To Office or Not to Office?

I’ve always been a proponent of working from anywhere.  I ran my first company completely remotely while in college.  When I was 19, I worked out of my room, usually sitting on my bed, surrounded by paper, music playing from my ipod, laptop on my lap.  My friends jokingly started to call my bed my office.  That got a little awkward when I had to start meeting potential investors and clients.  Going to coffee shops all the time instead of going back to my “office” was a bit of a challenge.

My partners and I continued to work out of our respective bedrooms for the next three years.  We hired two programmers, one who was local in Madison and one from Poland.   It was great.  We were able to save money by not spending on an office, work from home, and stay warm in those long Wisconsin winters.  We were productive and grew our business from about 15,000 users to over 125,000.   We were able to raise six figures from investors, all without getting an office.

In our third year, we were asked to meet up for an interview about starting a business in college.  We all went over to one of my partners’ houses for the interview.  My two partners and I were joined by our US based programmer.  We quickly realized that it was the first time that we were all in the same room, even though we had been working together for almost three years.  There had been just about every other combination, but never all four of us in one place at a time.  It was pretty amazing to see that we could run a successful company without ever meeting in person.

After we were acquired, we all talked about whether we should have gotten an office earlier or not.  I was always happy to work from home and save the money.  One of my partners was a big proponent of getting an office and believed that we would have been more productive if we had been in an office earlier.  After the acquisition, Corey Capasso, my partner who had wanted an office, moved to New York City to pursue his new company, Add The Flavor, a company that infuses flavor inside plastic.  He quickly got an office in Manhattan and got to work.  He kept calling me and emailing saying how much more productive he was now that he was in an office.

I stayed in Madison and founded my current company.  My co-founder, Jesse Davis, and I resisted getting an office.  We worked from our house, the business school and the Union Terrace.  I began to call the terrace “my office” and we worked outside with the beautiful view of Lake Mendota all summer.  One of my friends called me one day to tell me that “someone was sitting in my office.”  We were productive and worked well without an office, but we decided that we were not being as efficient as we could.  With Corey’s constant emails about how much better it was to work out of an office in the back of my mind and the business progressing nicely, we started to look for some space.

We ended up getting a great deal on some space in downtown Madison that was too good to pass up.  We had looked at multiple business incubators, but finally settled on sharing some office space with another young Madison company because we wanted to have connections with other startups, they had the best location and they had the best price.

We moved in and our productivity increased noticeably.  We filled the walls with tile board or what I call poor man’s whiteboards and our brainstorm sessions were much better.  We spent less time sending documents back and forth and increased our productivity in just about all aspects of our business.  Getting an office has been one of our best decisions so far.

So when should you get an office and how do you still make sure that you’re not just getting an office for the sake of an office?

I think it’s time to get an office when you are about to raise money.  This does not have anything to do with actually taking money, but it serves as a good proxy for when you you are about ready.  Every startup is different, but if you can do all of our business planning and initial programming before getting an office, you will come out ahead.  If you are raising money, it usually means that you have written a good business plan, done a good amount of initial research and pitched your idea to variety of people.

It’s also important to note that just because you have an office, you don’t have to turn into an 9-5.  My partner and I still work from home when we are too tired to come in, have other things we want to do during the day or simply want to work by ourselves for the day.  Getting an office does not trap you if you don’t let it.  It’s not like getting an office makes you automatically have a boss, stuck in a cubicle.  Try to find an office within walking distance of your house.  It will allow you to go back and forth and give yourself flexibility that you need in a startup.  Don’t spend a ton of money on your space.  All you need is a place to hang some white boards, get wireless Internet and work without the distractions that can happen at home or in a coffee shop.

What have your experiences been with working from home or at an office?  When do you think is the right time to get an office?  What sorts of characteristics do you look for in office space?

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