Triangle companies bond over craft brews at the office

dranii@newsobserver.comDecember 21, 2013 

E-mail marketing company Bronto Software calls its weekly employee get-togethers Occupy Bronto.

Brooks Bell, a marketing analytics company, dubs its end-of-the-week social events Smells Like Friday.

Apps purveyor Appia has Beer Friday.

No matter what it’s called, employees at a small but growing contingent of Triangle companies unwind at the end of the week with libations – not at a local watering hole, but right on the company’s premises. And usually on the company’s dime.

It’s a trend that’s dominated by, but not exclusively the province of, young technology companies. And the alcoholic beverage of choice tends to be beer – not Budweiser or Coors, mind you, but an India pale ale, stout or hefeweisen from a favorite craft brewery.

“I continue to see more of this,” said venture capitalist Ben Brooks of Raleigh’s Southern Capitol Ventures. “I think it’s a function of the demographics.”

Brooks notes that young technology companies are dominated by employees in their 20s and 30s for whom corporate culture is more important than it was for workers of past generations. So it makes sense for companies that want to recruit and retain top-notch workers to offer plenty of flexibility and a casual ambience.

The competition for tech employees has never been fiercer, said Jason Caplain, a partner at two venture capital firms, Southern Capitol and Bull City Venture Partners in Durham.

“Over the last 18 months, we have become increasingly aware that our companies are not just competing with other great companies that are also based here,” Caplain said in an email. “Instead, it is common that we are competing with large, well-known tech companies outside of our market like Google, LinkedIn and Facebook.”

Bonding experience

Jud Bowman, CEO of Appia, said he recently invited a promising job candidate to attend the company’s Beer Friday, which kicks off with a couple of draft beers on tap plus snacks every Friday at 4 p.m.

“It helps show people what it’s like to be an Appian,” said Bowman, whose fast-growing company has more than 80 employees.

Bowman and executives at other tech companies that offer end-of-the-week happy hours say they’re part and parcel of a work-hard-play-hard corporate culture. And it’s a bonding experience.

“It’s a way for people to come together and let off steam,” Bowman said.

To be perfectly clear, attendance at Beer Friday is strictly optional.

“There is no such thing as mandatory fun here,” Bowman said.

Still, Bowman noted that software engineers, in particular, are notoriously fond of beer.

Indeed, there seems to be a synergy between information technology companies and craft brewers. A number of the state’s expanding roster of craft breweries were founded by entrepreneurs who previously worked at IT companies.

“The startup community, particularly the tech guys, seem to have a tight bond with local craft brewers,” said Merrette Moore, managing director of Raleigh investment firm Lookout Capital.

Not just tech

Louis Sheridan, a performance engineer at Appia, was sipping an IPA, Death By Hops from Olde Hickory Brewery in Hickory, on a recent Friday afternoon while colleagues played ping pong, foosball and even chess.

“There are a lot of times when you learn more about the people you work with in a social setting,” he said. “It enhances our ability to do our jobs.”

“We’ve got a fun place here,” said Jim Harvey, Appia’s senior vice president of advertising sales. “The reason that most of these people work at startups is because you can still do stuff like this.”

The phenomenon isn’t limited to tech companies.

Raleigh communications agency Clean Design has a happy hour every Thursday. Sometimes it’s held at the company’s offices and other times the employees adjourn to Lonerider Brewing, which just happens to be a client.

Mims Distributing, a beer wholesaler with 130 employees, has a quarterly “Beer With The Bosses” for employees who are celebrating their anniversary with the company.

“I tell people if you can’t have fun selling beer, you’re really in the wrong business,” said CEO Chip Mims.

Pints & Pitches

Lookout Capital will serve up a variation on the theme – along with beer, of course – beginning next month when it kicks off “Pints & Pitches.”

Each month, up to three local startups will be invited to practice their fundraising pitches in front of an audience consisting of Lookout’s staff, investors and others from the local entrepreneurial community. The events will be held at Lookout’s offices in the Glenwood South district.

“We wanted to do it in an environment that was a little more colloquial and collaborative, where the company that is presenting or pitching didn’t feel a ton of pressure,” said Lookout’s Moore.

The mere presence of beer at the monthly events should up the casual quotient “whether you’re drinking or not,” Moore added.

Executives at these companies aren’t oblivious to the potential liability risks of serving alcohol. But they see the risk/reward ratio weighted in favor of taking the plunge.

“These are very low-key events,” Bronto CEO Joe Colopy said of his company’s weekly after-work sessions, which begin at 5 p.m. “They’re not ... raging parties.”

“We’ve had no incidents,” Colopy added, “nothing even close to an incident.” Bronto has 180 employees.

ReverbNation, an 85-employee Durham company whose website is host to more than 3 million music artists, doesn’t have a weekly event but it does have a monthly Movie Night where people eat pizza, drink beer and watch a flick on the company’s big-screen TV. The most recent attraction: “Zombieland.”

“It (enables) people to create closer bonds with each other,” said Jed Carlson, president and co-founder. “It’s easier to work with someone when you know them, or have laughed at the same jokes with them or watched the same film with them ... or had a beer with them.”

‘Smells like Friday’

At some tech companies, happy hours were generated by spontaneous combustion.

At Brooks Bell, a Raleigh-based company with 31 employees, the company’s chief performance officer got the ball rolling about a year ago at the end of a “pretty rough” week.

“I went to the ABC store, bought some bottles, grabbed my team and said, ‘Let’s have a drink at the end of the day to celebrate the week,’ ” said Naoshi Yamauchi.

Lo and behold, a tradition was born.

About a month later, a senior client manager at the company, Jenni Bruckman, walked by Yamauchi’s office on a Friday afternoon and saw a half-dozen employees sipping scotch, bourbon and Irish whiskey.

“Smells like Friday,” Bruckman remarked.

And so the tradition acquired a name.

CEO Brooks Bell – yes, her name is also the company’s name – wholeheartedly endorses the weekly sessions, which are open to all of the company’s employees.

“One of our core values is to be real,” Bell said. “I want everyone to feel they are the same at work as they are at home with their family or out with their friends.”

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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