The founder of Smarkets is turning workplace hierarchies upside down

With the current Conservative leadership narrative resembling a combination of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar, there’s plenty speculation about which path history will take – “Will Boris get the boot?”, “Will May resign?” etc.

Cue Smarkets – a stock market for betting: you bet against other betters, not the house. Founder Jason Trost’s vision is to create complex bets for com-plex customers: instead of a punter put-ting £5 on Chelsea to win, Trost wants a younger, UBS version of himself to put£10,000 on a complex political bet, or just a straight up sporting bet.
After graduating from Northwestern in Chicago with a Computer Science degree, Trost was a stock trader at UBS, which he describes as a “nice employ-er”. “They paid me well. I was in a box and you couldn’t leave that box until you got to the next level.” It was partly this static structure that drew Trost to the concept of self-management as a way to run a high growth company.

So what is self-management? Trost explains. “If you think of traditional hierarchy as a tree, self-management is a network.” He adds: “I like to think of each worker as an airport. The leaders are the hubs like JFK and LAX, and the more junior workers are the regional airports. Both have their purposes, they’re just different.
“You need the big international air-ports to help you get to your more remote destination – they’re symbiot-ic, and like a network. But it’s impor-tant to note that the big hubs change, as the business changes. We’ve just hit 100 people. Out of 100, there’s three or four big hubs; then the regional hubs, of which there are 10 people; and then remote hubs make up the rest.”
Trost implemented self-management at Smarkets three years ago. “It’s not perfect,” he says, “but I’m happy we’re doing it. It’s a work in progress.”
Scarred by his experience of being told to stay in his box at UBS, Trost is fascinated by the prospect of employees stepping outside their roles, and how self-management encourages this.
He tells the story of one of his engi-neers reading about gambling regula-tion when a legal issue arose. “He’s an engineer not a regulation guy – but he stepped up and filled that space that needed to be filled. So that’s an exam-ple of it working very well.”

Other features of Smarkets include: unlimited holiday, employees picking their own salary, and the ability to look up each other’s salaries. The point in all three? The pillars of self-management are trust and transparency. So workers would not take excessive holiday, as that would be to the detriment of the team, and the team trusts that they will choose the correct amount of leave.

Trost compares the fate of someone being paid an excessive amount and leaving early to “a diseased red blood cell being consumed by the white blood cells”. He notes that he’s had problems with self-management – there’s no sil-ver bullet. But clearly Smarkets employ-ees are as self-motivated, ambitious and contrarian as their founder – so provid-ing everyone has the same mentality, the business thrives.

Self-management for a company might be a bit of a gamble, but for a certain type of worker, it sounds like the jackpot.
Sophie Jarvis is programmes director at The Entrepreneurs Network.