June 12, 2014, 12:12 PM

Strategy, smarts, company culture set the stage at startups

More than just perks, employee benefits can drive collaboration and growth, says an IRCE 2014 speaker.

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What makes an online start-up soar in many ways differs from the requirements of the same company at a more mature stage. And new e-commerce companies looking to scale up rapidly need to recognize that and set priorities accordingly, Jag Bath, senior vice president of online coupon distributor RetailMeNot Inc., told attendees in a session at the 2014 Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition in Chicago on Tuesday.

Bath knows something about fast-tracking retail growth online. RetailMeNot, which had 30 employees when he joined the company, grew its staff to 300 within a year and a half. Bath oversaw similar growth previously at Gilt Groupe, which expanded during his tenure there from 10 to 800 employees in 18 months.

What’s the secret to fast-tracking your way from online start-up to established success? Strategy is the most critical element, Bath told session attendees, advising them to strike a middle ground between having no strategy and having the same strategy in place for so long it stifles innovation. “Strategy has to be fluid,” he said. “That does not mean having no strategy. It means having one but always questioning and checking it. There are no sacred cows in high-growth Internet companies—everything is up for debate.”

Bath said finding a particular type of talent is also critical in making an online startup’s early hires. RetailMeNot looks for prospects with “curiosity, intellectual horsepower and flexibility—these are your jack-of -all trades employees that you’ll grow into specialists later. Look for the people willing to work on anything,” he said. College recruiting has proved successful to the company that of its current 500 employees, 50 are on internships. “Invest the time in interns, and a percentage of them join the company,” he said.

Bath also emphasized the importance of a company’s physical space and working environment as a catalyst of collaboration. At RetailMeNot’s offices, for example, the conventional receptionist and waiting area has been swapped out for a free coffee bar that includes a full-time barista. Not only do employees gather to recharge on caffeine and talk about what they are working on, but it sets the tone of the company culture for prospective hires, he said.

While free coffee and other benefits can help build a company culture to drive rapid growth, “It’s not all about perks,” Bath added. “It’s about communication to employees and setting expectations. Give people a sense of being accountable – that is when your business will grow.”

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