My mother, whom I love dearly, has always held slightly alternative worldly perspectives. Back in college, when she found out I had cold, she would call me to suggest that, in addition to taking the latest herbal remedy, I make sure I clean the dirty laundry off my floor that was, in her opinion, creating bad energy in my room. While I used to roll my eyes at these suggestions, I have come to accept that the space around us greatly affects us. In the case of a startup office, where you may regularly find yourself spending 80+ hours a week, it can be especially important to take a few minutes to think about how you design your space.
Warning: This article is not for swanky startups flush with V.C. cash. Go hire a consultant and build your tree house conference room or spaceship cafeteria. I wrote this article for lean startups looking to increase their productivity and happiness by putting a little bit of thought into their office. Therefore, I have divided this post into the major expense categories for a startup office and provided my recommendations on where you should save your money and where its worth is to spend a few dollars.
Walls and Ceilings
While they might not be the first thing you think about, wall and ceilings define a space and can have tremendous effects on how you work. Ceiling height, for example, has been shown to affect problem solving abilities, with higher ceilings promoting creativity and lower ceilings encouraging focus. Wall colors and patterns can also dramatically affect moods, with distinct responses to each color. Meanwhile, seeing nature has been proven reduce stress. If you aren’t fortunate to enough to have real windows looking out at nature, wallpaper or posters can do. Office plants are also a great investment and can dramatically improve the air quality in your office (Check out NASA’s suggested plants for air filtering).
Walls are perhaps the easiest medium to reflect your company’s culture. In our office, we started by covering the walls in inexpensive homemade whiteboards, because team collaboration is a huge part of our identity. Above the whiteboards, we’ve printed out and posted a few of our favorite quotes, media coverage we’ve received, and over one board, our competitor’s logos to remind us to stay hungry. Around peoples’ desks, the whiteboards get personal and are plastered with design inspiration, wireframes of upcoming releases, and the occasional keepsake.
Save your money on the walls and ceiling and substitute creativity to make a fun and productive office. Hold off on commissioning a mural with equity until your valuation is a bit higher.
“An army marches on its stomach” – Napoleon. Keeping your team well fed and caffeinated should be a priority of any founder. Rather than wasting your money by running to Starbucks or ordering pizzas, equip your office with the tools it needs to take care of your troops. As far as coffee, we really like the convenience being able to make a single cup in seconds with our Keurig. When we can afford it, we will probably splurge on an espresso machine as well. Another great investment has been our Sodastream machine which allows us to make our own soda and energy drinks for pennies on the dollar. We’ve even hacked our Sodastream to use larger and cheaper generic CO2 tanks.
You don’t need a cafeteria or a chef to enjoy fresh, healthy meals at work. Our kitchenette setup includes a small bar sink that came with the office, a full size fridge, two toaster ovens, a microwave, and a five-in-one sandwich press/grill/three other crazy setups. Each week, I’ll run to the supermarket to stock the fridge with fruit, vegetables, cold cuts, and whatever else the team throws on the Google Doc we use as a grocery list. A couple times a week, someone in the office will prepare a team meal which we eat together. (Yesterday, for lunch I made chicken fajitas.) While this is far cheaper than going out, it also helps to make the office feel more like home.
Spend the money up front to outfit your office kitchen(ette) and you can save money in the long run, while keeping your team happy and healthy.
Furniture, especially desks, may be the most controversial item in a startup office. While ergonomics and the perils of sitting are significant and legitimate concerns, it can be hard to justify spending a thousand bucks on a standing desk. Fortunately, there are already some guides online for how to hack together a standing desk from cheap Ikea components.
We discovered a goldmine of well-constructed, used furniture at the Purdue Surplus Store. We were able to buy desks for ten bucks a pop and a conference table for a mere 25 dollars. All of the desks have held up superbly and no one seems to care that they were one step away from a trash heap. Make sure to get computer height desks or keyboard trays so you don’t strain your wrists. (Here’s a good article about other important ergonomic considerations.)
Furniture is an area where you can afford to save your money, aside from one important exception. While your desk holds your computer (and maybe some paper?), your chair supports a far more valuable resource, you. Spend the money on comfortable, ergonomic chairs.
Spending on the final category is probably an easy choice for the Verge audience. Technology is the vehicle for our businesses and deserves our respect and dollars. The seconds spent waiting for slow computers add up into hours of lost productivity for your team. Choose laptops over workstations when possible, so your team can work from anywhere. Large, high-resolution monitors have dramatically dropped in price over the last few years. Get at least two for everyone on your team, even nontechnical positions who can benefit just as much from the added screen real estate. We also purchased a 42” screen for our conference room, although, I’m not certain we have gotten as much value out of it as other technology investments.
I don’t really need to tell any of you, but go ahead and spend the money outfitting your startup office with the technology you need.
Ultimately, there is no wrong way to design your startup office as long as it makes your team comfortable. If you need inspiration, check out the offices of other startups in the area. If you’re near West Lafayette, I welcome you to stop by our office for a game of foosball. If you have more tips for designing a startup office, please leave them in the comments below.