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Cleveland Is Not Immune to Weird Tech Culture

Welcome aboard LeanDog, the startup on a boat

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​ The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

For as long as technology companies have made money, they have used it to dangle recruiting inducements like obscene salaries and free Kind bars in front of engineers and Ivy Leaguers. Silicon Valley has blossomed into a petri dish for a deeply weird, experimental workplace culture. Google serves free gourmet meals three times a day. Netflix allows unlimited vacation. Facebook provides on-site barbers. Twitch offers monthly massages. And Dropcam threatens at least one CEO-piloted helicopter ride per employee.

The perk bar has been set very high by Silicon Valley. Still, tech hubs in smaller American cities have to at least try to meet such standards. And Cleveland is competing. Because Cleveland has a startup on a motherfucking boat.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting this boat, which is mainly inhabited by LeanDog, a Cleveland startup. Just a brisk 15-minute walk from downtown, the vessel is docked on Lake Erie between the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and a small airport. Technically, it is half of a steamship that was built in 1892 and at one point was a restaurant called Hornblowers. It has emerged from Dolly Parton–level plastic surgery with a modern exterior, its bottom half painted a respectful beige, its upper half a tasteful burnt orange. The bow of the ship proudly displays a giant green-and-blue LeanDog logo, which includes an illustration of a reposing English bulldog, inspired by CEO Jon Stahl’s pup, Otis. The path leading up to its entrance is lined by a well-trimmed lawn, where, as I walked up for my tour, a brown rabbit scurried past.

Alyssa Bereznak
Alyssa Bereznak

It seems silly to ask, “Why a boat?” because the answer is obviously, “It’s a motherfucking boat.” But I ask anyway. “The reason we bought the boat was to inspire greatness,” Jessica Wilson, LeanDog’s marketing manager and my host for the day, tells me. And then she launches into some themes I have heard echoed by many a tech company. “It’s to get people thinking outside the box. Thinking big and dreaming big. Stepping outside of your comfort zone and realizing what’s possible if you’re just willing to take that step. We could’ve gone into Cleveland and gotten one of those, you know, industrial-chic loft-type things that everyone else is working out of, but this is different.”

It is different. Different from San Francisco because does it have office boats? (It wishes.) But also different because living on a boat has its ups and downs. Though the ship is anchored to the earth, and does not move from side to side, it still bobs during inclement weather — enough that LeanDog stocks Dramamine in its shower. It has also endured destructive storms. Nine months after the company completed a $1.5 million renovation and moved in, a storm spawned by Hurricane Sandy thrashed the boat loose. Planks fell into the lake, and the water, gas, air, and sewage lines were all wiped out. It’s cool, though, they fixed it. Yes, every once in a while on a particularly choppy day, the metal walkway to the boat gets bent. But don’t worry, it’s not very noticeable.

Alyssa Bereznak
Alyssa Bereznak

Another potential challenge is that Cleveland does not have the best reputation for keeping its water clean. There was that time in 1969 when sparks from a passing train caused part of the Cuyahoga River to burst into flames, a low point for the city’s waterfront. Lake Erie hasn’t always been in the best shape either. Aside from being an ideal home to toxic algae, it is also the repository for trash from 13 storm drains. For a while, this caused the water next to the entrance of the LeanDog boat to resemble, as Wilson described it, the watery trash compactor that Luke Skywalker, Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca fall into in the original Star Wars. LeanDog has since hired a moat maintenance guy. (The closest thing he has found to a garbage monster is a river snake stuck in a zip tie that he promptly rescued.) To combat this pollution problem, Stahl helped found the Cleveland Lakefront Collaborative, whose goals include reducing lake garbage and installing a skylift along the water as a source of “transportainment.” Think of it as a local version of Mark Zuckerberg’s worldwide internet drone project.

At this point, you are probably wondering what, exactly, LeanDog is. It is a business that makes money. To understand how that happens, however, you must learn some phrases. Phrases like “rapid prototyping,” “agile management” and “lean management,” “prioritized story map,” “strategic partnership,” and “usability.” It is important, after hearing these words, to bring them home with you, repeat them out loud alone, and Google them, so that you can eventually come to the conclusion that LeanDog exists to help companies efficiently manage software and product development. The company was founded in 2009 to assist a startup in Wooster, Ohio. Then it evolved into a small-scale tech incubator. It has since pivoted to include case-by-case services for corporations like Diebold (which makes ATM software) and Capital One.

How LeanDog does this remains generally mysterious to mere outsiders like myself. But it is clear that the company would be nowhere without Post-it notes. Post-it notes line the windows and walls of the second-floor office, forming colorful, confusing patterns. “We buy the cabinet packs,” Wilson tells me as we enter the Post-it note subsection of the boat tour. “We put them in training kits, we use them ourselves. I would say Amazon has probably made most of its money from us.” There is the account management Post-it cluster, the organizational design cluster, the recruiting and staffing cluster, the “Three Amigos” cluster (LeanDog’s version of the three amigos are, obviously, recruiting, sales, and a subject matter expert), the sales funnel cluster, and many, many more. Every Monday, employees tour the clusters to see what’s new and who needs help. And if one day they hate that system and want to establish a new one, they can tear it all down. That is the beauty of the Post-it system, Wilson tells me — its impermanence.

Alyssa Bereznak
Alyssa Bereznak

Another office tradition: the five-minute morning stand-up. Employees stand in a circle downstairs around the ship’s impressive wooden helm and throw around a stuffed pug, what is more formally known as a stand-up token. The whole thing is meant to be an exercise in efficiency, so that, as Wilson explains, people can’t “just ramble on and turn it into a useless meeting.” The many dogs in the office (there are at least four) interpret this to be a game of keep-away, and will sometimes jump in the sky for a chance to hold the token themselves. At the end of every meeting, Alyssa Kristosik, an organizational design coordinator, informs everyone what “national day” it is. The day I visited, it was National Draw a Bird Day, and so one office door was decorated with drawings of birds on — what else? — Post-its.

Alyssa Bereznak
Alyssa Bereznak

Not far from the helm is LeanDog’s design and delivery studio, the space where the company’s engineers are tasked with creating prototypes for clients. The desks are lined up two-by-two according to a widely practiced engineering set-up called the “pairing method.” Wires and circuit boards are strewn haphazardly onto every imaginable surface. Recent projects in the studio include a low-energy display sign from a company called Lorktech (of which several were commissioned for the RNC) and what appeared to be a 3-D-printed bottle opener in the shape of a cow’s head. This is also where office jokes are born. On one particularly productive afternoon on the boat, a developer named Carl Shotwell 3-D-printed a bust of himself. It has since been replicated in various sizes and nestled in corners around the office. In another stroke of genius, developers programmed an Amazon button so that every time they pressed it, a large computer screen downstairs played a video of Christopher Walken in Joe Dirt doing his mop dance. It also automatically blasts polka music on the boat speakers. That’s when everyone knows it’s time to clean up the boat.

Walking onto LeanDog’s back deck, it becomes clear that another reason to have an office boat, aside from it being different, is to collect and attach smaller, more mobile boats. Stahl has a fishing boat. Jim Hickey, who bought the boat with Stahl and runs a small marketing firm called Arras Keathley out of it, has a couple of Sea-doos lined up. There’s an office paddle boat that tends to float off and annoy the Coast Guard next door. And finally, there’s a collection of kayaks, which employees are encouraged to take out onto the water during lunch breaks or after work — something Wilson refers to as “healthy recess.”

Alyssa Bereznak
Alyssa Bereznak

Charlotte Chang, a bubbly software engineer who has worked at LeanDog for two years, takes full advantage of this lakeside perk. She and her puggle Rocky often hop in a kayak for a spin around the boat. Though Chang used to work in New York and lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, her heart is now squarely in Cleveland. She even has an outline of the city’s skyline tattooed on her right forearm. Cleveland work and life culture can be weird, you see? Just like other big cities, Cleveland has yarn bombing, a hip bowling alley, farm-to-table dining, and a startup on a boat!

“As long as I have hipster coffee, yarn bombing, and I can bring my dog to work, I’m happy,” she says. And I believe her.

An earlier version of this story contained two name errors. LeanDog’s CEO is Jon Stahl, not John Stahl; the company’s marketing manager is Jessica Wilson, not Jessica Martin.