Why a Santa Monica start-up wrangled cattle, shot guns and fished in Wyoming

GumGum executive says employee excursions have helped the company retain 95% of its employees

The sales team at Santa Monica start-up GumGum pulled through last year.

By reaching a revenue goal, the sales staff unlocked a trip for the entire company to a location that barely anyone had even considered visiting: A Wyoming ranch.

GumGum, whose technology scans online photos and places related interactive ads on top of them, has treated corporate retreats as a critical part of its plan to hold onto young, capricious employees for as long as possible.

GumGum held a staycation last year at a beachside hotel, lounging by the pool and competing to build sand castles. In Las Vegas the year before, the employees went to a Cirque du Soleil show, large dinners and clubbing. The trips are meant to be freeing and nimble, reflecting the culture of a company “that’s inventing the future,” said Phil Schraeder, GumGum’s chief operating officer, chief financial officer and chief culture officer. He credits the excursions for helping GumGum retain 95% of its employees over the last several years even as it has doubled in size three consecutive years to more than 120 people today and expanded to more advertising products.

The nearly 8-year-old company considered the trip to Wyoming, which spanned Wednesday through Saturday last week, like a family reunion as many colleagues from six offices worldwide met for the first time. About 115 “GumGummers” opted to go. The average employee is just under 30 years old.

Though many corporate retreats are filled with lectures or meetings, GumGum bonded mostly over outdoor activities such as campfire chats and firing bullets at clay targets.

“We want to pioneer a whole new approach to motivating a killer team,” Schraeder said.

In the tech start-up community, there’s always a “bright new shiny” opportunity for workers, so start-ups risk losing those who aren’t kept excited. The trip spurs that excitement as a capstone of smaller initiatives happening all year, Schraeder said. Employees in Santa Monica, for example, are welcome to leave together for a 3 p.m. coffee break each day.

The Wyoming trip wasn’t cheap, but as a percentage of revenue it’s relatively little, GumGum Chief Executive Ophir Tanz said. He tells investors the excursions have become an expectation among employees and that the return on investment exceeds the expense, even if he can’t measure it as definitively as he does everything else.

“We have a fundamental intuition and gut feeling that this brings people together,” Tanz said.

In mild weather, employees focused on three activities in groups of about a dozen. Schraeder enjoyed fly fishing, though others preferred mountain biking, ax throwing, cattle wrangling and the gun range. During “ranch Olympics," Schraeder’s Team Chewbacca outscored five others to earn the top prize.

GumGum did a hold a few meetings to listen to employee concerns and to discuss plans for using $26 million in new capital that it announced last month from investors including Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital.

“We’re going to be coming back to a reinvigorated team for the second half of the year,” Schraeder said upon returning. “It was the most amazing experience we’ve ever had in our careers.”

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