Menlo’s Rich Sheridan on Building an Intentionally Joyful Workplace

In his new book, “Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love,” Rich Sheridan, founder and CEO of the Ann Arbor-based software company Menlo Innovations, writes about the first time he fell in love.

“I was only a freshman in high school, but a singular moment changed the course of my life,” he writes. “My love was not for a girl; that would come a few years later. This love was for a magical machine.”

He sat down at a Teletype and started pecking at the keyboard:

10 PRINT “HI RICH”

20 END

RUN

When the computer responded by typing back HI RICH, Sheridan says he was hooked.

Fast-forward nearly two decades, and Sheridan had fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a software developer. He was rising through the ranks at Interface System, a now-defunct shop that, in 1999, was the top public company in Michigan based on stock growth.

Despite his success, Sheridan was wallowing in discontent. He was trapped in a “trough of disillusionment,” a joyless career he felt he couldn’t leave:

“Although I was succeeding in the eyes of the world, that didn’t matter to me anymore as I stared daily at my life in quiet desperation. There were long nights and weekends away from the family I loved, for me and the people who worked for me. Vacations were impossible to schedule. Projects were always in trouble, and then they were canceled. Disappointed colleagues yelled during difficult meetings. I believed that the only way out of my management quagmire was to fire half the team, but I hated the hiring process, so that, too, seemed like a dead end. Quality issues delayed deployments. Customers complained incessantly about the delays and the results.”

Sound familiar, software developers? (Heck, even those of us who aren’t software developers have likely had at least one tango with a dysfunctional office like the one Sheridan describes in his book.) He figured he had two choices: Change the industry or get out. He chose change.

Menlo Innovations, as we’ve written before, is an embodiment of the business value of joy. “Joy, Inc.” lays out Sheridan’s journey from that miserable executive deliberately taking the long way in to work so he could spend as much time on the road as possible to the head of a workplace that he’s consciously suffused with safety and respect—and it teaches readers how to recreate a joyful atmosphere in their own workplace.

Menlo was already hosting several tours a day of people curious to see what this kind of workplace looks like. (As of the day I visited Menlo—December 20—there had been 322 tours and 2,393 visitors so far for the year.) Sheridan realized there was a market for his message.

“People were coming from all over to visit the basement of a parking garage,” he says, referring to Menlo’s office in downtown Ann Arbor. “I figured there was something to it, so I decided to write the book.”

Sheridan says he asks visitors to pretend that half the Menlo team has joy in their working life, and half doesn’t. Which half would they rather work with? You can probably guess which gets picked.

“Given the number of tours we do, people are looking for something in their work life,” he says. “It’s not like everything should be like Menlo, but I think the fundamental elements are here. A lot of people start here.”

Including, Sheridan says, tech companies that are widely celebrated for their office culture and employee perks like free haircuts and gourmet food.

“Management believes it’s a zero-sum game—more joy, less profit,” he says. “But what if they both increase in parallel? It’s not about happiness. Joy is a much deeper, purposeful thing. It’s a long-term bet. It’s measurable. I want the work done in this room to delight the people for whom it’s intended.”

As for his writing process, Sheridan says he always believed he had a book in him, but moving from theory to practice—working through challenges and accepting the direction of great editors—was a different thing entirely.

“Being away from Menlo for so long and writing about it was kind of surreal,” he says. “I’d come in and say, ‘Ok, this does exist.’ I think the team grew in my absence. I’m not the hero here, which is a good feeling.”

Through his work with Menlo, Sheridan’s love affair with software development is back in full swing, and so he wants his book to inspire the newest generation of tech entrepreneurs. With the intense focus required to start a company, office culture can be an afterthought, and that, to him, is where it gets dangerous.

“It’s tempting to say you’ll get to the culture someday,” he says. “Well, guess what—you’ll never get to it. You’ll be too busy. You have to build it in from the beginning. I’m very cynical about my industry, but I also hold out great hope. Software development is one of the most creative endeavors mankind has ever taken on.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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