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Tech Firms Find Tougher Terrain

"A lot of companies that were surviving or doing well during the downturn, they had sort of the pick of the litter," Villella said. "The control went right back in the hands of the employer."

Nor are tech workers defecting for every new job opportunity that comes along.

Matthew Calkins (Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)

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Matthew Calkins was intent on building a stellar staff for Appian Corp., the business software company he founded in 1999. So he interviewed every employee who came on board and focused on recruiting graduates of Ivy League colleges and other top universities. Now he has 175 employees.

Calkins polls his employees every year to gauge their attitudes. The most telling result, he said, was that when they were asked if they plan to be with the firm in five years, "overwhelmingly, 50 percent or more say yes."

Although the company started when the tech boom was going strong, Calkins said he built it gradually and without venture capital "to have a degree of self-reliance." Now, in tune with the times, he said he remains wary of rapid-fire expansion even though Appian's annual revenue is $24.6 million.

"The market is still tiny. I want it to grow and us to grow with it," he said. "I don't want to grow any faster than our culture can assimilate."

That's important because Calkins, like many of the entrepreneurs who emerged after the bust, said he's intent on building a company that will be around for years to come.

"This is one of my least favorite things about start-ups," Calkins said. "They all act as if the world is going to end in two years."

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