Two paint cans sit by a doorway. The cream-colored walls have smudges on them. Instead of nameplates, a few people have scrawled their names on pieces of paper and taped them to their doors.
If it looks as if it's move-in day even though some of the employees have been there nearly a year, it's because the digs on the eighth floor of 1250 Connecticut Ave. NW belong to a start-up: Revolution Health, a consumer-oriented health-care-services company that America Online founder Steve Case launched in 2005.
The renovation of what was formerly a law office -- one of two floors Revolution Health occupies -- was put off last month while the company rolled out its first public preview of its marquee health-care Web portal. The portal, which is scheduled to officially launch in April, aims to rival health information site WebMD. Revolution Health also offers a AAA-style service to help members with insurance billing problems and other issues, and it plans to expand a chain of health clinics in retail outlets.
It's tried to accomplish all this with a remarkably fast ramp-up. In one year, Revolution Health has gone from 60 employees to nearly 300. It traded a messy coffee pot for a professional-grade Starbucks machine. At one point, while waiting for more space to open up, it swapped larger desks for smaller ones to fit more people.
Revolution occupies another floor two flights down -- a large, continuous space jammed with cubicles, where privacy is at a premium and the walls are covered in white boards and screen shots of the Web site. Not exactly a computer science major's dorm room or a dingy loft in Silicon Alley in New York.
Then again, as part of Case's second act, Revolution Health was never going to be like any start-up circa 2000.
Case has so far invested $100 million in Revolution Health, part of the $500 million he said he plans to put into an eclectic array of businesses. The other ventures include a car-sharing service, a luxury resort in Arizona and a distributor of yoga videos. Of all these ventures, however, Revolution Health has the loftiest mission -- to make health care more consumer-friendly. It's also the business Case most often compares to AOL, which he describes as a "20-year journey."
Ambitious banter ("building a company that can change the world," Case says) injects the place with a nonprofit vibe, which attracted the likes of Brad Jacobs, a physician and former researcher at the University of California at San Francisco who is Revolution Health's senior medical director.
"I can be much more true to consumers' needs here than in an academic hospital setting," Jacobs said.
Michael Carignan, a designer, was persuaded to leave his job at a consulting firm after hearing that Case was inspired by his experiences with the health-care system during his brother's battle with brain cancer. The fact that the company was also backed by former Fortune 500 chief executives such as Franklin D. Raines and Carly Fiorina further assured Carignan, who briefly ran his own start-up, that it wasn't a fly-by-night operation.
"The expectation isn't 'we will go to the promised land' but 'they won't drive us off a cliff,' " Carignan said.
At Revolution Health, being backed by big bucks and bold-faced names translates into some very non-start-up perks such as a 401(k) plan and health insurance, although the company has chosen to provide coverage through health savings accounts.
"It's all centered around practicing what we preach when it comes to consumer choice and control," said Brad Burns, a company spokesman.
Several employees who came from older companies said they were willing to turn in their HMO cards to escape plodding bureaucracies. They said they preferred the fluid environment of a start-up where priorities are shifted daily, adjustments are constant and any missteps are chalked up to being part of the creative process.
Some people saw fluidity as chaos and left. Others didn't fit and were asked to leave. A total of 50 people have come and gone in the past year.
"We're constantly prioritizing and evolving. You can never have exactly what you want by a certain date. You make it better all the time," said Mary Hope Garcia, who oversees content for several conditions.
The January launch, for instance, followed a series of internal launches that, to hear the employees tell it, made it seem almost like any other day.
"We see what's working and what's not and we don't have to wait for big launches," creative director Yann Schwermer said.
Despite some first-day gaffes -- the site was overwhelmed by traffic, freezing out users -- inside 1250 Connecticut Ave., the atmosphere was relatively calm, employees said.
By then, the portal had been redesigned several times, veering from traditional-looking to radically streamlined and back toward something in the middle.
There were still a few surprises. The site launched with in-depth surveys to determine risk of having a heart attack or a stroke, as well as lighter online tools, such as a calculator for what it would take to burn one pound. America voted: It prefers figuring out how to burn a pound.
Some subjects attracted more traffic than expected. No one likes to leave the knee-pain page.
If the nights before and after the launch had a certain anticlimactic quality, it's because many of the employees are experienced hands, said team leader Gloria Mason, a former emergency-room nurse who has been working on clinical information systems since the early 1990s.
There's some evidence to suggest that an organic cubicle culture is emerging: inside jokes. During the fall, several guys faced off in a mustache-growing contest. The site's use of a type of programming called Ruby on Rails inspired a deeply nerdy entry into the company's first annual Halloween costume contest (one dressed in red, the other as a pair of rails). But "best impersonator" honors went to Michael Singer, an executive who dressed as -- who else? -- Steve Case.