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Answering call of Silicon Valley

Maynard Webb sees the future of work at LiveOps, where agents work from home and have flexible schedules.

July 22, 2007|Michelle Quinn | Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO — Call centers usually conjure up painful images of frustrating conversations and unresolved problems, not feel-good ideals such as "community" and "changing the world."

But it's a different story when you're working for Maynard Webb, chief executive of LiveOps Inc. He's got a diverse crew of 16,000 retirees, military spouses, moms and college students working from home to take phone orders for exercise equipment, flowers and other goods.

To Webb, the Palo Alto company represents nothing less than the future of work, with people fitting in their jobs around their lives, not the other way around. Workers at LiveOps punch in when they feel like it and get paid -- $8 to $20 an hour -- only when they're working.

"I feel people do well when they don't feel entitled, and they don't see limits," he said.

Webb is a former top executive at online auction giant EBay Inc., but he doesn't fit the Silicon Valley image of success. He's not flashy, nor has he become rich on barely tested ideas.

Rather, he represents a lesser-known Silicon Valley manager: the low-profile, hardworking guy who understands a company's innards and how to keep things working, as he did as EBay's chief operating officer. Though respected, these executives are rarely seen as CEO material, often labeled as lacking the charisma needed to motivate the troops.

"He's the classic noncelebrity CEO," said EBay CEO Meg Whitman, his former boss.

With LiveOps, so named because it uses live operators, 51-year-old Webb is trying to break the image.

Although the company currently uses only U.S. workers, he wants to recruit call fielders in countries such as Japan and Mexico and to sell LiveOps' services to overseas companies. Webb envisions a day soon when someone ordering pizza in London is routed to a LiveOps agent in Oklahoma. Already, agents are making calls for disaster relief and political campaigns.

The more his agents work, the more they get paid. Their entrepreneurial spirit reminds Webb of the passionate sellers at EBay, where he worked for seven years before joining LiveOps in December.

In the U.S., about 100,000 people work out of their homes doing call-center work, said Stephen Loynd, a program manager at market research firm IDC. By 2010, that number will triple, he said, as more companies abandon outsourced call centers in India and other countries because their customers want to talk to Americans. He calls the trend "home-shoring," an antidote to "off-shoring."

Here's how the LiveOps system works: Agents, who are independent contractors and don't get benefits, sign on for 30-minute periods to take calls from people seeking to buy products and services.

The company's software constantly ranks the workers and sends calls to the best agents -- agents can see their rankings as they work.

The software, which LiveOps licenses to other companies, can bring on more people quickly if it has to. For an "American Idol" episode for charity last spring, LiveOps had 1,000 agents fielding calls and added 500 more as the calls spiked.

Motivation is rewarded: The top 10% of LiveOps' agents take 25% of the calls.

"Managing community with a technology is an art," Webb said. "Our job is getting agents to feel good about themselves."

On Mother's Day, Webb logged on to the LiveOps' system, thanked the agents for taking orders on behalf of 1-800-Flowers and wished the mothers working a good day.

For Webb, it's been a long road to the top job.

He was one of five children growing up in affluent West Palm Beach, Fla. But his life was not one of privilege. The family struggled financially after his father died when Webb was 7. While he was a teen, his family was without hot water for more than a year, so he showered at school.

He was offered a football scholarship by the Naval Academy but turned it down because he didn't want to commit to military service after graduating. He spent a year working construction and then studied criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University before landing a job at IBM Corp. as a security guard.

IBM trained him to find computer security problems in its finance department.

"A hacker," he says. "My job was to go around and break into things."

He stayed at IBM for 10 years.

After stints as chief information officer at computer maker Gateway Inc. and the former networking-gear manufacturer Bay Networks, Webb interviewed at EBay. It was the summer of 1999 and the online retailer's computer system crashed three days in a row that week. The interview turned into a tech trouble-shooting session.

Webb got the job and rebuilt EBay's technology, creating a parallel system as backup.

He left in August after an executive shuffle.

"As we decentralized the company, my role became more of a coaching, mentoring role rather than running something," he said. "It wasn't hard enough anymore. That's the sick puppy in me."

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