Christie Low used to be one of them: the (not so) few, the (usually) proud, the twentysomething Epic employees.
She used to fly to Syracuse and Toledo on business trips for the Verona health care technology company, clocking 40- to 60-hour work weeks and racking up a hefty amount of frequent flier miles.
But she doesn’t do that anymore. Last year, after about three-and-a-half years at the company, she was ready to go.
Armed with an idea for her own small business, the 25-year-old gave her notice and watched the company’s famously flamboyant campus, with its Harry Potter-themed hall and treehouse conference rooms, fade in her rearview mirror.
“I was kind of ready to go,” she said. “I was getting burnt out. I always wanted to start my own company … and this kind of formed itself.”
The “this” was Isthmus Bubble Soccer, a business devoted to playing soccer while wearing inflatable bubbles.
Now, instead of racking up those frequent flier miles, Low sits on the sidelines at bubble soccer games, whistle on a lanyard around her neck, clipboard balanced on her lap. She presses start and stop on the playlist for the games — Beyonce and Rihanna and Fetty Wap — and throws her head back laughing, along with the players on the benches beside her, when bubble soccer players on the field careen into each other with loud, resounding thwacks.
Low isn’t alone in striking out on a new, wildly different career path after crossing the Epic threshold for the last time. Madison is filled with Epic exes who have launched businesses or nonprofits or adopted an entirely new field of work.
We’re breaking up
If the walls of Madison bars could talk, many of them could probably relay the most common reasons former employees have said goodbye to Epic: the hours, the travel, the feeling of being a very small fish in a very, very large pond.
Epic declined to be interviewed or comment on employee departures for this story.
“They say that when you join Epic, it takes six to 18 months to fully understand what you’re doing,” said Andrew Conley, a former Epic employee and co-founder of Madison coworking space 100state. “At about a year, I realized what it was, how it looked and what my future at Epic looked like. At that moment, I said, ‘I don’t want to do this forever.’”
After leaving the company, Conley wasn't sure what he wanted to do. He traveled around South America for a little while. He helped the city build a website for Make Music Madison. He started work on TEDx Madison, a networking conference. And he toyed with the idea of moving out west — but a group of friends involved with the startup community in Madison kept him happily roped into the city.
It was with one of those friends, Michael Fenchel, that Conley co-founded 100state in June 2013.
Last month, he stepped down as the startup's co-executive director. Now he's working on Townsquare, a web platform that serves as a sort of management tool and social network for coworking spaces, and traveling the world through a program called Remote Year. He’s currently in Slovenia. Next stop: Croatia.
A large number of Epic’s 8,000 employees work in the job Conley formerly held: project manager and implementation consultant. Those Epic employees help clients like big hospitals across the country implement the company’s electronic medical records software. This involves quite a bit of travel.
According to the latest available information, from 2013, the company’s employees accounted for 1,200 passengers a week at the Dane County Regional Airport.
And all of that travel can get pretty tiresome, former employees said.
“When you’re living out of a suitcase and you’re never home, and you’re working a lot of hours, it’s hard to maintain that healthy balance,” said Katie Hensel, who left Epic after four years to start a nonprofit called Tri 4 Schools, which encourages kids to be physically active.
“Trying to be active on the road is really challenging when you’re in hotels,” Hensel said, noting that, even if you’re at a hotel with a workout room, “there’s always some guy reading a book on (the treadmill).”
Hensel had been a triathlete in college, and she wasn’t okay with the slow decline of her healthy habits.
“I was kind of weighing the options,” she said. “I didn’t want to just leave and jump to a consulting role. I wanted to do something meaningful that would help me pursue that health life balance again.”
She founded Tri 4 Schools in 2011 in Madison. Today, as the nonprofit’s sole full-time employee, she oversees a series of kids’ triathlons, fun runs and after school programs. And she manages to fit in time to train for her own races — she’s still doing triathlons and marathons.
But travel isn’t the only challenge former Epic employees called out. Whether employees are traveling or back “home” in Verona, they’re often tasked with self-directing and problem solving.
On Glassdoor.com, a site where employees rank employers, Epic reviewers have said things like “(the) pressure can sometimes be a lot to deal with.”
“Epic gives you a lot of responsibility right out of the gate,” Conley agreed. “They throw you into the fire and say, ‘Hey, deal with this.’”
“Is it worth the money? Yeah, probably. But when you get on the burnout plan, don't stay too long,” a Reddit user wrote in 2013 on a thread entitled, “So, what’s the deal with Epic?” “You will truly burn out completely, and probably lose your ability to do meaningful work in the future.”
“Of my ‘hire class,’ there was a set that left one year in, and there was a set that left between two and three years in,” said Susanne Fortunato, a former Epic employee who's now employed at a software startup in Boston, where she works to help customers implement the company's software. The job is very similar to what she did at Epic, but on a smaller scale.
Fortunato said “very few” of her former colleagues, at least those she was personally close with, are still at the company.
Just not ready for commitment
Employee turnover rates may be a challenge for Epic (the company has incentives, like a month-long paid sabbatical for employees who work at the company for five years, to combat turnover), but the company isn’t the only one facing such challenges.
According to Steve Schroeder, assistant dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s undergraduate business program and founding chair of the UW-Madison Career Services Council, employee turnover is increasingly common everywhere.
“What Epic is facing — they’re not alone,” Schroeder said. “Many of our students are leaving their initial employer after a couple years.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national turnover rate in May 2015 was about three percent, continuing a general trend of increase since 2011.
“I just think there are more opportunities and people are willing to be more mobile than they used to be,” Schroeder said.
And not all turnovers are a bad thing, said Barry Gerhart, professor of management and human resources at the UW-Madison School of Business.
For example, he said, “with some jobs there’s quite a bit of travel — maybe some people want to do that for a while and then want to move on.”
“We kind of think of turnover as costly, which it is,” Gerhart added. “But it’s also functional, because it helps match people to jobs. Maybe, if they stayed, they wouldn’t be as productive. Matching is what happens in the market.”
It’s not you, it’s me
“Matching is what happens in the market” may sound a little bit like an employment-romance hybrid. And, if so, there’s an opportunity to take that metaphor one step further: it seems, according to former employees, that Epic has a “type.” And that “type” may be inclined to leave the relationship pretty quickly.
“From my perspective, in order to be successful at Epic, you have to have ownership, you have to be willing to dig in and get the work done,” said Sarah Young, a former Epic employee who left to found Zing Collaborative, a business, life and leadership coaching business. “You have to, in some ways, have an entrepreneurial mindset (at Epic).”
Which may account for the number of former Epic employees, from 100state’s Andrew Conley to Young herself, who have left to start their own businesses. There are also, of course, a slew of Epic consulting firms formed by Epic exes as well, including Mark Bakken’s fast-growing Nordic Consulting.
Young founded Zing in 2013.
“A lot of the work I did (at Epic) had to do with people, and I just became extremely passionate about human potential,” she said.
Young does one-on-one leadership training and coaching, as well as public speaking engagements. She has clients in Madison, throughout the Midwest and even a few overseas.
“I work with individuals and teams to increase their impact in a way that feels alive,” she said.
“I don’t know that it’s necessarily that (Epic has) a hard time keeping people (working there),” Young added. “I think (the turnover is) more a product of the type of people that do well at Epic — they are the type of people who have aspirations to do other things. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“They bring on very talented people who are very young and ambitious,” 100state and Townsquare’s Conley said.
Perhaps it goes hand-in-hand with ambition, but former Epic employees also shared a desire to have a greater influence in the place they worked.
“I like the idea of having a big impact on a small company,” said Isthmus Bubble Soccer's Low, who is also working at wine startup Bright Cellars as an operations manager. “I really enjoy having a big impact on what we’re doing day to day.”
“Instead of being one of a whole lot of people doing a job in the structure (at Epic), I actually get to run the structure,” said Fortunato, who assumed the role of “director of customer success” at her Boston software startup.
The fear (and promise) of going it alone
Making the decision to leave a comfortable, well compensated job (the average project manager/implementation consultant at Epic earns about $83,000 a year, according to Glassdoor) takes some guts – something former Epic employees also seem to have in common – and in spades.
“With entrepreneurship in general there’s definitely some risk and fear,” said Young of Zing Collaborative. “For me, my vision of what I wanted to do, and the type of impact I wanted to have, was so strong that that it offset the risk and the fear.”
“My mom was really nervous,” she laughed. “I, personally, didn’t have any fear. I was just really excited about it.”
“The decision to leave wasn’t a difficult one for me at all,” agreed Elizabeth Tucker, who now works as director of development at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. “I knew I wanted to work in the arts.”
Tucker left Epic after just one year of working as a project manager. Even while she was at Epic she knew her passion and dream job was in the arts.
“I took every opportunity I could to get involved with their corporate art collection,” she said.
In between employee training and consulting for her first set of clients, Tucker helped organize and catalog the company’s expansive collection. Epic has a plethora of locally sourced art peppering its hallways, meeting rooms and offices.
“I just reached out to (CEO Judy Faulkner’s) office and asked, ‘Is there anything I can do to help with the collection?’” she said.
In 2006, when she was offered a job at The Guild, an online art retailer, Tucker jumped at the chance. She worked there for about three years before joining MMoCA, where she oversees a small team that manages the museum's fundraising, membership and events programs.
Tucker said her position at the downtown museum allows her a fond yearly remembrance of her time at Epic: Every year, she keeps an eye out for the Epic company team that shops at Art Fair on the Square.
They may have chosen to split up, but, in general, Epic’s exes agree the company gave them a valuable set of skills, in the end.
“I feel really fortunate to have had my experience there, I learned a lot, and it’s knowledge I’ve continued to use,” Tucker said.
“I think Epic set me up with a lot of skills,” Low agreed.
“I had the opportunity to manage projects and people, and do a lot of work related to the topics I’m now coaching and training on,” Young said.
“I think my career at Epic is what helped me realize that I could do this,” said Tri 4 Schools’ Hensel. “Though I think everyone struggles with self doubt a bit, I think being able to manage projects from start to finish, knowing that you’re going to have to take on a lot responsibility yourself for the success of that project, is probably the number one thing that made me think I could run a business by myself.”
But that’s not the only thing Epic gave them. It connected them, and many others, to Madison.
“I really loved getting a chance to live in Madison,” said Fortunato. “I’m from the east coast and the west coast, so I literally flew over Wisconsin a lot, and I was one of those terrible, ‘from the coast people’ who didn’t even know where the state was.”
“What I take away as a great experience of working at Epic was getting to live in Madison, Wisconsin, and to experience what that meant.”
For Fortunato, that was “beer and brats” and “the friendly and welcoming culture,” she said.
For many others who stop in at Epic on their way to bigger, better — potentially riskier — things, the company helped launch their careers — and move on to something new.