Xconomist of the Week: Rich Sheridan and the Business Value of Joy

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overheard conversations”), as is email between staffers. Sheridan explains that Menlo uses “high-speed voice technology,” and proceeds to demonstrate.

“Hey Menlo,” he shouts.

The hive goes silent and snaps to attention. “Hey Rich,” they answer in unison. (And that’s how you call an all-staff meeting at Menlo Innovations, which any employee can do at any time for any reason.)

Sheridan also employs a team of “high-tech anthropologists,” who are in charge of discovering what a Menlo software user’s experience is by observing them in their natural environment. Most of the anthropologists don’t come from a tech background (one I spoke to previously worked in the floral department of Whole Foods) and, like Star Trek’s wide-eyed Counselor Deanna Troi, are selected for their finely developed sense of empathy, he says.

“The main reason why I came to work here is, I saw it as an environment where I could learn a lot,” says high-tech anthropologist Tracy Beeson. “I had no idea how much. Beyond actual work, I learned about business because we help clients navigate and make decisions. We are part of the pre-sales process for Menlo, and we take on HR functions—we manage each other. The goal is to be the manager and not be the manager at the same time.”

Yes, but … how do they like working for such an unconventional operation?

“It can be exhausting,” Beeson admits. “It takes a while to get used to. In a cube by myself, I could stare at the wall. With a partner, there’s no down time. We have to lean on each other.”

“But we’re focused on a common goal,” Beeson’s partner Justin Wheeler, the former flower guy, interjects. “Even if we clash as people, it’s not hard to home in on what you’re supposed to accomplish.”

Sheridan knows his methods are unorthodox but he says his company’s success proves they work, and he invites anyone who’s curious to come by the office for a tour. In 2011 alone, 1,381 people across 168 tours stopped by to learn about his philosophies, which he’s currently outlining in a book. [Paragraph corrected to indicate accurate number of people that toured in 2011. We regret the error.]

“I have eleven years of unwavering proof that this works,” he adds.

As a journalist, I have a pretty sensitive b.s.-meter, and, despite Menlo’s slightly cultish atmosphere, I detected no trace of disingenuousness on Sheridan’s part. I think back on some of the fear-based offices I’ve worked in and marvel at the freedom and empowerment Sheridan gives his employees and the productivity that seems to result. Clearly, he’s onto something. And, if his book takes off, the business value of joy might just be coming to a company  near you.

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10 responses to “Xconomist of the Week: Rich Sheridan and the Business Value of Joy”

  1. I am Menlo’s Evangelist, so I wanted to make one small correction regarding tours.

    In 2010, we conducted 208 tours for 1,108 visitors.
    In 2011, we conducted 168 tours for 1,381 visitors.

    We do not have a total count of the number of visitors since our founding, but I would guess the number could easily be 8,000-10,000 in our 11 years. These visitors come from around the country and around the world. Some tour as groups from the same company, some as individuals, some simply walk in off the street and ask, “So what do you do here?”

    The majority of these tours are conducted for free, but we encourage visitors to make a $250 donation to one of the non-profits we support (including American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, Ann Arbor Hands on Museum, Dawn Farm, Food Gatherers, Washtenaw United Way, Washtenaw Literacy Council, and more). It is simply a suggestion. If they say no, they still get a tour.

    If anyone reading this is interested in arranging a tour, they can contact me at [email protected] and I’ll see what we can do to help you experience some of our joy first hand.

  2. Erin Kutz says:

    Thanks for the information Lisamarie. That paragraph has since been updated to reflect an accurate tours number. See above.

  3. This is a fantastic write-up on Menlo Innovations! But, you truly have to visit Menlo to really understand, feel, and witness the “JOY” (note all uppercase) in this software development firm. This is a real one-of-kind, tangible, no smoke-and-mirrors, no hyperbole, place that every future, and current, software developer should ‘at least’ visit! You will leave with a new perspective on ‘how’ to work and at the same time enjoying the work you do. And for the naysayers, “yes”, it CAN be done! There is hope for our industry!

    When I first read about Menlo Innovations several years back I said “this couldn’t be true.” This must be programmers Eden! Well, it is…very true and very real! You owe it to yourself to see “the other side of software development”.

    I have taken my many of my programming students to Menlo for the past two and a half years and all leave there saying “I want to work there”! For weeks later they walk the halls talking to other students about this place in Ann Arbor, MI, they call “Menlo Innovations”. Menlo’s ideals reverberate the hallways at school for months after the site visit. I even have non-students approach me in the hallway asking “When are you going again? Can I go?”

    I explain to students the days of the old (long hours, cubicles, disruptions, lack of communication, selfish-programmers, never seeing your family, etc.) and the new “Menlo way” and you should see their eyes open wide! At first there is skepticism and doubt from the students. “Is this true?” they asked. “Yes, very true”, I say.

    I’m very impressed with what Richard is accomplishing in this industry – I just wish he was around 25 years ago when I was on those constant project-by-project “sleeping-bag-in-the-office death marches”.
    Keep up the great work “Menlonians!” I’ll be seeing you soon!

    And to Richard, a heartfelt “thank you!” for putting the “JOY” back into software development. You are a true leader.

  4. Martin – I am honored and humbled by your comments. We have sought for our entire existence to “end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.” There can be joy in our work. I’m so glad your visits have brought joy and hope to both you and your students!