SAN FRANCISCO — In the peach-fuzz world of Silicon Valley startups, facial hair is not a common feature.
But engineers at Powerset Inc., a San Francisco company trying to build a better search engine, are bucking convention by growing mustaches. As an expression of solidarity, they vowed to not shave until they finish the company's first product.
They put away their razors in late January as their company hit another milestone in its drive to release its long-anticipated product to the public. About two dozen of the startup's roughly 60 staffers started growing facial hair with the unbridled enthusiasm — if not effortlessness — of Chia Pets.
They're chronicling their efforts at Powerstache.com. Powerset's female employees have gone Groucho, too, mugging for the camera with dark whiskers drawn on lips and fingers.
"We wanted something to bring everyone together," software engineer Toby Sterrett said.
The team-building exercise bristles with the kind of individuality that distinguishes Silicon Valley's unusual business culture.
Although Silicon Valley is a youthful place, facial hair has played a prominent role in the high-tech hub. Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison is well-known for his neatly manicured beard. No one pulls off the 5 o'clock shadow better than Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs. And few claim fuller whiskers than fellow Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
He says it suits the freethinking pragmatism of techies, who generally prize simplicity in design and in life.
"Not having to shave is kind of nice," Wozniak said.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, the mustache was almost as popular with Silicon Valley engineers as the pocket protector.
Powerset engineers' fuzz is getting buzz, ranging from bemusement to ridicule to prickliness, the latter mostly on the part of prospective dates and significant others. Employees insist their facial hair has generated camaraderie and comedic fodder.
Powerset co-founder and chief technology officer Barney Pell is growing a beard as the team sprints for the finish line. As a graduate student at Cambridge University, he vowed not to shave or cut his hair until he finished his Ph.D. thesis.
He thought it would take three months. He finished a year later.
"When you decide you are going to grow some facial hair up until launch, you want to make sure you are really going to launch," he said.
The company won't say when it plans to release the search engine. Powersetters haven't decided if they will lather up to shave their mustaches en masse when that happens. Product manager Mark Johnson is counting the days. He says the "untidy bush growing on my chin and upper lip area" has distressed his mother and stunted his social life.
"Frankly, I can't wait until we launch our product," he said.