The Antihero's Guide to the New Economy
People already compare him to entrepreneurial heroes Gates, McNealy, and Jobs. But that's off the mark. Meet Doug Mellinger, the CEO as boy next door
When the Lehman guy wouldn't go to India, "that's when I snapped," Doug Mellinger is saying.
He's telling this to his father, in his father's backyard--the backyard of Mellinger's green-lawned suburban boyhood. It's early summer 1994, and the 29-year-old founder of PRT Group Inc. is in full rant.
Lehman Brothers, the New York City-based investment-banking firm, is a customer. Mellinger's custom-software-engineering company was doing a project for Lehman in India, where PRT had at long last, and only by surmounting epidemic red tape, set up a subsidiary. ("Took us two damn years just to get incorporated," Mellinger says.) And just when the project hit one of those critical stages when the client and programming team have to collaborate face-to-face, "the client wouldn't go." Too long a trip, Mellinger explains. Or too many cows in the hotel lobby. Or maybe it was just the damn shots.
Mellinger senior nods; he knows. He's been to India. He's had the shots.
Now the future of everything young Doug had worked for was hanging in the balance, and there in the yard it was painful for the father to watch--it was hard not to see his son, whom he so admired, as the kid he still was. Still doughy-framed and freckled. Still unformed. The way anyone would have seen Mellinger then. Not as a Bill Gates or anything close. Just another founder who starts a business and makes it go, really go, through sheer force of will--only to hit a wall he hadn't foreseen. The wall in this case being that he can sell the work, all right--he just can't get it done.
Walk it through, the father says. Ask the questions.
Father and son had been here before--had wrestled in this very place with industry conditions gone haywire: U.S. demand for software engineers that catastrophically outstripped supply; skyrocketing salaries being commanded by whatever engineers you could find; unmanageable transience among the engineers you most wanted to keep. How can you hope to complete a client's development project when every half year your top programmers leave for a better offer or an unscheduled mountain-biking sabbatical in the Cascades?
Walk it through. Ask the questions.
The thing is, Mellinger thought he had asked the questions and answered them. The kid who'd started a Manhattan "body shop" in 1989--who rented COBOL programmers to anyone who asked, though he couldn't write a line of professional code himself--had already worked his way toward real relationships with clients. Big clients: Merrill Lynch. Chase Manhattan Bank. J.P. Morgan. PRT had grown to $8 million in sales as it helped companies figure out tech solutions to their business problems and then applied programmers to the tasks--programmers whom, even in 1991, Mellinger had begun going as far as India to get, outsourcing the work abroad. By 1993 he was trying to establish an Indian development center, something even multibillion-dollar competitors such as EDS and Andersen Consulting hadn't done, but now, only a year later, the experiment had run aground. Sure, the engineers in India were good; in fact, they were more skilled at the work PRT needed done than anyone the company could hire in the States. But now it didn't matter, because PRT's customers wouldn't go to India. Mellinger needed brainpower like India's, but he needed it to be in a better place. So he looked. Ireland, China, Kuala Lumpur. God knows, he looked.
And now here he is again in Chappaqua, N.Y., in the backyard of his youth, pacing in the garden, treading stones he'd probably kick if he didn't know so well what it took to lay them, because he'd laid so many of them himself. His labor-deprived company can't bring talent to the United States because of immigration restrictions and cost, and it can't tap talent overseas because every country presents an obstacle that prevents it. Dad, we've gotta get programmers. Here he is, against a wall he can't climb.
Years later Mellinger would think how fitting it was that he would find himself there in Chappaqua on that afternoon. "As kids we lived in that backyard," he recalls. "The whole neighborhood did." The yard is on a cul-de-sac, and it's bigger than most--more than an acre. There's a swimming pool and a hot tub just outside the house's back door, and beyond that a basketball court, with a hoop adjusted low enough for even middle-class white boys to dunk on. Off to the side is the small Japanese garden. Doug and his two younger brothers had worked in that yard whenever they weren't playing in it. It was where their adolescent lives unfolded. Where the parties were, where Doug flirted with his future wife, where later on his father helped him practice public speaking. It was the yard everyone came to. The yard where things happened.
What happened in the yard on this particular day was that Mellinger's rant about programmers led to a question, which led to an idea, which led to the decision that will forever define Mellinger and his company. What he needed, he remembers saying to his father, was a better country than he could find. And that's when he decided that since the country he needed didn't exist, what he would do is invent it.
He would invent a place programmers would want to come to, a place they'd want to stay. Build it, he thought, and the links would be forged. The customers would come because the place had what they needed, was where they wanted to work, and was home to the people they wanted to work with. It could be done, Mellinger thought. It was possible.
Today, some three years later, Mellinger's "country" exists. It is everything he envisioned and more. On an island in the Caribbean, four hours by air from New York City, Mellinger has imported the workers, the customers, the capital, the infrastructure. He's established a partnership with the island itself that suggests how a tiny developing nation can leapfrog right over the industrial stage of economic evolution into a global, technology-based, knowledge-driven future.
And still, while it's not every day that someone conjures a world, what matters most here is not the country Mellinger invented; it's the organizational model he created to invent the country: what you might call the antiheroic organization. His achievements may have folks who know him already making comparisons to the likes of Jobs and Scott McNealy and Gates--but meet Doug Mellinger and what you'll see is not the magnetically formidable leader that most entrepreneurial legends seem to be, but an ordinary guy, the founder as boy next door--the antihero's CEO.
Mellinger's greatest invention, it turns out, is an approach to business that helps us suddenly understand the limitations of the "heroic" organizations in which we all work, organizations fueled by the personal energy and vision of a single individual. His approach helps us see why getting our organizations to get things done--even the most mundane things--seems so hard. Why we too often feel that, damn it, we should have more to show for our efforts at the end of the day, month, quarter, or year. A bigger impact.
It's an approach to business that illuminates the great management question of the 1990s and beyond: We know how great things can be accomplished by a heroic leader, but how can--hell, forget the "how." Can organizations get great and important things done without a hero at the top?
To answer that question--to answer it definitively--one need only visit the country that Mellinger invented. Welcome to Barbados. Welcome to the 21st-century high-tech nation.
"IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME."
The programmers have arrived. Pamela Alleyne from Malaysia. Leslie Farquhar from Manitoba. Jawahar Desai from Bombay. In the past two years, more than 300 software engineers have immigrated to Barbados from all over the world. "Soon we will be 400," says Srinivasan Viswanathan ("Vishy," he insists), the president of PRT's island subsidiary, PRT/Barbados.
On first encounter, the place to which they've come is your standard-issue coral-and-limestone island--this one located at the southeastern extreme of the Caribbean, just wide of the hurricane track that has other West Indians boarding up their windows through late summer and fall. Beyond that, though, you and I wouldn't recognize the Barbados where PRT's new employees land. Nor would the locals. Nor would the tourists who room on the west-shore beaches (Pavarotti's favorites) for $600-plus a night. Because unlike the rest of us, PRT's crew gets The Life. Which is as good a place as any to start describing why, at an economic moment when their skills could get them jobs anyplace on earth, PRT's programmers come here.
"We always knew we'd have to provide the basics for them," says Mellinger of The Life. "Housing, transportation. But we had no idea where it was going to take us. It just grew."
Where it took them was toward the creation of an information-age company town. A place to live? Arranged for. Furnished? Natch. Medical care, insurance, legal concerns, banking affairs? All taken care of.
But what most of the new town's citizens are quickest to describe about the island is their arrival there. "The fridge, everybody loves the fridge," says Sabrina Fernandez. "Oh, and it's just so nice to be met," says Renuka Moilly. Aware of how disoriented most of the newcomers feel upon touching down (the majority of them after a 20-hour journey from Asia), PRT devised an arrival procedure that redefines the phrase "Pick you up at the airport." Your PRT host finds you, gets your bags, guides you through immigration, gives you a cash advance, and chauffeurs you to your freshly prepared home. There you receive greetings from neighbors, social invitations for after you've had some rest, and an instructional tour of the house's facilities, supplies, and appliances--with said tour ending at the refrigerator, which you find already stocked with your favorite foods. Welcome to Barbados.
Welcome to the worry-free, ready-built, turnkey life.
"I don't want them to have to think about anything but having fun and writing killer code," Mellinger likes to say now. And indeed, the setup looks comprehensively, well, " maternal," as Alleyne puts it. Even before the newcomers leave home, travel arrangements are handled for them, and careful advice is given about what they shouldn't forget to bring (a pressure cooker, spices, family photos). Later, on the island, employees' bills are paid. They get free transportation. Their savings pile up in the bank. (Although programmers' salaries are less than what they could make in a market like New York City, the "savings rate" for Barbados-based engineers equals what they could expect to net anywhere in the world, thanks to all the perks and benefits of the turnkey life.)
"In the mornings we play tennis," says a man from Bangalore. "Then we create software."
The tennis part, of course, is abetted by the paradise part--an aspect of PRT's invented location that attracts employees, customers, and investors alike. It is--have we mentioned this?--a tropical island. When you're not working, you can play tennis all winter if you want. By night, in the raucous, melodic, open-air music halls, with the stars overhead and the heat and the drifted smoke from jerk-chicken grills outside, you can have a beer, laugh, and dance.
But Mellinger knew that even if those features brought engineers to the island, they wouldn't keep them there. These are knowledge workers. "What's best is that here," says Moilly, "you really get to focus on your work."
The Work. As Mellinger and Vishy understood, the most powerful thing programmers can be offered is a place to work with the best people, on the best projects. A chance to write better code. It's easy to forget that while industry conditions have made engineers a cherished commodity, often a commodity is what they're treated like. Custom programmers go project to project, normally working at customer sites where they're surrounded by nonprogrammers who assume what all buyers of custom software have been taught to assume by experience: that the programming being done will (1) be late, (2) be over budget, and (3) not work. Not work, that is, as reliably as even the cheapest of consumer products. "Not a happy vibe," says a PRT engineer who's done stints both in the United States and in Germany. Adds Gururaj Managuli, another engineer with U.S. experience, "In U.S. organizations there is fear."
Compare that environment with the work life PRT provides.
In Barbados, the engineers get their own state-of-the-art computer platforms and a workspace designed to the specs of the international banking industry (required by J.P. Morgan and Chase, PRT's early Barbados clients). "I was awestruck by the infrastructure," says programmer analyst Ramkumar Subrahmanian.
The PRT/Barbados development-center approach enables engineers to work with colleagues beside them, instead of among customer-site nonprogrammers (in other words, you and me, our most common contribution to an on-site programmer's daily experience being, "When're you gonna be done?"). And it enables engineers to work directly with managers who can teach and challenge them. Vishy came to PRT from Citicorp in India, where he built one of the best development centers in the world. Richard Koppel, PRT's year-2000-bug strategist, was formerly the CIO of McKinsey & Co. and is famed for having set up the technology behind the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Most appealing of all from an engineer's perspective is the nature of the projects the development center attracts these days. "It's the more value-added work, stuff that's higher up on the food chain," says Craig Goldman, who, as the Chase Manhattan CIO, was a Barbados "founding customer." Those projects come in part because of the talent level of the programmers PRT has attracted--"These are very rare skill sets," says Goldman--and in part because creating new, business-expanding applications can be difficult back at the customer's home base on the customer's in-use computer systems. At a development center with conditions like those in Barbados, customers can try the ambitious stuff--from an engineer's perspective, says Arun Kumar, "the good stuff."
The enterprise has succeeded so well at attracting--and keeping--engineers that Barbados is now a community to which not many even get invited. Would-be PRT programmers undergo interviews, background checks, and three rounds of tests--for cognitive ability, technical skill, and attitude. ("What we care about most is how badly they want to learn," says Mellinger.) Remarkably, in a brain-drained industry, PRT is choosy. The measure of the island's success is that it's a place where nobody talks about not having enough people.
"If you build it, they will come" had been Mellinger's logic from the start. Attract the programmers, and customers will follow. Get the customers, and before long the capital will flow. But in one respect Mellinger's logic was flawed.
So appealing was even the prospect of his proposed solution to his industry's labor curse that all he had to do was suggest it and customers became investors even before the solution was built--before the first programmer arrived in Barbados. In fact, the customers didn't just finance the solution, they helped build it. To their specs. To meet their needs. J.P. Morgan, Chase, and others paid for future work, invested equity, and contributed millions of dollars' worth of donated design help, construction-management expertise, and purchasing clout. The value of the contributions totaled some $12 million in all, Mellinger estimates. Said one software-industry veteran during a tour of the Barbados tech facilities last July: "Software consultants don't do this. Banks do this."
Over-the-top infrastructure notwithstanding, at first the customers came not for matchless quality but for bodies--for the programmers they couldn't get enough of anywhere else, the people who could get a project completed. " Quality?" asks one financial-services-firm customer. "Screw quality. All that mattered was that they could do it."
It wasn't long, though, before customers began to get more than they bargained for--more than "the bodies." The sheer presence of reliable programmers who finished what they started was enough to make better-than-usual products the likely outcome of a project. Add the physical assets of PRT's facilities, and the ease with which customers and engineers could collaborate there "eyeball-to-eyeball," as Craig Goldman says, and the chances of unexpectedly good results rise even more. In a custom-software industry that Mellinger reminds us is "a catastrophe of failed promises" (all those awful products on blown schedules at surprise prices), Barbados began to look different.
Finally, customers began to come for "the jazz." Far more attractive even than the beaches was the relationship that began to form between customers and programmers. Because PRT/Barbados boasted an unusually skilled workforce in a setting that made unusually good collaboration the norm, customers got their problems solved. Because customers' expectations were exceeded and the collaboration was personally enjoyable, they began bringing their "higher-on-the-food-chain" work. And since getting that more-stimulating work from more personally engaged and appreciative customers made the engineers feel more professionally fulfilled, they grew more eager still to stay on the island and take pleasure from the collaboration. In short: Barbados's benefits to programmers and customers alike became interdependent and mutually reinforcing. The whole arrangement turned out better than Mellinger had expected. He knew that if programmers were there, customers would want to come. He hadn't realized that if customers wanted to come, programmers would want to be there. Now everybody involved got to do the business that's most rewarding, and the unhappily adversarial tide of the software-design process had been reversed. "You know what?" says an executive from J.P. Morgan. "This work stuff can be fun."
So Mellinger's thesis has been proved--and then some. Aiming to create a place programmers would come to, he also ended up getting customers to actually build it. Whereas PRT Group's growth before it opened the island facility had been stellar enough, landing it on the 1995 Inc. 500 after the company had reached $14 million in sales in six years, now its Barbados operation alone has gone from nothing to $19 million, in just two years' time. But the island is more important to the company than even those numbers suggest. It was the showpiece of the road show that preceded PRT's November initial public offering. It's what hooks PRT's customers even if the work will be done elsewhere. It's what differentiates PRT. It's what an antiheroic organization--Mellinger's organization--can do.
Which brings us, of course, back to Mellinger himself and to the obvious question all the achievements raise. How, exactly, did he do it?
The answer is, He didn't.
When we're visited by an idea--any idea, not just one calling for the invention of a country--what most of us do next is ask the question "How?" How can I (or we) get this thing done? We begin assessing what it would take to turn the idea into something real. We refer to the informal stage of that process as thinking and to the formal stage as planning. Individually and organizationally, we spend lots of time thinking about and making business plans for new things--we spend a lot more time on that, in fact, than we do actually creating anything new. Often we get overwhelmed. (All those details to handle! All that know-how required!) And we conclude, not unreasonably, that our idea can't be done.
Mellinger uses a different approach to create new things. When he was visited in his backyard by the idea of inventing a country, it never occurred to him to wonder, "How could I do that?" The fact is, he never wonders that. Instead, he begins with the presumption that he himself can't do anything--not on his own, at any rate, and not as well as someone else can. It never occurs to Mellinger, even for a moment, that he might be the person to execute the plans, or the projects, that arise in the course of business. He simply assumes, always, that there's a better option.
Walk it through. Ask the questions.
Instead of asking, "How can I do that?" Mellinger asks, "Who can do that?" "Who knows how to do that?" "Who can help me get that done?"
And asking who, not how, it turns out, changes everything.
Characteristic #1 of the antiheroic organization: You are liberated to imagine. Since you don't assume you're the one who's going to have to do things--or even that you're the one who has to know how to do things--you're not limited to considering seriously only the things you know you can do. Start thinking who, and the results are exponentially reinforcing: once you find you can make things happen that you couldn't dream of doing yourself, you believe you can do anything.
Think there's anything Mellinger believes PRT can't do? Think anybody at PRT believes there's anything PRT can't do? This is an organization that thinks it's capable of whatever it wants. After all, it has proof.
THE ANTIHERO'S MANIFESTO
No other story better illustrates the who-not-how approach to getting great and important things done than the one about how Mellinger got advice on starting PRT. Not advice about his business plan, because he didn't have one. He was three years out of college and jobless. About all he had was $12,000 in borrowed funds, a passion for starting a business, and the notion that his new venture should involve selling something technology-related to large companies. Rather than wasting time on questions such as what to sell (how the hell would he know? He couldn't write a line of code, and he had never set foot in a large company in his life), he asked, "Who?" Who could help figure this out? He decided he should talk to people who might know something about what large companies actually needed. So, seated at his parents' breakfast table in August 1989, he started phoning the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to ask their advice about what he could sell them.
A few even responded, and he told them about himself. How he'd started some small businesses while he was in college at Syracuse; how for two years he'd been president of ACE (the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs). He asked them for a half hour of their time.
At the meetings, Mellinger sought advice and asked the executives what "drove them crazy" about their technology. Evidently, it was a line of questioning big-company executives warmed to, for before long Mellinger's mentors included the CIOs of Pepsi, Merrill Lynch, and Chase; the chairman of KPMG Peat Marwick; and the head of international-law practices at Skadden, Arps--the kind of people, in other words, whose secretaries have a secretary; the kind of people that family members make appointments to see. So just how was it that Mellinger got them to devote time--lots of time--to a kid without a business?
"Honestly, I had no intention of meeting with him," says Irwin Sitkin, one of Mellinger's earliest contacts, when he was asked why he or anyone else in his position would have agreed to get involved. Sitkin was the senior information- technology executive at Aetna from 1969 to 1989 and is credited by many with having invented the role of CIO. "He called out of the blue early one morning when I was working at home," Sitkin recalls. "Said he wanted me 'to be his mentor' and 'I'd like to come see you.' I was just trying to put him off, really--dodge a bullet. 'We can arrange a time,' I said. 'No, I mean I'd like to see you today,' he said. 'Well, I'm pretty busy,' I told him, 'and besides, you know I'm up here in the middle of Connecticut, not in Manhattan.' And he just said, 'That's OK.' He didn't actually wait to hear me agree to see him or agree to talk to him if I did. And two hours later there he was, this kid, knocking on the front door of my house. You've seen that look he has." (That look is a lost-puppy-dog thing; Mellinger still has it at 33.) "What're you going to do?"
Well, what they were going to do was have some breakfast, it turned out (mustered by Sitkin's wife when she felt pity for the stray). It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
"He told me his background," Sitkin recalls, "and you had to like him. I was impressed that he was going right through to the CEO or the CIO, in one phone call, to see what their problems were. When he actually got his business going later and started selling, he wasn't a guy who started at the bottom with the purchasing agent. He went to the top. And what was he, 24 or 25 at the time?
"I agreed to see him once a month, for a half day. 'Come see me, and I'll critique your progress,' I told him. And he followed through. You know, a lot of people ask for advice; this kid actually wanted it."
So as Mellinger began to get his fledgling company off the ground--in 1990 it rose to $462,000 in revenues, mostly by brokering computer consultants--he would meet one-on-one with his mentors. The idea of leveraging those relationships into a full-fledged board wasn't Mellinger's; it was Sitkin's. "These people would enjoy meeting each other," Sitkin told Mellinger one day. "Why don't you see if they'd like to get together?" Mellinger asked around, and Sitkin's suspicion was right. The crew did want to meet--but where? One of the mentors offered his place.
Which is how PRT's first-ever advisory-board meeting came to be hosted by John Diesem in autumn 1990 in the boardroom of the American Stock Exchange, of which Diesem was a senior vice-president.
"The thing about Doug," Sitkin says today, "is that people believe him. He does what he says he's going to do. And what he said he was going to do, right from that first morning at my house, was to provide work for a lot of young people, create wealth, and then sell and go give something back to society. I know Steve Jobs and Gates and McNealy and John Akers. I did business with them all, and I consider them friends. They're all extraordinary men. Doug reminds me of them, except that Doug is unusual in the tech field because the technology isn't what it's about. What motivates him is to give something back. It distinguishes him. He's not in it for himself. With Doug, it's always about something more."
Something more. it's a refrain you hear a lot around PRT, but never more than from Vishy, the president of PRT/Barbados. His relationship with PRT began just as so many do: Mellinger asked him for advice. At the time--this was before Mellinger's invent-a-country epiphany in the summer of 1994--Vishy was the highly regarded head of a Citicorp offshore development center in India, dedicated exclusively to Citicorp's internal technology needs. He was an expert on the exploding Indian software industry, and though his company couldn't help PRT, he could direct it to other companies it could outsource to. Vishy became a mentor and enjoyed it. Then, in September 1994 (three months after Mellinger had that talk with his father in the yard), Mellinger ended a breakfast with Vishy at Manhattan's 42nd Street Hyatt by asking him to come create PRT's "near-shore" development center, its proposed alternative to the industry's current onshore and offshore options.
"You cannot be serious, Doug," said Vishy, thinking, But I have the best, highest-paid, most visible, and most recognized software job in all of India. "I haven't viewed PRT remotely in this light."
Mellinger asked him to start--and for the next half year, he kept seeking Vishy's guidance as he worked through PRT's near-shore plans, settling on Barbados as a location in January 1995. Then Mellinger again did what he always does: he asked himself who could solve the problem. Who could get Vishy aboard? First he called on the customers who were so eager for the development center that they were willing to help finance it, and in April 1995 executives from J.P. Morgan and Chase both pitched to Vishy the idea of joining. Then Mellinger tapped his would-be partners on the island itself, the government officials with whom PRT was in league, and in May, Vishy was invited to the home of the Barbadian prime minister, who echoed what the corporate allies had already said: "Vishy, this is a great thing we can all do here, but you're the key; we're not in it without you."
For 11 months the PRT coalition--including all its varied members--pursued Vishy. But he already had a great job. He already had more money than he could spend. As Mellinger urged him to come run it, come build PRT/Barbados, Vishy thought, "I have run a company already, so what's new?" Why go from leading 700 employees to starting over with almost none? From a home he loved to an undeveloped place he'd never seen? Why give up so much for so little?
In the end, he decided, he was willing to do so for one reason--one that he and Mellinger so often found themselves circling back to: the vision they shared for creating an enterprise whose measure was something far more than the profits it could generate and the market share it could seize. I've generated profits, Vishy said to himself; I've gotten good customers. I've done that. "I am 45 years old now, and I have learned," he said. "I know things. I can do more."
He listened to Mellinger describe the frustrations of Manhattan, a community far too vast for PRT to affect, and he thought of Bombay, of driving to work and seeing misery both economic and spiritual. "There is so much to be done, but whatever I do is always a drop in the ocean." Maybe, he thought, in a new place it could be different. "Could I see my effects?" The Barbadian government ministers told him yes. They had a plan, and PRT was enlarging its ambitions, helping to bring it alive. The company would help rewrite school curriculums and prepare teachers and citizens for the global information-age future. Its resources would help bring new communication lines and power systems. New businesses would spring up to provide PRT with transportation services and catering, data entry and computer maintenance. With PRT as an example and an ambassador, other software companies would move in, and a high-tech industry would grow. Come, the ministers said. You can make a difference.
Yes, Vishy thought. Good. But what he hungered for was something in addition even to that, and for a time he didn't quite understand what it was. And then, as the conversations with Mellinger went on, he knew. "The urge is about how can my job make a difference in a whole way," he says. "Giving something back to our community is a part of it, and so is forming trusting relationships with customers, and so is the idea of bringing people together from all over the world and creating a novel company culture. All of those are parts. Doug understood. That is the level we connected on."
What both men realized together was that here, in the place Mellinger wanted to invent, in some small way they could challenge an economic assumption so long-lived and unquestioned that people scarcely speak of it anymore: the assumption that for business to work, someone always has to end up feeling he has been taken advantage of.
In Barbados, the two men agreed, there was a chance to begin from scratch and make it different. The employees, the customers, the society, the shareholders--everybody gains. Everybody does better, the better everybody does.
"It is not just running a company that I am doing here," Vishy says. "I am seeing people--people inside and outside PRT--feel things about working that they never thought they would feel, and they're having lives that they never thought they'd have. Do you see? You get a good sleep when you are part of that. You feel very proud."
Characteristic #2 of the antiheroic organization: The company can be about something more than the hero, more even than the hero's "vision" for it. That encourages people to imagine meaningful ways they can help form the vision and make it real. They see an unusual chance to have an impact. An antiheroic organization, as a result, is able to enlist contributions from people who would be, for most organizations, absolutely unapproachable.
In August 1995, Vishy accepted Mellinger's offer. By October he was on the island for good.
EPILOGUE: THE ANTIHERO'S REWARD
Barbados again, for the last and best time.
On a night last July, Mellinger finds himself back there, at a dinner table, on an open-air terrace that's carved out of limestone and drops down to the sea. In his hands is a wine list. He is selecting champagne.
Around him sit four other PRT managers--six, if you include the two men whose recruitment is part of the reason for the festivity. The six are from all over; one is from the other side of the world. As they unfold their linen napkins they trade jokes, share easy talk, and take in the restaurant. Along the railing at the cliff's edge are torches, which reflect in the crystal. Suspended wings of ivory sailcloth form the hint of a roof. In the cove close below, illuminated by floodlights, perfect turquoise water licks perfect blond sand.
The champagne has been earned, an observer would agree. PRT/Barbados was heading toward a $19-million year. The company overall would eventually reach 1997 sales of $62 million, and a pre-Thanksgiving initial public offering would make seven new millionaires and finance a near doubling of the company's sales--to $120 million in 1998.
But in the end, none of that is what the PRT managers are celebrating, or what they're talking about around the table, or why Mellinger is considering champagnes. They're celebrating something else--something more.
Weeks later, on a perfect end-of-summer night in Manhattan, Mellinger would stand on a street corner outside Grand Central Station, trying to explain what all the celebrating is about. He has built an organization unlike the model we all know. One that isn't about him, one that doesn't rely on what he knows how to do. What's the reward for that? he is asked. If it isn't the market share and the money, what is it? Because when you stop building a heroic organization, what you lose is easy to see: you don't get to be a hero anymore.
And Mellinger, standing there below the lighted windows of skyscrapers, just shakes his head, his small mouth forming a smile. "It's a puzzle to me," he says, "why anybody would want it that way, the heroic way. I've had that feeling--of being the guy whose desk everything ends up on. It was horrible. Every morning I'd wake up and pray that I wouldn't have to clean up some disaster. I'd pray that somebody out there would save my ass. And I said to myself, 'I can't live like this.'
"And then I realized"--he slows down here, lowering his voice for emphasis-- "I don't have to.
"Forget the hero stuff. I don't want a hero mentality anywhere in our business--anywhere in my life. Everybody thinks you have to be a hero to build something--software, a company. Bullshit. Do it together. Ask the right questions. Stuff doesn't have to be so hard."
He stops to let the lesson hang in the warm, soft, new-smelling air. It's one of those New York nights when everyone wants to be out, when broad street corners are where you want to linger. Cabs shark down the boulevards. Sidewalks swim with couples, after-work chums, schools of happily conspiring women.
"It's a great city, isn't it?" Mellinger says, looking at it all around him. "A night like this--to be a part of it is great."
A part of it.
Characteristic #3 of the antiheroic organization: Give up being a hero and, suddenly, you don't always have to perform like one. You don't have to supply all the energy, all the ideas, all the emotion. You don't have to fear that if you stop, so will everything else. When it's all about you--the cult of the CEO--you're separated from others. Being a hero is lonely. As an antihero, you get to be a part of what you've created.
And back at the cliff-side table above the sea, you realize that that is what all the conversation is about. The story about Mark from J.P. Morgan, laughing as he crawled through the Bridgetown sewers with the telephone guys, checking cables. The story about the party in the garden, under the big white tent and the moon, and all the investment bankers in bare feet with their suit pants rolled up, dancing with the Barbadian government leaders on the grass. The story about the prime minister's ducking out of the national budget negotiation to meet with the gang from little PRT. And all the stories about the young, single Indian women reinventing their lives in this place half a world away, where freedom and possibility made them giddy.
The point of the stories, you realize, is that they're not about Doug Mellinger. Instead, they're about a place only an antiheroic organization can become: a place where people gather to participate in the adventure, to be who they really are, to feel safe, to feel they belong. Forget the business--the stories around the table are about what they've all really made: the corporate equivalent of Mellinger's boyhood backyard. The place everyone comes to. The place where things happen.
His choice of champagne having arrived and been poured, Mellinger raises his glass. His colleagues--faces flushed by the heat and the excitement--fall silent and smile.
"To...," Mellinger begins. He pauses, starts again: "To...."
But then, and not for the first time, he can't think of what to say.
" Us," one of the grinning men across from him says, finally. " To us," they all say, and they laugh.
They're happy. The night is brilliant, the champagne is good, and their day has gone well, as have a whole succession of days. And they're here, together, where not one of them had ever imagined he would be.
Not one of them except Mellinger, of course, who knew the place all along.
Michael Hopkins is an executive editor at Inc.