How to Think Small When Your Company Isn't

Even if you don't understand what the heck CEO Arvind Singh's Chicago-based company Utopia does -- it's an enterprise data solutions provider -- you should be able to relate to its current circumstances. The company has been growing. A lot. In 2010 Utopia saw 250 percent growth in 2010 and 350 percent growth in 2011, and over the its 10 years has surged from 45 employees to about 500 people.

And so, the age-old question and a more helpful follow-up question enters: How do you retain the feeling of a small company when you very clearly are not? Is that something you should even strive for?

To find out, I gave Singh a call.

Sounds like you guys have been growing a lot lately, huh?

Arvind Singh: [Laughs.] Yeah, we have that nice problem of super-fast growth. I think we've made it to Inc. 500 and 5000 list for the fourth year in a row consecutively, which, as you know, gets very hard after the first one or two times. We've actually improved our rank every year. Every single year we've actually improved our rank up. This year actually we broke into the 500. So, we've gone from rank 1,964 to 480-something this year.

You said it's a good problem to have and that you're trying to retain the feeling of a small company as you keep growing. Is that something you think can ever really be achieved?

Arvind Singh: I think it is possible. Is it tough? Does it require a lot of work? Absolutely. We've done a few things that were sowed very early in the beginning of the company. If I was to say, "How have we managed to do that?" I think it's really two things. I think we created a very strong culture in the company very early on. We probably lived it ourselves in the early years and in the later years, in fact, in the last two years or so, when we realized we were growing so fast that we needed to capture the whole essence of the company, we actually created what we call the Utopia way. That really captures, in a nutshell, what our culture is all about and how we actually have been able to manage to keep that culture intact.

There's always this temptation to hold onto that feeling that you had when you're a smaller company. But what about the notion that bigger is better? Certainly there are advantages you get from being a bigger company, right?

Arvind Singh: Yeah, I think that's an interesting debate. We constantly have that debate. To my mind there's really two very strong cases for growth: it really insulates you from external changes and really positions you well for taking advantage of the opportunities as the market changes and the market evolves. Ours is a classic story. Had we stuck with what we were doing at the beginning of the company's life cycle, what I call "version 1.0," we would today not be in a position to be considered a leading company in the data space, which has really morphed and evolved into the current avatar through this notion of growth.

The second point I'm going to make, on a personal note, is the kind of talent that you attract, I think is a whole different quality of talent that you are able to attract when you are offering them an opportunity to grow personally, professionally and financially. So, most people who come to us are super-accomplished but they're just tired of being where they're being because there's been no movement, no growth in where they are. I think to me it's one piece fits the other.

Can you tell me a bit about your decision to stay in the same office throughout all your growth?

Arvind Singh: [Laughs.] I think it's part of what The Utopia Way. We've got about five things in the Utopia Way, but I'll probably just focus on two to answer the question. I think the first one is we have an obsession with what we call "turning the cube." What I mean by that is that 90 percent is not good enough. True innovation truly happens at the frontier. We have this iterative mindset that until we have that breakthrough in thinking in no matter what you're doing, we do not believe that we have really accomplished that Utopia solution.

I think to us a fancy downtown office on the 50th floor of some building didn't drive business. It didn't build a business. It didn't necessarily attract the kind of talent that we wanted to attract. To us, it's about, "What is the business all about? What is the culture all about? What is the value proposition for an employee or partner or customer to engage with in Utopia?" That doesn't come from a fancy office.  

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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