Robbie Thain started experiential marketing firm Makai out of his bedroom. Now, 15 years later, it has a flagship office in El Segundo, Calif., and satellite sites in Europe and Latin America.
Thain says his company has grown in large part due to the way he manages his 38 full-time staffers. At Makai, community and tradition matter—that's influenced by Thain's Hawaiian heritage. Employees celebrate holidays together, enjoy a no-questions-asked freebie vacation day each year, and have a voice when it comes to what works and what doesn't in their office.
We caught up with Thain to find out how he built Makai's office culture, tracing its roots back to the days when it was merely a three-person operation based in his home. Here's what he had to say.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your background and how Makai started out.
A: When the company started to grow, it grew rapidly. But I had only been in the working world, say, three years prior to starting my company, so there was a lot of learning I had to go through. A lot of it was in how to manage people, what to do with my folks. Since we were small—it was a bootstrap startup company—I needed to be creative about ways to excite and keep [employees], because I just couldn't offer what other companies were offering.
Q: If you don't have the resources, you just don't have the resources. So what did you do to cultivate that excitement on a shoestring budget?
A: If you don't have the resources monetarily, then other things can't be offered, like better benefits and insurance packages. You just don't have that. So No. 1 is, how do you attract them? And No. 2 is, how do you keep them around?
Even when there were three people at my company, I would do [surveys]. I would still have an employee of the month. I found the reason people liked working at Makai was because of their co-workers. And so that meant to me that it was about creating an environment that was conducive to getting to know people.
I started down a path of developing different things that allowed them [to do that], and a lot of these things didn't cost money. They were little perks that then became tradition. What I saw was the more that I could offer employees to allow them to feel like they were part of something, the more ownership they had. And if I did that frequently and consistently, it became tradition. And then those traditions created my culture.
Q: Where did those ideas come from?
A: Sometimes, they were ideas from the outside, sometimes they were ideas that people do at home and I thought, "Why don't we do this in business?"
It was a negative that I had never been in the corporate work world before I started my company, but it was also a positive because I didn't have any preconceived ideas of what it was supposed to be like. So in a way, I was kind of doing it on my own, what I thought would [work], just based on the experiences I had had.
For example, we have an intern program. I remembered I had done only two or three internships, and I hated them. I felt like I was just stapling and collating, so when I got here, I developed an intern program that says no intern will do stapling and collating; they will only be brought in to do specific projects. We're going to train them, they're going to do something, they're going to present something, they will have done something at the end.
The way I tied that into culture was we made it so that no one is just given an intern, they're officially awarded an intern. I made it almost like a ceremony — they're awarded the right to have an intern only if they have written up an intern program that's strong enough.
So now, people are excited because they feel like they earned something.
Q: How do you go about finding and recruiting the right people when you have open positions?
A: The best compliment [someone] could ever give Makai is when they give us word of mouth.
I have a policy that if anyone has taken the time to learn about my company and gets to me, not that it's difficult, I will take time to meet with them. I think that kind of goodwill, it goes out in the marketplace.
Most of my folks are referrals.
Q: As you continue to grow and expand, I assume that you'll have to take on more staff to achieve those new objectives. How big can you become while still sustaining the office culture you've cultivated?
A: I would not have answered this how I am now if I had not seen how things are going in [our offices in] Europe.
Our lunch room is like a tiki bar. Fridays, they're allowed to drink beer at the tiki bar at 3 p.m. We play a song called the Aloha Song every Friday at 3. When I walk into the office in Europe, the same things are going on. If I can do it there, I'm sure we can retain it with the number of employees that we have here.
Q: How did you go about striking the balance between an enjoyable work experience for your employees and still building the structure that's necessary for a company to succeed?
A: I had to bring in someone next to me that could help overlay that. I'm more of the fun. I like the Disneyland side.
I've got my right hand person. My assistant is wonderful, a very, very linear thinker. So I've infiltrated within my organization different leaders.