An office where group anarchy works

How one tech firm learned to listen to its employees.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
 
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all CNNMoney.com RSS FEEDS (close)

meetup_homepage.03.jpg
Every new feature on Meetup.com is one pitched by a staff member who has successfully recruited a team to build out the new addition.
If you were a venture capitalist, which field would you invest in this year?
  • Green energy
  • Consumer products
  • IT
  • Financial services
  • Medical technology and pharmaceuticals
  • Nothing; I'd hoard my cash until the economy improves

(Fortune Small Business) -- The high-tech industry is a tough place to be a tyrant. Consider: When I started covering the industry 12 years ago, I was writing about how the mighty Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) was trying to rule the Web by strong-arming tiny dot-com startups. How quaint that idea seems now.

Three years later I visited a startup that let engineers work on their own projects one day a week (the so-called rule of 20% time). That company, of course, was Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) - and today it credits 20% time for more than half of its total product launches.

Recently I met a Web company that had staved off disaster with an even more radical notion than Google's: 100% time. That is, its employees always decide which projects the company will develop. And it works.

Meetup.com is a Website that helps millions of paying users organize into local clubs. Meetup members have started plenty of grassroots political campaigns, most famously organizing Howard Dean's presidential bid in 2004. But for one awful year, Meetup Inc., based in New York City, governed itself like a military junta.

In 2007, as the fast-growing site passed the 40-employee mark, its executives imposed a command-and-control structure. Changes to the Website required approval from two committees. "It was crazy bureaucracy, and it makes me grimace now," says Meetup chief technology officer Greg Whalin. "Our productivity went through the floor. All our engineers spent time on [unauthorized] side projects. Including me."

Meetup found salvation in a peculiar feature of geek culture: the "hackathon." Coined by developers of open-source software, hackathons are chaotic gatherings of computer programmers who get together for days or weeks at a time and code whatever they feel like coding. Meetup decided to hold a six-week hackathon - to buy time while management figured out how to restructure. Employees pitched any idea they thought might add value to the site. If they could convince three of their peers, the project was on.

One programmer proposed that Meetup offer languages other than English. He built a team and got to work, and today content on the site is available in seven languages. "That project would have been killed before," says Andres Glusman, Meetup's VP of strategy. "The guy was too junior."

There was a price to pay. The majority of Meetup's project managers left the company because they couldn't stand being usurped. Investors had a hard time understanding that there was no longer a product road map. Management had created new rules to hold employees to their deadlines. Nobody could serve on more than one team at once, and every new feature would be tested by users.

Still, the hackathon was successful enough that it quickly became company policy. By early 2009 the number of users signing up every month had doubled from the previous year. Meetup now boasts a record 4 million users and 60 employees.

Could its approach work in other industries? I think so, and I'm not alone.

"Meetup decided to implement the system because it intuitively makes sense," says Traci Fenton, founder of WorldBlu, an Austin consultancy that tracks collaboration in the workplace. "Command and control worked well for the industrial age. I think we're entering the democratic age."

If so, it's about time. In a recent Zogby poll, 73% of U.S. workers describe themselves as "disengaged" - that is, doing the bare minimum required - and 80% say they want more freedom.

The same goes for their leaders. Whalin gleefully says he has become more of a mentor than a manager, with time left over to join ad hoc projects. "I love coding, so now I'm on the coding team," he says. "It frees you up to have more fun."

And who can begrudge him? Management deserves 100% time as much as anyone.  To top of page

To write a note to the editor about this article, click here.




QMy dream is to launch my own business someday. Now that it's time to choose a major, I'm debating if I should major in entrepreneurial studies or major in engineering to acquire a set of skills first. Is majoring in entrepreneurship a good choice? More
Get Answer
- Spate, Orange, Calif.

More Galleries
These 10 food trends could dominate 2015 So long, kale. Here's what's expected to shake up the food industry next year. More
Beyond Russia: Geopolitical hot spots in 2015 Investors beware: These 5 global crises are likely to rattle the stock market and world economy. More
These 20 antique guns could fetch big bucks Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania is putting nearly 1,000 old guns on the block. Here are just a few. More
Worry about the hackers you don't know 
Crime syndicates and government organizations pose a much greater cyber threat than renegade hacker groups like Anonymous. Play
GE CEO: Bringing jobs back to the U.S. 
Jeff Immelt says the U.S. is a cost competitive market for advanced manufacturing and that GE is bringing jobs back from Mexico. Play
Hamster wheel and wedgie-powered transit 
Red Bull Creation challenges hackers and engineers to invent new modes of transportation. Play

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.