Menlo striving to reinvent workplace wheel

It's not true that you must work 80-hour weeks, trash competitors and gouge your customers to get ahead in today's dog-eat-dog business world.

Rich Sheridan and his gang of computer programmers and high-tech anthropologists at Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Mich., say so.

They are dedicated to reinventing the workplace, for themselves and their clients, as a means to an even more ambitious goal: “To end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology,” says Sheridan, president and CEO of the software firm he founded with three partners in 2001.

Inside Menlo's offices above a coffee shop a few blocks from the University of Michigan's central campus, there are no walls.

No cubicles, no long nights, nobody working weekends.

No offshoring of work to programmers in other countries.

And if a client is a cash-starved entrepreneurial startup – is there any other kind? – Menlo might just cut its usual rates for custom software by 50 percent in return for equity in the client's business or royalties from its products.

So far, Sheridan's belief that an innovative company could take root here in rust-belt Michigan – and teach others a process and methodology for innovation – appears to be succeeding even in today's trying economy.

Menlo has made investments in 13 of its clients and has started to receive royalty checks from two of them. One firm where Menlo has an equity stake is Accuri Cytometers, a U-M spin-off that makes flow cytometers for cell analysis, used by life science researchers.

Menlo's workplace is definitely different. But it's not very complicated. “It's kind of like kindergarten,” Sheridan said, sheepishly.

People work in pairs, two to a PC, in a wide-open bullpen. Partners are changed every week, and a worker might be assigned to a different project from one week to the next.

Everything is about collaboration. Job applicants are even interviewed and tested in pairs and advised that they will be judged on how well they help their partner to get hired.