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Money

The Marxist Capitalist Way To do Business

Webmart’s Simon Biltcliffe on the right way to spread the wealth.


Simon Biltcliffe will be the first one to tell you: His company, the company he painstakingly bootstrapped more than 20 years ago, is in a “shit industry.” The founder of Webmart runs a small but successful “print management” business. In layman’s terms, it means Webmart print things for people. In 2015, there are better industries to occupy.

But located in Bicester, England (about 60 miles away from London), in a yellow-clad office, Biltcliffe has built his company to be one of the most worker-friendly companies imaginable. He’s adamant that traditional business is broken and too focused on exploitation of workers, customers, and partners, so the entrepreneur structures the entire company to be focused on the happiness of his team. For starters, each year Biltcliffe sends most of the businesses profits back into the pockets of employees. Last year alone, Webmart allocated each employee an average of a 43.7 percent bonus.

Biltcliffe calls his approach to business “Marxist Capitalism” a way of using the profits of the business to go directly in the hands of the people on its front lines. To him, it’s the most obvious idea in the world: Keep the people around you happy and they’ll do great work.

Simon Bitcliffe, Founder of Webmart.

Simon Biltcliffe, Founder of Webmart.

“Any business is a bag of people,” he says. “The better the bag of people is, the better off business is.” Yet, businesses everywhere are grappling with how to create the best bag of people.

Take Gravity Payments, the Seattle-based company that raised its minimum salary to $70,000 with mixed results. Or Buffer, the social media tool that believes in radical transparency including salary, equity, and money left in the bank. Or Treehouse, the online education service that works four days a week with a completely flat structure.

And most recently (and most infamously), Amazon came under fire for its alleged “purposeful Darwinism” that some credit as pushing them to their best work while others feel the ruthless unforgiving atmosphere is destructive. Which approach is right? Is there any way to even know?

Webmart’s approach is equally non-traditional. We asked CEO Simon Biltcliffe how he structured his business to make the best working environment that has many employees staying close to a decade.

The Three Pillars of Marxist Capitalism

Webmart organizes its decision-making and internal policies according to three pillars.

Intellectual Return

The guiding principle of Biltcliffe’s model is that without intellectual fulfillment, no one can maximize happiness and contribution. So the hard work begins at the hiring process where each candidate is asked to fill out a “psychometric assessment” that reveals a person’s natural tendencies. Are they outgoing? Do they prefer to work alone? Webmart then makes sure that the results are aligned with the person’s eventual role.

Bitcliffe's assessment, like all employees', includes how well he shares knowledge and takes a joke. [Click to enlarge]

Biltcliffe’s assessment, like all employees’, includes how well he shares knowledge and takes a joke. [Click to enlarge]

“There’s no point being an introvert in a customer service role,” he said. “Because whatever you do, it won’t change the person’s natural propensity.”

After assuring the hire fits the role, the new hire enters into the company’s peer-review system. Each employee brings their own knowledge to the table, so one of the most important parts of the company’s peer review is the question: “How well does this person share knowledge?”

Webmart’s leaders use the review to find knowledge gaps and assign peer mentors within the organization to make sure employees are tutoring each other on areas of expertise. Someone marked high with empathy may tutor others on their specialty but may receive mentoring on, say, client management.

Unlike other companies that use similar assessments for “stack ranking” compensation is not tied to the outcome of these peer reviews. When successful, employees work on the things they are naturally inclined to be good at while receiving guidance on their weak spots while tutoring others.

Emotional Return

If the Intellectual Return is successful, Webmart focuses on what it calls the “Emotional Return.” Which, in practice, means being a good human to employees, clients, and collaborators. The process here is similar to how you’d describe a good partner or friend: Employees pay attention to the needs and preferences of others and go above and beyond to show them they’ve remembered. And just like giving a gift to a good friend, both the recipient and the giver get a boost in morale. This philosophy extends to fellow employees as well as for customers.

For example, Webmart prides itself on treating office visitors like royalty. If you were to visit the office for the first time, Webmart employees will call your colleagues to figure out how you like your coffee, tea, and snacks. Even if your favorite brew isn’t easily available they’ve been known to dispatch multiple employees to find the right drink.

When you arrive they take a photo of you and when you leave they send a survey asking if there was anything they could have done differently. All of this information is logged in an internal CRM to be ready for the next time you visit. The feedback is taken seriously: After one customer visited and playfully complained that the company’s canary yellow walls were too bright when he was that hungover, the team was ready with sunglasses in hand when that person returned.

“The key here is to make this automatic and part of the process,” says Biltcliffe.

The "happy o meter" that allows anyone in the building to vote on their emotional state and see the aggregate results.

The “happy o meter” that allows anyone in the building to vote on their emotional state and see the aggregate results.

These niceties also serve a shrewd business purpose: Those that receive these touches will never forget Webmart. Especially useful in an industry like printing where the vendors can easily blend together and customers can quickly forget why they chose one company over another.

As an example, Biltcliffe says his team always has a present ready for their courier on his son’s birthday. On one hand it makes for a better working relationship. On the other, says Biltcliffe, “If he’s stuck in traffic and only has time to deliver one package, whose is he going to pick? You don’t want to become the next Kodak, you want to create an environment were everyone is looking out for you and helping you.”

Financial Return

Despite the name, money and rewards play an instrumental part in the “Marxist Capitalism” structure. While salaries are transparent, employees are financially rewarded on performance and in relation to the market salaries of their jobs.

As part of the company’s focus on transparency, all salaries are internally available and the employees with the top 10 performance reviews can be accessed at any time (However, the content of those reviews are only visible to each person’s manager).

The internal top 10, viewable by any Webmart employee.  [Click to enlarge]

The internal top 10, viewable by any Webmart employee. [Click to enlarge]

“Transparency is the second most powerful force on Earth after gravity,” says Biltcliffe. “People don’t do stupid fucking things they’re not proud of if they’re going to be found out.”

However, it’s the “Marxist” aspect of compensation that would seem unusual to most creatives—primarily what Webmart does with its profits. First, Webmart claims to pay “the most taxes it possibly can” to the government.

Second, after paying expenses (which Biltcliffe pegs at £400,000), the company redistributes 50 percent of its profits to employees (the other half goes to Biltcliffe). After £1,000,000 in revenue 100 percent of revenues are distributed to employees. Last year £638,000 (about $994,000) was distributed to his 43 employees. The goal is to have each employee marching toward a common goal with a bit of “selective bribery.” The progress to the bonus is available for any employee to access and a countdown to the next bonus is displayed in public.

An entrance to Webmart that featured four monitors with company metrics over the door. [Click to enlarge]

An entrance to Webmart that featured four monitors with company metrics over the door with a countdown to the next distribution. [Click to enlarge]

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The combination of the three returns is what Biltcliffe attributes to the company’s continued growth as the industry around Webmart seems to be crumbling. As most companies get larger and more successful, its employees want to spin off and do their own thing. While sharing the wealth around so liberally might cost a little bit upfront, it gives everyone a common goal and gives the employee a reason to stay onboard for longer.

To qualify for the profit sharing, a Webmart employee has to be employed by the company for two years, which isn’t easy. “About one in three get through that,” says Biltcliffe. “Thereafter, people stay for an inordinate about of time—the average is about eight and a half years.” Not bad for a printing business in the London ‘burbs.

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

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