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COMPANY CULTURE

An Office of Rock Stars
 

Why M5 Networks hired School of Rock to teach its employees

We're With the Band Michael Rapp from M5 Networks's finance department leads employees in the Who's "Baba O'Riley."

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"We've had a few minor problems with the neighbors, but, hey, it's rock 'n' roll -- you're bound to piss some people off," says Dan Hoffman. Those are words you might expect from the lead singer of a teenage rock band, not from the CEO of a $32 million company. But Hoffman, who runs M5 Networks, a New York City-based company that sells VoIP phone systems to midsize businesses, understands the power of rock music. And now his employees do, too -- about a third of the staff is learning to play instruments on company time.

After founding M5 Networks in 2000, Hoffman, who describes himself as a "terrible guitar player," would occasionally meet with other members of his start-up team after hours and play a few songs. "We'd go into a jam room and blow off steam by playing three-chord blues," says Hoffman. After a few former touring musicians joined the company, the group formed a company band, the M5 Six, which would play at office functions and parties. Unfortunately for Hoffman, as the quality of the band improved, he slowly got edged out of it. "I got fired from the band," he jokes.

The M5 Six was a crowd favorite, and Hoffman wished more of his employees could join in the fun. In August, when Korg, a musical instrument maker, signed up for M5's services, Hoffman mentioned he was interested in getting some amplifiers for the M5 Six, which was performing at the company's 10th-anniversary party that month. He also let Korg know he wanted to start a music program for his employees. Korg donated a band's worth of instruments and equipment.

Hoffman got to work turning his company into a training ground for would-be rock stars. He contacted School of Rock, a Teaneck, New Jersey-based franchiser that gives music lessons to schoolchildren, and hired some music teachers to come to the office every afternoon. M5 Networks pays about $3,000 per month for the instructors, and employees chip in $20 for each private half-hour lesson. The practice space is a vacant conference room decked out with a drum kit, keyboards, guitars, bass guitars, and amps.

Thirty-five of M5's 110 employees signed up for lessons, and most of them had little or no musical experience. Hoffman thought it would be fun to divide employees into five bands based on their ability level, instrument, and department. "I tried to mix up departments, " he says. "It's a great chance for a sales guy to be jamming with an engineer."

The experiment will culminate with a battle of the bands at the M5 holiday party in December, with each band playing two of its favorite songs. The set list will include a lot of '80s rock. "That's what seems to be popular around here," says Michael Thurber, a School of Rock instructor who teaches guitar and bass guitar at M5. "One band is doing 'Jump' by Van Halen. Another's doing 'Sister Christian.' One band is even doing 'Eye of the Tiger' from the Rocky movies."

Whatever his employees' taste in music, Hoffman is excited that they are learning. "Your company grows only as quickly as your people can grow," he says. "But as adults, we tend to forget how to learn. The idea with the rock band program was to remind people how to learn."

Band members usually have one weekly individual music lesson and then meet every other week with their respective bands for an hour and a half of practice. Although that is time that could have been spent on work, Hoffman hardly thinks it is time wasted. "We're like a lot of companies today: We work all the time," he says. "Work life and personal life have become totally blurred. So if you want to take a half-hour off during the day to go bang on the drums, I think that's a net good."

For some employees, the rock band project is helping to fulfill childhood dreams. "I've always wanted to play an instrument," says Jim Kanir, chief revenue officer and aspiring drummer. "I'm 52 years old and getting to the point where you start looking at your bucket list and thinking that maybe now is the time to give it a try." Heather Bennett, M5's vice president of marketing, hadn't been to a music class since elementary school, but she was pleasantly surprised with her progress on the keyboard. "I think I'm a prodigy, an undiscovered prodigy," she jokes. Her keyboard skills will be featured prominently when her band plays "Baba O'Riley" by the Who. "It's very therapeutic," she says. "I always feel better after a lesson."

Employees say that M5's band program has also helped them learn more about their co-workers. "My fellow band members are all from different departments, so it gives me a chance to interact with some of the people I normally wouldn't get the chance to interact with on a day-to-day basis," says Kanir. Not only have new friendships formed, but a few stereotypes have been broken. "Our bass player from Finance is awesome," he says. "You would have looked at her and automatically said, 'accountant.' But she gets on that bass guitar, and she wails on it."

That's not to say that there haven't been a few conflicts. Hoffman tells the story of one software developer who was behind on a project but decided to go to band practice anyway. The chief technical officer interrupted practice to ask, "Is this really your top priority?" In true rock 'n' roll fashion, the band members adopted that phrase as their name -- they now call themselves Is This Really Your Top Priority?.

Plus, there was the noise problem. The conference room that serves as the rehearsal space isn't soundproof, and M5's upstairs neighbor, a media company, has complained about the daily afternoon ruckus. Now, instead of using amps, M5's employees usually rock out while wearing headphones.

Of course, the big question that remains is, Are they any good? "For a lot of these guys, this was the first time they'd ever picked up a bass or a guitar," says Thurber. "I literally had to show them how to hold it. It's only been a few months, but I've already seen a lot of progress. It's inspiring." Hoffman takes a more punk-rock approach to the question: "It's not about learning to be good at your instrument. It's about learning rock 'n' roll. Even if you suck, it's still great."

IMAGE: Caroll Taveras
Last updated: Nov 1, 2010




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