ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

A Place Within The Company —

One of the nice benefits of studying a lot of history is that you start to see inevitable trends and patterns going across decades or centuries. This is in many ways comforting, because instead of feeling sad and forlorn that an apparently unique situation has passed, you know it will likely happen again.

One such pattern is one of my favorites, and produces some of my favorite artifacts. I suppose I could compose a cutesy name for it, but I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader.

Companies form all the time, built around a Big Idea. This Big Idea may in fact be an Old Idea dressed in new clothing, or maybe a Pretty Okay Idea presented with a few new twists or turns. Success or Failure happens to these companies, with Failure happening a lot more than success. There’s lots of reasons why success happens, although it’s somewhat nebulous. More often than not, it’s an actual Big Idea presented at just the right time and in the right place.

Money comes in. Streaming in. Pouring in. Now the company can afford a massive building, maybe several with a green space between them, or to build an entirely new campus with a big sign out front. Assuming the company doesn’t screw up this flow of money, they end up with a massive nest egg and they start hiring. Often, they end up overhiring, because the more people they get, the bigger they are. And the bigger they are, the better they must be!

Eventually, the company is very big and very well-known and either popular or at least respectably feared. It has not yet begun to be ruined. Every company is eventually ruined, but there is a nadir, a period of time spanning months or years when it is established, happy, and the people in it are generally content. Flaws in the business model haven’t appeared with any strength yet, and the also-ran knockoff companies aren’t on the stage in any force. It’s a good time to be there.

At some point, you have people in the firm whose job is to perpetuate this good feeling within the firm, and to keep the sense of the “place” the company exists in as real as possible. The folks assigned to this job have probably not got the tightest grip on what got the company its success and they almost certainly don’t do anything that makes the products better. Instead, they show up in the morning, and work at something until the night, and then go home. And a big part of their work is trying to do something, anything, for the “team” and to impress the customers with the “team”.

This is the precious era of the company artifact.

It can start out simple, with a t-shirt with a slogan. But within no time, it can mutate into items like knapsacks, flashlights, knives, decals, and calculators. Items which don’t actually better the work being done at the company or improve the product, but just get the name into strange places where it didn’t go before. This is a separate concept from company branding, wherein they place the logo or product line title across a series of things they sell to make them all seem unified. These artifacts do nothing but perpetuate the concept of the “place” the company inhabits.

Of course, what interests me the most are the weird, offbeat examples that arise up. International Business Machines, which employed my father for 30 years, has some of the strangest, owing to their long history. For example, they ran (and continue to run) a series of recreational centers throughout the country where IBM employees could play tennis, swim, and do all those things you’d do at a gym. With shrinkage, many of them have gone away, but I still remember my time at IBM’s equivalent of Day Camp. IBM also had many company songs, and therefore produced a beautiful song book filled with them. You can even listen to it, or to others.

Atari, even though it lost its founding father within a relatively short time, also produced buckets of artifacts, many of which are treasured collectibles among those of us who care about such things. Apple has had similar artifacts as well.

It really does take a major upset, a bankruptcy or closure, and to see a company evacuate and disappear like a dying herdbeast, to understand the impermanence of it all. Cubicles and office walls that you thought would never move and shift are removed and stowed, piles of paper and folders you thought must have been precious and in need of sorting are tossed out with the trash, and the people scatter like ants under an errant boot. Once this happens to you, and I’ve had it happen a number of times in this modern era, you realize a lot of life’s experiences are bubbles rising in soda water, heading towards the light, never to reach it.

History makes you appreciate the present.

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