Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Global digital mesh network, vector illustrationNo one ever really knew what Trilogy did, as Chris Taylor, CEO of Square Root and a former Trilogy employee pointed out on a SXSW panel Sunday morning. What they knew about was how Trilogy recruited, which was precisely the way a cult recruits.

On a panel called Trilogy: A Killer Network Can Transform Your Town, former Trilogy employees Taylor, John Price, CEO of Vast, Heather Brunner, CEO of WP Engine and Scott Francis, co-founder of BP3 spoke about the unusual recruiting and bonding strategies Trilogy practiced and how it created an extraordinary network of talented people who have helped to transform Austin with companies like Capital Factory, HomeAway and Bazaarvoice.

Price related being pulled into the office of Trilogy CEO Joe Liemandt one day after Liemandt learned that a Stanford engineer they’d been courting chose a different startup. “We’re going out of business,” Liemandt told Price. Price thought Liemandt was being dramatic. But Liemandt’s view was that if recruits were turning Trilogy down and the managers didn’t care, they were going down. At that moment Liemandt, (affectionately referred to as Joe), made Price VP of recruiting.

“But I don’t know anything about recruiting,” Price said.

“You don’t know anything about marketing either,” Liemandt replied.

Building a Cult

“It was one of the boldest moves an executive ever made,” Price said. He was told he had an unlimited budget. So he ‘dramatically overpaid’ new employees. He offered them cars. He entertained them. His motto was “money, recruiters, beer, repeat.” They called it Trilogy University.

“The first thing you have to do in a cult is isolate,” Price said. So they housed the new recruits separately and wouldn’t let anyone else in the company touch them. They told them they were entrepreneurs and they should operate like entrepreneurs. And every year, when Liemandt revised his vision of what the company should be, they told the new recruits that’s what the company was, so that when they emerged from Trilogy University, they acted as if they worked for the company they’d been described.

The next step, Price said was to “create cohesion and bonding at the level military guys have in a fox hole when they have bullets flying overhead.” They always began a new session with what they called SEE, requiring new people to stand in front of the other newbies and share their most Significant Emotional Experience.

And the last thing was creating audacious stretch goals that forced people to rely on one another.

“If you ever study cults,” Price said, “this is how they do it.”

Then there was the fun. Taylor said he showed up his first day in Austin, ready to report to work and looking for a place to live. He stopped in at the Trilogy office for just a minute and someone came out and greeted him with “You’re just in time! We’re going to Vegas!”

Taylor balked “But I have to find an apartment.”

“But,” the other person said, “it’s Vegas.”

So two hours after arriving in Austin, he was on a plane to Vegas.

At the same time, Liemandt expected them to know the ins and outs of a business thoroughly and be able to articulately and convincingly be able to make the business case for their intrapreneurial ventures. So before presentation meetings with him, Trilogy employees were known to get physically ill from fear.

A Rare Network

Their intention was to hire only the best which, Francis points out, was “an obnoxious statement then and it still is.” But in 1998, four years after Price became VP of recruiting, they hired 262 people: 22 from Stanford, 14 from MIT, huge numbers out of every major school.

And because of the bonds created in the “cult” of Trilogy, each of the alumni now has a huge global network of likeminded talent on whom to call. When Brett Hurt founded Bazaarvoice he put out a notice to his Trilogy network and said “I am starting a company and I need a CTO.”

Anyone in the Trilogy network, Francis said, is likely to preach recruiting as the silver bullet for a great company just like anyone who worked for Google is likely to preach that “it’s all about the data.” It’s not all about any one thing, he said. But putting effort and resources into recruiting is a powerful way to build not only a company but a community.

Trilogy’s great failure though, panelists said, was that it celebrated success within Trilogy but if you left to start your own thing, you instantly stirred bad blood. Taylor said that was one major difference he made in starting his own company, to celebrate people who left to try their own companies and follow their dreams. One of the best advertisements to future talent, he said, is alumni who have a good relationship with the company.

“I’ll still get a call or a request to have a lunch from someone in the Trilogy network and I treat them just like they’re my employees,” Price said. “It’s really all about the commitment and the development of these people. Just because Trilogy did not have a liquidity event doesn’t change the fact that it became what it became.”