Work Without Borders

From working remotely to out of an office.

This article was published on December 02, 2009.
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Until September 2009 I spent my entire entrepreneurial career — dating back to 1995 — working out of my house, apartment, or dorm room. My life changed entirely when I started working out of our office in New York. Then Dave joined me in the new office a month later, with Jason to follow in May 2010. Here's why I'll never go back to working alone in a cramped apartment, hundreds of miles away from my business partners.

Transitioning to An Office

Working Out Of My Apartment

I graduated from college in May 2006, and at the time I was working on my startup TypeFrag (founded in 2003; sold in January 2007) full-time with my partner David Grampa. We also had two full-time employees working on our development team. It was a busy time in our lives. David was in Cleveland, I was in Connecticut but moving to New York in October, while the other two guys were both remote: one in Philadelphia and one in Louisville.

The four of us were all working in isolation. David wanted to set up shop in Cleveland, but I was convinced we could continue to work at a distance and see how things progressed. I was dead set on moving to New York City, which I felt was the Silicon Valley of the East. I figured I could make all the right connections there — which turned out to be true — and I also thought it made more sense to build our company there.

I moved on October, 2006 and began working out of my apartment in midtown Manhattan. Everything was great. This was my first apartment and I was away from home for the first time — my dorm room in college was actually only a five minute walk from home — and I felt free and productive working in New York.

I made good use of the opportunity and went to a lot of New York networking events, but I made my first mistake by having my "office" (i.e. a large desk and computer chair) in my bedroom. This continued for nearly a year and a half. I'd wake up, roll out of bed in my boxers and t-shirt, collapse onto my desk chair, and get to work. I'd forget to shower, brush my teeth, or eat anything until late in the afternoon. Then I'd usually head out to some sort of event, come home, and sit back down at my desk.

Life was passing me by awfully quickly. I didn't really start exploring New York and everything it had to offer until about sixteen months later, when it began to dawn on me that I was spending 90% of my waking hours in my bedroom.

So I moved my desk into the living room. At least then I'd have a 25-foot walk to my desk and I'd be forced to walk by the bathroom and kitchen, where I might take notice of the opportunities they afforded. This was a big improvement, but I had further distractions: my roommate or any guests he had over would come through the door right by my desk. The television was also in the living room and I couldn't very well keep him from watching.

I experimented with going to JELLY! and working out of New Work City, but it just wasn't for me. When I'm working around people, they need to be working on projects like mine (mainly web apps) or I get distracted quickly. Too many people were working on too many different sorts of project and I just couldn't focus.

I needed a change.

Moving To Our Office

I met Danny Wen and Shawn Liu when they presented Co-Op back in November, 2008 at the New York Tech Meetup. I was actually sitting next to my friend Dylan Fareed of ArtLog when I saw them present Co-Op. I told Dylan I thought it was a neat project, he agreed, and said he'd introduce me to Danny and Shawn after the Meetup, as Dylan had met them before.

Danny, Shawn and I grabbed Japanese curry at Curry-Ya — a terrific little spot in the East Village — and became instant friends. Fast-forward to around May, 2009: Danny mentioned that Harvest was thinking about getting their own office (instead of a shared space) and wanted to know if Carbonmade was interested in sub-leasing under them.

Obviously I was very interested. Working out of my apartment was really starting to get to me and I was getting less productive — it was taking me twice as long as before to get things done. I needed a change of scenery and the chance to work alongside people. I'm a "people person," so to speak, and isolating myself in my apartment was taking its toll.

We worked out the details, Danny and Shawn got a beautiful space in SoHo, and we were slated to move in July. Of course, construction delays cropped up and we didn't actually get to move in until September, but c'est la vie. I was content to wait until September, but still champing at the bit. It's really all I thought about this past summer. I think I must have bugged Danny about it so much that he was regretting having Carbonmade share the space. ;)

Face-to-Face

The first week I was in our new office, I was more productive than the previous month altogether (time:work ratio). That's not to say I didn't do the same amount of work, I just did it a lot faster. I'd get to the office around 9 and I'd get down to work. I'd then leave at a reasonable hour like 7, having worked a full 10 hours. In my apartment, I'd maybe have worked from morning until midnight to get the same amount done. But now when I left work I wouldn't touch Carbonmade stuff except for e-mails. It'd allow me to recharge and feel fresh for the next day.

Dave then arrived in New York around mid-October and we started working across from each other. The first day we went over things in our conference room — what a great room to think it! — and we accomplished more while brainstorming in there for one hour than we had during our typical three hour phone conversations a few times a week before we had the office.

It really helps to be face to face with a person: reading someone's body language and knowing you have their full attention just can't be done over the phone. When you're thinking over complex situations, your mind easily wanders and it helps to have that other person there to pull you back into focus.

We live together when Dave is in New York, so in the apartment we'd also chitchat once in a while about Carbonmade stuff, which you can't even think of doing when it's just phoning. We also continue to meet in the conference room whenever either of us has something important to discuss. What a change!

We drastically altered the nature of our new product (soon to be released) for the better in every way, and this was only because we were able to work things out face to face. It was a big transition for us to be able to do this, but we're both really happy we did. We've nixed a lot of bad ideas and are now focusing on what we think will work out best.

More to Come

I don't think you need everyone in the team to work out of the same office. Obviously, companies like 37signals and Harvest do very well working half their team remote, but I think you need that home base, and the founders need to be there. I don't think either company I just mentioned would argue with that. 37signals' Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are both in Chicago, and Harvest's Danny Wen and Shawn Liu are both in New York City.

Our third partner Jason Nelson is moving to New York this coming May when his Chicago lease runs out. And Dave will likely switch from his Chicago commute to living in NYC full-time starting next summer. Once we have our core in NYC, I think we won't necessarily need others to be here with us, although it would obviously have its advantages.

I'm just happy that I'll never have to go back to working out of my apartment again.

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