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A Company That Hasn’t Lost The Venture Spirit

A software company allowing telephone calls around the world

[Skype] Palo Alto, California, USA

Skype was born in Tallinn, Estonia in 2002 as an Internet communications service. Its benefit was the ability of users from around the world to talk for free using P2P technologies, and it was successful in the short term. In 2005, the company was acquired by eBay. Growth continued to be firm, but remained sluggish in the US, and the company went on sale in 2009. In 2011, the company was acquired by Microsoft, and the company began a new start as a subsidiary.

With the initial injection of funds by Microsoft, there were at first worries about the technology being tied into the parent company’s platform. However, it remained multi-platform, and in fact saw a return to a level of freedom similar to the startup period for Skype.

The company moved into its new office in December 2010. It had separated from eBay and its strength in the US was increasing, so they began to look for a property for the 65 employees. At the time of the move, however, the company began to enter a phase of rapid growth, and the number of employees grew to more than 100.

To redefine Skype’s original culture, the new design concept was built by bringing together “California casual” and “technology contemporary.”

The building was a remodeled old wooden building. The advantages of wood over concrete included the superior breathability—the sense of the building not being airtight. Wi-Fi signals can also travel far beyond the building. The relationship between employees is a very organic one. There’s a saying at Skype that, “Once a Skyper, always a Skyper,” showing the deep affection that employees have for their product. There are employees who have been with the company since its founding nine year ago—and the proportion is surprisingly high. Many also keep in contact with former employees as well, so as much as it is a company there is a community that has been built around Skype.

Founded 2003
Annual sales: Not publically released
Gross profit: Not publically released
Employees: Not publically released

Entrance to the Palo Alto office. The monitor displays company events and weekly news items.

A meeting space, with artificial grass flooring, is constantly in use.

  • The company does not use landline phones, but relies on Skype for communications outside the office.

  • A hexagonal sofa set near the entrance, used for casual meetings.

  • Scene in the kitchen. Snacks, food and coffee are provided here throughout the day. A catered lunch is available from noon to 1 pm, and is free to all employees.

  • The group in charge of product management. The desks are set at right angle as shown, making for easy conversation.

In day to day operations, Skype is freely used by employees to make remote telephone calls. But for the team members working closely together, face-to-face discussions are of course necessary. When working on a project, it is never the case that it is divided up into two or more groups of engineers working in different areas. This is so there is no time difference involved in collaboration. It’s important during the development of an app that the lead product programmer have the team with which he or she is working close by so that product testing can be made. Things can’t move ahead if the physical environment is not the same.

The office is focused on the engineers, making it easy for them to work, with the space to make it easier for them to take on the challenges of new technologies.

The floors are laid out in concentric zones. In the center or the office is closed collaboration spaces, something like meeting rooms, while around these are work stations, couches and other places to sit where casual communications can be made.

The surrounding area has been created as a space where people can gather. There are 23 private rooms known as Phone Booths where one-to-one discussions and video conferences can be held, or where an individual can go if they simply want to work quietly alone.

White boards are located all over the office. They can be found next to engineers’ desks, where they can sketch out product development ideas and roadmaps. As you walk along the passageways, you can also see where employees have written out comments such as, “Good idea!”

The most popular place for the employees is the kitchen. “Engineers in particular see food as fuel,” one employee said. “Silicon Valley is really well known for the fierce competition to acquire good people, so you have to create an environment where people can cool down, and approach the engineering in a healthy way.”

The small rooms known as Phone Booths are there for those affected by noise around them, or for those who want a place to concentrate on work. There are 23 of these rooms, which can hold one or two people.

The meeting room known as the Man Cave. Compared to other rooms, it has a lower ceiling and is much darker.

Scene in the first-floor marketing section. Unlike the engineering department, there are no white boards here. The department layout can be changed depending on employee requests.

360°View

Scene in the first-floor marketing section. Unlike the engineering department, there are no white boards here. The department layout can be changed depending on employee requests.

*Touch Picture for 360° View

In applying advanced technology, it’s important to draw a line between efficiency and the urban culture. The new office is located in an area of Palo Alto that is still natural, where there are still agricultural areas and the sight of horses and cattle grazing. There’s not much of a commuting rush, and more and more employees are commuting by bicycle. It’s an area that personifies California culture.

After work there are soccer matches, table tennis tournaments or everyone enjoying trivia games, surrounded by good food. Just a short while earlier, everyone took part in the Palo Alto Office Run marathon event. Employees often treat their team members to barbecues at their homes—there is an excellent local feeling.

One of the proposed sites for the relocation was in San Francisco. But the company set up a system to examine which location would best provide for the balance of work and private life; Palo Alto was seen as the better choice. Skype is a technological company, and the place where employees do their work, so it was seen as necessary to have a place that would allow teams to collaborate. It’s a place where people spend most of their time, so it has to be a place that is comfortable.

Now under the umbrella of major corporation Microsoft, Skype still is working to preserve its corporate culture. Employees have not lost the start-up feeling, and the product continues to mature. Microsoft in turn has given its blessings to this. The acquisition, then, is a good example of a happy scenario.

From WORKSIGHT 03(Nov.2012)

Displayed on the wall beside the desk are hit products. The materials threaten to overflow the space.

Displayed on the wall beside the desk are hit products. The materials threaten to overflow the space.

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