Profit Minded

A company that keeps talent by letting them go away

The TableXI team at their annual Costa Rica retreat

Free espresso bars, bean-bag chairs, and office scooters are standard perks at tech companies nowadays. But imagine working for an organization that keeps its employees happy by helping them pursue their dreams.

Employees of the web development and design company Table XI (pronounced “Table ex eye”) have taken months-long sabbaticals to explore South America and Spain, have shifted to part-time status to study dance with Martha Graham or pursue a PhD in cognitive and neural systems, and take annual retreats to Costa Rica together. One got help starting a nonprofit to educate the coding community about bipolar disorder and depression. Another got support to volunteer with Girl Develop It.

One partner, who calls himself a digital nomad, didn’t step foot in the office for 18 months as he and his wife worked while wandering to wifi-enabled locations throughout the US (including Hawaii), Central America, and Argentina. CEO Josh Golden just asked that he keep within a time zone radius that made it possible to coordinate Google Hangout meetings with the Chicago team during regular business hours.

Running a 40-person company in Chicago, Golden might be in the position of constantly competing with bigger, better-known firms for engineering talent. Instead, he says, “We have extraordinarily low voluntary turnover. If someone’s not working out, we move on that. But if people are leaving, they’re never going for money or to a competitor.” Of the few who’ve quit, he says, one joined Code for America, and some decided to commit full time to a company they started on the side. They asked Golden to serve on their board.

He started Table XI more than 11 years ago, and serves a variety of clients including PechaKucha, RogerEbert.com, Chicago Ideas Week, and The Spice House.

Yahoo! Small Business asked him how he has developed a culture that keeps engineers around, even if that doesn’t mean physically.

An annual retreat to Costa Rica is pretty cool, but what really keeps your people happy day to day?

Transparency. People know what’s going on. We’re a private company but we share financial information, plans, and context about why decisions are being made. We give them flexibility. Our schedules and targets and expectations are built around a true 40-hour workweek and the expectation that people will take vacations. We offer much better work-life balance than a lot of the startups and hard-core Silicon Valley companies that are competing for these people.

What else do you think keeps your people from leaving?

There’s a lot of intense passion for our clients and the work we do. We have some bread and butter customers who are trying to sell widgets, but most of them are defined by something bigger than that. In our industry, even if you’re underpaid as a software engineer, you’re making a lot of money and you have the luxury to pick something that fits with your value set.

We focus on hiring for values and bringing in people who are curious and care and are passionate. We don’t conflate that with creating a family or asking people to tattoo themselves with our logo. It is still a professional environment. I think that balance gets out of whack sometimes in startups; it’s unsustainable and you can’t do that for 11-and-a-half years.

I understand you love some of your customers so much that you’ve become their customers.

This is core to what we do. When you think of being your customer's customer, it’s sort of like eating your own dog food or using your own product.

To experience The Spice House as their customer, our chef, who cooks lunch every day in our 400-square-foot commercial-grade kitchen, brought Spice House spices in.

Every new employee here has to give an introduction about themselves using the format of our customer PechaKucha—a presentation of 20 images that advance every 20 seconds. We also have Table Talks—a series of monthly lunchtime conversations where we invite members of our staff and smart people in the community to come in and give PechaKucha-style presentations. They’ve been syndicated and you can see them on PechaKucha.org if you search for TableXI. They tell us some of best PechaKucha presentations done anywhere in world are the ones coming out of our lunchtime series, and they’re routinely featuring them as the global presentation of the day. I gave one on how a lot of people conflate perks with office culture, and one of our developers did one on how the computer is a bicycle for the mind.

We launched RogerEbert.com the day of his funeral in April. I was good friends with him and was pallbearer at his funeral. So our monthly rooftop movie nights this summer featured five of his Great Movies in the sci-fi genre.

We engage with our clients to strengthen the bond between the customer and the people in our organization. It’s a very powerful phenomenon.

Did creating a workplace like this come naturally to you, or did you get a lot of training to figure out what kind of culture you wanted?

A lot of this goes back to being raised the oldest in a very high-powered intellectual Jewish family. I have a strongly overdeveloped sense of responsibility coupled with a strongly overdeveloped sense of trying to do the right thing.

I have had people in my life, mostly as peers—other folks in the organization in its foundational times—who helped me understand how I could channel that occasional impulse to give everything away to someone else into a more sustainable, productive, bi-directionally valuable thing. This emphasis on people and culture and that fabric is where I want to be on a daily basis. So on some level you create an ecosystem that is an enjoyable to place to be for yourself. But they also really helped me understand how that can align with business success.

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