Regular readers of this blog know that I’m all about true collaboration, where product leaders, designers and engineers work together to discover products that customers love.  Mostly I talk about the process and techniques involved in this, but today I wanted to talk about the physical space and work environment that can be optimized to nurture and support this.

Much has been written already about what Google and Facebook and others have done to create a work environment that’s truly conducive to collaboration and creativity.  There’s also been lots written on setting up a good physical environment for Agile teams.

I wanted to reinforce what others have said about what makes a good environment, but I wanted to go further in this article and talk about an effort to create this kind of space precisely for the people that need it the most, yet are least likely to be able to afford it: very early stage startups.

Early stage startups literally live or die by their ability to discover a viable product (what others call “product/market fit”).  At the earliest stage, the typical startup is usually run right from the founder’s living room or garage or meeting at Starbucks.  However, at a certain point, usually when they get a little seed or angel funding, they decide they’re ready to get their first office space.

But first-time entrepreneurs especially are usually surprised at the cost in terms of time and expense to acquire and provision an office – most want you to negotiate a long-term lease, maybe you even have to pay to build out some walls or cubes. Once you have the space, then you need to buy a bunch of office furniture, set up your IT infrastructure – networks, servers, printers, etc.  All this costs money that most startups could be putting to much better use.

And then once you get going, especially as you get further along, you start worrying if you need to hire people to help with naming and branding and marketing, and getting lawyers to help with incorporating and dealing with patents, and accountants to help set up billing and payroll and taxes – you get the idea.  Today it’s a big leap of time and money just to get your little 3 person startup off and running.  Further, there is so much uncertainty around early stage startups that it’s not even wise to make long-term commitments even if you have the money to do so.

One solution to this is to sign up with an incubator.  I am actually a big fan of incubators, if you can get in with a good one and if you’re willing to give up the equity.  However, I’ve found there are a great many startups (the vast majority) that either don’t want to give up the equity, or often they are too early to make a compelling pitch to the incubators, so they’re denied or don’t even apply.

So I went to a long-time friend of mine, Bruce Williams, that owns a prime Silicon Valley office building, located right in the heart of Silicon Valley, and persuaded him that there’s a need in the valley to help these early stage startups get going quickly and inexpensively, and together we’ve come up with this idea of “The Office of Silicon Valley.”  I should state up front that I have no financial interest in this, and in fact my new office is smack in the middle of this space, and I pay full price.  But I am good friends with him and as you’ll see below I am one of the advisors to the startups that sign up.

Bruce and I started off by asking ourselves what the ideal environment would be for very early stage, lean startups.  We wanted to create a space where a startup, with anywhere from 1 to 15 people, can be productive immediately – literally in hours – with no expensive long-term commitments, no purchases of furniture or office infrastructure, and the ability to add new employees at any time just as easily, and importantly, access to a set of advisors to help increase your startup’s chances of success.

We just finished building out the space, and you really have to see the environment to get the full experience, but startups get a blend of private offices, project rooms and several thousand feet of open space, designed especially for Agile teams.  There are also several conference rooms, a big state-of-the-art board room, all new furniture that is easily movable and flexible with tons of rolling white boards, and great shared facilities including a a modern, fully equipped kitchen, a café with espresso machine, ping pong table, health club access, and monthly beer busts.

It’s all designed to help startups stretch their cash and give them the flexibility they need to add people if and when they need to with no commit and constraints.  All of the office infrastructure is already in place, there is no waiting for service, staff, furniture, or equipment installations.

In addition to the physical space, we wanted to take a page from the Incubators and provide access to a range of advisors and support services:

  • mentoring advice in business, product, sales and marketing strategy
  • marketing – branding, identity, positioning
  • technology – scaling, recruiting
  • design – graphic design, visual design, interactive design
  • user feedback – user testing, user surveys, site analytics
  • warehousing – inventory management, shipping and logistics
  • IT – network set up, teleconferencing
  • legal – patent, incorporation
  • financial – raising capital, accounting, payroll

There are advisors for each of these areas (see http://www.theofficeofsiliconvalley.com/web/advisors), and access to discounted pricing when a company has special needs.

If you’re an early startup and you’d like to come visit, check out http://www.theofficeofsiliconvalley.com.   The office is in Sunnyvale, right between Yahoo and Palm, and just minutes from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and PayPal.

Even if you are at a bigger company with your own offices, you may want to come by and see the space just to get some ideas for your own space (or just play some ping-pong).

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