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How a rowdy, beer-soaked Friday meeting above National Mechanics keeps this tech firm sharp

At WebLinc, Friday meetings above National Mechanics are complete with friends, food and free beer.

WebLinc CEO Darren Hill hands off the microphone after speaking briefly in WebLinc’s offices above National Mechanics in Philadelphia on Nov. 17, 2017.
WebLinc CEO Darren Hill hands off the microphone after speaking briefly in WebLinc’s offices above National Mechanics in Philadelphia on Nov. 17, 2017.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Walk into National Mechanics at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon, and you'd be excused for thinking you weren't actually in an Old City bar.

Not every week, but once or twice a month, the 11-year-old bar and restaurant gets overrun by computer programmers, project managers and tech types, many of whom are employed by WebLinc, the e-commerce software firm whose CEO owns the 180-year-old building that National Mechanics inhabits.

They are taking advantage of their boss's offer of one free drink per day and waiting to go upstairs for the 4 p.m. "Friday meeting," a rowdy, beer-soaked catch-up that's become a tradition of sorts for nearly 20 years. It introduces new employees, allows higher-ups to demonstrate tools, and takes place in a wood stove-heated office at 22 S. Third St.

WebLinc's top brass say the freewheeling meeting that feels a little unruly is all about keeping around a "startup" culture to foster a positive environment. This helps maintain efficiency, even while the company grows.

"It's like, 'How do we maintain the competitive advantage of being lean as we grow?' " Vice President of Marketing Bill Tarbell, 35, said. "So the Friday meeting evolved. It's really almost like a global town forum."

During a recent Friday's meeting, WebLinc CEO and cofounder Darren Hill spoke briefly to dozens of employees while standing in front of a tower of seltzer and Coca-Cola. Hill, 42, cofounded WebLinc while he was a freshman at Drexel University in 1994, when there were few other startup tech companies in Philadelphia, let alone in Old City. In 2006, Hill bought the National Mechanics building, opened the bar, and WebLinc is now among the largest and oldest of the tech companies that call Old City home.

Hill has grown the company — its client list includes global companies like URBN, Hello Kitty and recently Lonely Planet — to about 165 employees worldwide, with most of them still based in Philadelphia. About 30 people work out of the National Mechanics building, while another 60 work out of office space at 12 N. Third St. and another 40 or so are at 100 Market St. Hill, who now lives in Vancouver and travels to Philly for a week per month, owns all three spaces along with his brother Jason Hill, also a cofounder of WebLinc.

Situated in front of Darren Hill is a table with a case of Miller Lite and a box of 16 oz. PBRs. To employees he tosses out royal-blue T-shirts and beanies — each emblazoned with the logo of Orderbot, the Vancouver-based order management company WebLinc acquired last year — like a mascot at a high school football game.

One employee spilled Miller Lite on his shirt while attempting to slip on his new, free hat. Another leaned on a retro, arcade-style Mortal Kombat II system. Project Manager Jessica Carlotti, 29, was petting Lola, her German shepherd mix in a Wonder Woman collar.

"More than anything," Carlotti said, "Friday meetings and National Mechanics, they're just about that team dynamic."

All this is to say: The Friday meeting is not professional, at least by traditional standards. Whether discussion involves a revenue update or how to expense an Uber for the "mandatory" holiday party, someone in the room has something to say (read: yell). But the environment isn't just another perk in a workplace where jeans and an afternoon beer are the norm. The Friday meeting tradition that started in the late '90s is a way to get employees to know each other better.

"As we were growing the business, first you hire all your buddies," Hill said. "Then you have to expand and hire people you don't know."

So every new employee is required to deliver a 10- to 15-minute presentation — on themselves — the first Friday after they're hired. Hill did the first.

Since then, the "new hire presentations" have evolved to prove a new employee's creativity. Lead Developer Joe Giambrone, 34, made a playlist for his presentation four years ago, but no one could hear it because the sound system wasn't set up. Carlotti said a friend dressed in a bear costume for his. Another woman rented a chimpanzee, though the managers had the woman redo her presentation so they could get to know her, not the zoo animal she brought along.

Steve Friedman, a member of WebLinc's advisory board, praised Hill for the open environment he's maintained.

"Culture plays out in a number of different ways. It attracts great people," Friedman said. "But it also retains great people."