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Stink Different

Can a Counter Culture Corporation survive?

By Annalee Newitz

Let me tell you the story of a tragic company--a composite Corporation not unlike places where you may have worked. Its tale has become one of the fables of Silicon Valley, a story whose moral has taken on mythic proportions.

Once upon a time, three friends, X, Y and Z, graduated from college with a brilliant idea. It wasn't just about Internet software, it was a plan for how they would live outside the iron curtains shrouding the Sun and HP campuses. Of course they wanted to become multimillionaires, but more importantly they wanted to build a company where they and their friends could create a realm of work/fun: a place with video games and sofas, free food every night and flexible work hours every day. They wanted to finish the day's code, play a round of Quake on the office network and retire to the roof for a joint.

X, Y and Z named their enterprise CounterCultCorp, short for Counter Culture Corporation. Some crazy American studies professor at Cal had made them read Theodore Roszak's book The Making of a Counter Culture, which described why the '60s generation wanted to find freedom instead of becoming a bunch of corporate drones. CounterCult was going to be the perfect combination of '60s hedonism and political egalitarianism, all mixed together with some of that good old-fashioned American work ethic.

With measured doses of angel money, CounterCult struggled to its feet and hired its first six employees. When the nine-person staff at CounterCult held their office Christmas party, three people received bongs and the office dog got her own LL Bean doggie bed. People worked when they wanted, and so when they coded they meant it. Everyone had options on the company stock, but at CounterCult the idea of part-ownership seemed different. You really felt like you were inside the product--that it was you who launched with the site--and nobody could take that away from you.

The CounterCult offices in Mountain View shut down during Burning Man week. A voicemail message said, "We're out burning the Man. Back on Tuesday." Word got around the Valley about a well-funded start-up so cool that the founders actually had a camp at Burning Man. Talented and lucky coders started getting jobs at CounterCult through their friends.

VCs were sniffing around. It was the perfect company for the '90s: a bunch of Internet rock stars in the making. First round made them Golden Child to some bigwig VCs in downtown San Francisco--CounterCult scored a primo investment package.

As the money roared in, CounterCult took over the whole floor of a building, then two floors. Recently hired managers kept drawing new flow charts to explain the company's structure. Engineers were put on the first floor so they wouldn't have to deal with the creative people. Marketing was in another building. When a new site launched, it wasn't you in there anymore. It was nobody, a faceless mass of flow-charted employees who brought their dogs to work, smoked out and had tattoos, but didn't feel like they meant it when they coded.

For the employees, working at CounterCult was no longer like having a collective burst of creativity. "Here's another chunk of HTML from upstairs," somebody would say. It wasn't "Here's Maggie's code, let's integrate it into ours." People worked with objects rather than other people. They made good money, but their labor felt surreal to them, like they were sleeping all day at their desks rather than coming alive.

And what had happened to X, Y and Z, now that they were impossibly, life-changingly rich? Sure, they donated to nonprofit organizations and held company parties where DJs spun techno. But their employees were so far away, it was impossible to say what they should do to create a workplace where they'd be happy. They hired experts in corporate communication to tell them what to do with their employees instead of trying to find out for themselves.

And that is how CounterCultCorp went from meaning something to meaning nothing at all.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd. It won't cost you anything to email her your rational comments, violent disagreements or love letters at [email protected]

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From the December 2-8, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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