NOVI — An entrepreneur with a vision of hope and a dozen hopeful entrepreneurs made for an entertaining WWJ Newsradio 950 business breakfast Wednesday at the Suburban Collection Showplace.
Richard Sheridan, co-founder and CEO of Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, offered “a message of hope and optimism about entrepreneurship.” For those who have been “living a life of quiet desperation” in a dead-end job, underemployment or unemployment, Sheridan said, “there is a better way.”
He said Michigan is leading the country in adapting its economy to new global realities because “we got hit by Hurricane Globalization first and we are figuring out what to do about it first because we have to.”
Sheridan said he personally believe in the next few years we are going to start seeing national reports about the amazing economic turnaround happening in Michigan.
And just in case you think Michigan’s problems are unique, Sheridan said that in his travels, he hears people in Chicago and Boston complaining about the inability to hold on to their educated youth and fretting over how they’ll pay for roads and schools.
Sheridan said he was lucky — he knew what he wanted to do from an early age. “I grew up in Clinton Township, a Chippewa Valley grad, and it seemed part of every summer was spent at Greenfield Village at one time or another,” Sheridan said. “For me, I’m not sure I quite realized the impact of those visits as a kid, but what I got into that Menlo Park lab of Thomas Edison, I got goosebumps, and I’m not even sure why. When I saw what he accomplished in those rooms, it was a tuning fork for my heart.” He said he got his hands on a primitive computer at age 13, and “I was in love.”
In 1972, at age 17, he created what would now be termed fantasy baseball, winning an international programming contest and landing his first programming job while a junior in high school — at the Macomb Intermediate School District.
He stayed in Ann Arbor and eventually worked for one of the city’s historic tech companies, Interface Systems, when he hit on a new way of developing software — in teams, in bright light, with lots of personal communication.
“Within six months it completely changed the company I worked for, and started what I call managerial cold fusion,” Sheridan said. “I learned to build a great engine room. I just built it in the Titanic. But that’s OK, I got in the rowboat and rowed to shore.”
Sheridan created Menlo Innovations after being laid off in April 2001, and continued to experiment in what is now called agile software development. It’s very different from how most software is developed. Developers don’t communicate by email — they are required to speak face to face. No project management software is used — progress and workflows are documented on paper tacked to a wall.
“Imagine a world where we don’t use email to communicate with each other,” he said. “We like to use something we call high-speed voice technology … it’s built right into the operating system,” he said, to a laugh from the audience. “Human contact … there can be no replacement for it.”
And Sheridan said he’s built his company hiring people who like himself are unemployed.
“I find it detestable, unbelievable, that some recruiters have made it a policy not to interview the unemployed,” Sheridan said. “And that’s legal, apparently. It’s crazy. It’s insane. You take someone off the unemployment line, put them in a joyful environment, you get instant loyalty.”
Sheridan described how he has allowed employees who are new moms to bring their babies to work. Yes: all day, every day. “We’ve raised four Menlo babies so far,” he said.
He also advised entrepreneurs to network more.
“If you’re in a building today, get out,” he said. “If you’re in your house today get out. You must go out and bump into people.”
The event also saw GLITR Editor Matt Roush honor 10 companies with a 10th Anniversary GLITR Award for “making a difference in Michigan technology.” Winners included Compuware Corp. and Strategic Staffing Solutions of Detroit, Altair Engineering of Troy, Plex Inc. of Auburn Hills, Neogen Corp. of Lansing, Perrigo Co. of Allegan, Menlo Innovations, Red Level Networks of Novi, ePrize LLC of Pleasant Ridge and Secure-24 of Southfield.
Later Wednesday, the event featured the hiredMYway.com career expo, where more than 70 employers were recruiting for more than 7,000 open positions.