This is part of our “Why we got rid of our office” series, which chronicles our adventures of shutting down our startup’s main office and working remotely. Find out if we’re happy with the decision to go virtual or if we’re living in home-office hell.
Bucking the status quo
Last month we said goodbye to our trendy downtown office. Now the entire staff is working from home full time. In the process of going virtual, I learned how deeply ingrained the idea of the office is in our culture. I was surprised at how hard it is for people to grasp the concept of a virtual company.
Some of my friends and associates don’t understand how you can run a real company without an office. They’re skeptical. They say we’re making a huge mistake, that it will never work over the long term:
What? You’re shutting down your office? Are you going out of business? How can you work without an office. Where will your employees go?
Working from home sounds cool, but it won’t work in the long run. People don’t have the discipline. They’ll watch TV and slack off all day. Managing them will be hard. Just wait and see.
Clearly, most people aren’t comfortable throwing out the office like the trash. But viewing the status quo with a bit of skepticism is healthy. And luckily, this mindset comes naturally to many startup entrepreneurs—including me.
When we started really thinking about our office, we quickly realized it was a major constraint on the company’s flexibility and growth potential—not to mention on our overall productivity and happiness.
The seven reasons we ditched our office
Working from home is addicting
For years I had been working from home at least one day a week, and usually for an hour or two each morning on top of that. After breakfast, I couldn’t help but check my email. Before long, I was consumed by the computer. By lunch time, I was feeling guilty for not being at the office yet.
Over the years, I worked from home more often. Collaboration tools kept improving, home Internet kept getting faster and highway traffic kept getting worse.
Going to the office was a chore
No, it had nothing to do with my coworkers or the physical environment. Going to the office felt like a chore because I couldn’t come up with a legitimate reason to commute back and forth to a place that offered no real benefit. In the world of Internet business, getting things done involves solitary computer work for extended periods of time, with no interruption. As most office workers know, focusing for three or four hours without interruption in any office is almost impossible.
After noticing how productive I was at home and how much easier it was to get in the zone, going to the office became less appealing. Hop in the car, sit in traffic and then get less work done? It didn’t make sense.
But I was the CEO. I had to go to the office to foster the company culture and be a team player, right? Truth is, I often went to the office just out of obligation, because everyone else was there, not because it provided any tangible benefit.
“But what about company culture?”
From the very beginning, we’ve taken steps to actively manage our culture. We go out to lunch every week as a team: no agenda, just to have a meal as friends. We also go to a happy hour every Friday around 4:00 to wind the week down over a few beers. Now and then, we do fun things like baseball and bowling. Between lunches, happy hours, monthly meetings, ad-hoc meetings and other events, I feel plenty connected to my team. Dare I say, sometimes over-connected? When it’s time to get work done, I don’t need or want to be in an office environment, ripe with distractions.
Time is the most valuable resource
When you’re in a startup, you never have enough time. Sitting in rush-hour traffic never made sense to me. Why spend double the time in rush hour when there’s no real reason to be at the office from 9:00 to 5:00? I’d much prefer to roll out of bed, eat some breakfast, hop on the computer and get right to work. I can blow through email and start working before most commuters arrive at the office.
Once I’m in the groove, I lose track of time. If I’ve decided to skip rush hour, I’ll make it to lunch time before I even think about heading to the office. But I’ve been working since 8:00 am and don’t want to stay in the office past 5:00 or 6:00. So, I get to experience the joy of rush hour on the way home—unless I stay late and miss out on an evening with friends or, worse, irritate my girlfriend, who’s on a regular schedule. And then my brain’s fried anyway from the more than full day’s work. So, the extra hours I gain by waiting for traffic to clear are mostly wasted anyway.
Those were not good options: either sit in traffic or turn my back on everyone at the office. Then I thought about their time as well. Everyone’s time is valuable. Why do they have to sit in traffic every day when they could work from home like me?
Networking and business development
This was the match that lit the fire. For years, I had been commuting from Denver to Boulder for most of my networking and business development meetings. Boulder is the center of the tech scene in Colorado. Almost all good meet-ups, networking and events happen in Boulder. Driving between Denver and Boulder with traffic takes over an hour, adding up to a two-hour round trip for every meeting in Boulder. Most meetings are only 30 minutes or an hour, which meant I was wasting two thirds of the trip just driving. I ended up cancelling meetings in Boulder because they would take up half the day.
After a few years, I got sick of it and thought about moving to Boulder. But our office was in Denver, which would double my half-hour commute each way. Once again, the office was the root of the problem! Yes, we could have moved the office to Boulder, but then everyone living in Denver would have had an hour added to their commute. And I wasn’t about to make everyone move to Boulder. It’s a cool city, but expensive and definitely not for everyone. No matter how you sliced it, moving the office didn’t seem fair to my employees.
Great people are everywhere
No matter where your office is located, the number of great people who would not be able to commute there will be more than the number of great people who can. For example, about 386,000 high-tech workers are in the entire Silicon Valley region, according to a 2008 study by AeA. That’s about 5% of the US high-tech workforce. Even if you moved your office there, to the center of the action, 95% of the talent would still not be able to commute to your office, and probably 99% wouldn’t be able to commute within a half hour. Why limit yourself to local talent?
The cold hard math
We were spending close to $1,000 per employee per month for office-related expenses. This might sound high, but when starting off, most companies lease a bit more space than they need to have room to grow. And don’t forget expensive T1s for Internet access, networking gear, office server(s), utilities, cubicles, food and snacks, parking, property taxes and every other hidden expense. Sadly, our $1,000 might be even less than the cost for startups in expensive cities such as San Francisco and New York.
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather invest the $1,000 per employee per month into actually growing the company. Or raise everyone’s salary by $12,000 a year. Either way, we’d be better off.
We’re still scared to pull the plug
Even with these seven solid reasons, we’re still scared of having no office whatsoever. We have major concerns about working from home. Will work get done, or will everyone start slacking off? Will we still interact with each other socially or turn into hermits? How can we maintain our culture without a physical meeting space?
Stay tuned, more to come. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss our next post. And let me know your thoughts on working from home by leaving a comment below.