Software Firm Learns The Rules Of Disengagement
By PHRED DVORAK
October 8, 2007; Page B6
With Some Structure, Retreat to Thai Beach Is a Productive Venture
In April 2006, all four employees of San Francisco software developer Red Swoosh Inc. decamped to a beach in Thailand -- for six weeks. They hoped to rejuvenate a team, and product, that had fallen into a rut.
The Red Swoosh team battled bugs, a pesky monkey and tropical squalls while writing code on laptops at a seaside café. And that, says founder Travis Kalanick, was exactly what they needed. By the time the engineers returned in June, they had not only rewritten the software and reworked an Internet-sales site, but boosted morale and bonded as a team, he says.
"It definitely helps you think out of the box," says Mr. Kalanick. He arranged a three-week trip to Mexico for the team this year and hopes to do it again next year. Red Swoosh founder Travis Kalanick, center, works with his team at a retreat in Thailand.
Red Swoosh's overseas stints are an extreme solution to a common challenge: How to energize employees and spur creativity. Experts say one key is exposing workers to new stimuli that can create fresh perspectives and spark ideas. That can mean bringing in new people, changing the environment or tapping exercises designed to broaden thought patterns, says Barry Staw, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business.
Design consultant Ideo Inc. often starts brainstorming sessions by casting a jumble of seemingly unrelated objects on the table, to encourage designers to seek inspiration in unusual places. Toy maker Mattel Inc. has employees work in a room shaped like a tree house to help stimulate creativity.
"The main thing with creativity is trying to introduce variety," Mr. Staw says.
Skeptics say there is no proof these tactics work. William Duggan, who teaches strategic intuition at Columbia Business School, says companies should collect flashes of insight that occur naturally to employees at odd times, like while showering or right after waking. He says that is likely to be more effective than forcing creativity at work.
Techniques suited to some groups may not work for others. Red Swoosh's Mr. Kalanick warns that extended trips to remote locales won't be effective for sales staff and others who need to be in touch with customers or headquarters in different time zones. They are also hard for workers with families or those who need a lot of equipment. Red Swoosh's employees are all single men under age 32; for work, they carry only their laptops, an Internet router and a power strip.
When Red Swoosh did its first trip in 2006, the company was five years old and badly in need of regeneration, Mr. Kalanick says. Revenue was sagging and programmers were tired. Red Swoosh's software, which delivers online video and other content, was "a mess," says head engineer David Barrett. When one engineer suggested moving headquarters to a beach for a while, Mr. Kalanick agreed -- with some strict terms.
Tempted to take the team to a remote beach for a change of pace? Here are some things to remember:
Set measurable project goals
Find an inspiring location, but ensure there's reliable power and Internet service
Monitor costs and employee productivity
Remember that contacting headquarters and customers back home will be tough
Keep equipment to the minimum needed to do the job
Ensure there's time for fun
To appease Red Swoosh's investors, Mr. Kalanick guaranteed the trip wouldn't add to expenses. The company moved out of its office, and used the rent savings to help employees cover airfare, food and lodging.
To remind employees they weren't on vacation, Mr. Kalanick set concrete project goals, like rewriting the server software, and asked each to keep track of his hours. He held a daily 10 a.m. meeting to discuss each day's work. He set aside one day a week for fun.
Some problems arose. After arriving in Thailand, the group spent several days finding a beach that was sufficiently isolated but offered electricity and Internet access. Staying in touch with U.S. customers across an 11- to 14-hour time difference proved exhausting. One client emergency kept the team up all night. Mr. Kalanick limited himself to 10 sales calls per day, at 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. local time, in order to get enough sleep.
The programmers faced language and cultural differences as well as torrential rains. But the challenges stimulated their creativity, says Mr. Barrett. Inspired by packing light, they streamlined their software. Shedding distractions like commuting meant they could concentrate more intensely on work. The motivation and camaraderie continued after the return home, he says.
The Red Swoosh team -- now six people -- in March spent three weeks writing a new application at a beach in Tulum, Mexico. Next year they may find out whether a getaway will work at a bigger company: in April, Red Swoosh was bought by Akamai Technologies Inc.