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Silicon Valley perks are making a comeback

March 29, 2010 |  5:00 am

Perks are back.

The technology sector, though more resilient than most, was rocked by the economic downturn. As the stock market stalled so did job growth. Major companies shed workers by the hundreds. Investors grew more frugal and advised start-ups to do the same. Some start-ups slashed their budgets, others shut their doors. Even Internet money maker Google Inc. ratcheted back on spending.

Zynga2 That’s all starting to change as the financial gloom lifts. The tech-heavy Nasdaq stock index has surged 90% since its low a year ago. Google Inc., Apple Inc. and other giants are buying up young companies. And once recalcitrant investors are fighting over promising new ventures from proven talent like location-based service Foursquare.

That has heated up the competition for talent, the lifeblood of these young enterprises vying to become the next high-tech star. Engineers won’t join a company just for the perks, but perks help attract and keep top talent. And plenty of free food and laundry services keep that top talent in their Herman Miller chairs and glued to their 30-inch monitors.

Zynga Chief Executive Mark Pincus may be Silicon Valley’s most generous purveyor of perks. These days Pincus spends a good chunk of his time brainstorming how to keep his employees happy. Zynga was named for Mark’s 13-year-old American Bulldog who died in 2008. She used to curl up at his feet while he worked, so he encourages employees to bring their own dogs to the office.

Pincus throws monthly poker nights with piles of chips, professional dealers and cool prizes. He lends his “ghetto jet” (an Eclipse that holds four people) to star employees. He holds weekly office hours when any employee can come talk to him. And he meets every new employee and encourages them to become CEO of something inside the company.

Zynga1 After visiting the San Francisco headquarters, Greg Black, a 28-year-old lead designer who works in Los Angeles for Zynga, took Pincus up on that. “I’ve decided to start out small and be the CEO of the least sexy thing in the building: the toilets,” he wrote in an e-mail to Pincus. He suggested Zynga clean up its act by installing toilets with bidets.

Whereas Zynga once had a reputation for burning out its employees, it now boasts less than 1% voluntary attrition.

Read more about Zynga and the comeback of Silicon Valley perks here.

-- Jessica Guynn

Top Photo: There is such a thing as a free lunch, at least at Zynga, where Amitt Mahajan is a lead developer on FarmVille, a popular online game. Bottom photo: Zynga also pays for acupuncture treatments for employees. Ginger Larsen, an associate on Mafia Wars, is treated at Zynga's headquarters in San Francisco. Photo credit: Robert Durell / For The Times