Alex Algard, the chief executive of WhitePages.com, has been writing a lot of big checks lately.
The company’s 100 employees are getting new MacBook Pro computers with Retina displays, $700 chairs and $1,500 hydraulic desks that rise with the press of a button, if employees would prefer to work standing up.
Algard also is spending $1 million upgrading WhitePages’ office in downtown Seattle’s Rainier Tower. It’s already a pretty nice space, but now it’s expanding up to an additional floor, connected by an internal staircase.
Employees and their families were also treated to a four-day getaway to Whistler in January.
That’s all on top of $2 million in special bonuses paid in September to employees, based on their vested options in the privately held online company.
After all the talk about the need for more tech workers to fuel the industry’s growth, perhaps it’s time to look at what’s being done to hang on to employees who are already in place, helping their companies continue growing.
WhitePages is trying to recruit more engineers to run and expand its online people directory services. But lately Algard is putting just as much effort into keeping his current employees around.
“I think we have a talent pool and just an overall talent level that’s an all-time high in the company,” Algard said. “So for that reason it makes sense to actually spend more time and effort in investing in retention as opposed to just recruiting.”
Other companies in the region may need to follow suit, with outside firms flocking to Seattle for tech talent, Google planning for 1,000 new jobs in Kirkland and Amazon.com building offices for even more employees downtown.
So far WhitePages has held its own. It has been profitable since it was founded by Algard in 1997 and last year grew profit 40 percent.
Still, mature startups like WhitePages seem particularly vulnerable to poaching by flashy newcomers.
Algard’s employees are handling “big data” and running a major website, with 55 million monthly users, making those workers a hot commodity in today’s job market.
Yet the promise of hitting a startup jackpot isn’t clear. Algard said a liquidity event — a public stock offering or acquisition — is likely to happen eventually. But it’s not urgent, since the company is growing and making buckets of money.
That can leave employees wondering about the value of their company shares and whether they’re better off elsewhere. September’s payout was intended in part to ease those concerns and give employees some return on their investment in the company.
“I think that they do have some expectations,” Algard said, “but right now I think we’re still in the value-creation, value-building phase — not in the cashing-in kind of phase.”
Microsoft may be the best local example of how it takes more than steady growth, great perks and big profits to keep people enthused. Two years ago, amid aggressive recruiting of its employees by Google and Facebook, Chief Executive Steve Ballmer announced its biggest ever boost in compensation, including raises and increases in bonuses and stock awards.
Talking to Algard last week, I thought he, too, decided to play more aggressive defense. But Algard said he’s working both ends of the court.
“I’d even say that we’re playing offense. By taking really good care of our existing employees, it also helps the recruitment story, so it kind of goes hand in hand,” he said. “The better job we do providing a great experience here for our employees, the easier it becomes to recruit as well.”
The most intriguing perk at WhitePages may be a new “unlimited vacation” plan. It lets employees take as much vacation as they want, as long as they get their work done.
Algard said the idea has caught on at some tech firms in Silicon Valley and he expects it to spread in Seattle. So far it’s working well at WhitePages. Algard said employees already did a good job self-managing, and it hasn’t led to big changes in the organization.
“If anything we have a problem getting people to take more vacation rather than less,” he said.
It’s more than benevolence. Top performers are crucial at a relatively small company like WhitePages, especially in key positions, Algard said.
“We can’t really overinvest in our employees,” he said, “because it makes such a big impact on the overall business.”
I used to think the Rainier Tower’s famous, tapered design looked like a sharpened pencil. Knowing what WhitePages is up to inside, it’s starting to look like a big money funnel.