Sept. 21 is an important date at Jellyvision Lab. For starters, it's Chief Executive Amanda Lannert's birthday. It also happens to be Mustache Day, an annual tradition at the Chicago-based technology company. Employees who are able to grow facial hair start preparing a month in advance, while others don elaborate costumes. At lunchtime, the entire staff decamps to Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao in their mustaches.
"People walk out with their pants unbuttoned," Lannert said. "It's a very great, celebratory, stupid company holiday."
Fun, jubilant and a little silly. Those elements, combined with a healthy work ethic, make up a company culture that Lannert, 39, has shaped during more than a decade at Jellyvision Lab, whose proprietary technology provides virtual advisers for large corporate clients such as Microsoft, Aetna and Comcast that want to communicate with customers or employees. These advisers conduct interactive, natural-sounding conversations with website visitors who might be shopping for new services or choosing a health insurance plan.
Jellyvision Lab's workplace banter and good-natured practical jokes may make it seem like just another tech startup with a hang-loose vibe. But the atmosphere is a product of a well-considered corporate philosophy that is serious about business and has been tested during tough times as the company, under the leadership of Lannert and Jellyvision Lab founder Harry Gottlieb, experimented with a variety of models before landing on their current one.
Lannert "can go back and forth between being very serious and bursting out laughing within 10 seconds, so it makes it really fun to work with her because you're (also) getting stuff done," Gottlieb said. "It's a big thing about the way Jellyvision is and Amanda's a huge part of modeling this for everyone, which is we want to have fun and be productive at the same time."
The company, which is privately held, does not disclose financial information. Lannert said it has doubled revenues in three of the last four years and more than doubled its head count to 68 employees since January 2010.
Gottlieb promoted Lannert from president to CEO on her birthday last year, stepping aside from the top job to focus on product development. He took her to lunch at Terzo Piano and then, on a bench outside the Art Institute, presented her with a box of business cards bearing her name and new title. The move took Lannert by surprise.
"Amanda's very excitable, which is one of her charming qualities, and she did not disappoint me," Gottlieb said. "She opened up the box and immediately threw it down and pushed it toward me and said, 'No, no.'... All through lunch, she was trying to calm herself down. But the reality is she'd been doing the job for a solid two, three years in almost all respects. So it was really giving her the recognition she deserved."
Early ups and downs
Lannert's arc at Jellyvision started in 2000. She had finished a six-year stint at Leo Burnett in Chicago and was on the hunt for a job at a smaller company in emerging media. Her interviews at Internet startups put her in touch with Troy Henikoff, a tech entrepreneur who was looking for someone to head up sales and marketing at his new company, SurePayroll. The two struck up a friendship, acting as sounding boards for each other's businesses.
"She knows far more about marketing and positioning and branding than I ever will, and she's one of my go-to people for that kind of stuff because I think she just has a sixth sense about consumers and how they will react," Henikoff said.
When he offered her the SurePayroll job over lunch at Blind Faith Cafe in Evanston, Lannert demurred, saying she was looking for "something a little more funky, a little more consumer-facing and fun," he recalled.
"I said, 'Hey what could be more fun than payroll?' " said Henikoff, who is now CEO of Chicago-based tech incubator Excelerate Labs, where Lannert serves as a mentor to entrepreneurs. "I begged her. If I could have gotten down on one knee and begged and that would have worked, I would have done that because I thought she was so smart and she would be so great to work with."
When Lannert declined Henikoff two more times, he introduced her to Jellyvision Inc., Gottlieb's first company. The two men are friends, first overlapping at college and later becoming office mates and roommates in Chicago.
Henikoff had also spent 18 months building the technology for Jellyvision, which was making computer games at the time. Its big hit was "You Don't Know Jack," a comedic quiz game that had expanded from CD-ROMs to the Internet, as well as merchandising and even a short-lived television show on ABC.
Lannert became the first person in Jellyvision's history to be hired without meeting Gottlieb, who was on vacation during her interview process. But his reputation and creative design philosophy made an impression on Lannert, who was already a fan of "You Don't Know Jack" from playing the game with her Leo Burnett colleagues.
"I took the job mostly for the people, partly for the cult of Harry and the idea that the world can be more beautiful, work better and be more effective," Lannert said. "Really reinventing systems can make life better. I'm intrigued by that."
She was brought on board to manage the You Don't Know Jack brand, but she realized shortly after arriving at Jellyvision that the gaming industry was undergoing massive changes, including the rise of Web-based content and the next generation of consoles, that would wipe out casual game developers.
Gottlieb credits Lannert for recognizing the early warning signs and acting on them.
"This is one of Amanda's really fantastic qualities," he said. "She is remarkably cleareyed about a business direction while still being in spirit an optimist."
Jellyvision embarked on a tough restructuring effort, cutting its workforce from 70 people to about 17. The process was announced well in advance, with some employees getting up to nine months' notice so they could prepare.
The cuts didn't affect just Jellyvision's rank and file. Lannert laid herself off in September 2001, a decision she describes in matter-of-fact terms.
"I think (Gottlieb) sees it as a brave business decision," she said. "I see it as a failure to pivot and save the company."
Despite her pragmatism about her own unemployment, the day she helped break the layoff news to the staff remains "hands down, bar none the worst day of my professional career," Lannert said. She recalled walking outside at the end of the day and, despite being a nonsmoker, bumming cigarettes off a smoker and drinking a beer while telling herself: "It will get better."
And it did, four months later. Gottlieb started another company, Jellyvision Lab, and brought in Lannert as president. But the new startup faced a number of challenges in crafting its mission. While the team wanted to deliver multimedia content through the broadband Web, the company's desired customers -- Fortune 500 marketers -- were unwilling to "make investments in stuff that didn't work on a 56K modem," Lannert said.
Faced with those constraints, Jellyvision Lab conducted research and development for clients on a number of technology projects, including voting booths and a talking car-navigation system. Later, the company shifted its focus to products based on an over-the-phone technology for interactive voice applications.
It wasn't until 2005 that customers began showing interest in Jellyvision Lab's audiovisual, broadband Web-enabled content, and it took several more years for these services to begin showing traction.
Jellyvision's transition from entertaining consumers with the "You Don't Know Jack" virtual game show host to providing corporate customers with virtual insurance agents and salespeople looks straightforward in retrospect. But for Lannert, who took the company through three or four different business models, the journey had its share of twists and detours.
"If I were to describe the challenge that plagued Jellyvision, it comes down to this: The technology changes before the business model catches up," said Lannert, who sees this issue stretching back to the obsolescence of the CD-ROM. "You have to build things twice if you want to hit a mainstream audience right now."
The company's long wait for the adoption of the broadband Web taught Lannert to "sell the way the market has been used to buying" without trying to force revolutionary change on customers, she said, acknowledging that many entrepreneurs disagree with this philosophy.
Jellyvision Lab is now at a point where it is deferring some projects, which means turning down revenue. Lannert acknowledges the need to scale the company to keep up with growth, but she's also reluctant to compromise on the company's recruiting process, one of the pillars of its culture.
Applicants "audition" for their positions -- Lannert wrote a marketing plan for "You Don't Know Jack" in 45 minutes as part of her interview. The bar is especially high for writers, who must prove their mettle on the complex flow-chart logic that anchors Jellyvision Lab's interactive conversations. The process can take three to six months or longer.
Cultural fit is given as much weight as talent, work ethic and judgment. At Jellyvision Lab, this means demonstrating humor, kindness and honesty. Once, when Gottlieb and Lannert were arguing over a candidate, she said, "I don't feel the spark -- I mean, jeez, would you want to go to lunch with him?"
Lannert recalled Gottlieb responding, " 'Do we need to go to lunch with everyone we hire?' And I said, 'Ultimately, the answer is no, but goodness gracious, doesn't it make it better?' And we decided not to hire the candidate."
Greg Gretsch, managing director at venture capital firm Sigma Partners, which invested $5 million in Jellyvision Lab in 2007, said that unlike many of the Silicon Valley startups he works with, Jellyvision is able to retain employees over the long term and boasts the strongest culture among the companies he knows.
"One of the things (Lannert) knows she has to do is hire more key team members," Gretsch said, noting the challenge of reconciling a competitive, commission-based sales culture with the company's philosophy of "We're all in this together."
"I think that Amanda is very much up for that challenge," Gretsch said. "She understands it; she wants it. I think she has the support of the team."
'Pursuit of joy'
Lannert also has the full confidence of Gottlieb, who described making her CEO as "a slam-dunk decision" that he should have acted on earlier. The working relationship between the two has developed into a close one over the last 12 years, and the success that's come from sticking it out through waves of technology changes and lean periods is symbolized in part by a massage chair that has its own room at Jellyvision's Lincoln Park office.
Several years ago, to kill time waiting for a flight during a business trip, Gottlieb and Lannert stopped at a Brookstone and she tested out a massage chair.
"'You've got to get me one of these things,' " she said to Gottlieb, who told her that he would do it if the company hit a certain revenue milestone. Three years later, Jellyvision Lab reached Gottlieb's number.
On Lannert's birthday in 2010 -- important things tend to happen on her birthday -- Gottlieb had two employees blindfold her, walk her through the office and put her in a car. They circled the block, changed cars in the nearby Whole Foods parking lot and drove back to the office, with Gottlieb yelling at her through a voice-distorting megaphone the whole time. When they returned to Jellyvision Lab, Lannert was walked over to the massage chair, which was switched on. She burst into tears at instant recognition of "exactly what it was and why she got it," Gottlieb remembered. Lannert took off her blindfold to find the entire company present.
For Lannert, the moment was deeply meaningful because it was about "a guy I worked with for a dozen years, taking a minute to be like, 'We've come a long way, kid.'... (But) it was about so much more -- surviving the layoffs and surviving four bad business models and tough wins ... seeing the labor pay off."
The HumanTouch HT 5320 WholeBody Massage Chair, which retails for $3,999, is mentioned in job listings as a perk and has its own bio page on the company website. It's one of the many elements of Jellyvision Lab's workplace culture that looks like a throwaway gag but speaks to values that Lannert treats with gravity.
"I put in the hours; I take this business very seriously, but I'm like, 'Let's go grab a drink' or 'Did you guys see this funny thing?' " Lannert said. "So it's really making sure we institutionalize delight. I know that's a terrible way of saying it, but I honestly think about how can we be funny with each other, for our clients, how can we make sure we're enjoying the ride. We make sure we have made ourselves laugh today, and that we found our moment to be like, 'We are not investment bankers; thank goodness.' And that sort of pursuit of joy is something I think I brought."
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Amanda Lannert, CEO of Jellyvision Lab
The company: Jellyvision Lab crafts interactive online conversations for big companies to communicate with employees or customers. Powered by proprietary software called Talkshow, Jellyvision Lab's "virtual advisers" help users choose health insurance, resolve a customer service issue or make a purchase. The company traces its roots to computer game developer Jellyvision Inc., maker of comedic trivia game show "You Don't Know Jack."
Family: Lives in Hinsdale with Kevin, her husband of 14 years, and three daughters aged 9, 8 and 3. Lannert and her husband met at a Chicago bar on Halloween. She was working with Kellogg Co. at Leo Burnett, and the company had given her a giant Pop-Tarts box that she turned into "a killer costume" by cutting holes in it. She even remembers the flavor: frosted strawberry.
Southern roots: Grew up in Charlottesville, Va., where her father was chairman of the University of Virginia's neurology department and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who later worked in health care. Lannert graduated from Haverford College in Pennsylvania with a bachelor's degree in English literature and also studied Augustan to Romantic literature at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Road not taken: Chose the job at Jellyvision Inc. over a competing offer from marketing and public relations firm Buzz Divine, part of the ill-fated Divine Interventures Inc. conglomerate that came to symbolize the dot-com bust for Chicago's high-tech community.
Outside affiliations: Mentors entrepreneurs at Excelerate Labs and Healthbox, two local business incubator programs, and serves on the independent panel for admissions at the 1871 startup hub in the Merchandise Mart.
Pop culture diet: Recently read Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge" and Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad." Admits to "horrific, 14-year-old taste" in TV, from "American Idol" to real estate reality show "Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles."
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