Family First Business Model: Choosing an Office Environment
When I decided to start my own consulting business to promote my brand of green building and sustainable communities (i.e., with a motto be not the cause, be the solution), I knew that I wanted to be at home. I had just experienced the Nisqually earthquake and the 10 minutes of panic when I realized that only three flimsy bridges connected me to my one-year-old son. Promising to never let bodies of water separate me from my child, I set about remodeling our basement into a beautiful office space that was colorful, decorated with modern office furniture, and had its own kitchenette and bathroom. I placed my chair to receive warm, delicious sunlight during the winter months and had my drafting board ready for my first intern.
It took several years for me to get my first project, during which I wrote and spoke volubly about sustainable cities, indicators, and opportunities for creating this wonderful world that we all want. It was also during this time that I had another child.
The IT factor was I.T.
One of the biggest challenges I faced during those years was managing the rapidly changing world of information technology. I could never wrap my head around the many tools, programs, and apps that one could use along with the spyware, computer viruses, and other dangers lurking in the background that would shut my office down, often for a day. I found a local company run by a bunch of college graduates who were willing to come in for a few hours and, for a very affordable price, would clean and protect my system. I used my personal computer as a server and created an internal network through which we easily shared files.
We produced very high quality work. Unfortunately, after trying that model for a couple of years, when they were forced to pack up and join large companies in the area, I could not find an affordable replacement. I had to rely on the genius of family members across the world to solve my IT problems. It was often frustrating. It seemed that every time I solved a problem, three other challenges would emerge. That was when I became a big fan of company sponsored online support, which became my number one criterion for choosing a Web site host (omnis.com), a printer (brother.com), and many other services.
As more projects came in, I had two, sometimes three, employees at home. However, I was extremely disciplined and at five or six in the evening, I would call it a day and tried my best to devote my weekends to my family. Soon, my initial office became my reception area, and I moved my office into the adjacent, large family room. Unfortunately, within a few months in the northwest corner of the house, I realized that we were deeply short on sunlight. Yes, the one window let in light and the centralized heat was very effective, but we missed the warmth of the sun and my vitamin D levels fell to really low levels. There were the one or two job applicants who cringed when they saw that my office was in a basement, but over the years I had four who were the ultimate stalwarts and provided amazing work, despite the office climate and subterranean location.
Looking back, I am filled with gratitude towards them. (I cannot emphasize enough that while IT does have the power to break your business, their impact is minimal compared to the prolonged debilitating impact of a bad employee.) On many days, I would be tempted to work at the dining room table, which was flooded with morning sunshine. For the first time in my career, the line between work and family life was blurry. Piles of reports and drawings would lay around in our living space during meals and over weekends. I could never completely relax and focus on the family or house.
However, it took another few years for me to finally accept that the home office was not working. My second and definitely louder child did not like being ignored. Even with a nanny, she would often come into my office to complain or make her presence felt. Yes, like every other home office-r, the mute button on my phone became my best friend, but I still cringe when I recall the many awkward work-related conference calls that I participated in back then. I knew then that as soon as my second entered preschool, I needed to move out, rejoin the world of adults, and regain a much-warranted separation of home and office. This idea seemed harder than I could have ever imagined. While a home office offered me wonderful tax breaks for rent, utilities, and so on, having an office outside the home became next to unthinkable as available commercial spaces were either too small, too dark, or too expensive for an emerging business like mine. I knew that just paying the high rent would put my business at risk. I chatted with many realtors and they advised me to use my social network to find a less expensive space.
One space was brought to my attention. It was well lit but small, and had a very suspicious electrical network. It was on the same floor as residential apartments and next to the building’s laundry room. There was a bar below that liked to jam at night. I addressed the size issue. I drew up sketches to show the owner how the exposed rafters behind the space could be covered and the office expanded, as well as how the building’s water heater could be moved to create space for a private bathroom. For a year, I watched with interest how the property owner incrementally made the improvements, basked in the delight of having my own office away from family distractions, and enjoyed the thrill of living the bohemian life of the creative startup. A year passed and the space was still not fully renovated (I was paying an incremental rent that increased with every promised improvement). I had to deal with loud guitar playing and noises from the dryer during the day from an intractable resident, and was the victim of a theft. I started having serious doubts about this being a long-term solution. It took a dear friend’s visit and comment, “This is a dump. You deserve better,” to realize that I was indeed caught in a situation of no return.
After only a year at a new address and recalling the hours it took me to update my business information with every agency and website, moving again seemed like a formidable task. Fortunately for me, a friend told me about a space available in her mixed-use building. This building is designed around a brilliant concept. It has small retail spaces on the ground floor, of which one is an UPS Store whose staff became an extension of our office. We have local coffee shops and relatively inexpensive restaurants to take our clients to. And best of all, the coolest confectioners came in with the most delectable treats in one of the ground floor spaces. The upper floors in the front are apartments with a gorgeous penthouse on the top floor. The residents have their own staircase and separate split-level entrance from the shared elevator. Even at night, one feels safe in the building. The building is modern, solid, and has amazing amenities like a shower, bike racks, a shared conference room, and a comfortable waiting room.
With a building-wide Wi-Fi – my rent actually dropped with this move up. Who could have imagined? It is wonderful being a part of my building community and getting to know my neighbors and the retailers in my larger neighborhood. We can have professional meetings with our project partners and clients in our shared conference room. But most of all, I enjoy the sunlight that pours through the southern windows and the natural ventilation that keeps the room feeling fresh throughout the day. A secured building, theft is rare. Adjacent homes and the lively residential community keeps the streets safe during those late night walks to my car. Over the years, I have gotten to know some of the neighboring homeowners and have grown to appreciate my home away from home. If I have any complaints, it would be about the 5pm cutoff for the free, on-street parking. After being slammed with three parking tickets, I turned to technology to help me drop everything at 4:45pm and move my vehicle to a location with free after hours parking, deeper into the residential neighborhood. It seems like a small price to pay for a great office space, with the right amenities a stone’s throw away. This location is a 10-minute commute on local streets in my all-electric Leaf. I often shudder to think of the hour-long commutes to affordable office space I would have had to endure in my other car, a gas-guzzling vehicle, if this building owner had not had the foresight to build this delightful building.
As a planner, it got me thinking. What are cities doing to support the startup world and help them succeed? Are cities planning for affordable spaces that will cushion the impact that most startups feel when they, well, start? For the sole proprietor startup, a monthly rent can be the biggest expense. While I recommend that each of my client cities build an incubator, these are so few, small, and often poorly located. So where does that leave the startup community? I wondered how many failed because their capital costs exceeded their budget. How many could have been saved with better planning?
Beating Costs with Homework
Therefore, while you may be tempted to move out of your home office, unless you are very fortunate, you may have to deal with excessive rents, noisy neighbors, parking tickets, and late nights without family in your new business space. Yes, maintaining the privacy of your home may warrant a move sooner than you may have imagined. In fact, it may be a major rite of passage for a growing startup but as I have learned, it can be one that can come with costly consequences.
Therefore, do your homework, become friends with your local realtors, and have your friends spread the word to help you find an ideal business space that is affordable, quiet, and will become the community a small business owner so often craves. For a startup on a lean budget, having the right sized and priced space can make or break your business model. For my part, as a strong supporter of entrepreneurship, I hope to continue to bring this issue up with my planning cohorts. Chronicling this trend in our cities, I am hopeful that city leaders committed to entrepreneurship will change the way they look at development and rents, and see the long-term benefits of supporting entrepreneurs rather than having a shorter term focus on fancy development. If you would like to keep apprised of my research, please join my kickstarter campaign at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/123396349/planning-for-the-99.