What You Should Know about the Workplaces of Billion Dollar Startups

Photos and key takeaways from last week’s Work Design TALK at WeWork Wonder Bread in D.C.

The event took place in WeWork Wonder Bread's kitchen and common area. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

The event took place in WeWork Wonder Bread’s kitchen and common area. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

Last Tuesday night at WeWork Wonder Bread we gathered a crowd of D.C.’s finest workplace geeks for a panel discussion about what we can learn from the workplaces of billion dollar startups, and other emerging companies that are well on their way to joining that (increasingly less) exclusive club.

Here are five ideas that stuck with us, with quotes gleaned both from the TALK and in follow-up conversations with the panelists.

1. If they have a strong company culture, it’s mirrored in their workplace

Harry D’Andrea, managing general partner at Valhalla Partners, a D.C.-based venture capital firm, said that evaluating the management team helps him to become familiar with a startup’s culture, and if the culture is strong, it’s likely that the workplace will be effective, too.

Harry D’Andrea (speaking), managing general partner at Valhalla Partners, emphasized that culture is mirrored in workspace. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

“A good management team will exhibit a high level of honesty towards investors, and honesty within the organization, and that fosters a culture that allows for the communication and teamwork that gets a startup through the inevitable bumps,” he said. “We have one company that prides itself on a flat organization, decentralized teams, and individual decision making authority. Their workspace mirrors that culture. A large open common area where people gather for breaks, maybe a game of pool, and open spaces for the teams with large whiteboard wall space. They have not eliminated offices, but many are shared, and almost all are non-traditional.” The CEO’s office, he added, doesn’t have a desk.

Clouds gather over the Wonder Bread Factory. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

Clouds gather over the Wonder Bread Factory. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

2. Their workplaces are designed to attract and retain top talent

Emily Holland White, the head of talent and culture for Optoro, a highly valued, D.C.-based startup that is revolutionizing he way retailers approach their excess and returned inventory, said that it’s super-important that their dedication to innovation is reflected in both their culture and their workplace, and that this holistic approach helps them to attract better talent. “There is a constant battle over the top tech talent in D.C., and part of our strategy to attract the best and the brightest is to have a workplace that reflects our core values,” she said. “Our workspace is collaborative, unconventional, and flexible.”

Emily Holland White, the head of talent and culture for Optoro, talked about how important the workplace is in attracting and retaining top talent in DC's competitive market. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

Emily Holland White, the head of talent and culture for Optoro, talked about how important the workplace is in attracting and retaining top talent in DC’s competitive market. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

Those three adjectives are “crucial for Optoro as we to grow,” she added. For Optoro, that’s why an open office works. “[It] facilitates the type of constant communication and dialogue that we need for all of our employees to always be ‘in the know’ as things change rapidly,” she said.

3. But if you’re a small startup, there may be value in incubating in a shared working environment

“The most immediate value comes in reducing risk,” said D’Andrea, when asked about the value in space’s like 1776, a global incubator and seed fund based in D.C. “The cost per square foot is more expensive than traditional office space, but the overall cost may be lower. You can take only what you need immediately and add on as you grow. The month-to-month feature is another benefit. There is no need to sign a long term lease and you have flexibility should your needs change. [And] there’s the added benefit of being able to take advantage of the ‘community’ aspect of [coworking] spaces,” though, he admitted, “that benefit is difficult to quantify.”

4. They empower employees with workplace choice and flexibility

“[Another] critical aspect to Optoro’s culture is employee engagement,” said White. “As the definition of the workplace continues to evolve, with employees allowed more and more flexibility in their work arrangements, it’s incredibly important for our employees to feel empowered to work in an environment where they’re most effective. One part of that strategy is to have a workplace that enables our people to perform at the highest level regardless of their work style.”

Carl Pierre, far right, the D.C. city lead for WeWork, said that the people are the “secret sauce” at WeWork’s Galactic Headquarters. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

5. People really matter

At the end of the day, “a space is useless without the energy a group brings to it,” said Carl Pierre, the D.C. city lead for WeWork. He told us that people are the “secret sauce” at WeWork’s Galactic Headquarters in NYC, which, in addition to its good looks, features touches like a show-stopping gong that’s struck in celebration of company-wide good news (which they’ve had a lot of lately), and a seemingly endless supply of tequila. “But at the end of the day,” he said, “these amenities mean nothing if there isn’t a good community to keep the space running.

Of WeWork’s expanding network of spaces, he added that there, too, people are their most valuable asset: “From our staff that help keep the building running to the members who come in daily to run their business, community remains the backbone of any WeWork space,” he said.Having a space packed with a group of people working towards the same goal and who all share the same passion creates a palpable energy.”

Thanks again to everyone who braved the storm to join us last week, and thanks especially to our sponsors, without whom these events would not be possible: AgilQuest, Humanscale, FOX Architects, Shen Milsom & Wilke, WeWork, and IIDA.

We’re taking this same conversation to Chicago on July 30 and San Francisco on August 11. Click here for tickets to Chi, and stay tuned for more details on San Francisco!

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