Years ago, I was having ice cream with my wife on a hot summer night and I overheard a group of 16-year-olds talking about how one of them went to work with his dad. I remember him saying:
“I went to his office and it was so boring. Everything was bright lights and pale colors. If I had to be in an office all day I’d make it just like my bedroom and enjoy hanging out there.”
I distinctly remember looking at my wife and saying, “That kid has it figured out. I spend 14 hours a day in a room I don’t want to be in with a job that I love.” I vowed one day to change that.
That was ten years ago. It apparently took a really long time for me to act on this one, but I finally did, and I have to say – the kid knew what was up.
Love Your Workplace
In 2012 we completed the renovation of the Columbus Fundable office, and it’s been life changing. We took great care not only to think about each area in our office but also to cut costs wherever possible. I’m sure you can find ways to cut costs even more, but on a modest budget, I’m extremely happy with the result.
Here’s what we did.
Keep the Caffeine Flowing
We spend ridiculous hours at the office. Yet in most cases we have the equivalent of a dorm fridge to feed ourselves on. If you know you’re going to be around for three meals a day, why not have a kitchen that supports it?
We’re not planning on cooking full meals, so most of what we’re talking about is an insane amount of beverages and some hopefully healthy snacks. But more than anything, we have an absolute love affair with caffeine. Monster, espresso, the list goes on.
You can get a good fridge cheap, but you’ll probably pack it mostly with beverages. So why not just get a beverage fridge? You can get a full sized commercial beverage fridge for about $1,000. Stacked with caffeine behind a gorgeous floor to ceiling glass door, it begs you to drink more and sleep less.
A nice touch was a built-in stainless steel espresso maker. We found one on closeout on eBay for $750 that paired next to a high end Viking microwave for about the same price. When matched together they make a paradise of snack preparation. Most of our team has more food at our office than they do at home.
Conference Room Bad – Living Room Good
Our next stop was the conference room. I’ve been in what seems like a million conference rooms, and yet I have only one memory – they are cold and boring. No one puts conference rooms in their homes because they basically suck.
Taking a cue from my 16-year-old muse, we re-imagined what the business version of a living room would look like instead. It turns out it looks a lot like a regular living room, only with a speakerphone sitting in the middle.
The TV is the centerpiece. We’re a Web company that uses a ton of Skype to talk to startups. We installed a Samsung UN65D8000 65″ TV that we found on Amazon Warehouse deals ($3,800, but I’d recommend getting a Samsung B8500 for $1200 @ 55″).
I’m an absolute electronics nerd and have tested dozens of TVs to find one that can properly display HD resolution for a PC with good text crispness. If you turn the sharpness all the way down on the newer Samsung models you literally get a 65″ monitor. Badass.
We dumped the conference table in favor of a big coffee table that we got at a discount from Room and Board ($1,800 clearance). Not cheap, but since it’s a centerpiece you want something that will hold up.
The couch and chairs invite everyone to lean back. When people come in to interview or for a business meeting, they lean back. When you lean back you relax and act like yourself which makes a meeting more enjoyable. I actually love having meetings in our conference room. Before, I was clawing my way out of there.
Big Ass Whiteboards on the Cheap
If you’ve ever shopped for giant whiteboards you quickly realize they cost a fair amount and they look kinda janky. What some people don’t realize is that whiteboards are just sheets of melamine with a cheap border on them.
We wanted big ass whiteboards but we didn’t want to pay full retail for them. Instead, we opted for 4′ x 8′ sheets of melamine (US Markerboard, $101 each). This is for unframed sheets of whiteboard. You can usually find them at your local Home Depot, and you should because they cost a lot to ship.
The whiteboard sheet alone doesn’t have that much presence. But put a giant metal powder coated frame around it, and it looks amazing. We ordered raw steel from Metalsdepot.com and had a local metal smith cut, weld and paint the members. Raw steel is dirt cheap, and I have to admit, I felt so manly ordering it.
We even special ordered a 5′ x 11′ “War Room” sized board which absolutely makes the room. If you don’t want to do them in metal, you can opt for a nice thick wood trim that you can miter saw yourself and stain to get an elegant, expensive look for next to nothing.
Great Desks for Small Costs
We lucked out on desks. One of the partners at the company comes from a family that owns a furniture company. So we learned some shortcuts. The first shortcut is to have a family member in the furniture business.
I had ordered some really nice desks from Room and Board for my home office, and when they arrived, I noticed all they really came down to was a nice top with some standard square legs. So I began to search for the cheapest tops and legs separately to see if they were cheaper.
We designed these great desktops that National Office Furniture had custom-cut for us. They create a large desktop area feel without using a lot of desktop space. We were able to get them done for about $250 per top, for high quality desk tops.
For the legs we went back to our friends at Metals Depot and our local welder. We bought a bunch of 24′ members of 4″ x 4″ steel (about $50 each) and had them chopped into desktop-high lengths. Desk legs at retail are really expensive, but having them chopped and welded to a square plate for mounting cost less than $10 per leg.
4×4 square legs look heavy and tough. Mount them to any desktop and you get a gorgeous high end looking, super sturdy desktop for a few hundred dollars.
We even bought 3″ router bits to make our own holes. We did this for two reasons:
1. we wanted to be able to run cables through the desks where we wanted them to be. 2. I will use any excuse to play with power tools.
Signage Makes a Statement
Maybe it’s just me, but I take a ton of pride every time I see our company logo on something. Every office and startup I’ve ever had featured a giant sign for our company. I always feel energized seeing it, like we’ve just staked our claim in some foreign land.
The problem is that signs are kind of expensive, and it’s usually a luxury you can absolutely avoid since most people will never see it. I’ve wasted a lot of money on signs in the past. Then I met the Sign Chef.
The Sign Chef has a pretty elegant online system that allows you to upload your logo directly and pick from a ridiculous number of sign options. Our old Fundable logo looked like a stamp, so for $160 we were able to create a large 3′ wide logo in one color and paste it on a wall that gave good contrast. It looks amazing and we had it in a couple weeks.
NBA Jam is my Lifelong Friend
Back in 1997 when I was growing my first company, Blue Diesel, a co-worker told me about a video game auction that was being held during the summer where they sold off all the coin-op games. I had my heart set on NBA Jam.
I spent a grueling 15 hours straight at this stupid auction but finally won my beloved Jam cabinet. I also won 6 other full sized games including Burger Time and Operation Wolf, but that’s a separate story.
Since then NBA Jam has been my office retreat. Now, 15 years later, I’m damn good at NBA Jam. But with an office of 20+ people my glory days are waning – fast.
The Jam has come with me to many companies, and a 4 player game that just about anyone can play by just walking up is infectious (it’s also obnoxiously loud). Whatever your game is, whether it’s ping pong or Madden, put it in the office and play the hell out of it. I’ve never regretted a single game that I won.
NBA Jam is cheaper than you’d think ($500) and every single person that shows up in your office will notice it, especially new recruits. It’s like a giant sign that says “We have fun around here, too.”
Spend with Impact
Each item we spent money on we did so with a ratio of dollars to impact. What was most interesting to me was that it doesn’t take a ton of money to create a great space, it just takes a little bit of time to find the right stuff.
We spent every bit of 8 months between sourcing the right items and coping with a tenant remodel process that took way longer than expected. We didn’t build the Google campus, but for a very modest sum we built the best office I’ve ever worked at.
That 16-year-old kid would be proud. Although come to to think of it, he’s probably 26 by now. I wonder if he knows out how to code… hmm.
Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.