado, but CEO Chris Sugai seldom goes there. Nor do many of the 30 employees at this high-end mountain-bike company.
His accounting department is in Los Angeles, his marketing people are in Salt Lake City, and his quality-control staff is in Taiwan and Vietnam, where the company does its manufacturing. No one keeps track of employees' hours, and everyone is encouraged to go riding during the day. As for Sugai, he works mostly from his homes in Wyoming and Las Vegas. Ranked No. 827 on the 2012 Inc. 5000, Niner is on track to do $20 million in sales this year, up from $13.7 million in 2012.
This rapid growth has been fueled by devotees of Niner's distinctive frames, which are designed around oversize 29-inch wheels. Below, Sugai shares some of the lessons he has learned while managing a fast-growing business with a widely distributed work force.
1. Trust your people, but review quarterly. Letting employees work remotely is the best thing we've ever done. It was an idea that kind of arose organically as the company grew. In 2007, I hired our first engineer, who worked from Canada, where his wife was a lawyer. It worked out wonderfully. All we care about is that the work gets done properly. I think when you give people that power, they don't abuse it. Our process is simple. We do reviews quarterly, and we let go of those people who don't measure up to our standards. Typically, we lose only about one person each quarter.
2. Words, pictures, and Skype. I set foot in our headquarters only three or four times a year, so technology is very important. Once a month, the entire company gathers on Skype to talk about whatever issues are coming up. Managers talk every week. High-quality communication is especially important with our overseas production team. One way we worked around the language barrier and time difference was to develop very detailed manuals that describe how every part is supposed to look and fit. That keeps production rolling while we're sleeping.
3. Embrace the diversity that a dispersed team provides. Obviously, if your job is picking boxes in the warehouse, you have to work in the warehouse. We also want our design staff to be in the same office, because there is a lot of collaboration that goes on. But overall, I think having one office stifles innovation. People tend to pull ideas from their environment. Geographic diversity helps us make better bikes. For example, we have people in Arizona, where riding is a lot rockier and fine dust is a problem. We've crafted our bikes to deal with those issues.
4. We bond over biking. One challenge is keeping the company culture unified throughout the entire group, because you're not always talking and communicating with everyone on a daily basis. It helps that we hire only people who are passionate about cycling. The staff is always trading emails about rides or bike-part purchases. Every year, we shut down the entire office and spend four days camping and riding mountain bikes together. The trips are a great culture builder and help keep everybody connected.