Startup Stories - Revitalizing the Open Office
It seems like nearly everyone either has or dreams of having a startup business these days, and startup stories fill the financial sections of every major news outlet. America is filled with entrepreneurs and “wantrepreneurs” hoping to be the next Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk.
The startup ecosystem in the United States may seem to be primarily centered on San Francisco companies like Airbnb, Medium, and Uber, but it’s more than just mobile apps and Silicon Valley tech. While such companies seem to be on every VC’s radar, success stories aren’t limited to startup founders in California.
One firm in Philadelphia understands the big picture and has recognized a common problem across nearly all industries. New businesses and established companies alike are experiencing a common problem—an unproductive work environment.
The evolution of the open office
If you’ve been a part of the workforce for a while, you may have seen the shift. There was a time when a typical office building had multiple private offices, enabling people to work in quiet when they needed to. Then came the cubicle. It didn’t take long for business owners to recognize the cost savings that came with eliminating private offices, and quickly these cramped cubbyholes replaced the private office for most workers.
Then, the open office. It was an old idea, going back to at least the early 19th century, but was revitalized in the 1930’s by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s vision seemed promising at first. Employees can work together, out in the open, in a spirit of collaboration. Yet, just as with cubicles, business owners today look at the money first and disregard everything else about open floorplans that makes them great.
Why have open offices become the norm?
This progression isn’t the fault of the companies. Every business, large and small, has to take the bottom line into account. When comparing the costs of private offices to cubicles, the latter will always come out ahead; even when taking into account the benefits of having a private office it’s hard for a business owner to justify the increased expense. When a similar comparison is made between an open office and cubicles, cost clearly favors the open plan; and when you consider the value of collaboration among employees, an open floorplan is an easy choice.
A new startup success
In comes Thinktanks. This Philly startup has recognized that despite their flaws, offices with open floorplans have quite a few benefits. More importantly, Thinktanks has a way to take advantage of those benefits and eliminate the drawbacks at the same time. As the company’s founder explains, they wanted to create a product that would help employees to feel “peaceful and productive” while increasing effective collaboration within the office.
And what is that product? Thinktanks builds office “privacy pods”—modular booths designed to be set up inside an office to provide an escape from the common disturbances found in a modern office layout. The pods come in a variety of sizes, from the one-person “phone booths” to four-person conference rooms, to their newest 12-person meeting rooms.
The company was founded by Jeff Lange, son of entrepreneur parents with a lifelong interest in inventing and conceptual thinking. While studying at Rhode Island School of design, Lange developed a full company concept with “everything but funding” as his senior thesis. His concept caught the eye of InvestorFlow founder Todd Glasson, who purchased the concept and became a lifelong mentor to Lange.
After completing his education, Lange gained several years of experience in the quiet space industry and was a co-founder of another startup in this space. Lange had bigger dreams, though, and when he left the previous company, in addition to a larger product line his vision included a stronger focus on employee health and wellness.
What are Thinktanks?
Thinktanks are soundproof booths, built in America of “the highest quality eco-friendly American woods available on the market today,” according to the company’s FAQ. They are made to be easy to assemble by two people, requiring nothing more than a cordless drill.
Their walls are constructed of wood sourced here in America, and are insulated with recycled blue jean denim, a highly breathable material known to be excellent at sound-dampening too. This is what makes them so well-suited to the open office environment—with these pods, weary office workers can find a moment of solitude when they need it, isolated from the noise happening only a few feet away on the other side of the well-insulated walls.
Everything you need is inside
Once assembled in your office, all you’ll need is a single plug to power everything inside. That includes a bank of ac power and USB charging outlets and a thermostat-controlled ventilation system.
The booths have a glass door and a skylight above to take advantage of ambient lighting in the office, but if that’s not enough there’s plenty of room for a small desk lamp that’ll easily light up the whole space.
On the inside walls, the pods have sound-absorbing panels to eliminate the echo you might expect in small booths like these. In their smaller “phone booths” you’ll also find a small wall-mounted desk while the larger models have space to add your own table.
They’re also easy to move around. With a few EZ slider pads that you can buy for a few bucks on Amazon, you can slide them all around the office to wherever you need them. In addition, if you ever need to relocate to a new office entirely, they can be disassembled just as easily as you put them together.
The Thinktanks name
People frequently ask Mr. Lange about the origin of the company’s name. His response makes clear his focus, which goes beyond just the product to the people who will use the products:
Traditionally, "Think Tanks" are places where great minds come together to solve difficult problems and form policies that often shape the world we live in. We wholeheartedly believe that your team is full of brilliant minds; we know you're trying to solve complex problems every day and we also know you're on the brink of your next great discovery. We just want to help you get there.
The healthy work-life balance
It’s an easy thing to overlook, but privacy pods like the ones Thinktanks makes can impact an employee’s entire life. At University of California, Irvine, a recent study showed that, although workplace distractions might have less direct impact on productivity than previously thought, it does result in higher stress, increased frustration, and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Taking information like this into account, it’s hard to imagine a better time for Thinktanks to enter the startup ecosystem. With new business ventures continuing to enter the marketplace, and with the budgets of small business owners stretched as thin as they’ve ever been, we’re seeing a need for this kind of creativity.
By adding office pods, any business is able to expand its private space for employees, allowing them to work without distraction when needed thereby improving both productivity and mental health. And they can do this without unnecessarily expanding their offices, and without putting up more walls in their existing space.
More than just offices
While the Thinktanks business model focuses primarily on improving the open office layout, it’s not their only use.
These enclosures are great anywhere a quiet space would be welcome. While coin-operated phones have been rendered obsolete long ago by modern technology, phone booths are making a comeback. A Thinktanks booth is an excellent addition to a restaurant or bar, allowing patrons to make a phone call in private without having to step outside into the cold.
Remote workers who find it difficult to get work done in their home offices can set one of these up inside their home for an instant quiet haven right in their own living rooms.
The two- and four-person Thinktanks are great in university libraries, providing space for students to work on group projects without bothering those around them.
There are a seemingly-unlimited number of ways to use a Thinktanks pod that clearly extend far beyond the office building. Currently, most of Thinktanks’ customers come from technology-centric cities like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, although they can ship one to you anywhere in the world. Wherever you are, if you have a need for a quiet space, there's a good chance Thinktanks can help.
What are your thoughts about the success of Thinktanks and similar startups? Have you used their privacy pods in your own office? Have you discovered creative uses that we haven’t thought of? We’d love to read what you have to say in the comments below.