Kevin Benz, 44, and Fred Barrett, 41, like to play. Their suburban Seattle office is cluttered with Rocky and Bullwinkle paraphernalia, a favorite "novelty" toy (we promised not to mention what it is), Web phones and laptops. Once a month, Benz (below left) and Barrett order pizza and use the projector in the conference room to play movies all afternoon. Some days, they take their 15 employees to a rock concert or invite them and their families water- or snow-skiing. Is that any way to do business with so many dotcom failures littering the landscape?
You bet it is, say Benz and Barrett, self-proclaimed Internet gurus and co-founders of InterKnack.com, a 2-year-old XML Web design company in Bellevue, Washington. But these survivors of corporate America also know how to work hard. They didn't just weather last year's dotcom bust; they thrived: 2000 sales hit $2.65 million, up from $1 million in 1999. And this year, sales are expected to reach upward of $3.5 million. The company's client list is equally impressive: To date, it includes Cisco, Seafair (Seattle's summer festival) and a project for Vatican-sponsored World Youth Day.
We caught up with Benz, the company's CEO and president, and Barrett, CTO and vice president, to get their take on cultivating the right work environment in trying times:
What do you think is the secret to dotcom longevity?
Benz: The most important thing is to take a long-term approach to business. Make sure your company has quality and viability. The only way you achieve that is by staying focused and making sure you have a great team. If you have a top A team, even a B plan can be executed. But if you have a bad team, nothing gets done.
How does interknack integrate work and play without hurting productivity?
Barrett: By hiring great people. Our employment ad says we're looking for self-directed people with border-line sanity and creative vision. When you have a creative environment, there's a groundswell of achievement that occurs. We let employees be accountable for themselves. If you're constantly looking over someone's shoulder, worried about deadlines, creativity dies.
Benz: We don't crack a whip around here. We aren't [just] project-oriented; we're also people-oriented. People work harder because of that.
What's the key to hiring and keeping good people?
Barrett: Do great projects. Foster a fun environment. Don't put your thumb on someone-that lasts about a minute. Our employees want to be here. Microsoft is right across the street.
Benz: There's a difference between finding great people and shopping for great skills. That discounts the whole person. Instead, when you find good people, find a place for them. Do everything you can to keep them.
Laura E. Vasilion, a freelance writer in Batavia, Illinois, is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune.