Net Work

At Icarian, it's all work and some play

In Silicon Valley, startups that are growing faster than a speeding bullet don't have time to read the old management textbook. So out go rules, rigidity, and red tape. One Internet outfit that illustrates this with a lot of pizzazz is three-year-old Icarian Inc. Formed by Doug Merritt and his wife Rani Hublou Merritt, the company provides online software that helps companies hire and manage their workforces. Like Hair Club for Men, Icarian is not only the seller of this service, it's a customer. The founders use their software to foster a corporate culture that attracts and keeps workers in these volatile times.

A quick walk around Icarian's Sunnyvale (Calif.) offices shows just how friendly an environment they have created. Roller-hockey gear and balloons are everywhere. There's a foosball game roaring in the lunchroom. Dogs frolic in the hallways. But this is no Animal House. It's all about letting employees balance their lives with their intense work schedules, and recognizing, says Merritt, "that the best and most productive ideas often come from serendipity--a bike ride or a cup of coffee with a friend."

Icarian isn't just a fun place to work. The business is taking off, too, thanks to deals with the likes of AT&T and Chemdex Corp. The staff has doubled, to 160, in eight months. The company's in that hyperactive pre-IPO period--hoping to file in April and go out by June. Combine Icarian employees' anticipation of possible riches and their need to hunker down and deliver, and you've got an intensity that's as palpable in the hallways as static electricity.

CEO Doug Merritt

Managing in Internet time demands stamina. And Doug Merritt lacks nothing in that department. At 35, he starts many a 16-hour day early, with a run with his dogs, Jaxon and Slate. But he doesn't think a pressure-cooker work environment helps a company run better. Success hinges on building trust among managers and staff. "The way you get superior performance is to get peoples' passionate loyalty and belief," he says. That means being flexible and giving your people what they need to do a great job.

Icarian's special culture

Icarian's philosophy is simple: grow, share, and celebrate. People are encouraged to rise in the ranks. Pez fan Loren Schaffzin, assistant to CEO Merritt, is moving up to the creative services department. In gratitude for hard work, the company hands each employee 50 "Icarian bucks" each month to be spent on gestures such a massage for a colleague. When the spirit so moves, employees move with it. Somebody pops in a music CD and everybody gets up to dance.


A balanced life isn't just just an empty promise at Icarian. Business-development analyst Adam Nelson, a shot-putter who is trying to make the U.S. Olympic Team, gets time off to train. Employees are encouraged to work at home. And volunteerism is rewarded: Marketer Debi Memmolo takes off early every Wednesday to help inner-city kids.


Among Icarian's corporate principles is this: "Regular ping-pong increases productivity." So, apparently, do roller-hockey, wine-tasting and chess. Employees work hard, and at break time they play hard. Even the bosses. Co-founder Rani Hublou Merritt, who left management in January to take an executive position at Broadvision, takes the puck to the net in a parking lot hockey game.

After hours

Icarian encourages employees to get together when work is done. And, if romance blooms, so be it. "How do you meet people when you're working 60 hours a week?" asks Merritt. Social gatherings result in long days, though. Here, Merritt yawns on the way to a marketing department barbecue.

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