Mustache Day and Floor Crawls: Chicago Entrepreneurs Discuss Quirky Cultures

10/13/2011 06:05 pm ET | Updated Dec 13, 2011
  • Keith Ecker Chicago-based freelance writer, essayist and comedian

From Mustache Day to "floor crawls" -- think a white-collar version of the pub crawl -- several of Chicago's top technology companies trumpeted their unique corporate cultures at the recent Entrepreneurs Unpluggd event, which took place Oct. 12 at the Chopin Theater. Presenters included Jellyvision Lab's CEO Amanda Lannert, co-founder of Google's Chicago office Kevin Willer, and founder and CEO of Total Attorneys Ed Scanlan.

Entrepreneurs Unpluggd is a relatively new speaking series that currently takes place each quarter. Each event features several entrepreneurs discussing a particular facet of corporate and start-up life. Past topics have included "Turning Setbacks into Opportunity," "The Funding Question" and "How to Find Your First Customers." The theme for the most recent event was "Creating and Growing an Awesome Company Culture."

Lannert spoke first. Her interactive marketing company is the one with the "Mustache Day," in which employees are encouraged to come to work sporting some hip facial hair. Besides fuzzy upper lips, Jellyvision prides itself on its adherence to two critical values: honesty and kindness. Of course, a bit of humor doesn't hurt either, especially when you're working for the same company that was behind the popular "You Don't Know Jack" computer games of the '90s.

Next, Willer talked about the iconic bean-bag-chair atmosphere that Google fosters internationally. Willer was one of the first employees in Google's Chicago offices back when the Midwest outpost was just a windowless broom closet. He described how Google has successfully exported the college-like atmosphere of its Mountain View, Calif. offices around the globe, a feat that was not without its hurdles.

"You have challenges maintaining culture as you get larger," Miller said.

Finally, donning the entrepreneur uniform of sports coat, jeans and untucked button-up shirt, Total Attorney's charismatic founder Scanlan took the stage. Scanlan talked about how he grew a multimillion-dollar enterprise as a 20-something-year-old college dropout with nothing more than a laptop and a credit card. He discussed how the corporate culture must emanate directly from its founder and that establishing a culture must be deliberate. He also mentioned that no matter how fun a company might be, work-life balance should be a priority.

"My goal when I first started my company was to ski more days that year than the year before," Scanlan said.

Entrepreneurs Unpluggd is the brainchild of Stella Fayman and Tim Jahn. Fayman graduated from Northwestern University two years ago and set out to work for a start-up. She currently fulfills a number of roles at FeeFighters. Jahn formerly ran the website Beyond the Pedway before partnering with Fayman to produce live events.

"Entrepreneurs Unpluggd is about sharing the stories behind successful entrepreneurs to inspire people to go after their dreams," Fayman said. "We focus on one aspect of creating your business and growing it. Meanwhile, the online portal is a way to continue growing the brand and storytelling entrepreneurship."

The organization sources its speakers a number of ways. Many of the speakers for the first four events were discovered because of Fayman and Jahn's involvement in the start-up scene. The two also rely on input from the local entrepreneur community when planning events.

"We continue to seek out quality speakers, but we also have been getting a lot more inbound requests from prospective speakers as well," Fayman said.

There certainly is a hunger for these kinds of events. The Chicago entrepreneur and tech communities are rife with meet-ups, seminars and workshops. These gatherings enable entrepreneurs to mingle with developers who can mingle with designers who can mingle with marketers. Besides sharing tips and tricks of the trade, many are searching for their co-founder.

"Three years ago, I went to the first Social Media Club Chicago event," Jahn said. "Now they meet monthly, and there are hundreds of attendees."

All this activity is getting the attention of investors, who used to see the Midwest as complete flyover territory.

"Venture capitalists used to laugh at you if you were in Chicago," Fayman said. "They'd want you to move to the West Coast to get funding. Although that expectation is still there, in the past few years you're seeing a lot of venture capitalists making trips to meet companies here."

And just like your typical entrepreneurs, Fayman and Jahn already have big plans for Entrepreneurs Unpluggd in 2012. Within the first quarter, they hope to spread the event to other cities, including Kansas City, Indianapolis and San Francisco.

"We move fast," Fayman said.