Nick Kozak for the Toronto Star
Case Studies

Searching for the right people: Ajax’s Search Engine People faces staffing shortage as it experiences explosive growth

Vital Stats
Search Engine People
Jeff Quipp
(905) 426-9340 x310,
Search Engine Optimization, Web Development, Internet Marketing
Years active:
Core customers:
Businesses looking to develop Internet marketing strategies and increase their Google search ranking.
SEP's Director of Enterprise Paid Search and Social Media departments, Tyler Calder, was named one of Marketing Magazine's top 30 under 30.

By tracking the rapid evolution of technology and innovating accordingly, the company has steadily climbed the ranks of Profit Magazine’s 100 fastest growing companies list over the past four years (they’re currently sitting at 53).

But that growth also presents a serious challenge, one that Quipp suspects is building to a negative crescendo as quality staff become harder to find and client demands increase.

“There are a lot of challenges with trying to scale a service-based company,” says Quipp, adding that his company has already had to turn away some business for want of qualified staff. “The bigger we get, the more difficult it becomes.”

And it’s made worse by the cutting-edge nature of SEP’s work.

“We’re at the forefront of what we do in the industry, we can’t hire people that are already experienced – we have to train from scratch for the most part,” says Quipp.

That training process can take anywhere from a month to a year — literally a lifetime for many companies in the tech industry.

But riding the lucrative, if dangerous, crest of the Internet wave is the nature of Quipp’s business.

He came up with the idea for SEP in 2001 while working as manager of traffic and distribution at Internet portal Sympatico Lycos.

“Search was just starting to grow at that time,” he says. After working with several Search Engine Optimization (SEO) companies that promised big and delivered little, Quipp says he saw a need for “good, honest SEO companies” that could make and deliver on realistic commitments to improve a website’s search rating.

Since then his company has grown 60 percent per year, up to 100 employees and over 700 clients – ranging from “mom and pop” businesses, such as Toronto’s Muldoon’s Coffee, to heavy hitters like GM and Purolator.

But the constant growth makes managing workflow difficult.

“We have to go back and reinvent the processes within the company,” says Quipp. “We hit various plateaus and we have to figure out how to get past those plateaus.”

At each of those flat points – his fourth hire, the necessary transition from 10 to 15, 25 to 30, and 30 to 50 employees – he had to reevaluate the company’s business structure.

In the early days Quipp was able to sit in on sales calls and know clients personally. As the company grew, management has been forced to shift into more strategic roles, and their personal touch had to be replaced with technology that rates employee performance based on a variety of factors, such as the amount of business they’re handling, client success and traffic to client websites.

Quipp is at another plateau, and can only squeeze so much efficiency out of his current staff. He says he simply needs more talent, but previous hiring processes are no longer working.

“Our growth is constrained by our ability to (recruit),” he says. “We’ve turned away a lot of business just by not being able to find the right people and get them trained fast enough.”

Scaling management is another issue. Quipp likes to find exemplary employees within the company and help turn them into leaders. This requires a large investment of time and money, and also takes manpower away from product development and customer service. But Quipp feels it pays dividends.

“You don’t want to bring people from outside that have no experience in the industry to manage the people who have been with you for so long,” he says.

SEP has managed to maintain a 90 percent employee retention rate, which Wendy Cukier, VP Innovation and Research at Ryerson University and co-author of Innovation Nation, says is an important part of sustainable growth.

“Talent in the high-tech sector is incredibly important right now,” says Cukier. “Very often SMEs start as a group of friends; people that have a personal investment and connection to the organization.”

But retention itself isn’t much help when a company needs to expand.

For that, says Cukier, a company needs the right internal management infrastructure.

“You have to actually start thinking more about HR throughout the organization and how you’re going to continue growth,” she says. “If you’re not prepared to recognize what you don’t know versus what you do know – you limit your chances of growth and long-term success.”

In order to sustain the company’s growth, Quipp is constantly evaluating weaknesses in SEP’s existing skillset.

“You need to know your weaknesses and limitations, and hire to compensate,” he says.

Quipp is already applying this logic to his problem — the company currently relies on personal connections, social networking and job boards for staffing needs, but their next hire will be a talent acquisition expert who can quickly find strong candidates.

“Our vision is that in 5 years we’ll be at 300 to 350 people and have offices right across the country,” says Quipp.

They haven’t found the right person yet, and as a result the further growth they crave is still elusive.

But looking back on the ground his business has covered, Quipp is optimistic about its future — and knows exactly what will fuel its further expansion.

“Our success,” he says, “is all about trying to find the best people.”


As Interviewed by: Tom Henheffer

At first glance, it looks like the senior managers are doing a bit of everything like they did when the business was young. By adding more structure to management and defining people’s roles, they can make teams more effective and free the senior managers to focus on strategy. It makes sense to hire someone to manage the company's HR needs. This person can design and implement a comprehensive HR strategy to define the capabilities they need to fill, and also the practices to implement to keep their retention rate as high as it has been. A good HR manager can do this and will need to build out an HR team to support the workforce and maintain their growth. There is merit in looking externally for this senior HR position. This will help open the talent pool and increase diversity by bringing in someone with fresh perspectives. Overall, it’s about developing a model that prepares them for growth. It will take an investment of time and money, and may lead to a culture shift, but it’s necessary to prepare for the future.

by Mike Feaver

Growing quickly means dealing with HR issues, and Quipp knows SEP simply needs more people. First, the company is based in Pickering, but a lot of the great tech talent in the GTA work and live downtown. So I’d recommend the company use collaboration tools, and maybe even set up a remote location downtown -- possibly at a shared co-working space to keep costs low -- so staff can work away from the main office and avoid a long commute. This kind of arrangement can up productivity, and adds value when it comes to attracting top talent. Secondly, they need to bring someone on to manage HR. With the length of time it takes to bring thier staff up to speed, it’s important they find someone who can use video, tablets, and online modules to create an engaging training platform that minimizes the onboarding process. I’d recommend the company use LinkedIn to find out where the most suitable HR experts are, and also leverage their networks. They have a lot of clients with a vested interest in seeing SEP improve, and Quipp shouldn’t be afraid to ask for their recommendations.

by Tisha Rattos

SEP should find an HR expert who doesn’t just fill staffing needs, but helps the organization build its brand in the broad marketplace and in the talent marketplace. Someone who really understands what’s so cool about the business and can paint that picture on SEP’s website, social media, and job board postings. The company also must be clear about their hiring expert’s mandate, and find someone who can take a holistic approach to staffing. If they want to reach 350 people in the next five years they’ll require a robust HR strategy, and they need someone who can set up plans for succession training, internal mentoring, and building a staff ready for growth. To do this there are two pillars on which SEP needs to focus, talent acquisition and talent retention and development. The company needs more people to meet client demands, but they also need to keep staff happy and productive and develop leadership from within. The right HR person will know how to do this, and understand that, a the end of the day, it’s people that will make or break this business.

by Tara Talbot