The St. Louis headquarters of tech startup LockerDome has a full bar, where drinks are on the house.
The St. Louis headquarters of tech startup LockerDome has a full bar, where drinks are on the house. It adjoins a recreation area with basketball hoops.
Employees who need a siesta can grab a bunk in one of its two bedrooms.
Workers can bring pets to work. And free breakfasts are catered daily.
The reaction most outsiders have to such amenities is to ask if LockerDome is taking applications.
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In fact, the company does expect to expand soon. But anyone hoping to land a job there should not expect an all-play and no-work environment.
“The nice elements in this office are more a reflection of how committed our staff is to working together here as a team and to completing projects, no matter how hard the job is or how long it takes,” Nick Apperson, 30, the chief technology officer, explained recently.
To that end, the bunk beds are most often used by “hackers” to crash in at the end of shifts that start early in the morning and sometimes run well past midnight.
The bar is typically a place where employees quickly wash down takeout dinners with soft drinks before hurrying back to their workstations.
And the catered breakfasts began last year as survival-mode nutrition for computer-coders who took to living at the office for weeks on end — one of them brought a basket of laundry and stayed 81 straight days — in a push to launch a new website.
“Not for everyone”
As LockerDome CEO Gabe Lozano recently said, it’s a workplace culture that’s not for everyone.
“When people come to LockerDome, I tell them up front that if your goal is to have a 9-to-5 job and get the best bang for your buck in terms of how much you earn per hour, this is a terrible place to be,” said Lozano, 32. “But if your goal is to be on the right side of history, you have made the right choice.”
That historical reference reflects Lozano’s contention that St. Louis will emerge as one of the nation’s premier tech centers.
By moving downtown in 2012, LockerDome blazed a trail on the Washington Avenue tech corridor that now counts more than 100 startups among its tenants.
“We’ve become an example of what’s possible for other tech companies in St. Louis,” Lozano said. “I’m not saying we’re the whole reason for the ecosystem there, but we were the first tech startup that moved onto Washington.”
LockerDome began in 2008 as a social network organized around sports. Last year, it expanded beyond sports content to create an online environment designed to “learn” about its users’ likes and habits and then customize site content to match those profiles.
In the past two years, the company has raised $18 million from investors, including $10 million in December. It plans to bolster the roster of 33 employees by adding up to 10 staff in its New York office and hiring more engineers and other employees at the St. Louis headquarters.
Meanwhile, the site’s popularity has exploded from 20 million monthly unique visitors in December 2013 to 75 million today.
Before LockerDome moved into its current space, Lozano visited the headquarters of two tech giants based in San Francisco, Twitter and Square. He incorporated office elements from those firms into his own.
“The reality is, you want people to work where they feel productive. And to that end, we have areas to sleep — either for a nap or for all night. We have a bar, so you can kick back and have a beer. We have a rec area where you can play bags (a bag-toss game) or pop a shot. And we don’t have a dress code, so come as you are,” Lozano said.
Tethered to the workplace
That is not to say that Lozano has eschewed all traditional elements of American workplace culture.
The employee handbook forbids working remotely. “It’s easier to learn when you are sitting next to your peers,” it states.
The handbook also requires employees to answer every phone call “regardless of the time of day” and demands their prompt attendance and unwavering attention at meetings.
The “LockerDome Manifesto” also addresses employee attitudes. A section headed “Humility and Respect” reads: “Arrogance is limiting. While we value intelligence, we recognize that intellectuals are the norm in the tech world, not the exception. We translate this awareness into listening to all new ideas and respecting both our teammates and our competitors alike.”
Chris Simmons, a senior development manager at LockerDome, said he knew what he was getting into before accepting a job there.
“It’s been one of the most difficult challenges of my life,” said Simmons, who previously worked in customer service for Sprint. “But at the same time, that’s what makes it fun, overcoming different challenges and continuing to grow as a company.”
Management and workers would not discuss salaries, but all are offered stock in the company as part of their compensation.
“Having shares in the company is important,” said Simmons. “But, honestly, the bigger part is feeling that I can make a suggestion here that may lead to a change, as opposed to Sprint, which was so big that I felt like I had zero chance of making a difference.”
Long days, punctuated with fun
At 6 p.m. on a recent weeknight, about two dozen of the company’s employees stepped away from their workstations to gather at the bar.
An employee, Mark Sanders, 30, mixed up a concoction of spiced rum, soda and juice he called the LockerDome Special. He measured it out into shots. The staff toasted the one-year anniversary of the new website and an employee’s birthday and then slammed the drinks.
They followed that with cold beers, chips and salsa. A few shared takeout dinners. A two-year-old beagle mix belonging to company spokesperson Jess Gitner begged for handouts.
A couple of guys shot baskets and played tape ball, batting the homemade spheres into walls and exposed duct work.
A palpable esprit de corps prevailed among the staff.
Perrin Westrich, 29, the hacker who moved into the office for 81 straight days last year, said morale is high.
“We have a passion for the work and pride in the product,” he said. “We are driven to succeed.”
A good part of that energy, no doubt, can be attributed to a couple of key demographics.
The average worker’s age is 28. And most of them do not have children.
If the company is to successfully mature, it will have to adapt to changing demands from its employees, said Jerome Katz, an entrepreneurship professor at St. Louis University.
“That is one of the challenges for companies like LockerDome — and we have seen it at Google and Microsoft and Apple as their workforces matured,” Katz said.
“These people stay on board and are happy for a time, but there comes a point when, either through serendipity or the march of ages, they become interested in additional things.
“Everyone might appreciate a catered breakfast or a masseuse on duty, but if you have children, you need more support.”
Firms such as Google and Apple have adapted by offering such amenities as concierge service and on-site day care.
“And true to form, it’s top-notch,” Katz said. “The facilities are beautiful, and they are wired like you wouldn’t believe so parents can pull up a webcam and see what their kids are doing. And they can monitor what the kids have been looking at on their tablets.”
Katz added, “It will be interesting to come back to LockerDome in five years and see where things stand.”
Back at LockerDome headquarters, happy hour had ended. It lasted less than 30 minutes.
The employees, most of whom started their workday at 8 a.m., were back at their workstations as the hour approached 8 p.m.
The only sound was the clicking of keyboards.