What do singing competitions, mustache-growing contests, scale models of the solar system and a snack-eating challenge have in common? They're all part of the way one local high-tech company builds camaraderie and keeps their employees happy.
Synacor designs, builds and hosts online tools for millions of customers of the nation's largest telecommunications companies, including DISH Network and Verizon.
I recently interviewed George Chamoun, Synacor's executive vice president of sales and marketing, for a Strategies for Success article that will appear in Sunday's paper.
During my visit to Synacor's Silicon Valley-influenced offices on the Buffalo waterfront, I was struck by the degree to which the company encourages its employees to bond and let off steam.
First, the mustache-growing contest. The winner earns the "Burt Reynolds Award," as well as a championship belt adorned with a mustache. Current champ Matt "Maestro" Copeland displays those with pride outside his work area.
Synacor employee Darci Hosier, my guide to exploring this side of the company, explained competitors must start with a clean-shaven face 30 days before the contest ends. (Yes, it is an all-male contest. No, Synacor hasn't come up with an appealing female equivalent.)
For the past two years, the company has held a "Synacor Idol" contest at Pearl Street Grill & Brewery. The best performances end up on YouTube, as in this cover of Prince's Purple Rain by Bill Eager. (Eager sings in the band Social Scientists when he's not at Synacor.)
It's not all about the intensely fought competitions. I got a kick out of seeing a scale model of the solar system floating above one section of cubicles in the office. Eric Wastl set it up, starting with a marble for Earth that's about one inch across and making every other planet and moon fit accordingly. (Jupiter is about the size of a beach ball, and the distance from Mercury to Pluto is 196 feet.)
Some of the activities are unofficial, such as a Six Pack Club that meets monthly to trade craft beers.
And the one I found the most intriguing: The Vending Machine Challenge.
Syancor subsidizes the cost of snacks and pop in its vending machines, charging workers just 25 cents per item. Not counting the gum and hard candy, there are 35 snack items in the main vending machine, starting with Friday's Potato Skins and ending with a pack of Pop Tarts.
To complete the challenge, a contestant must eat one of everything, in order left to right and top to bottom, between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in one day, according to Synacor's Jeff Lukasavich. Anyone able to do this gets his or her $8.75 back, plus a pot swelled by the $10 every losing competitor must pay into it.
Nobody's ever done it, and the pot is up to $210, Lukasavich said. Of course, Lukasavich has calculated the total amount of fat (416.5 grams) and calories (9327) in the Challenge items. That's the equivalent of eating 38 Mighty Taco tacos, or 2.5 6-pound tubs of nacho cheese, in an eight-hour period, he said. Yum.
-- Stephen T. Watson