How We Assembled an A-Team

Last Updated Apr 6, 2011 7:32 PM EDT

By Grant Powell, CEO, Pomegranate (a.k.a POM8), New York, N.Y.
In 2008 I started POM8, a creative talent network and full-service digital agency. We put together teams to help enterprise companies meet their creative needs, from marketing to branding to product design. By working with Pomegranate, our clients get the flexibility they need to grow without adding a fixed overhead cost.

Just a few months after starting the company we landed our first client: a multi-billion dollar IT company that needed on-demand creative services for their sales and marketing campaigns on an ongoing basis.

We needed to put together a scalable staff of highly qualified designers and project managers that could start work on numerous multi-million dollar projects at the drop of a hat. At the time, there were just three of us at the company, and we hadn't completely developed our business model. In fact, we had no idea how or if we could assemble such a team, but we couldn't bear to turn the client away. So we signed a contract, then set out to find the team to make the project work.

We use referrals
Our first task was to find the talent. At first we tried using staffing agencies, but that was a disaster. First of all, it was too expensive. Staffing agencies often bill two to three times the hourly rate of their staff. We wound up paying $75 an hour when we could have gotten equivalent talent for $25 dollars an hour. To make it worse, staffing agencies often haggle their talent's rates down to increase their profit margins, so contractors then bill for more time on projects to compensate for the lower wages.

Job recruiting sites worked slightly better, but the results we got were mixed, and the volume of responses wasn't nearly high enough to meet our needs.

We saw the most success by far with referrals. They eliminate the middleman and reduce labor costs. Also, we have a pretty specific type of designer in mind -- part artist, part corporate professional -- so it's more likely that friends and colleagues of people already working for us will meet our criteria than total strangers. Furthermore, the contractor giving the referral is more accountable to us than someone at a staffing agency or a website. Now, 100% of our hiring is done on a referral basis.

We have a contractor trial period
Getting a good referral doesn't guarantee anyone a position at our company. Often, referrals from friends are exaggerated. Even worse, exaggerated resumes and fake portfolios are common practice and hard to identify. That's why all new network members undergo a 30-day trial period before their position becomes permanent.

The best way to find out if a designer is up to the job is to put him or her to work. New designers are asked to complete a sample project for one of our clients. We assign the same project to a more experienced designer so that if the new designer gets it wrong, we have a backup. This generates redundancy, and more often than not our company winds up paying for work we don't use, but it doesn't cost us any more than it would to hire a headhunter and it's a more effective and precise method of weeding out the lesser talent.

We have a 90% attrition rate, meaning we only keep the top 10% of hires after the 30-day trial period. It might seem harsh, but it guarantees we only have the best designers working our projects at all times. In our line of work we have tight deadlines and demanding clients. We simply can't afford to mess up.

Our staff is scalable
We never know when one of our clients is going to hit us with the next big project, so we need a team that can scale up or down with alacrity. We make this happen by guaranteeing our designers a certain amount of hours per week. We estimate what we need and then add ten hours per contractor, so that we have thousands of hours of scalability at any given time. We usually guarantee our contractors between 20 and 40 hours, which is more than the average staffing firm offers. However, we don't tell them beforehand when we'll need their services, and they have to guarantee us 100% availability. They might have no work at the beginning of the week and then have to pull a couple of all-nighters Thursday and Friday to get a project done on time.

If we don't have enough paying work for all of our talent on a given week, we can usually put them to work creating pitches or working on internal projects. As a result, we rarely end up paying our staff for nothing.
The flexibility of our model has helped us grow quickly to meet the needs of our entire client roster, which now includes Kraft, Hewlett-Packard, and Google. We now have five full-time employees and over 100 contractors, and we project this year we'll double our revenue to $2 million.

Grant Powell has a background in brand strategy as well as enterprise web design. He has produced over 1,000 brand concepts as well as 250 websites and web-based applications.
-- As told to Harper Willis

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