By James Reinhart
November 2, 2010
(Editor’s note: James Reinhart is a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of thredUP. He submitted this column to VentureBeat.)
So you’ve got this idea for a product. You pull a few friends in and you start working at the local coffee shops – or, if you’re frugal, your home office. You plug in your Mac and camp out all day drinking the free refills and bumming the wifi. You’re nimble. Not tied down to a space, free to enjoy the flexibility that comes with being an entrepreneur. Cool!
You and your team check-in regularly on Skype, you use Basecamp and Pivotal Tracker and you get together a couple times a week on a video conference or in-person. You’re saving a fortune by not having an office, right? You’re doing everything right to bootstrap, right?
The “working from home/working from Starbucks” bootstrap is one of the great fallacies of start-up life. Here are five reasons why your start-up needs to find some proper office space right now:
Productivity – You’re functioning at about 75 percent productivity in a coffee shop or at home. The distractions are everywhere. At the coffee shop it’s the annoying person on the phone; at home it’s the cat, the dog, the neighbor, the internet is down, the TV is on…
The fact is you’re not at “the office” so your time is more malleable. You can “meet for lunch” or “wait for the FedEx guy” or whatever excuse you prefer. No one is holding you accountable.
You may technically work long hours, but you’d need to work a 16-hour day to overcome the productivity gap. And despite the blasé use of the phrase “100-hour work week” the fact is very few entrepreneurs work those hours regularly, if ever (that’s 7 days a week, 15 hours a day – pretty tough).
Space to think – If you’re serious about building a company –a real company, not an app or a feature – than you’re going to need space. You’re going to need whiteboards and desks and printers and stable Internet service and phone booths and meeting space.
A 30,000 ft approach tends to work at the earliest of stages (hence the well-worn “conceived on a napkin” cliché), but unpacking the intricacies of customer service or mapping out hypotheses about your product iterations are awfully hard without disposable surface area.
Yes, there are virtual tools for all of this, but the reality is that these tools are largely poor substitutes for real-life problem solving and company building. The virtual tools are designed as supplements, not as replacements. One of the reasons why incubators (Techstars, YC, etc.) exist is for the energy and the space.
Don’t lose that third space – Without space, your boundaries between work and play dissolve to the point that you don’t know how to work and how to play. When you live in coffee shops or work at home you tend to go at one speed, whether you’re crushed for time or not. When you have an office with a product deadline looming, you stay there until it’s done.
When you miss deadlines at Starbucks it’s so much easier to write them off because you’re working remotely and “these things take time” and “hey, look how much money you’re saving by NOT having an office.” And if you’re the kind of person who used to have the coffee shop as a place to go and clear your head while pounding out some element of the business, that’s no longer the case.
World-class teams don’t work from home – For a little while you can get away with attracting people to your kitchen table, but very soon you’ll be competing with other start-ups for talent – and your French-Press and Brita is not going to get it done.
People want to be part of something – especially early in a company’s life – and that “something” needs to feel like an inspiring space to work. This place needs to (in some small way) say “we’re building a great company here and you should stick around.” Without even a small space with a shingle that says “here’s where we grind and make magic happen” it’s just too easy for folks to go work somewhere else.
Space is cheap – Office space is cheap and plentiful assuming you don’t need super nice digs. It’s also surprisingly cheaper than you think when you do a fully loaded cost analysis. When you’re not at the office, the chances of you bringing your lunch are probably lower and the coffee is definitely more expensive.
The price of a small, fully-functional office for three people in Cambridge right now runs about $800 all in. For almost a year, we had 7 people in roughly 550 square feet. In our new San Francisco office, we have 2,000 feet and don’t pay too much more than we did in Cambridge. If you really think you have a company – a real company, remember – put up the $2,500 for 3 months of rent and start building.
I am a notorious stickler for keeping the burn rate low, but I realize it’s important to know where to turn the dials Lean, bootstrapped offices help you quickly discover whether you have just another good idea or the capacity to deliver something people want.
And if your company isn’t worth a few hundred bucks a month in rent, then maybe you need to think hard about whether you’re working on the right really big opportunity.