#11: Endless Work and No Play Keeps the Talent Away

Jack_Name“If you don’t get your ass off of the bar in 5 seconds I’m throwing you and your group of idiots out on the street,” the bouncer yelled at one of the Merge team.

“Why?” yelled the UI designer I vaguely remembered as Johnny. “I’m the only person in here trying to get this place going! Common ever’one, let’s do the THRILLER!”

The bouncer’s patience was obviously saint-like since he didn’t drag him off the bar immediately..

Johnny turned his back to the crowd of his co-workers and 20 other patrons of the Irish pub to start dancing. Alison Redgrave forced her way through the crowd and started talking quickly with the bouncer. She was throwing her arms around like she was slipping on a sheet of ice, but smiling every second. The bouncer was silent, not taking his eyes off Johnny. Finally, he stepped to the side and motioned Alison to go on ahead.

Alison slightly bowed as if to say thank you. She rushed over to a table and grabbed a chair, dragged it to the edge of the bar, slowly climbed up, and looked back to the crowd. She pointed at me and Jasper Collins and motioned for us to come over.

“Okay, you guys stand directly under Johnny and catch him if he falls off the bar too quickly,” Alison explained as she braced herself to the bar. If you studied Alison closely you could see that she was swaying ever so gently. She wasn’t as drunk as little Johnny on the bar, but she had still been drinking for over 12 hours straight.

Jasper looked at me slightly amused. He was 3 shots and 4 whiskey sours in just at this bar and wasn’t too concerned about anything in the world.

“Hey Alison,” Jasper started. “what do you plan–”

As Jasper began talking, Alison took out a small stun gun from inside her jacket and jabbed it into Johnny’s leg. The user interface designer stopped dancing and fell backwards as if an invisible person came up and kicked his left leg out from under him. He fell to the ground in an uneven mess and it took every ounce of strength I had to brace his head and torso so it didn’t smack against the hardwood floor. I looked down and Jasper was wedged between Johnny and the ground laughing hysterically and the crowd behind us was laughing and cheering even louder.

Nothing like a company field trip to keep the troops happy. And, the day started out so normally.

Fourteen Hours Earlier

On my second visit to the Merge offices the tone was almost a complete one-eighty from when I popped in after the first meeting with Ryan. During my first visit music was playing softly in the background and people were randomly chatting about ideas and creativity could almost be seen flowing through the air.

Now, I’m greeted by general indifference from the team and people hiding their LinkedIn profile updates as I walked by. In the glass walled boardroom in the corner I could see Alison and Jasper talking alone. I choose to lean against someone’s desk and watch them.

Alison was pacing back and forth gesturing every which way as if to try and convince Jasper of something. Jasper was leaning back in a one of the mismatched chairs at the board table calmly replying to her. Finally, I turned to the woman whose desk I was rudely leaning on and asked, “What are Alison and Jasper fighting about?”

“No idea,” she said, still focused on her screen. “They’ve been in there for about twenty minutes.”

“It’s Heather, right?” I asked. Heather is one of the developers and from what I’ve heard she’s Alison’s go-to person. “Is everything okay in the office?”

Heather simply shrugged and kept typing away and nodding to the music coming out of a single white ear bud.

I decided to interrupt their meeting to say hello and let them know I’d be in the office a little today. Before I could reach the glass room they both left the room and Alison hopped up on the nearest desk and said, “Everyone stop what you’re doing! Put down your phones, stop typing, stop updating your LinkedIn accounts, yes I could see what you were doing Derek, and focus on me.”

Alison waited a moment before continuing.

“Now everyone stand up who isn’t already!” she said.

Everyone did as they were told.

“A limo bus will be out front in five minutes waiting for us,” Alison said with a slight grin. “We’re heading to Toronto today for a little field trip. But this won’t be your typical grade 3 trip to the zoo. I’m not going to tell you where we are going but if you have a husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, really dependent cat, or whoever, tell them you won’t be home for dinner.”

I looked around and the general despair of the staff slowly evaporated.

“You guys are awesome! Now, everyone meet us in the lobby in 4 minutes or we’re leaving your ass here.”

Everyone grabbed their belongings quickly and headed down to the front of the building. There was an almost complete disregard for what people were working on.

The limo bus was a sleek, modern piece of luxury travel. Alison was standing next to the side door of the bus high-fiving the first set of team members as they made their way into the bus and getting them even more excited

“Good job, Josh. Way to hustle, Jessica. There’s a shot with your name on it inside, Alex,” said Alison as I approached her. “You coming Jack? You’re more than welcome to tag along.”

“Where are we going?”

“This is a mystery bus tour, Guy,” Alison said, still high-fiving the last few Merge staff. “I can’t tell you where we’re going, but I can tell you we will be back to town within the next 24 hours. So, are you coming?”

“I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t,” I said with a high-five to a smiling Alison and dare I say a hop in my step.

The bus was filled with beer, snacks, and board games. At 10:22 AM the Merge team was drinking happily as the bus headed east towards Toronto. There was an unmistakable energy of excitement among the team as everyone debated where they were being taken. I sat in a seat sipping on a beer for about 15 minutes watching the group.

Alison was in the middle of a heated game of giant Jenga in the middle of the bus.

“Step back folks, I’m about to blow your mind,” Alison said with her arms outstretched and a bottle of beer in hand.

Alison took a step back, rolled her shoulders, and lifted her left leg up while balancing delicately on her right. In one quick motion Alison kicked at a giant Jenga piece in the middle of the leaning tower and hit her competitor in the leg with the solid piece of wood. The 4-foot tower rocked back and forth as the group held their breath and as her competitor hopped around holding his sore leg. After 6 distinct tilts from side to side the tower held firm.

“Your go, Josh!” Alison yelled out throwing herself down in the closest seat.

I made my way around the Jenga tower and sat down next to her and asked, “Why the impromptu field trip?”

“It was time to blow off some steam for the troops,” Alison said as she folded her legs sideways on the seat. “Plus, we received some welcome news from Ryan.”

“What news was that?”

“Offers. Multiple offers.”

“To buy or invest in Merge?”

“I’m not at liberty to say,” Alison replied as she sipped at her beer and watched Josh try and peel another side piece out of the tower with his elbow. “He sent over some money from his own accounts and told us to hire the two people we laid off last week and to have the office take the day off.”

“This is a day off?”

“Well, the mystery bus trip was my idea,” said Jasper coming up behind me.

“He’s right,” Alison said as she got up from her seat to take her turn at Jenga. “But we had a difference of opinion on where to go.”

“Why the trip though?” I asked Jasper.

He took a deep breath and gazed around the bus before answering.

“The people on this bus are Merge,” Jasper said. “Without them our company is made up of 3 founders who can’t do everything alone. We need them happy, calm, and productive. And you can’t be be happy working constantly and seeing your friends be laid off.

“Rough patches happen in startups. No one likes to talk about it, but they do. It’s how your staff handles the rough patches that makes a company great. If your team keeps their heads up and work hard during the lean times you have a shot at succeeding. If they don’t, your company starts to breed resentment and bleed talent.”

Jasper spread his arms out and said, “This is how you keep talent here and happy in a startup. It can’t be 100% seriousness all the time. That’s just depressing.”

We both watched the group for a while. Some were still chatting with enthusiasm while others were up playing games. What they weren’t doing was working. They were living.

We were nearly to Toronto when I leaned over to Jasper and asked, “Seriously, Jasper, where are we going?”

Jasper leaned in and whispered, “Our first stop is an axe throwing club Alison had been to before. After that I think we’re heading to some Irish pub for dinner and some end of day drinks. It should be a pretty laid back evening. Alison said the pub is a pretty relaxed place.”

With that Jasper got up from his seat, made a cheers motion with his beer, and started staking giant Jenga pieces for another game.

Outings worth talking about. That’s what it seems to take to keep a startup team happy these day. Oh, and beer. You can’t forget about beer.

Next Post – #12: How Money Changes Things

Previous Post – #10: Selling Myself to VC’s Like a Hooker


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