When we started our company, I never expected to spend so much time playing tour guide.

Last year, over 3200 people traveled from around the planet to learn about our company, Menlo Innovations. The Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau named me Ambassador of the Year because we sold so many hotel rooms and restaurant meals. Our visitors are executives from the largest corporations who fly in on private jets, entrepreneurs from the Middle East, educators, manufacturers, leaders, students, professors, and entire classes and business teams. Some stay for two hours, some for a half-day, many for five days. We call that last group our "official stalkers."

Why do these people come?

Do we have an amazing office? Not exactly: Our wide open workspace is located in the windowless basement of a seven-story downtown parking garage with concrete floors.

Do we have a remarkable product offering? Not really: We design and build software for other companies, so we don't have a specific offering. Most of our projects are not household names.

Do we have genius people? Well, sure, but they're not much different from the "best and brightest" who work at a million other companies.

So what is it that thousands of people travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to experience?

They are seeking lessons about how to build a joyful culture. At Menlo there are no Foosball tables, no lounge chairs or workout rooms, no grand kitchen or free food. (Although there are usually one or two dogs, and a baby or two.)

What we do have is an extraordinary way of working that upends almost everything people think they know about productivity, teamwork, employee development, and morale.

A tech company based on paper and string

What people see when they visit Menlo is a small team--fewer than 60 people--in a single room, working. The energy is palpable. We work without walls, without hierarchy, without bosses–and yet there is no chaos. Everyone knows what he or she should be doing. And although we are a technology business, the simple, repeatable, measurable system by which we operate is based on paper, yarn, pushpins and sticky dots.

Everyone in the company works in pairs. Everyone votes on new hires. People leave the business when they need to and return when they want to. Workweeks don't exceed 40 hours. Vacation requests are never denied. These are just a few of the many, many reasons that Inc.'s Leigh Buchanan called us "the most joyful company in America."

So, where does that leave us: You and me?

Can you have joy in your business? Will it matter? Will it cost too much, dent profits, or diminish competitive advantage? Is there a place for joy in your industry? Is there a way to get there?

In this weekly column I will explore these questions through the example of one radically different organization. Among other topics, I will explain how we:

  • Recruit without resumes or ads
  • Interview job applicants without asking questions
  • Communicate internally without meetings or electronics
  • Offer feedback and make promotion decisions without the involvement of bosses
  • Help employees be productive without their own computers

....and, perhaps most importantly

  • Lead without fear

Menlo Innovations is a technology company. But most of what we do makes sense in any kind of organization. We're also not perfect, and I'll be frank with you about our imperfections. My goal is to inspire you to at least consider trying some of these things in your own businesses.

The Menlo way may sound a little weird. But over more than a decade, it's brought all of us so much joy.

I look forward to getting to know you. This is going to be fun.

Published on: Jul 22, 2015