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Sign of the Times: Culture Gets Benched

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When college dropouts Andrew Perlman and Mark Land founded Cignal Global Communications, a fiber-optic data-communications company, five years ago, they ran it out of a low-rent apartment in Cambridge, Mass. In the fall of 1997, the then-five-person business received $23 million from venture-capital firm Spencer Trask & Co., in New York City. One of the first things that the twentysomething founders did was look for new office space. And when they found it, they indulged in one fantasy: they installed a small glass-enclosed basketball court just beyond the reception area. Price tag: about $2,000.

"It had been a conference room, but we thought it was too big and cold, so we had the room insulated and put in a parquet floor and a backboard," explains Perlman. "The building management almost kicked us out."

The "mini gym" was an instant hit. "It was a fun thing that attracted people," says Perlman. "We used to shoot hoops during lunch or on Friday afternoons. Our bankers loved it."

But as Cignal grew to $25 million in sales -- and a staff of 140 employees -- the court went from sacred corporate cultural ground to badly needed office space. The company's offices are located in a start-up hotbed near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where commercial vacancies are rare and good space is expensive. Plus, the cost of relocating a computer network as sophisticated as Cignal's would have been prohibitive. So in came the cubes.

Eight people now have offices below the still-present basketball hoop, and the parquet is covered with temporary carpet and crisscrossing wires. Cignal plans to remove the parquet floor and backboard shortly, when it moves its network operations center (and an operations staff of eight) into the room. "We're still fun people, but our employees know we're all here to build a successful company," Perlman says. "And we can do other stuff to build camaraderie."




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