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Mind Gains

Here's how Viant CEO Bob Gett, fueled by his desire to quit consulting, designed a work environment that nobody would want to leave. In the process, he may have reinvented the consulting business itself.
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Bob Gett, fueled by his understanding of what made him want to quit consulting, designed a firm around the one benefit he knew employees desperately wanted

It was an unlikely setting for a life-altering epiphany: late at night in a Denny's in a small factory town in the middle of Ohio. But it was there that Bob Gett first began to accept the grim truth about his work. Before retiring to Motel 6 for the night, he blurted out to a colleague, who was sitting across the table, "I could never imagine doing this when I'm 40." Only 28, Gett had been a consultant for seven years. But instinctively he knew that he had just taken a bite of a reality sandwich. "Management consulting is grueling," affirms Gett, now 49.

Gett (pronounced "Jet") didn't quit, but the sting of that revelation stayed with him as his career progressed. Eventually, he rose to become president of North American operations at Cambridge Technology Partners, a systems-integration and consulting company that grew to $132 million in revenues during his tenure. Even then, he continued to believe that consulting companies tended to "put people in boxes" and rarely "maximized their potential." Their standard billing system of charging clients for time and materials encouraged consultants to spend as many hours as they could on one assignment. Newish buzzwords and freshly titled theories just seemed to describe the same old management practices.

The inevitable outcome? Looking for relief from the "staleness and boredom," Gett says, consultants moved around. "As soon as people stop learning, they stop growing and get bored," he says. "Then they leave." In the past that meant joining the next hot consulting firm, which would eventually prove itself to be just as numbing. But in recent times, with the Internet age in full swing, consultants have found themselves faced with the kinds of opportunities -- namely, the chance to do something intrinsically interesting -- that they can't resist. It is no surprise that even George Shaheen, the chief executive officer and managing partner of industry behemoth Andersen Consulting, bolted in September for the chance to run an ambitious Internet start-up. Gett understands the impulse only too well -- perhaps because he has done the same thing himself.

Four years ago two blue-chip venture-capital firms, Kleiner Perkins and Mohr Davidow, recruited Gett from Massachusetts-based Cambridge Technology Partners to run Viant Inc., then just seven months old. Viant, which helped companies build and maintain Web-based businesses, targeted the digital sweet spot of the economy. The work would be nothing if not dynamic. It also would be intensely competitive, attracting anyone who so much as glanced at the numbers.

According to Forrester Research, a technology-research company based in Cambridge, Mass., the sum total of U.S. E-commerce is expected to soar from $109 billion this year to $1.3 trillion by 2003. Lured by all that lucre, a new generation of Internet-strategy consultants have sprouted up, determined, at the very least, to look different from their fathers' consulting firms. They bear hip, uncorporate-sounding names like Scient, Organic Online, Razorfish, Diamond Technology, and Zefer. Indeed, they work hard to convey the sort of irreverence and flexibility that the Net is all about -- while recruiting from established brand names like Andersen Consulting and McKinsey & Co.

Viant, based in Boston, embodies all those edgy values that appeal to its blue-chip customers, which include Compaq Computer and General Motors. Gett, for instance, has a penchant for squishy titles, referring to himself as "chief cultural officer." But on a deeper level, he has constructed a company culture aimed at addressing the least superficial concern of any knowledge-based business: finding good people and then keeping them by making sure they are constantly broadening their skills. "It's our goal that what one person knows, everybody knows," says Gett. And just what kind of change does that entail? Utterly radical, as it turns out. Gett's efforts have earned Viant, which went public last June, membership in an elite band of upstarts that are "blowing up the standard consulting model," says Tim Bourgeois, vice-president of research at Kennedy Information Research Group, a company based in Fitzwilliam, N.H., that tracks consulting firms.

Or they are trying to, anyway. Some of Viant's fellow rebels, growing at breakneck speed, might actually be in the process of blowing themselves up. "Right now a lot of these companies can be successful because there is so much demand," says Greg Gould, an industry analyst at Goldman Sachs. "The key is whoever can build a solid business." Gett is betting he can. How? By shunning acquisitions in favor of organic growth. By rewarding employees not for how much they add to the bottom line but for their willingness to absorb and share knowledge. By taking time when it comes to hiring and training, willfully shutting out external pressures. By never forgetting, ultimately, that people bind tightest to their jobs -- no matter how many other opportunities swirl around them -- when they know that they are constantly learning and not being held back. That's the feeling Gett wanted so many years ago and the feeling that now infuses every aspect of Viant's culture.

"When Wall Street looks at all the companies in this universe that have gone public, a number of them look as though they've been bolted together," says Gould. "What I'm really impressed with is Viant's internal controls, processes, and methodologies. Viant has built a good foundation. And that makes it stand apart."

What ultimately dims even the brightest of young consultants, Gett believes, is not the hard work but the lack of stimulation. The antidote sounds simple: keep giving employees the chance to learn. "You work your butt off here," he acknowledges, "but you're going to absorb a lot."

Such a proclamation stands out in an industry that rewards people for the specialized knowledge they accrue and encourages them to husband it rather than to branch out. "Hoarding knowledge is a huge dilemma for consulting firms," says Chris Newell, Viant's chief knowledge officer. But at Viant "we value you more for how much information you have given the person next to you," says Gett. That sense of collegiality is fostered not just in how Viant practices consulting but also in the layout of the company's nine offices, eight in the United States and one in London.

At Gett's insistence, Viant's offices were designed by San Francisco­based Gensler, a cutting-edge architectural firm. Interior walls are all but nonexistent, creating an open, bazaarlike effect. A central common area contains a pool table, video games, and a kitchen. No one has an office, and everyone's desk -- Gett's included -- is the same size. And conference rooms, handy for impromptu meetings, abound.

The open floor plan is designed to trigger "knowledge accidents," as Diane Hall, chief people officer, puts it. Gett believes that up to 50% of breakthroughs on projects -- "bursts of brilliance" -- occur when people simply run into one another in the hall and begin talking.

Such projects have grown increasingly complex as the Internet has remade the practice of consulting. Traditionally, consulting firms specialized in one of three interwoven disciplines: strategy, technology implementation, and "creative" -- the term for advertising, design, and marketing. But technology has changed that. "The Internet is all about a race," says Gett. That has forced consulting firms to become one-stop shops providing for all their clients' needs.

With the worldwide market for Internet-related professional services booming -- it's expected to rise to $78 billion in 2003, up from just $7.8 billion in 1998, according to IDC -- many consulting companies have embarked on acquisition binges, buying the skills they lack. (See "The Wild, Wild Web," below.) But Gett, being committed to learning, insists that his employees do the acquiring, picking up from one another whatever knowledge they need. To aid the process Viant has developed its own software program, called Career Navigator, which uses 32 criteria to gauge each employee's skills. The program can visually superimpose an employee's skills onto his or her goals to show in which areas the employee needs to improve. The management staffs each project by matching up consultants based on how well their skills mesh and on the likelihood that each of them will improve his or her skills.

The push at Viant is therefore to develop "Renaissance people," as Gett refers to consultants who are proficient in all the skills of the trade. "We want to put people of various disciplines together in tight spaces and have the abrasion smooth them out," says Newell, who is a clinical psychologist by training. "This is the new way that work is being done. The problems in the world are too complex for one discipline to answer."

That ever growing complexity explains why Viant looks to recruit employees who have high "sharing quotients," according to Hall. As a result, the company finds itself signing on employees with diverse backgrounds, including former anthropologists and filmmakers. Viant's chief technology officer, Tim Andrews, has a degree in music theory. And according to Hall, 50% of Viant's recruiting efforts are spent probing a candidate's "ability to collaborate, learn, and adapt" as opposed to simply assessing his or her brainpower. In part, interviewers accomplish that, she says, by asking how a candidate dealt with prior working situations.

And despite the intense competition for the kinds of employees Viant is after, Gett recruits at a pace ranging from deliberate to glacial. (Similarly, the company's misnamed "Quick Start" training program, mandatory for new hires, lasts three weeks.) One consultant, Joel Greengrass, was hired after enduring 14 interviews over three months. More typically, the process requires 8 interviews spread over four weeks. It's perhaps no surprise that fully half of Viant's hires are employee referrals. "First-rate people hire first-rate people because they want to learn from them," Gett says. "Second-rate people hire third-rate people because they want to feel smarter than other people."

Jim Hasik knows all too well what it's like to be pigeonholed as a consultant. He joined Viant this fall after spending two years at the consulting division of a Big Five accounting firm, where he worked on only one kind of project: reengineering telephone companies. "It was a real gray-flannel, white-shirt sort of place," he recalls. "My office was 1,800 people spread out over 20 floors in four buildings." When he arrived for training at Viant in Boston, he stepped off the elevator to be greeted by an open, collegial atmosphere -- all on one floor -- and a life-size cardboard cutout of Austin Powers presiding over a pool table. "Here you feel like part of a team that's larger than your project team," says Hasik. "The team is Viant itself."

Similarly, what worried Joel Greengrass before he arrived at Viant, in 1997, was that his Big Five employer had no formal plan for employee education and development. "I knew I needed to be in a company that consciously supported ongoing learning," says Greengrass, whose previous career restricted him to consulting gigs in the retail-banking sector. Today he spends much of his time in education, helping to train new hires, who arrive at Viant at the rate of 30 to 45 a month.

All Viant consultants, in fact, are paired with formal "advocates" -- coworkers responsible for shepherding their careers. Viant's "staffing captains" make sure that every project team is composed of workers who represent a mix of all three consulting disciplines -- strategy, technology, and creative. Gett also has a strict rule that 60% of a team's members must be "Viant experienced," which means they must have been around the company for more than six months.

Such a team-building structure is designed to promote maximum learning, as is Viant's compensation system. Although all employees receive stock options, Viant has eight ways of using the options to reward employees for fostering the company's growth, whether they help start a new office, mentor their colleagues, or train new recruits.

Sales at Viant this year will more than double last year's figure of $20 million. (Sales in 1997 totaled just $8 million.) Viant is now adding three to five offices a year. To accommodate such headlong growth, the company expands its infrastructure through a process Gett calls "spawning." Employees from existing offices, equipped with what Gett refers to as "Viant DNA," start new ones, taking responsibility for opening and growing the offices, which become, in effect, the employees' own start-ups to nurture. Those workers receive stock-option grants based on the success of the new offices.

New offices go through five stages of growth, as measured by sales volume. When the "founders" hit a benchmark, they can hire more staff and rent more space. Once a new office reaches the third stage of growth (supporting about 25 employees and $6 million in annual billings), it's on its own. At that point, its employees can spawn their own new ventures.

Like the composition of the teams and the structure of the incentives, spawning is devised to prod employees to stretch their skills. "I'm the one driving my career here," says consultant Milan Zlatar, an émigré from the former Yugoslavia who joined Viant this year. "I can move at my own speed. If I want to go faster, then I'll go faster."

Viant, too, moves at its own speed. Gett vows that no matter how much Wall Street may pressure him, he will not chase sales simply for the sake of growth. In a sleepier industry that might well be shrewd. But in Viant's case, with so much business to be had and Wall Street expecting so much, it's downright heresy. "If I start running after revenue, I'll ruin a good company," he insists.

Of course, Wall Street's definition of what constitutes a good company may diverge from Gett's -- and soon. Having turned the corner to profitability in the third quarter of this year, Viant, which raised $55 million in its public offering, is now valued at about $2 billion, researcher Bourgeois notes. Wall Street generally gives such companies "a year or two to lose money," he adds, so Viant looks to be ahead of the game at this point. "If you look at the recipe for long-term consulting," Bourgeois says, investors typically kick entrepreneurs out of a company "at $200 million in sales."

But as long as Gett is in charge, none of Viant's offices will grow to more than 125 employees. That's where Gett has capped the head count, and for a reason: studies show that once an office exceeds that number, not everyone knows everyone else by name. By limiting staff, Viant keeps each of its offices on one floor, preserves a sense of scale and intimacy, and creates a feeling that each office runs as a stand-alone business. Gett points to New York City as a place where Viant's volume of business could easily swamp one 125-person office. "So we'll open multiple offices there, even if they're across the street from each other," he insists.

Behind Gett's emphasis on measured growth is a simple goal: he has placed a premium on gaining mind share as opposed to market share. Right now, he reasons, there's more than enough work to go around. But should the day come when there isn't, he contends, what will matter most is not how much business Viant has landed but how well it has performed on the projects it has taken on. He wants Viant to emerge as the premium brand, with the profit margins to prove it. "When the dust settles," he predicts, "the winner of the mind-share game will be determined by who's got credibility."

That belief explains why Viant takes every opportunity to show off its smarts to clients. Eschewing the industry's traditional "time and materials" approach to billing, it conducts its projects on a "fixed-time, fixed-price" basis -- a risk it would never take were it not so sure of itself. Surely, Viant knows what it's doing, a client thinks, or it would never guarantee a promised "release" or "iteration" of a product within 90 days.

Start-ups account for about 25% of Viant's business; the rest comes from Fortune 500 companies. Typically, clients set up shop in Viant's offices, a decided turnabout from the standard consulting arrangement. "Viant's model is especially well suited to helping new businesses develop all the structures they need," says client Roger McAulay, president of San Francisco­based Ecast, which makes Internet "appliances." (Its first product is an Internet-based jukebox.) McAulay points to the broad array of services Viant offered him: help with market analysis, business development, product differentiation, and the creation of a software platform.

Under Viant's roof, Ecast grew from 2 to 20 people. Rebecca Patton, the CEO of Della.com, an on-line gift registry, also moved in with Viant and found that the partnership eased the launch. "As we hired we would add people to the project, and they would take people off," says Patton. "They helped us get to launch in a flexible way that allowed a knowledge transfer that was pretty seamless."

Gett prefers that clients come to Viant in part because he wants to save his consultants from burning out. At any one time, 15% of Viant's consultants are on the road, compared with an industry average of 50%, according to Gett. But he has another motive: he wants clients to be inspired by Viant's cultural vibe. Not the look of the place, but the way it feels, with all those people openly engaged by their work, learning and teaching at the same time. It's that kind of stimulation that keeps employees there -- Viant's annual turnover rate is now a paltry 9%, Gett claims -- and that juices the CEO anew for the profession he once dreamed of fleeing.

"We want them to see that smart people collaborate," he says. "We want them to see that this is the way business is done in the new economy."

Edward O. Welles is a senior writer at Inc.


The Wild, Wild Web

Drawn by the glitter of Internet gold, companies from all points of the compass are converging on the E-strategy field. As a result, Viant's rivals range from blue-chip consultants (Andersen Consulting, McKinsey & Co.) to interactive agencies (Organic Online, Razorfish, Agency.com) to like-minded pure-play Internet strategists such as Scient and USWeb/CKS.

And oddly enough, it's the giants -- not the start-ups -- that are the underdogs this time around. Or so says Paul Sonderegger, an analyst at Forrester Research, who claims that most old-line firms don't possess the range of skills that Internet assignments require. As he sees it, the strong marketing-and-branding firms are weak on technology, and the strong technology companies lack expertise in marketing -- and both come up empty in terms of creative flair.

Moreover, Sonderegger doesn't believe that the A-list partnerships are likely to change anytime soon. Their handicaps include complacency ("We're big, and we're making money -- so how can things be bad?"), corporate structure (partners would have to dig deep into their pockets to acquire leading-edge companies), and a pre-Internet culture that repels the kinds of innovators whose talents they desperately need. "In fact, the people who are really innovative at Andersen -- they don't want to work at Andersen," adds Sonderegger, citing Andersen's CEO and global E-commerce chief, who both jumped ship for Internet start-ups earlier this year. (Similarly, IBM Consulting Group founder Robert M. Howe exited Big Blue to head Scient, whose founder and chairman, Eric Greenberg, was cofounder, chairman, and CEO of Viant.)

But size still matters, as the start-ups with the odd names are being forced to learn. The challenge they face, according to Kevin Rowe, president of North American operations at Agency.com, is to build the "scale, scope, and reach" that their clients increasingly demand. Boutiques and industry specialists can remain small, but E-strategists aiming to position themselves as full-service firms need to reach critical mass -- and that's a moving target. Two years ago critical mass might have meant 500 employees, Rowe says, but "today it's 1,000 people, and tomorrow it will be 2,000 people. And by 'tomorrow,' I mean maybe six months to a year from now."

Agency.com, founded in 1995, is among the contenders that have adopted an aggressive acquisition strategy to grow their capabilities. Agency.com, originally an on-line Web-services provider, now also offers strategy, marketing, and consulting services to such high-profile clients as British Airways. Since 1997 it has made nine acquisitions. Similarly, E-strategy consulting firm Razorfish has swallowed eight companies in the past two years.

Even so, that amounts to little more than judicious nibbling when compared with USWeb/CKS, which has acquired a whopping 47 companies in the past two years. (The company even boasts of a 310-step process it goes through to integrate its acquisitions.) Unmanageable as that may sound, the resulting powerhouse (its 1998 sales were $229 million) now serves nearly half the Fortune 100, drawing on 4,000 employees spread across 22 states and 13 countries. This year USWeb/CKS topped Advertising Age's list of the 100 largest interactive agencies in the United States for the second year in a row. "They've weathered the stress that comes with these acquisitions, and they've come out the other side," says Sonderegger.

Still, he adds, "the market just isn't mature enough yet. It's still a race for first. No one's there." -- Mary Kwak




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