METRO mag: The Nerdery: A Company of Co-Presidents
Bloomington-based interactive web development company Nerdery
The Nerdery has to be the most aptly named business in the Twin Cities. The Bloomington-based custom interactive web development company’s cubicles and workspaces are covered in Star Wars figurines, Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia and classic Nintendo game posters. When they’re not transforming clients’ grand ideas into “interactive marketing masterworks” (that’s social media tools, mobile platform development and e-commerce solutions—among other projects—to the rest of us), employees play chess tournaments and wage Magic: The Gathering battles in the cafeteria. Conference rooms are plastered with wall-to-wall Marvel comic books and original Lego art; a couple rooms are even painstakingly decorated to replicate the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and the living room from The Simpsons (complete with crooked sailboat painting above the couch).
Yes, the Nerdery headquarters feels less like an office than it does an awkward adolescent’s dream clubhouse.
“We’re a company run by nerds, for nerds,” states Nerdery VP of Marketing Mark Hurlburt, who proudly sports a Nintendo Power Glove in his company bio photo. Hurlburt says all but one or two members of the Nerdery’s senior management team have a development background, which furthers one of the company’s goals: “To be the best place in the world for web nerds to work.”
They’ve certainly got the web nerds of Minnesota covered. In its eight-year lifespan, the Nerdery has outgrown its office seven times, annually doubled its workforce and netted numerous awards for its back-end programming on an array of ambitious interactive projects. Perhaps most noteworthy, though, is the unique and rewarding work culture the company offers employees. In 2011 the Nerdery ranked first overall among medium-sized companies in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s 2011 “Best Places to Work” list—the second consecutive year the company took the top honor. It also placed fourth among medium-sized companies in the Star Tribune’s 2011 “100 Top Workplaces in Minnesota” (it placed sixth in 2010).
“Those are by far the most important awards and the ones we put the most credence in because they’re voted on by our very own employees,” Hurlburt says.
Steadfast in the belief that a happy nerd is a productive nerd, the Nerdery promotes a “working-from-home” vibe that encourages a dog-friendly environment (an average of 28 canines populate the premises on any given day) as well as extreme flexibility in scheduling and choice of projects for its 350-plus employees. When considering a dress code for its first official employee manual (the Nerdery only recently formed an official HR department) Hurlburt composed one sentence: “No bare feet.”
One piece of apparel all Nerdery nerds sport—although solemnly—is a grey rubber bracelet that reads “co-president”: a reference to the final company-wide email Nerdery co-founder and president Luke Bucklin sent before he and three of his sons perished in a November 2010 plane crash in the mountains of western Wyoming. In the email Bucklin had recalled the humble beginnings of the company (then called Sierra Bravo) when there were no official job titles, and he urged his employees to transcend the roles on their business cards and become “co-presidents.”
“In the wake of the crash, we rallied around this mantra,” Hurlburt says. “We have a radically transparent culture here—we truly believe the company is great because of the people who work here, and that it’ll remain so only if we continue to listen to them.”
“The Buzz” is an internal message board where nerds can voice their opinions (anonymously if they so choose) on workplace issues ranging from how the dishes can better be done to the efficiency of software development processes. Core issues are then openly discussed in a town hall-style meeting called the “Mind Meld,” which takes place in the Luke J. Bucklin “Nerditorium” Hall, a venue that also hosts a happy hour-style social event called “BottleCap” every Friday afternoon. During BottleCap, free beer flows from kegerators while development teams share a bit about their current projects.
But the Nerdery is not all beer and games. Due to its skyrocketing reputation in providing web-based creative solutions and consulting for countless advertising agencies and companies (ranging from Fortune 500 to start-ups), there’s much to be done. “By virtue of the amount of projects we take on and our position in the marketplace, we have a much faster work pace than a lot of environments,” says Hurlburt. “It’s a lot of fun but we work very hard.”
One of the things at which the Nerdery works especially hard is giving back to the community, exemplified by the annual Overnight Website Challenge, which unites the Nerdery and other players in the Twin Cities interactive community with local non-profit organizations in dire need of website makeovers.
In March 2012, the fifth year of the challenge, 18 area non-profits were matched with 10-member development teams. Touting names like Full Court WordPress and Two Unicorns, One Moon, the teams engaged in 24 continuous hours of eradicating outdated platforms and installing web-based content management systems that would be much easier for their owners to maintain. Each new website donated is worth about $25,000 to $30,000.
“People in interactive have a unique skill set that can be leveraged for a lot of value for these non-profits,” Hurlburt says. “We try to give our employees the opportunity to volunteer in a way that’s fun and social. A lot of the people that participate in the challenge are happy to help simply because they love building stuff.”
Not to say there isn’t some reward to be had. Following the frantic 24-hour develop-athon, a panel of interactive industry gurus judges all the revamped websites and declares a winning team. The prize? Mere bragging rights. But that’s more than enough to motive a bunch of nerds—they are an extremely competitive species, after all.
Recent Nerdery work:
This iPhone app for Minnesota Historical Society Press is the perfect pocket guide for parents and kids seeking activities throughout the Twin Cities – and the interactive companion to Michael Hartford’s book of 52 family adventures, one for every weekend of the year.
Fampus social network:
Fampus keeps students in the loop about what’s happening on and around their campus. It combines events, photo sharing and social networking in a hyper-local environment: their college campus. This quote from the start-up’s website probably says it best: “It’s like your favorite social network and your college campus had a love child.”
Norton Anti-Virus: Stuff Theatre Facebook app:
Working with ad agency partner Leo Burnett, The Nerdery created a Facebook application for Norton Antivirus’ Stuff campaign, a 24-hour streaming improv theatre with live comedic performances inspired by viewers’ Facebook content.
Office: (952) 948.1211 x1069
Cell: (612) 850.3178