In Silicon Valley you can't be too rich, too wired, or too much fun

I don't generally go to Tom Cruise movies looking for business insights. To be honest, I generally go to Tom Cruise movies looking for Nicole Kidman. But I did take away one lesson from Jerry Maguire, the entrepreneurially minded schmaltzer about a sports agent who starts his own company after a sudden onset of idealism gets him fired. "If anybody else wants to come with me," declares Jerry, trying to rally support on his way out the door, "this moment will be the ground floor of something real and fun and inspiring and true in this godforsaken business. And we will do it together!"

OK, so only a lovesick accountant and a goldfish take Jerry up on his offer. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the idea of an entrepreneur dangling fun as a carrot in front of potential employees. Walking out of the theater on that cold winter evening, I decided I'd received value for my $9, even if Nicole wasn't in that one.

Thirty months later I moved from New York to California to start Gazooba, a business that allows Web companies to reward visitors who refer friends to their sites. As I expected, the whole "Show me the money" (or, in its Silicon Valley translation, "Show me the equity") ethos was rampant here. But I was surprised at the extent to which my dot-com brothers and sisters had bought into Jerry's "fun" screed, attempting to make the prospect of jobs that devour employees' hearts, minds, and bodies more palatable by promising to let the bons temps rouler. The online job postings were lousy with start-ups touting their work hard/play hard philosophy.

For fun (did I need any other reason?) I typed the word fun into the keyword search at online jobs database Monster.com. The search turned up 748 listings for jobs in San Francisco and only 444 in New York City. My god, I thought, are West Coasters really having a 68% better time than their East Coast counterparts? Why aren't local emergency rooms overflowing with split seams? Why aren't office parks soundproofing their walls so tenants won't disturb one another with all the laughing?

One thing I found distinctly unfunny: all those laughriots.com were fishing in the same employee pool as we were. Troubled, I ran a quick mental inventory of Gazooba's fun capital. We were OK in the Nerf-gun department. Our conference room was suitably outfitted with Sega Dreamcast equipment. And we had the mandatory skill sets: our Foosball players were (and are) second to none. But were we offering a truly competitive levity package? We knew our employees were challenged and fulfilled. But were they entertained?

We had recently moved some financing and real estate issues off our plates, so the time seemed right to address culture. I sat down with my cofounders, Zen and Shanti, to concoct a plan for fun. Zen thought we should just budget more for Nerf guns, but as a gesture, that seemed insufficiently grand. Shanti proposed installing a Ping-Pong table, but there wasn't room for one unless we forced the conference table to do double duty, and we weren't ready for that much fun. Ultimately, we concluded that "fun" is really about spontaneity. And since spontaneity is notoriously tough to plan for, we decided to wing it.

The first opportunity to mix business with pleasure occurred on the day we moved into our new San Francisco offices. As is customary, Pacific Bell didn't have our T1 line working yet, which, seeing as we're an Internet company, tended to put a drag on operations. "So what if you can't browse?" I told our frustrated troops. "You can still buy!" With that, I handed all 16 employees $100 bills and bid them go forth and procure recreational accoutrements for the office.

Unexpectedly flush, the staffers swarmed over their new neighborhood in an undeclared competition to bag the most creative trophy. Shanti bought a couple of foot scooters to speed engineers' journeys from workstation to conference room. In a Chinatown music shop, Zen and I discovered a large metal gong that we figured we could use to announce new customers, new employees, and new financing. (We didn't worry about the noise because we assumed the employees in neighboring companies would all be having too much fun to hear it.) Paul Allen, a marketing manager who spends a lot of time telling people that no, he's not that Paul Allen (or, depending on his mood, that yes, he is that Paul Allen), ordered enough helium balloons to fill the entire office. It was an inspired move: nothing levels hierarchy quicker than having your senior management team wandering around talking like munchkins.

But as the experience of pitching a venture capitalist before we had an operating plan taught us, spontaneity isn't always desirable. So Zen, Shanti, and I set about planning activities that we hoped would evolve into traditions and consequently form the foundation of Gazooba's culture. For example, we decided that we didn't like the way our meetings ended: in a sort of ellipsis, with staffers' collecting their belongings and wandering out of the room. We wanted our meetings to end with an exclamation point! Our solution was the Gazooba yell. Now at the end of each meeting, a designated yeller stands and screams the word Gazooba in whatever style he or she chooses -- be it a U.S. Marine bark or a Dr. Seussian squeal -- and the rest of us follow suit. Naturally, this gets pretty loud, and I figured we were in for a scolding one day when a gray-haired senior VP from the venerable shipping company next door came knocking. It turned out his daughter -- an MIT computer-science major -- was looking for someplace to intern during the summer. Someplace fun. Encouraged, we turned up the volume.

We also decided to throw frequent, unannounced parties to prevent workdays from ossifying into predictability (and to provide an excuse for ingesting large quantities of premium ice cream before dinner). Feeling puckish recently, I sidled up to Zen's desk and inquired if he was in a mood for revelry. With no clear idea for a theme, we ventured out into the financial district in search of supplies. Zen spotted a hot-dog cart on the corner. "Think that would fit in the conference room?" he asked.

"We can but see," I replied. I approached the hot-dog vendor -- a middle-aged Uzbekistani woman dressed in sweats and sneakers -- and asked if she'd be willing to do a command performance on the seventh floor of our building. She said she was game but expressed some reservations about the logistics of such an operation. The three of us reconnoitered, and Zen and I quickly laid to rest her concerns about the size of our cargo elevator and the width of our hallway. Next we approached the building manager, since, as Zen pointed out, we had just haggled over a six-month lease in an impossibly tight real estate market, and becoming known as "those guys who stank up the halls with wieners" wasn't in our best interest. The building manager gave us her blessing.

We couldn't get the cart through the door of our office, so we positioned it just outside. Our employees lined up, and the hot-dog lady began handing out franks and HÄagen-Dazs bars. As I watched her enrobe each dog in its bun, I questioned her about her business. "How do you get customers to come to your stand instead of the stand across the street?" I asked.

"I do not geet kostomahs," she replied in a heavy accent. "My kostomahs teel zehr friends!"

Yes, our hot-dog lady turned out to be a fellow viral marketer. Now, how fun is that?

Andrew Raskin is the cofounder and CEO of San Francisco-based Gazooba Corp., a helluva fun place to work.

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