Your office space is the face of your startup.
Not only does it communicate an outward message, but like a face, a startup office provides insight into what’s going on underneath the surface.
A startup’s space tells a story to everyone who is involved with a company spending time there: founders, employees, investors, and (potential) customers. The physical environment in which startup employees work (should) match the company’s story and culture. It starts at the beginning of a startup’s life, when both the company and the space it resides is extremely early & raw… a sparse space with minimal (read: cheap) furnishings speaks to the frugality required when it’s in pre-funded bootstrapping mode. In an older post from a few years ago, I recount how all of us co-founders at our startup Sombasa Media initially built our own desks out of necessity (they were much cheaper than having someone else assemble them), but then building a desk became a rite of passage for any new employee beyond when it was required for monetary reasons – this physical act translated into a symbolic one of everyone in the company building a company together.
As a startup grows up, there are (relatively) more resources to select furnishings and pay attention to layout and design. Then even more so, since the company is in the position to make some choices (rather than just take effectively whatever is available for free/cheap), the top-level selection of the space itself and the subtle choices in implementation speak quite a bit to the values of the company – what’s (and who) is important and why.
And startup office is not just about inside, but as any real estate person will tell you – location, location, location. At the end of the day, where a startup is located is a balance between cost and the optimal place to attract the best employees. So it’s not just about proximity for commuting, but also ready access to after-work camaraderie (read: bars) and community events. In Boston area, it’s no secret that there’s been a trend over the last few years of startups moving to Cambridge, and even more recently to the Innovation District in downtown Boston, because of these very factors. VCs’ office locations are a lagging, not leading, indictors of where the startup activity is… I’ve explained why we at NextView chose our office space in a previous post. But it largely comes down to we want to be where entrepreneurs are.
As general rule, when a VC emerges from their own office to visit a prospective portfolio company, it means s/he is really serious about possible new investment. Here at NextView, we like to visit offices of startups earlier in the process than a typical venture firm because it’s a useful way for us to understand the “vibe” of a company and see first-hand if the story which is told in a pitch syncs with the reality of what’s happening. (I recall a specific moment once when I heard a pitch from an entrepreneur about how efficiently they were using the capital they’d already raise, but was completely surprised at the lavishness when I’d visited the offices.) Visiting startup’s offices is a good reality check and validator in a diligence process, as well as a way to build a meaningful relationship with everyone at a company, not just the CEO/Founder(s).
There isn’t one “right way” that companies’ offices should look, regardless of how establish they are. In fact, since startups are unique, so should their offices be. Prior to writing this post, I tweeted out, “Writing a blog post about how a startup’s office space reflects its personality/culture. Send me a pic of your startup’s office and why,” and I received some pretty cool responses which fit into my thesis – these startup faces are a reflection of themselves:
- Coach Wei and the team at Yottaa literally “built their own office” from moving in the refrigerator, to assembling furniture, to building shelves. To me, it’s clear they have a very team-oriented atmosphere.
- CustomMade, a NextView portfolio company, embodies their whole company’s purpose – connecting creators of custom good with people who want them – in furnishing their office with all sorts of custom furniture. As co-founder Seth Rosen said, “All of this stuff helps people remember how cool custom stuff is.” They have a great blog post detailing how their logo was custom woven onto a rug for the entrance in the office. Also, they took a page from Google and work on doors and sawhorses as desks, which are extremely cheap to setup, and very easy to move. The company is always changing around the layout setup to keep things fresh and people collaborating, which is reflective of their fluid organizational structure.
- Dharmesh Shah from HubSpot emailed me a link to a post which detailed the thinking behind their office space move last year. Although growing quickly, they did not want to lose their “entrepreneurial start-up aesthetic” and “wanted to engage and be respectful of the post and beam mill structure aesthetic [of the location], yet simultaneously have a contemporary palette of materials that spoke to their avant garde place in the technology industry.” I think the outcome reflected those values which I know are true to the company.
- Lastly, Co-working center Intrepid Labs in Cambridge has a vibrant space resembling an open canvas. As it fills with occupants, Ty Magnin commented “we hope it will evolve rather organically” along with the culture.
The expression on a person’s face is always telling, and the same is true for a startup’s space. I think all of the above instances are proof that’s the case.