By C.J. Mittica

"Best" is a relative term on a muddled Seattle morning. On this late July day, the sky is as gray as a British funeral. The rain is an illusion, steadily falling and yet practically evaporating by the time it taps your skin. The thermometer barely reads 60 degrees – in the dead of summer. Expectations of business grandeur are minimal as you tromp to iClick’s unassuming door, set in against a street populated with a cast of characters that could be graciously described as "colorful."

iClick team

Then you hear the music. Not Muzak – music (50 gigs worth on iTunes, in fact). It draws you up the stairs like a siren call, into an office where the ceilings are high, the space is open and the people are incredibly welcoming. Maybe this really is an ad specialty Xanadu.

Lon McGowanWelcome to iClick, Counselor’s top-rated Best Place to Work. Naturally, business is booming. The lucrative start-up has doubled its growth every year since focusing on just USBs four years ago (casting aside cameras and MP3 players), and is on the precipice of a monumental business expansion beginning this fall.

But that’s not the only reason why this promising little-company-that-could (it has only 30 employees) earned such a high distinction. It stems from an atmosphere equally casual and professional, fun and dedicated. It rises from a forward-thinking CEO still without the need of, it seems, the services of a razor. It replicates through an active group of young professionals, photogenic enough to star as a TV ensemble, yet goofy enough to build marshmallow towers or compete in the iLympics at the company’s renowned Friday Morning Meetings.

At iClick, work and fun are both serious business.

"I always feel that culture is one of the most important things in a company,"says CEO Lon McGowan, who started the company seven years ago and lifted it from the ashes of the dot-com bust, "because it feeds off how you answer the phone, how you deal with customers, what our work ethic is, all those kinds of things. It’s one of those things that we always work on.”

Hire Power
The employees of iClick describe their convergence as a fait accompli: a close-knit atmosphere where people of the same attitudes, values and interests are drawn together. "We all happen to be kind of cool people doing interesting things in our own lives, and I think we gravitated to this place to work because of that reason,"says Jennifer Guild, the first employee McGowan brought on board.

The CEO reveals the motto behind the process: hire slowly, fire quickly. "If somebody comes into the organization,"says the 29-year-old, "and is deemed a 'bad apple' – first of all, it’s really apparent really quickly because they just don’t fit in."

The challenge, then, is preserving the environment as the company continues to grow swiftly. By hiring the right people, McGowan believes iClick has reached the tipping point where "the culture itself is self-sustaining."

"There's so much visibility in the system, it allows everybody to see what their value is to the company."

- LON MCGOWAN, ICLICK (asi/62124)

Indeed, entire departments interview prospective new members. Sales reps are kept in-house so they remain immersed in the office dynamics and brand messaging. And employees are all too cognizant of the task at hand. "We’re really aware of making sure they’re the right fit for our culture. I think that’s how we maintain our vibe here,"says Adam Colvin, an account coordinator who has been with the company for three years.

The words don’t sound like those of a company running at a ruthlessly efficient clip. And yet, McGowan estimates the current number of employees could easily be doubled or nearly tripled if it weren’t for the company’s paperless system, Clicker. Developed by McGowan and another techie, it’s a completely transparent application that allows account coordinators to generate and e-mail quotes in under a minute. Anyone in the company can access all the relevant account data through a simple user interface.

"There’s so much visibility in the system, it allows everybody to see what their value is to the system and the company,"says the CEO, demonstrating his innovation with a laid-back pride typical of his personality. "And they see the direct results of their hard work within minutes."On the flip side, bad apples and foot-draggers have nowhere to hide. "You don’t ever feel like there are people here that aren’t pulling their weight,"says Lauren Reilly, the most tenured member of the four-person sales team.

The system allows iClick’s employees to fulfill their slavish devotion to providing top customer service. McGowan regularly credits the company’s many successes to simply fulfilling the needs of his buyers. "Make the distributor look good,"he says – quickly and efficiently. It’s telling that the founder, with a history of taking several leaps of faith in guiding iClick to its present success, refuses to micromanage his employees, yet is quick to implement proposals from his staffers. "Lon has been great at giving you the freedom to run with ideas, and he trusts you to develop them for yourself,"says Mariah Hannaford, a graphic designer.

If it all sounds a little unexpected coming from a fresh-faced CEO, well, McGowan revels in shattering conventions – not every recent college graduate convinces the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to do an eight-part series on him, as McGowan did when he started iClick. While iClick employees receive four weeks of vacation upon being hired, McGowan tends to shun the typical office perks. There are no annual summer barbecues or Employee of the Month honors at this company. Instead, McGowan favors guerilla surprises – such as the all-company sailing trip on Lake Washington last summer. "It’s more the unexpected things,"he says, "the sailing trip, the completely unexpected, where all of a sudden, 'Alright, guys, drop everything that you’re doing, we’re closing the company right now, and we’re going out and doing something fun.' That’s much more exciting to everybody, I think."

The excitement never stops. To address its rapid growth, iClick has plans to move into a larger space in a new building in downtown Seattle by the end of the year, equipped with a warehouse to hold what McGowan estimates is already the largest in-house stock of USB drives in the industry. "I’m sure we’ll be able to iClickify it,"he says with confidence, noting that the ceilings won’t be low, a pet peeve of his.

And for a company so happy and rife with potential, it only makes sense to set the ceilings as high as possible. – CJM