I remember how proud we were the day we moved into our new offices. I walked around with Peter the CEO of Talk City and there was a sense of accomplishment. The tallest building in the Pruneyard is visible for miles and was, we were told, the tallest building between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Ours building had only 6 stories but 3 of those were now ours. For the first year of the company we had had no offices at all. I had been employee number 4 and all the technical staff reported to me. We had raised millions of dollars in financing (60 million by the time we had our IPO) and had investors including NBC, Cox Interactive, Hearst Publishing and customers including all of those companies and WebTV, Microsoft, ABC, CBS Sportsline and Disney. There was a sense of great accomplishment as we looked around at the customizations we had made to the new building that made it feel like ours.
It was not that many years later when we were desperate to get rid of that building. Talk City was a dot com company. We made our money from internet advertising and the bottom had dropped out of the market. Our larger customers were closing their internet divisions and our smaller ones were folding. A market that was already soft had gone into a tail spin when two planes hit the twin towers. We had a layoff, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another as we tried to cut staff to the point where we could afford payroll. Seven layoffs for seven quarters in a row. The building we were once so proud of was now the anchor that was dragging us down. We were paying for empty office space at rates far below what the now depressed market would charge for the same space.
Somehow Peter was able to get out of our lease, if he hadn’t the company would have died then and there. Instead we returned to our virtual roots. We got a small office space with one big room, a conference room and a machine closet and started to rebuild. By my count we had dropped from a high of 256 employees (although no two people seems to agree on what the actual number was) to 15 people. We took our computers and some of the office furniture home and went back to a mostly virtual company.
As we saved and started to rebuild the company I noticed something odd. I didn’t miss the big building. It was not just that I liked working at home but I found certain things were more efficient. When you have a large team (I think my team topped out at 56 employees) and you want to find someone I was surprised the number of times I would wander up and down 3 floors looking for and inevitably just missing them. When we switched back to virtual everyone was required to be on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger). When I wanted someone I could send them a text message and often get a response back in seconds.
Then I started to notice other benefits. It used to be that if we were in a meeting and we needed the answer to a question from someone who had not been invited to the meeting that we would either send someone in search of that person or we would have to schedule another meeting. But now I found that being able to get an answer to a question via AIM might take a minute while the meeting continued. Before we left the meeting, we had our answer and could make the correct decision.
Although I have left that company (now called LiveWorld), the company is still semi-virtual. We grew back to as large as 80 people but only 4 people had offices. The rest of us on days we were in the office would take over communal spaces or conference rooms. My office was now my backpack and with it I had everything I needed to be productive whether at home, at the office, on the road or at a nearby StarBucks. Once my idea of what “going to the office” meant was not much different from that of my father. Now I again have an office with my name of the door, but it is 2700 miles from my home. I have to wonder how my understand of “the office” will continue to change.