Editor's Note: Elite SEM is one of Inc.'s 2017 Best Workplaces, our annual recognition of companies creating employee-centered organizations.
Anthony Saladino, 26, made more than $100,000 last year--but he doesn't have a fixed salary. He's an account manager, helping clients like the fashion brand Alexander Wang get the perfect position in the search results when you Google "fashion" or "designer." His income reflects how much the clients pay his company. Saladino works for Elite SEM, a digital marketing business based in New York City, whose CEO allows employees to select their compensation: straight salary or a commission-based hybrid. In either case, there are opportunities for add-ons. Ben Kirshner, the company's 39-year-old founder and chief executive, doesn't mince words: "One of my greatest frustrations when I was 21 was that I wasn't getting paid what people with more experience were being paid," he says.
So he started a business that, at least when it comes to compensation, is age- and experience-blind. Millennials, who have suffered from lower starting wages in the post-recession world, are keen to catch up. Specifically, Elite account managers earn, on average, 50 percent of the revenue their clients generate; the rest of their paycheck is based on how the company performs. The greater the revenue, the more they make. There are, of course, risks to the meritocratic approach. For one, workers must come to terms with the fact that their paychecks could shrink. "I was a little nervous at first, especially because I came from jobs with a flat salary," concedes Saladino. For those who aren't directly involved with clients, there are other ways to enhance salary: They earn a commission when they refer an employee to the company--which accrues every year that hire stays--or take a share of the fees when they refer clients. Elite staffers all can tell you exactly how much revenue their employer pulled in last year: $27 million, with a profit margin of about 20 percent. That's because Kirshner opens the books to his 145-person team monthly.
Since launching in 2004, Elite has landed a number of high-profile customers, including Jet.com, Etsy, and Kind. It has offices in more than half a dozen cities.
Elite has also created a hyperflexible workplace. About 30 of its employees--including Kirshner--work from home, in cities as distant as Sacramento and Miami. To keep tabs on what they're doing, the CEO hosts regular videoconferences. Developing personal relationships with its employees has, in turn, given Elite a competitive edge.
Perhaps most notable is Elite's "Bucket Lists" program. Kirshner thinks back to 2013, when the company unexpectedly lost an early employee to cancer. "Ninety days after Zachary was diagnosed, he left us," the entrepreneur says, tearing up slightly. He doubled down on a policy: He would do his very best to help workers achieve life goals. For example, when a manager expressed a desire to live in London, Kirshner went so far as to incorporate in the U.K.--just for the sake of getting him there.
Kirshner says the cost of making such connections with his employees is worth it. "Life is short," he adds, pausing to adjust his glasses. "You just never know."