Not Your Father's Company

Dot-Coms Aspire To Change American Business Culture

Since last summer, Internet start-ups have been dropping like flies. But, win or lose, those dot-coms have left something behind. They have changed American business culture.

Recently 60 Minutes II's Charlie Rose took a look at three companies that are surviving. All are in and around Silicon Valley and have work styles that are revolutionary.

"Silicon Valley is like the largest video game ever produced," says 29-year-old Joe Kraus, co-founder of Excite. "It is all engrossing....It moves fast. You have to make fast decisions. And that becomes intoxicating. And it's that intoxication that is the ethos of the entire Silicon Valley."

And what an ethos! No doors, no dress code, sometimes no shoes. Meetings take place anywhere. In other words, this is not business as usual.

"The thing you want when somebody...walks in the front door is to look at this place, and immediately know from the way it looks that this is a different place," Kraus says.

At its huge Redwood City campus, Excite@Home offers Internet access at high speed along with information that helps people manage their daily lives.

"This is a place that has a tremendous amount of energy," Kraus says.

Kraus describes the culture of the old-fashioned company: "Everybody wears coats and ties to work. Everybody treats it as a job, not as a passion or a love," he says.

In contrast, he says Silicon Valley encourages "mak(ing) work much more than a 9 to 5 job, and much much more. Make it a crusade."

"We can do it. We're on our way. Now it's just a matter of figuring out the next step," says Mike McCue, the 33-year-old CEO of Tellme, which uses voice recognition to turn telephones into personal secretaries. McCue sold his first start-up for $20 million to Netscape. Now he's after bigger things.

When he left Netscape, he thought, "I want to build something that my Mom understands, wants to use, and is able to use," he says.

With Tellme, you can be a technodunce and get what you want by using the phone, whether it's a stock quote, a ball score or a restaurant reservation. Just dial Tellme and talk.

Tellme's open environment didn't happen by accident. McCue planned it. Successes are public, so are screw-ups. It's like being in the boss's office all day long.

"You'll be able to sit five desks away from me, and watch me give a customer pitch, or talk to an investor, or talk to somebody from the press, or figure out what we should be doing with our marketing strategy, or our sales strategy," he says. "You'll be able to create your own job. You define what you want to do."

The atmosphere at Bigstep

At the San Francisco start-up Bigstep, 29-year-old chairman Andrew Beebe defines his company's work style by delivering donuts to his troops.

The atmosphere at Bigstep is loose, but the days are long - often 12 hours. So far, the work is paying off. In less than two years, the company has helped 300,000 small businesses grow by getting on the Web. Beebe says Big Step is succeeding because in its open atmosphere you don't have to watch your back.

Politics don't exist there, Beebe insists. "Everything is out on the table." Politics means means withholding, changing or spinning information, Beebe says. "If you can be as upfront as possible, can avoid the politics. And I think at the end of the day, either get what you want or understand why you've compromised or why you're letting somebody else take the lead."

In the new corporation, job satisfaction is a big deal. Excite@Home offers employees so many conveniences, they barely need to leave the office. There's a golf pro available to help improve your swing and a dental truck that rolls into the parking lot every week. Employees get your dry cleaning picked up and delivered daily; a masseuse provides rub downs.

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Other amenities: yoga classes, on-site oil changes, a concierge service to take care of buying flowers on Mother's Day.

The rationale: By making life much easier for the employee, the company gets the best out of him or her. Kraus says, "I want you to buy in....I want to make it easy for you to be enthusiastic."

Then there are stock options. When the market was hot, they were a much bigger deal. But to Bigstep programmer Chris Kiernan, options never mattered all that much.

To Kiernan the promise of reaping cash rewards through gigantic stock options is not attractive. "What I do here is more important to me than the monethat I make," Kiernan says. "Everyone works together here....We're driven by a common goal which is to empower small businesses."

Case in point: Twenty-three-year-old Nolan Myers, a Harvard University grad who joined Tellme after rejecting an offer from one of the world's most successful entrepreneurs, Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, who offered to be his mentor.

McCue, who never went to college, thinks that makes sense. "You can learn more and experience more and get more by working at a company like this than you can in college....It ebbs and flows."

"What's happening with companies these days is that they're becoming sort of a part of your life. Its not like you go home, and then you go to work. The two worlds are merging and blending," McCue says.

So how about the downside? Even an evangelist like McCue admits the new corporate culture may be a tad all consuming.

"Probably one of the biggest risks that companies like this have is that you could end up having people who burn out quickly, who are so focused on work that they forget other parts of their life," McCue says.

One worker at Tellme has a bunk above his desk. "He didn't go to college," McCue says. "He's sort of getting some of that college experience right here at Tellme."

All not rosy, though. In the last year, more than 90 percent of all new startups have failed. Bigstep and Excite say they're on the road to profitability, as does Tellme. And McCue believes that if the dream is there, the money will follow.

"When you walk into this space, realize, 'Wow, people are thinking differently. They're thinking about the environment in a way that's just completely different. And that must mean that they're thinking differently about everything. They're changing the rules about everything...and the culture is really the reflection of that," he says.