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Searching for a workplace that fosters new ideas? The HOTH ranks high

The St. Petersburg search engine optimization company encourages ideas from anyone, no matter their background.
George Papadeas, 29, chief operations officer at the HOTH, chats with Julia Cieutat, 26, the company's director of client success, and her dog Pepper on March 3 at the company's headquarters in St. Petersburg. The HOTH scored highly in the Tampa Bay Times' annual Top Workplaces survey among employees who feel the company wants to hear and act on their new ideas.
George Papadeas, 29, chief operations officer at the HOTH, chats with Julia Cieutat, 26, the company's director of client success, and her dog Pepper on March 3 at the company's headquarters in St. Petersburg. The HOTH scored highly in the Tampa Bay Times' annual Top Workplaces survey among employees who feel the company wants to hear and act on their new ideas. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 26
Updated Mar. 26

At the time Julia Cieutat became a sales rep for the HOTH four years ago, she was working as a teacher. She’d studied psychology and sociology at the University of South Florida. Cold-calling prospective clients for a search engine optimization firm was not the career she’d envisioned.

“At first, I was kind of nervous to share my ideas, just because I didn’t feel like I was well-versed enough to share those and speak on it in a way that made sense,” said Cieutat, 26. “Especially because a lot of people in the company had worked with SEO and marketing in general for a while.”

But the more she talked to clients, the more she realized they wanted a stronger connection with the St. Petersburg company, a go-to contact who could “hold their hand” through the complicated process of boosting their Google ranking.

Cieutat pitched her bosses on hiring more full-time managed services employees. They did. In time, her team grew from two or three to nearly 15. And Cieutat, the HOTH’s director of client success, is now the woman in charge.

“If you told me two years ago that I would have 12 campaign managers on my team, I would laugh,” she said. “To come in and have a new fresh perspective is really what sets us apart from other companies, because we are so open-minded.”

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Some tech firms might not expand based on the recommendation of a newly hired former schoolteacher. The HOTH, employees say, is different. In our Top Workplaces survey, the company was recognized with a “New Ideas” award, spotlighting it as a place where workers across all departments feel comfortable sharing ideas and watching them come to fruition.

“We’re a young company full of young entrepreneurs who just want to solve problems,” said George Papadeas, the HOTH’s chief operations officer. “We’re in a space that is extremely boring, for lack of a better phrase. So how can we make it fun? How can we make it fun for ourselves? How can we make it fun for our clients? And how can we get it to where we look back in 10 years and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we built that digital empire?’”

George Papadeas, 29, chief operations officer of the HOTH, chats with Chris Lancaster, 34, director of client experience, on March 3 at the company's headquarters in St. Petersburg. The HOTH scored highly in the Tampa Bay Times' annual Top Workplaces survey among employees who feel the company wants to hear and act on their new ideas.
George Papadeas, 29, chief operations officer of the HOTH, chats with Chris Lancaster, 34, director of client experience, on March 3 at the company's headquarters in St. Petersburg. The HOTH scored highly in the Tampa Bay Times' annual Top Workplaces survey among employees who feel the company wants to hear and act on their new ideas. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The HOTH — not a Star Wars reference, but an acronym for “Hit ‘em Over The Head,” performance-wise — started in 2010 in Chicago as a lifestyle content and digital marketing company. It evolved to focus on search engine optimization, with arms that focus on blogging, freelance services and direct marketing. It now has 50 employees and an army of freelancers from a variety of fields.

At a glance, the algorithm-dominated world of search engine optimization might not seem ripe for fostering outside-the-box ideas. But the marketplace of open thought is baked into the HOTH’s DNA.

“We never want anybody to feel like there’s a block with communication,” said Alizé Luft, the HOTH’s community and culture manager. “We have to reframe this idea of feedback being purely criticism to being something that can help either grow our employees or move the company forward.”

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Christian Cappoli met Papadeas at a career fair at the University of South Florida. At the time, the closest thing he had to tech-world experience was a part-time job at an Amazon warehouse. But he joined the HOTH as an intern.

“Right from the beginning, it felt like they were very transparent, and they always wanted to hear my ideas on things,” said Cappoli, 29, now the firm’s content service manager.

When he realized the HOTH was churning through freelance contributors too fast, he suggested entrance and exit surveys to help ensure they knew what they were getting into, and how they could do better with future contributors. He also pitched a back-end auditing function that allowed staffers to better monitor freelance writing quality. Those transparency and quality-control measures led to a drop in freelancer turnover, he said, as well as “a little bit of motivation on where they can improve.”

Brett Frieman, 26, on left, gets some work done with his dog, Shanti, in the call center area at the HOTH in St. Petersburg on March 3. The HOTH scored highly in the Tampa Bay Times' annual Top Workplaces survey among employees who feel the company wants to hear and act on their new ideas.
Brett Frieman, 26, on left, gets some work done with his dog, Shanti, in the call center area at the HOTH in St. Petersburg on March 3. The HOTH scored highly in the Tampa Bay Times' annual Top Workplaces survey among employees who feel the company wants to hear and act on their new ideas. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Luft, too, joined the HOTH right out of college. At the time, the company had a wellness program that allowed employees to choose between a gym, yoga or massage studio membership. Luft did some research and realized only about 35 percent of those memberships were being used, costing the company $2,000 a month. She pitched a different program that gave employees a $50-a-month debit card to use not just on fitness, but thousands of additional services.

“It’s almost at 100 percent use, and everybody continues to list it as one of their favorite perks at the HOTH,” Luft said. “The best part is that we haven’t lost any money on it, because anything that isn’t spent, we get to keep. It doesn’t just go away.”

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Every year, the HOTH conducts an annual “Happiness Survey.” Managers solicit staff feedback and get a sense of how satisfied workers are with where they are. It’s a sign of success, Luft said, that last year’s survey produced the HOTH’s highest scores yet.

“The path here at the HOTH is what you make of it,” she said. “If you want to be a leader, that is totally within reach for everybody.”

ABOUT THE COMPANY

The HOTH is a search engine optimization company founded in 2010 that offers services including digital marketing, reputation management, blog content and more.

Employees: 52, plus a network of freelance contributors

Location: St. Petersburg

Website: thehoth.com

Employee comments: “We have multiple channels just for putting ideas out, as well as the freedom to go directly to developers or product team and pitch what we see as useful.”

“Every individual is valued and heard. Honest and open communication is emphasized, and every employee is met with empathy and understanding.”

“My ideas are always listened to and respected. There is always mobility and everyone encourages everyone else to grow. I feel very supported here.”