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Nick Smarrelli: Creating A Culture of Growth

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About the Episode

Nick Smarrelli has helped grow GadellNet from four employees to 85. His secret to success? Investing in the development of his employees. He’s adamant about hiring people at the front lines and growing them into company leaders. This powerful belief in personal growth creates a culture where people can develop in very diverse ways. How can you empower employees to reach their full potential in similar ways? Listen now to find out.

Episode Highlights

Meet Our Guest

Becoming a COO at 27 is no simple feat. For Nick Smarrelli, it took a lot of determination and grit. Now with nearly 10 years of leadership experience under his belt, the CEO of GadellNet is investing heavily in his team to maximize potential. This has developed a unique culture where employees can bring their whole self to work. “We are creating a space that allows people to surprise themselves as far as what they're capable of doing.”

Episode Transcript


Chris Byers: Welcome to Ripple Effect, a podcast from Formstack revealing how simple decisions can have a lasting effect on others. I'm your host, Chris Byers. On today's show, I get to introduce you to Nick Smarrelli. Nick is the CEO of GadellNet, an IT support company that has been named a six-time Inc 5000 fastest growing company and a four-time best places to work in IT solutions. But they certainly didn't start out that way. When Nick joined the company in 2010, it was still a fledgling enterprise, even though it began back in 2003.

Nick Smarrelli: There's a bit of nostalgia in the years of 2010 to 2013. I worked out of a little kind of end table in the office with three other individuals. For me, I commuted back and forth from Indianapolis (to St. Louis). I sold my company car from my previous job and got a used Honda Civic. I lived a life before where I was staying at the nicest hotels and whenever I traveled, we always ate at nice restaurants. And I remember shopping at Aldi and staying at the bottom bunk in one of the owners house with his three year old son sleeping above me. So, conditions were not glamorous when we got things started.

Chris Byers: As CEO of an IT solutions company, it might surprise you to find out that Nick doesn't consider himself an IT expert.

Nick Smarrelli: And as far as technology, frankly, I have always been in the business process field. So I always loved business process. But frankly speaking, if my computer turns blue or has any issues, I freak out like everybody else does. So I may run an IT support company, but the reality is, I know very little about IT. So my background is more on the business process, operations, marketing, sales, and HR, and I support that portion of the organization. And a lot of our culture stems from, and it's for lack of a better word, my ignorance around the ins and outs of technology. I've had to kind of rely heavily on our team to really deliver that to our clients. While I bring more of the business aptitude side of things.

Chris Byers: So what does an IT company look like whose CEO is not an IT expert himself? What effect does that have on the culture? Let's listen in and find out.

Chris Byers: You actually talked about something, about this idea of not always actually bringing just the technology side, like that needs to get delivered clearly in the work that you do, but you bring a little bit of the business process side. And to me, that is very much thinking about listening to problems and helping solve those problems, but solve them in a way that not only do you deliver, maybe the thing they thought they wanted to buy from you or the service they thought they wanted from you, but you actually deliver much, much more. Something that can really impact their business, make them more productive or otherwise. Tell us a little bit about how you go about that and how you bring that to your customers.

Nick Smarrelli: Absolutely. And again, the good thing about that is I've got far smarter people that are kind of helping make that a reality. I think what we're looking at now, especially in the IT field, is, you know, the days of desktop computers and buying servers and having all this just kind of heavy, heavy hardware and equipment. You know, those days are for the most part past. So as an organization, you know, where my revenue eight years ago was really driven by, hey, this person needs a new big server and a new desktop in order just to do their job. The really neat thing is, you know, it's certainly created some stress as we had to evolve ourselves, is we don't sell big servers anymore. We don't sell big network devices. You know, really what we're selling is, again, to your point, this business process. All right, I am looking for the ability with which to, you know, like you guys, have a disparate workforce working wherever they want and that the experience in a Starbucks in Morocco feels exactly the same as if I'm in my headquarters in Indianapolis. And so, you know, what we do right now is really kind of meet with our clients and really understand what goals are you trying to achieve, what makes you different and using technology as this ability with which to work. We talk about internally the idea of kind of powering your mission, but really to say, hey, I want to become more collaborative or I want to become a best place to work. I want to leverage technology to instead of having to hire 10 people for X revenue growth, I want to hire eight and then use technology to fill the gap for the other two, because right now it's a really tough job market.

So I think it's really understanding and kind of saying, hey, these are the business challenges and kind of aligning technology with with both of those. But I mean, the resources available are insane. I mean, you talk about data and the fact that we've got all this incredible data to use. You know, even three or four years ago, there is no way with which to process that in a way that made any sense. Now I can walk in at 8 a.m. and be prepared for a sales meeting, a finance meeting, an operations meeting, and a marketing meeting. And I just use my individual dashboards to tell me how I'm performing on key metrics. I mean, that's just a revolution in I.T. It's no longer about hopefully I can open up my computer and it takes twenty five minutes to boot up. I mean, we're past those phases now. And I think that's making especially my role and what the contributions we're making to our clients even better, because it is all about kind of enhancing just different processes and different ways in the customer journey to be impactful.

Chris Byers: It really does speak to this idea that it's really about providing more value to people, to customers, to those around you than they were expecting. I think you'll appreciate this because I know you have had a really good success in both being named a Best Place to Work, being on the INC 5000 list, and what that speaks to is this idea of building even a culture internally that people, I guess it's more than people expect. You know, all of us generally believe there's jobs to get out there. And we apply for jobs and we get them and we get paid. But what we don't always believe is that there are companies out there who are trying to do something a little bit more. I'm curious about that little bit more at GadellNet and how you think about bringing team members in, and helping them being maybe more successful than they thought they would be and building a great culture.

We have not hired a manager from outside the company. We bring people in, have them understand how we do things, and grow them into that role.

Nick Smarrelli: I mean, again, this is what people always ask, what things keep you up at night. And this is certainly one of those is are we really creating a space that allows people to be, kind of even surprise themselves as far as what they're capable of doing? We talk a lot internally about the concept of bringing your whole self to work. And the good, the bad, the ugly, but also the ability to say, as you know, everybody comes with, you know, anywhere between 22 and 65 years of unique experiences and just saying, are people really kind of using that kind of full scale within the organization. So how we've worked, I would say tirelessly to kind of help make that happen is I think it really, really starts with is one is setting the right foundation. For us, it's we've got a really strong set of core values that interplay from the interview process to I mean, again, I don't think there's a day that goes by that nearly everybody on the team is talking in some capacity around those three values and really kind of creating a safe space with which to discuss and live those those values.

One of the big hires we made that again, if you were looking at my PNL statement you would see reflected there, is we spend a ton of money on training and development. We are hiring a training and development manager when we're only about 65 or 70 employees, which is fairly unheard of in terms of having this size of HR staff. But what that allows us to do is we build one, two, and five year individual development plans, really aligning our spend around where people want to go as an organization. We have people learning Spanish, which again, has a little bit of interplay to us. But for us, it's how do you maximize your potential? And so I think for us, it's really kind of taking those being thoughtful with our investments. We're still a small company. We're still growing. And so for us that takes investment. So we've got to be somewhat frugal about that. But really, it is understanding what training and development programs are we bringing to our folks.

And then really I'd say kind of last is really building a culture of humility, because I don't think you can bring your best self if you have any fear of making a mistake or will they accept me here. And so I think for us, the concept of humility has to start and it has to start with me. There is not a week that goes by that I remind people of the fact that I'm not the smartest person in the room, the number of times that week I was told that I was wrong, and the number of mistakes that I made, but kind of what path I took to to improve myself so I would not make that same mistake again. So we really set that tone at my level so that people feel comfortable bringing that up because I don't feel like people can grow unless they feel 100 percent comfortable in their ability to with which to kind of show the good, the bad, and the ugly about themselves.

Chris Byers: That idea of, you know, for us, we have a cultural value, we say treat everyone as a peer regardless of title. And so I very much appreciate what you're talking about there. It's this idea that, you know, yeah, plenty of us have experience. We've been around a while. We have some domain knowledge. But if we don't appreciate that everyone brings something to the table. And in fact, maybe even the naive approach at times is the right one. It's the one that hasn't been weighed down by baggage and history. I love the way that you're thinking about it.

The other thing you said that I'd say, I've only later in life come to believe more in is that idea of training and development. But I'm thinking about education. Yes, I went to college and yes, I went, you know, got all the way through high school. But I never really appreciated schooling. I always liked hands-on work. So it always kind of had me devaluing the need for education. But it's been more recently that I've started to see where education is actually one of the more powerful things that you can do for someone when they have that knowledge that they didn't have before. You mentioned somebody learning Spanish. Yep, maybe it isn't exactly going to apply or maybe it will just apply to the business later. But allowing them to open up and learn something new means you know what? They will be able to go to a Spanish speaking country maybe one day and interact with people. But it's this kind of like life-giving, never ending cycle of once you've been educated, you can educate other people and become more self-sustaining. I really love that. And we'd love to know maybe, more about that training and development. How do you think about that? How do people in the organization utilize whatever it is you're using, software or otherwise, to do more education?

Nick Smarrelli: I was very lucky. My father kind of moved up the ranks from a professor to being the president of the university before he recently retired. My mother was a teacher for her entire career. So I would say, like it or not, I was already kind of pushed that direction since I was very young. So education has always been at the forefront for me. And, you know, for me what I appreciate about education or reading books or listening to podcasts or being kind of part of that, is it really just there's so much knowledge out there. I mean, if you think about it, I am one person and there are seven billion people in the world. And just the power of sheer mathematics, of what education does, is it takes multiple minds, puts them together, and gives kind of concepts to learn. So kind of accelerates for me, I'm a younger CEO I'm 37, it accelerates my impact because I'm essentially just stealing ideas from other people. That's how I use it and that's how I really present it to the team. My job as CEO is not necessarily always to have those ideas, but rather, you know, I'm a really fantastic curator of ideas. I find the best, I am really strong at kind of applying them and creating the change management around that. But that really sets the tone for everyone in the company.

Learn More: 5 Ways to Create a Company Culture Focused on Personal Growth

Chris Byers: And in terms of training and development, it sounds like with that big emphasis, it probably makes a big impact on how you grow people over time internally. What does that mean for people and how they do kind of advance in the organization and get better?

Nick Smarrelli: Absolutely. And frankly speaking, we're still kind of building out a lot of the intricacies and the discipline around some of these functions. But at a very high level, a statistic that I'm very proud of is 100% of our managers were individual contributors. So we have not hired a manager from outside the company. Rather, we bring people in, have them understand how we do things, and grow them into that role. And I think that sets the right tone for so many things. I mean, it sets the right tone that we value our values and our behaviors and what makes us special. And those people get promoted, that you can't come from outside the organization and still live what makes us unique. But I also think it kind of helps provide a nice roadmap for developing that kind of the needed both technical and soft skills with which to kind of exceed and excel into those roles. But I think, you know, I can't have a team of 110 managers, it just doesn't work. And so for us, I think we've also created pathways to success, whether you're within the same team or whether kind of giving promotion opportunities.

I mean, this morning alone, we had four different promotions that were given across the board from individuals starting at our entry level and moving people up. So even the way that we hire, we traditionally hire people with about four to six years of experience, start them at the front end, frontline part of the organization, understand where they want to go, invest in training and development, and then move them into key roles. So really what we've done is not only create a mechanism and tools and investments to learn and grow, but understand how that correlates to promotional opportunities. Titles, obviously compensation. You know, I wish everybody could come to work for free, but they it doesn't seem to work. So, you know, for us, it's kind of creating opportunities for them to grow within even their bracket of saying, OK, well, if I continue to invest in these certifications, these experiences, I can make, you know, more than just the standard to 2 to 3 percent year over year cost of living increase. So really providing and clarifying what those look is something I think we've done well at. I'll give us a B-plus at that so far, but with a really big focus in the next 12 months on really solidifying and providing some discipline around what does training and development mean to kind of the career trajectory and the kind of career arc.

Related: How GadellNet Empowered Their Sales Team with a Price Quote Tool

Chris Byers: I'm curious how that parallels your own story. You mentioned being a young CEO, but don't forget you've been there for 10 years, which means you were a younger CEO when you started. How does that story about an internal promotion even kind of relate to how you've grown over time?

Nick Smarrelli: The challenges were different back then, and I always kind of look at some of the things we did and we had done a few things right or else we wouldn't be here talking now. But I laugh kind of enthusiastically at myself 10 years ago and I think, oh, gosh, how could I do that? Or why would I be thinking that?

Chris Byers: You know, sometimes, though, the way we kind of learn and grow and do things better has nothing to do with work. And I understand that you run, and you run some long distances, maybe some distances that people don't even like to drive. Tell us a little bit about that, and maybe you have a race coming up, would love to hear about that.

Nick Smarrelli: You know, for me, I'd say about eight years ago and this goes back to even the concept before, kind of surrounding yourself with smarter, talented, even more ambitious people is, I kind of started kind of running in a circle of ambitious endurance athletes. So started off doing triathlons and then moved into half Ironmans and then full Ironmans. I really liked the triathlon scene. Recently those individuals kind of shifted their focus a bit. And now we're doing ultra races as well. In two weeks, I'm hiking up my Mount Kilimanjaro. In eight weeks, I'm running a 100K, which is 62 miles in Zion National Park. And then in September, and this is a new distance for me, this is the year of endurance and a little bit of anxiety. I'm running a 100 mile race in Steamboat Springs. So twenty some thousand feet of climb. So all the times that you're sitting and going up that really long ski lift that feels like it takes a million years. Well I'll be running that and I'll be running that multiple times. And so that's again, people always ask kind of how do you de-stress from work? Oddly, that's how I've chosen to spend my free time.

Chris Byers: You know, I've learned over kind of my own personal journey of running and eventually getting up to a marathon that it speaks so well, though, to how we find really success and kind of build organizations. You didn't wake up one day and just run a 100 miles. You've progressed over the years. You started with a smaller race and then you picked up a larger one and you trained. And it was just about a bunch of kind of micro decisions that stacked up to now you can dream about and probably go run that 100 miles and be successful. And I said probably, you're gonna do it, don't worry. But I think that it's a great analogy to anybody who's trying, you know, listening to these stories in here, like, man, this is awesome. Wish I could do that. It's just about beginning and go run for a minute and then run for two minutes. And that same thing in business, just you don't need to do huge things today. Start with something small and build on top of it. And that story will play out to some great success.

Nick Smarrelli: I love that metaphor. I think it's absolutely perfect. We talked about that even in running. I love the minute. I feel like sometimes people get intimidated by getting started and how do I start? And so I think that first step is cliche, but it's so important. And no quicker way to get it, then again, whether it's metaphorical or actual, getting a stress fracture. And that's an overuse injury. You jump too fast. And so having the patience to say I see with a bigger vision is and I'm willing to take the small steps.

Chris Byers: Nick talked to us about this idea of allowing people to maximize their potential. GadellNet is committed to helping its employees get more out of themselves than they expected. I love that idea because as a CEO, I know it's important to grow our organization, but I also know the only way that gets done is tapping into the deep personal desires and talents that already exist around the table. Helping people grow and expand the way they think about themselves and their work. So what ripple effects will you cause if you start bringing that growth mindset into the work around you?

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Practically Genius is a show built for innovators championing digitization within their organization.

Hosts Lindsay McGuire and Ryan Greives host conversations with real-world innovators sharing stories of digital transformation while also providing helpful advice and insights to listeners.

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