Tech Startup Case Study: Brand Muscle Shows Its Flexibility
By Heidi Schwartz
Published in the September 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
During the dot-com 90s, start-up tech companies were very common. A dramatic regrouping over the past 10 years has left behind its share of Googles, eBays, and Yahoos, but the number of new Web driven startups has clearly slowed. Yet, on certain occasions, that same market is willing to support those few organizations able to offer something particularly unusual, yet useful to the Web based world.
Brand Muscle, a software development start-up based in Beachwood, OH, was one of those companies inventive enough to carve a niche where none had previously existed. The company opened its incubator office in Boston, MA in 2000—virtually in conjunction with the demise of the dot-com bubble. (Wikipedia claims, “The dot-com bubble burst, numerically, on March 10, 2000, when the technology heavy NASDAQ Composite index peaked at 5,048, more than double its value just a year before.)
Not In The Cards
The brainchild of its current president and CEO, Philip Alexander, the company helps large businesses plan, customize, and coordinate their advertising over the Internet. But despite the size of its clientele, Brand Muscle started small.
“We started with five employees our first year,” says Bonnie Skuggen, Brand Muscle’s manager of business services and human resources and key member of the in-house project management team. “We were in the smallest, makeshift warehouse space at the time.”
The outside of the building was beautiful and the inside was open and light, but there wasn’t enough room for growth projections made by the company’s board of directors. “Everyone worked on card tables!” Skuggen exclaims.
The company quickly reached its breaking point in the original Boston space, so Alexander jumped on the opportunity to move everyone to Ohio. When discussing the decision making process, Alexander says he always wanted to make northeast Ohio Brand Muscle’s home. He felt strongly that the costs of labor and infrastructure in the area could support the kind of anticipated growth he and his investors expected.
He says, “We had indicated [to our Boston-based investors] that the management team and a lot of talent resided in northeast Ohio. If we could achieve certain mile markers in the first year, the investors would allow us to [make the move]. We achieved that in the first six months and came back.” [“A Cloudy Business Climate” by Shula Neuman, Making Change, November 11, 2004.]
Big And Funky
While Alexander had no doubts about the company’s growth, Skuggen was more conservative when she was shopping for the company’s new home. First, she came across a small space (described by Skuggen as “this little 2,000 square foot hovel with four offices”) and thought it would be perfect. She recalls, “The board thought this was a big joke. We were told, ‘you’re going to grow exponentially, and you don’t even realize it.’ Then they ordered us to go find something bigger.”
During the evaluation process, Skuggen discovered some leasing setbacks. “We were very cost conscious, since we were a start-up. Meanwhile, nobody would give us a three year lease; they only wanted to consider five year leases. I remember thinking we would never find anything.”
After looking at new buildings, spec models, old facilities, and subleases, Skuggen found the ideal space and recognized its merits immediately. Alexander’s impression was equally positive and forthcoming. “When we walked into the space, Phil said, ‘I can feel it. This is it.’ It was as ephemeral as that. Now when I think back on what we saw and seriously considered, I’m so glad we didn’t end up in that first space!”
With its purple and green interiors, the location had plenty of personality and pizzazz. The original tenants—an advertising firm—had decided against taking occupancy midway through the design and renovation process, so everything had been left in a semi-finished state. Skuggen says, “Even though it wasn’t completely painted or finished, it had the kind of funky feel we wanted. It was neat!”
Negotiations for the space (actually comprised of two floors; the top floor was 11,000 square feet and the bottom floor was 5,000 square feet) bounced back and forth for several months, until final arrangements were made in February 2004. “It moved very quickly after that. It basically took two weeks—maybe a month—to complete the move in,” Skuggen recalls.
Wide Open Spaces
Large windows, natural light, and an open feel provided opportunities for flexibility in terms of space maximization. Still, Skuggen was determined to incorporate as many work stations as she could without compromising the feeling that had initially attracted everyone. “We wanted everyone to feel like it was home—a nice space. We were lucky, and that’s how we felt.”
Because the previous tenants left the work midway through (but had already paid for the materials), much of the initial interior work was already in place. Carpet, lighting, and storage were already installed, but paint and wallpaper were only partially done. “One wall may have been painted; there may have been a little bit of wallpaper up,” says Skuggen, “and everyone seemed fine with it. Personally, I was slightly horrified, because I wasn’t sold on the color scheme. Fortunately, it looked really nice when it was properly finished.”
Skuggen and Brand Muscle’s VP of finance, Kathy Heflin, opted for a furniture based solution to create the right kind of atmosphere for the company’s growing employee base. Encouraged by Alexander to use furniture as a way to solve problems with privacy, productivity, and growth, Skuggen was impressed with The HON Company’s Initiate® panel and desk system.
“Among all the furniture options available, this was the best solution, because it provided furniture for every aspect of the office, from breakroom to boardroom,” Skuggen says. Still, she was skeptical about incorporating cubicles throughout, since the panel heights could compromise the natural light they found so desirable. With the assistance of designer Johnna Walter of OM Workspace (Brand Muscle’s HON dealer), the team created an open plan that would optimize the space without blocking the windows.
Another appealing aspect of the work stations was their ability to handle Brand Muscle’s electrical and data needs. Skuggen says, “Because of the nature of our company, the integration of technology is especially important.”
Due to the proprietary nature of the work done for some Brand Muscle clients, it was important to make sure the work station solution could accommodate certain privacy issues. “We have clients from vertical markets who don’t want their advertising information on display for others in the industry to see. This is particularly true when it comes to the material that comes out of the printers or when customer service representatives are on the phone with competing clients,” Skuggen explains.
The solution was to establish separate print areas for different clients. For client service representatives, the decision was made to use greater panel heights for the cubicles; some were also given slightly elongated spaces. The flexibility of the system allowed Brand Muscle to respect its clients’ needs without compromising the design of the space.
Skuggen notes, “We have not yet encountered a situation where a client will ask to see our space and our layout beforehand, although a few potential clients have requested tours. Two clients who have actually made that provision have taken our word, and we have been true to it. We know they will come to visit at some point—they all do.”
Just recently, Brand Muscle experienced yet another growth spike, prompting the acquisition of additional square footage downstairs in a space that adjoins the original. This third space is being planned, and the furniture is already ordered. “We’ve got all of the elements that we have up here, except the main kitchen is on this floor. This larger kitchen will serve as a central meeting place and encourage interaction,” Skuggen says.
Light years away from incubator warehouse space in Boston, Brand Muscle’s new Ohio digs continue to bring satisfaction and enjoyment to the people who work there every day. Visitors to the space frequently comment on the positive energy they experience there, and employees have demonstrated better productivity rates due to improvements in morale.
“When you feel you’re worthy of a nice working environment—going from a makeshift card table to a nicely outfitted work area with storage and real furniture—it helps,” Skuggen observes.
Throughout the ranks, appreciation for the new space has yet to diminish. Instead, the enthusiasm continues to grow. Skuggen says, “Every day, Phil and I say, ‘We love this space. It’s beautiful without being pretentious. It’s us—upbeat, modern, and fun.”
This article was based on an interview with Skuggen. For more information on this project, send an e-mail to her at [email protected].
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