It's not true that you must work 80-hour weeks, trash competitors and gouge your customers to get ahead in today's 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.
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Nobody working long nights.
Nobody working weekends.
No offshoring of work to programmers in India or other countries.
And nobody telecommuting, sort of counter intuitive for a technology firm in the era of virtual offices.
And if a client is a cash-starved entrepreneurial start-up, 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.
This radical-sounding departure from today's typical corporate culture isn't exactly a new idea. It's modeled mostly on inventor Thomas Edison's famous industrial laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., from which Menlo Innovations draws its name. Edison built the original lab in 1876.
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 employs 50 people today, up from about 30 two years ago, and expects to hire another 25 this year. Revenues hit $2 million in 2006, rose to $2.5 million in 2007 and are running 70 percent ahead of last year thus far in 2008, Sheridan said.
Menlo has made investments in 13 clients and has started to receive royalty checks from two. 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.
“We use Menlo as an extension of our organization. The relationship is unique in my business experience,” said Jennifer Baird, president and CEO of Accuri, which was created in 2004. Software developed by Menlo has made Accuri's cytometers much more affordable and easy-to-use than competing instruments, Baird said.
People work in pairs, two to a PC. Partners are changed every week, and a worker might be assigned to a different project from one week to the next. Nine projects, each with a code name such as Clementine or Ovis, to protect clients' confidentiality, were under way last week.
Working in pairs helps to improve accuracy. And writers of software, just like writers and editors of newspaper columns, get stuck every so often – and the partners help each other get unstuck. Changing partners keeps people fresh, and moving from project to project helps to keep everyone aware of what everyone else is doing.
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.
Menlo's so-called anthropologists shadow clients, closely watching every aspect of how they do their jobs, to help design friendly software and easy-to-use equipment. And the customer, rather than ordering software and seeing a final result many months later, comes in for a weekly “show-and-tell” on progress.