So I walk into the spacious, 10th-floor offices in a nameless Ballston high-rise and I immediately sense an unusual vibe to this company, which is forgettably named Capterra.
The chief executive and co-founder, Michael Ortner, a 41-year-old Georgetown business graduate, is wearing cargo shorts, a green T-shirt and New Balance running shoes.
We are talking about the CEO here.
This level of informality is unusual even by technology company standards. So I look for the Foosball table. I look for a Nerf hoop. A squirt gun, perhaps. Something to fit with my expectations.
Then I see it.
“Want to lose a quick game of ping-pong?” Ortner asks, waving his hand toward the table. He takes me to his desk in the corner of the sprawling office and with a quick flick of his finger, the desk elevates.
“Ever see a height-adjustable desk?” he asks. (In fact, I work at one.) “We want employees healthy and happy, and that includes a height-adjustable desk to make sure they are comfortable.”
Last month, he took the team to an outdoor challenge course that included overhead ziplines.
“We encourage freedom and performance,” he said. “There’s lots of flexibility and freedom in your schedule, in what you wear and in what you work on.”
Ortner, 41, may promote an offbeat culture, but Capterra’s recent results are anything but forgettable.
The firm expects to earn a $5 million profit this year on $13 million in revenue, putting the profit margin at a Microsoft-like 40 percent. That is double what the company earned last year, which Ortner attributes to several factors, including the hiring of key bloggers.
Ortner owns about half the firm. Co-founders, friends and family members who were seed investors own the rest.
He pays himself $240,000 a year and is taking an as-yet-undetermined bonus for 2014. Most of the $5 million in profit will be rolled back into the firm, although every employee receives a profit-sharing bonus.
The 15-year-old Capterra runs a Web site that helps businesses find the right software for their company. Are you a 1,000-member church that needs to organize your staffing, services or donations? Are you in charge of human resources for a large company and need to buy software to keep tabs on thousands of your employees, from payroll to performance reviews? Are you a plumber working for a small business who needs mobile software to track every call?
Capterra lists more than 300 software sectors on its Web site, offering reviews of software. The reviews must be signed by the author’s name, and Capterra has a team that constantly polices the reviews.
“We are known as the Yelp of business software,” said Ortner, referring to the popular online restaurant review site. Unlike Capterra, Yelp allows anonymous reviews.
The culture at Capterra springs from the boring, button-down jobs Ortner took after graduating from Georgetown. First, he was a consultant with one of the big accounting firms. Then he worked for a bank.
“At 24 or 25, I had an intellectual awakening,” he said. He started reading, especially philosophy. Most entrepreneurs I interview quote Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great.” Or former General Electric chief executive Jack Welch. Ortner quotes Plato’s “Dialogues.”
“I was at a J.P. Morgan office outside Philly, in their technology back office. I did my work in two hours a day, went home at 5:30 p.m., and read every book I could get my hands on. Reading raised the bar for what I wanted to do with my life.”
In 1999, after a long trip to Africa where he worked at an AIDS orphanage and helped build a health clinic, he returned to Washington and hooked up with a company that prompted him to become an entrepreneur.
He joined Digex, a Maryland suburban company that was doing cutting-edge stuff over the Internet. His job gave him a view into how fragmented and overwhelming the software industry was.
“I knew software was a big, complicated purchase for a company,” he said.
Ortner, who was single, 26 and ambitious, decided to bring order out of chaos.
“We created Capterra and went for it,” he said. The name is from the Latin “Capto” to search and “Terra” the world.
He quit and started in his Bethesda apartment with a few other software engineers.
Ortner and his team built a free Web site that anyone can use, listing various software. The business follows the basic Internet click-through revenue model. Companies pay Ortner every time a Capterra user clicks to their Web site.
The price for each click is set by what a company will bid. For example, a company that makes accounting software might agree to pay Capterra $10 for every click, because some of those clicks will become paying customers.
The business starved for years.
The first paying customer — Herndon-based Deltek — didn’t arrive until month 18. To cover rent and living costs, Ortner ran up $250,000 in debt on 18 credit cards. He still has the cut-up, plastic remains mounted in a picture frame, a gift from his wife.
It sits in a storage room.
The tipping point came in 2002, thanks to a growing new search company called Google.
“We finally started getting a lot of traffic from Google,” Ortner said.
The company turned its first profit the next year, and by 2004 it broke through $1 million in revenue.
Ortner, who is married to a scientist and has five children, said the bloggers he has hired have boosted the firm’s credibility, spurring more Google results, clicks and, ultimately, revenue.
He should have done it sooner.
“One big mistake was we should have started reinvesting into content marketing earlier, blogging, creating cool graphics, getting lots of good data,” he said. “It has helped make us a much bigger authority in the software industry. Magazines and publications quote us.”
Just because the culture is funky doesn’t mean it’s easy to land a job.
“We spend a lot of time on hiring,” he said, beginning with a series of e-mailed questions: What is your ideal job? What are some of your greatest accomplishments? What values and aspects of culture are important to you regarding your place of work?
“If all they refer to are the freedoms and no mention of performance, then that is a red flag,” Ortner said. “The vast majority don’t make it past the screen.”
Those who get through face a phone interview that tests how articulate they are. That is followed by in-person interviews with up to eight Capterra employees, always including Ortner.
The ideal Capterra employee wants to work long hours, learn new stuff and has a track record of success and hard work, including good grades and accomplishments.
Proficiency at ping-pong is not required.
At least when you start.