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Vocus Puts Playtime on the Agenda

Vocus chief executive Rick Rudman, at right, plays Ping-Pong against reigning champ Greg Detlass.
Vocus chief executive Rick Rudman, at right, plays Ping-Pong against reigning champ Greg Detlass. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007

From the beginning, games have always been part of the work at software provider Vocus.

Co-founder and chief executive Rick Rudman remembers bringing in Nerf balls, darts and a basketball hoop to hang over a garbage can. Back in the days of 100-hour work weeks, a game of pool in the office provided a small escape from the pressure of growing a start-up company.

But the pressure never really abated. In the early days, Rudman recalls, "if I looked out in parking lot at 6 p.m. and there was nobody there, I would get annoyed."

One thing Rudman says he has learned as his company has grown from a two-man shop in the basement of a friend's home to a publicly traded company with offices in four countries and an estimated $65 million in annual revenue, is that that breakneck pace isn't good for employees or a company.

Ten years ago he and his partner, Bob Lentz, now head of technology, accepted an offer to sell the company they had nurtured. All the documentation was finished and they were sitting in their attorneys' office awaiting word that the wire transfer for the sale was complete. Instead, they got a call that the deal was off. That turned out to be a pivotal moment for the company.

The prospective buyer had intended to merge Vocus, which was selling the software it had designed to help grass-roots groups organize their lobbying efforts, with a company that provided similar software to public relations firms.

With the deal canceled, Rudman and Lentz decided to write their own public relations software and develop a platform to handle external communications for all kinds of clients. Within 90 days, the new software was developed. They launched it in 1997 at the annual meeting of the Public Relations Society of America, and sales took off.

Now the public relations software is growing so fast that Vocus's original product is just 20 percent of its business.

But even as the company has grown, it has worked hard to maintain the fun environment. Vocus funds an employee committee called It's All About You, which cooks up such regular diversions as breakfast bars, massage days, yoga classes and go-cart or paintball outings. Quarterly meetings are followed by trips to Six Flags Great Adventure, Atlantic City or the Chesapeake Bay -- with overnight hotel stays footed by the company.

Another committee, It's Not All About You, chooses charitable causes for the company to help. Next month, the committee is bringing a dunk tank to the office for an auction to benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters. High bidders will get to select executives or managers for dunkings. Rudman views this as a small price to pay for employees' goodwill and, ultimately, high productivity.

"The toys got more expensive, but the culture and atmosphere didn't change," he says. "It's an environment where people are treated like professionals and are expected to perform really well."

The company's fast growth has been accelerated by another decision, made eight years ago. Vocus had been selling traditional software but by 1999 was increasingly hearing from customers who wanted to access its program through the Web.

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