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Improvising with online brokerage.

Even in a city full of jazz lovers, the staff of Chicago-based Internet brokerage site OptionsXpress stand apart. Photos of jazz greats line the walls, stacks of Miles Davis and John Coltrane CDs teeter on the desks, and even the hold music is drenched in cool riffs and warm tones. CEO Ned Bennett explains why jazz and programming go together like Max Roach and his drums.

What makes you hire music lovers?

We’ve always kidded that we hired people that understood the notes and then let them improvise. You could say that we’re rigid in terms of time signature, and what key we’re playing in, but other than that, we let each one of our programmers develop within that framework. I think the best programmers have the ability to understand music theory, because it’s both math-based and creative. I’ve found that the easiest way to determine whether someone will be successful in learning programming is if they’ve had a steady dose of music throughout their schooling. If they do well in music, they can transfer that type of discipline into programming.

How did you get started in doing online brokerage?

I have been in the business for a million and a half years, doing Internet brokerage since 1995. I was the CEO of a firm in Chicago at a securities company, working for a London-based firm. I found out why we had an American revolution. In the U.S., we have a “now” philosophy, where we need to get things done today, and they’ll say, well, we have a few years, let’s not rush things. That just drove me crazy. After helping a friend start a company that got bought, I decided it would be a good time to start an Internet brokerage firm.

How is what you do different from other brokerage sites?

Most broker Web sites are tied to legacy systems and what you see is just an overlay, a mask on the system. I’m not against mainframes, but they tend to be very rigid and routine, and that’s what most of these people are working with because most of these brokerages started awhile ago. We started from scratch and looked at the whole system as something to be created new. So our Web site is extremely flexible for the customer.

How has the site changed since you first built it?

We’ve tried to reinvent the online experience for brokerage, we’ve tried to make what we do an experience. If you take McDonald’s, when they started all they had was a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a milkshake, and fries. And some guy said, “Hey, how about fish?” So they kept expanding the menu and now they’ve made going there into an experience, to the point that my grandson begs me to go. In our business, you have to re-engineer so the site is an experience. I have customers come to me and say that it’s so much fun they spend hours on the site.

For what level of user is your site aimed?

All levels. You can be a novice, or an institutional trader, or someplace in-between. After you learn one layer, your curiosity leads you to the next step. That’s jazz, too. If you look at Miles Davis’ music in the beginning, he played a lot of melody, then we went further and started playing the counter melody. He was always changing. Web sites should be the same way. We have a philosophy that Web sites, churches, and airports that are ever finished, are finished, if you know what I mean. Those three should always be expanding and changing, or they won’t stay around.

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