After a frustrating day at work, we’ve all probably felt the urge to blow off steam by belting out our favorite song or banging on the drums.
Employees at Bullhorn can do that without leaving the office. The business software company’s downtown Boston headquarters has a sound-proof music room (see above) tricked out with several guitars, a keyboard, an electronic drum set, microphones, amplifiers, and other equipment for unleashing your inner rock star.
The 350-square-foot jam room provides a convenient practice space for Stampede, a rock band comprised of Bullhorn employees and led by company co-founder and CEO Art Papas (lead guitar) and president and chief technology officer Matt Fischer (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, keys).
But anyone on staff can use the space, and nearly a third of the local office’s 241 employees take advantage of it, Papas says. For some, it’s a chance to rekindle a childhood hobby, he says. Some play music in the room on evenings or weekends, while others use it to relax during their lunch break.
“It’s fun,” says Papas, as we chat on the couch inside the jam room. “If you have a bad week selling software, you can always make up for it playing music.”
I’ve seen plenty of office perks that tech companies use to entice prospective hires and keep employees happy, from beer taps to exercise rooms. But I’ve never seen an office with a jam room (at least at a non-music company). And as a drummer myself, I was geeking out about the chance to interview Papas in the Bullhorn music space—and even more thrilled when we closed the discussion with a jam sesh.
About four years ago, Papas and Fischer discovered that they both love playing music. It took them about nine years to figure this out. “I guess we’re a little intense and focused on work,” Papas says.
They bought a couple guitars and a keyboard, and staged them in a conference room at Bullhorn’s previous office in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood. “Then we bought a drum set and people started playing,” Papas says. “Then the landlord sent us a cease and desist letter saying you can’t make that kind of noise.”
But cease and desist letters can’t stop the rock, so Bullhorn hired a sound engineer to help set up a sound-proof room.
“It’s actually not that expensive,” Papas says. “And so once we figured it out, when we moved here we built a bigger jam room. Now it’s kind of part of our culture.”
A lot of my conversation with Papas focused on Bullhorn’s culture. I’m always skeptical when executives tout their company’s culture because it’s such a nebulous thing. But Bullhorn’s story might just illustrate the importance of getting it right.
Bullhorn sells cloud-based customer relationship management software and other tools to businesses, primarily in the staffing and recruiting industry. Papas co-founded the company in 1999, and it raised a few million dollars from investors before the dot-com bubble burst. After that, Bullhorn struggled to raise more capital and essentially bootstrapped its way to $15 million in annual revenue after several years, Papas says.
In 2008, Bullhorn raised $26 million in a round led by Highland Capital Partners and General Catalyst Partners. Four years later, Bullhorn was generating more than $30 million in annual sales, Papas says. It caught the eye of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, which acquired Bullhorn for over $100 million, he says.
At that point, the company was “growing like crazy.” But that success apparently went to some employees’ heads, and the culture started to deteriorate, Papas says. And that started impacting the business.
“Our mission had been to power the desk of every staffing professional worldwide,” Papas says. “And a few of our employees started shortening it to ‘global domination.’ …It was sort of a joke, but at the same time, that was manifesting itself in the behavior of the employees.” (One example: there were sales reps raising prices on customers by double digits two years in a row, Papas says.)
The “wakeup call” for him was a conversation with one of Bullhorn’s earliest customers, who told him she no longer enjoyed working with the company because the sales people had become arrogant, the customer support staff didn’t seem to care, and the company’s software had glitches and was outdated.
“That’s how far we had drifted, that we eroded the loyalty of a 10-year customer,” Papas says. “So I said, ‘Let’s change the mission of the company, get back to our roots of being customer-centric.’ The same ethos that helped us build brick by brick, customer by customer, was you have to do whatever it takes to make the customer have a great experience.”
To bolster the refocused mission, Papas began recognizing employees during town hall meetings for delivering an “incredible customer experience.” The company has also emphasized promoting from within, to build employee loyalty.
The results? Bullhorn’s rating on the Glassdoor employee reviews website increased from 3.2 stars (out of 5) to 4.4, its “net promoter” score shot up, and annual sales have grown to more than $100 million, Papas says. The company now employs more than 600 people worldwide.
Meanwhile, Bullhorn’s two-year-old band has become a distinguishing piece of the company’s identity. Stampede has performed at several industry and Bullhorn-hosted events, including playing in front of about 300 people in San Diego in February at a party held during a staffing industry conference, Papas says. He says it was a “really cool moment” seeing Bullhorn’s customers dancing as the band performed songs like “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin, “Alive” by Pearl Jam, and a pair of originals written by Papas and Fischer.
Papas says such performances fit with Bullhorn’s mission—safe to say, no other vendors provide that kind of experience to the company’s clients.
“It’s a very special way to entertain customers,” Papas says. “It humanizes, I think, the company a little bit. And also, it’s a blast.”
The big question: will Stampede go on tour?
“We’ve thought that it would be cool to do a multi-city tour for our customers,” Papas says. “After the San Diego show, a few people asked us if we would come and play their holiday parties and stuff like that. I don’t know. We’ll see. I wouldn’t want to burn out the audience.”
As our time winds down, Papas asks me if I’d like to jam with him. As if that was even a question.
I haven’t played drums regularly in a year and a half, but I ambitiously choose Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” despite the nonstop, frenetic pace at which my arms will have to move. (Stampede always opens with “Everlong,” Papas says—Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl is his music idol.)
I’m rusty. The tempo drags a bit, and I screw up an early transition so badly we have to stop playing and reset. But we settle into a comfort zone and have a lot of fun with it.
Afterward, Papas—who has clearly been playing a lot of guitar lately—kindly compliments me while deflecting my praise.
“Any time you want to play, just let me know,” Papas says.
He’s running late for his next appointment—a conference call, I think—but he tells me not to worry.
Apparently, the call can wait. The jam session is always worth it.