Meet San Francisco's 'Naked' Hippie Internet Startup

In Silicon Valley, the line between cult and company can be thin. Leave it to Steve Newcomb to toe that boundary, with a San Francisco "idea factory" that sounds as much like a religious order as a startup.

The company, Virgance, has high ideals; its projects include a collective solar-power buying effort, a green blog network and a corporate philanthropy contest. This idealism is felt within the company as well, judging from the, uh, unique working conditions described by Venture Beat's Kim Mai Cutler:

  • Work for free to prove your devotion: If you want to join the cult get hired, you'll have to put in a full month of labor, unpaid.
  • The commune decides your fate: To prevent impure subpar employees, final hiring decisions are made by the consensus of the entire staff. "A single veto can kill a candidacy." Newcomb justifies this with a Valley cliché: "A-level people bring other A-level people, while B people will bring C people."
  • You are never alone: There is only one door in the entire office.
  • Leader gets 'naked' with you: How's this for a ritual? Every Thursday, all staff gather on a lawn near headquarters. These are known as "Naked Thursdays," since anyone can ask Newcomb any question, and he'll answer it with total honesty. What a privilege!
  • You're sort of naked too: Financially, at least; all salaries and equity stakes are open to everyone else in the company.

Virgance takes to an extreme the egalitarian patina common on tech companies throughout the Valley, especially in San Francisco. But the veneer of equality does not equality make. Recall how one associate described Newcomb's management style amid executive turmoil at his last venture, Powerset

:

Pell and Newcomb set themselves up as lords of this feudal society with

C-level titles and then built a company without VPs in the name of a

flat, post-modern organizational style. The truth is they didn't want

the peons anywhere near the decision-making or basking in the

glamorous, self-aggrandizing PR campaign they launched way too early.

Meet San Francisco's 'Naked' Hippie Internet Startup

Newcomb (pictured) at least delivered financial results, although the $100 million Microsoft paid for Powerset was reportedly less than investors had hoped for. This time around, no matter what his mouth might say about open equality and collective decision making, it's safe to assume Newcomb's eyes remain fixed on the bottom line. Just like any cult leader worth his salt.

[Venture Beat]

(Top pic: From a YouTube of Virgance staff rolling around on a lawn together; second pic via Virgance)