Four weeks ago The Resumator outgrew my home office and “forced” me to look for office space. I am beginning to bring on part-time help and needed an office space so we could collaborate, plus the business needed to feel more “real”—this is a hard concept to explain but what happens in your house can sometimes feel more like a hobby. Now let me tell you, I do not have some big VC investment to dole out for Aeron chairs and a sheet metal version of our logo for the wall. Hell, I wouldn’t even want to spend that kind of money even if I had it. This all said, I come from a design background, and that means I am used to energetic work spaces that fly in the face of the conventional cubed world that corrals so many corporate employees worthy of our sympathy. A great space is a great recruiting tool. Here’s how I created what I feel is an energetic office space for basically no cost at all.
First let me tell you I furnished my entire office for about $4,500 complete with four workspaces, including chairs, desk lamps, wastebins and office supplies. A lounge area complete with futon couch, area rug and end table. Lamps, rugs and some strategically placed whiteboards. Throw in a microwave, printer, a wireless router, TV stand, 32 inch HD television and Xbox 360 entertainment system. Finally, I almost forgot a refrigerator, storage ottomans, extra chairs, three bookcases and some very nice standing lamps. All for $4,500—purchased and set up in 7 days.
This cost does not include computers and monitors, and you should invest in great hardware. The costs listed in here are also based on a bootstrapping budget—if you can spend more, by all means do so within reason. Focus on great chairs before anything else.
$4,500 sounds like a lot, but consider that I do not need to spend any more money on this space until my company outgrows four full-time people. If you’re thinking you could have put together a space for less, I agree. But I bet I wouldn’t want to really work there everyday. This space is hopefully full of energy.
Furthermore, I saved this $4,500 before I even set foot in the office. Not because I had the money in the bank —but because I luckily chose the right building for my office. This leads me to my first of ten tips for you when building up your startup office.
Tip #1: Find office space that comes with tax benefits.
Through a few new friends, I learned about a program in Pittsburgh called Keystone Innovation Zones. These are zones that provide tax credits for businesses that choose to operate in certain locations. Don’t let your suburban upbringing blind you—these are not buildings in blighted communities, as some narrow-minded folk would immediately assume. They’re just available space, all over the city, where economic development is encouraged. Your startup could qualify for tax credits simply by moving into the zone. That means if I have a tax bill of $4,500 by the end of 2010, that amount—and probably more—will be credited. If you work with your local government to find out if there are tax benefits for your business to locate in certain buildings or areas, you can offset the costs of moving into that space, and then some.
Below are some pics of my raw space. Three large windows and two rooms. It’s an old factory building, but it’s secure and not drafty. Plus the price was oh-so-right. And we’re not talking about a rented area with other startups (though I would have loved the cross pollination). This is my office—with a key, and a door.
Tip #2: Measure your space, and then hack off 18 inches per measurement.
A tight fit is the worst thing you could have in a small office. If your stuff is barely fitting in the room, then more than likely people are going to feel on top of each other. Some places can be a little tight, but each person’s workspace has to provide adequate room to work. So when you measure your space, write down the resulting measurements with 18 inches subtracted.
You’re not going to forget about these 18 inches per measurement, but rather plan your space without them, and only use them when you really need them to make something fit. This simple concept will change your whole perspective when it comes to deciding what fits where, and what to purchase. Had it not been for this, I would have purchased four employee work spaces for my office instead of three. And when I was upset something might not fit, I was relieved that I could steal some inches from the 18 that I was saving for this exact reason.
Tip #3: Plan out your space as if you had to live there for 6 months.
We spend one third of our day in the office. The last thing I wanted was to sit in a fluorescent-filled room all day, just waiting for the end of the day so I could go home and relax. My office needed to feel like a place that I could tolerate for 6 months if I had to live there. Note the word, “tolerate.” I don’t feel you can make an office that people would want to live in forever (on a startup budget, that is), but your office should feel like a place you wouldn’t mind being in even if you had no work to do. That’s really the best way to simplify this thought. And I knew a small lounge area for relaxing and gaming would be an attractive perk for recruiting.
I decided to make one room for the employees and lounge, and the smaller room a private office so I could be a chatterbox without driving anyone insane. It would also allow employees to not feel like their boss is hovering over them as they may want to check Facebook occasionally without worry of reprimand. Employees could sit and watch TV during lunch or when they felt drained, and a friendly game of Madden or Rock Band might break up a hard day’s work.
Tip #4: Plan a color palette.
To have a cohesive space that is not just wood and dull drab office colors, you need to plan for a color palette. This is not hard, and I am going to make this as easy as I can for those of you who think you don’t know anything about color. Remember the color wheel? If not, google it. Colors opposite from each other on the color wheel work well together, as do colors right next to each other. You can create great 2-color themes with colors opposite each other on the wheel, and great three color palettes with one color, its opposite and an adjacent color.
Seriously, this is so freakin easy. Think about it—you see the color wheel in action every day:
- Christmas (red and green)
- Minnesota Vikings (purple and yellow)
- Denver Broncos (blue and orange)
- McDonald’s (red and yellow)
- Burger King (blue, orange and red)
When you get into shades and tints, you have a lot more options. Just choose the colors you want and get a sample of each as torn paper, marker, whatever—just have a sample because in the store not every blue is your blue.
I chose a specific orange, green and blue as my color palette. If we were standing in my empty office and I told you that was my palette, many might say it sounds ugly. But I am a designer, and you probably aren’t. Trust me—those are awesome colors together.
Tip #5: Shop like a college student.
With your space measurements in hand, you can now see what’s out there for purchase. If you approach this as if you were a broke ass college student, you will recall that you typically looked for cheap stuff that was durable, and used stuff you could buy from others on campus. Remember the great deals you found? You can find these same deals for your startup.
I say first start your search for office furniture and equipment with other startup founders. Be sure to bring along a camera and take pictures so you can capture the things you may purchase and imagine them in your space. Other founders may be moving, shutting down, or downsizing and have available stuff at discount prices. If you can get a Aeron chair from them for $150, I suggest you go for it. An Aeron chair with two years of farting into it is still worth more than any brand new chair, IMHO.
Next, do some browsing in stores and online using Bing or Google Products. Try and find office chairs, futons, and lamps that are one of your colors. DO NOT plan on buying anything—you are browsing and trying to see what is out there. If you can’t find your colors, either change your colors or keep looking. DO NOT give up on having a color palette. Furthermore, don’t plan on buying something expensive simple because it is your color. Follow these guidelines for acceptable prices. I assure you that you can find products in this range, as I did.
- Employee office chairs – $60 to $200 (buy what you can afford–but it must have ergonomic features!)
- Employee workstations – $20 to $150 (Wooden table to decent frosted glass desks)
- Desk lamps – $5 to $10
- Standing lamps – $19 to $30
- Futon/couch – $99 to $199
- TV – Under $400
- TV stand – $50 to $99
- Office supplies – Dollar store (expect Uni ball pens—a must have!)
- Ottomans and end tables – $10 to $20
- Bookcases – $29 to $79 (depending on size)
- Xbox – $199
- Microwave – $29 to $39
- Refrigerator – $100 to $170
- Stereo – Bring in the one you have stored from college
- Rugs – $10 to $40
- Whiteboard space – $12 to $99
- Waste bins – $2 to $7
I was able to find all these things on the lower end of the price ranges above, and in my color palette (except for the white boards—I didn’t know Home Depot had material perfect for this at $12!). Look online for things that are geared towards college students and you can usually find great deals. And yes—it’s quality stuff. Not garbage. Oh—and be sure to get dimensions on EVERYTHING!
Tip #6: Bring along a consultant.
Having someone around who can give you some ideas on what to do in your space is wonderful. Try and bring along someone who has a good aesthetic taste. Ask them to find interesting things for you within your budget. Push them to just look if they keep wondering why you need this kind of stuff for an office. People with an outside eye to your vision might be able to shape that vision in a way that makes the space work better.
My wife played a huge role in finding a cheap couch and lamps, as well as helping me determine how to best orient things in the office. She charges $100 per hour if you need a consult. I’m joking—unless you live in Pittsburgh and are actually going to pay that rate.
Tip #7: Clip coupons, and take advantage of sales.
Did you know Bed Bath and Beyond has some awesome dorm lamps perfect for a trendy office? And did you know you can get 20% off your purchase with some silly coupons they mail every week? And Office Depot sends out 10% off cards if you ever purchased office supplies through their store? Target gave me $10 back because I purchased $100 in stuff. If you take the time to find discount cards and coupons, you can afford that Xbox 360 with just your savings!
During the holidays you find great discounts in stores and online. I found and purchased three L-shaped workstations for $89 each. I slapped a 10% discount on the whole order and took $9 off each one at that. The best deal I found otherwise was $330 per workstation! Screw that! And if shipping online isn’t free, say bye-bye. Try and make purchases when stores are desperate for sales. Take stuff back if it goes on sale the next week.
Tip #8: Put it together fast.
Try and order everything so it comes in the same week. This way you can assemble everything and have a functioning office fast, instead of trickling in boxes over the course of a month. The sooner you get settled in to your office, the sooner you can get back to business.
Tip #9: Leave the fluorescent lights off.
Fluorescent lighting is the ugliest lighting you could have in an office. Imagine if your favorite restaurant or lounge used fluorescent lighting—it’d be a bright, oh-so-not intimate experience that the last thing you could do is relax. We barely have any fluorescent lights in our homes, so when we are under them we can only think of work (or cooking, or….#2).
Light your space with traditional bulbs and lamps. You may need an overhead light as well, but make sure it’s not fluorescent bulbs—hang an IKEA ball lamp or something. Employees new to this type of environment might say it feels dark at first, but I have never met someone who didn’t feel more at home with lamp lighting after a few weeks. You can always turn on the overheads if you really need a lot of light for some special task.
Tip #10: If employees abuse your perks, it’s YOUR fault.
There are so many people who think having a TV or a game center in the office is a recipe for inefficiency. They’re dinosaurs. Showing employees that you trust them to balance work and play during business hours is a great selling point when recruiting. I dare say if you provide these perks, and they’re being abused, it’s your fault. Perhaps you did not set and enforce clear guidelines around usage. Perhaps you hired the wrong people. Most likely, you simply aren’t providing them with challenges in their work that they want to focus on.
I’m very happy with the result. My wife deserves a LOT of the credit. The space is warm, colorful and inviting. The people who have been to the space for interviews have loved it and seem excited to potentially come aboard. I am thinking about flipping around the workstations to add more privacy for each employee. One week of effort and I was able to not only make my business real, but perhaps make it real to others as well. Better yet, the tax incentives I will receive will more than make this investment affordable. It feels great to just need to worry about putting things on the walls. Please—tell me what you think!
Please note I made a mistake and saturated the photos – it is not this vivid!