COVID and Toothpaste

There’s a common phrase that “you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube”.  Or, you can’t put a genie back in the bottle (although how would they know?).  You hear this often about trends in business, and this time is no exception. But maybe this time really is different. We’ve been forced to run a lot of experiments that no one would have signed up for willingly. As a result, the toothpaste is out of the tube on a number of business trends. I’m seeing these in my companies and personal life and I don’t think we’re going back.

  • Working from home – this is not an option for everyone and doesn’t work as well for large in-person brainstorming sessions. However, the days of companies organizing around large downtown offices where everyone comes to work every day are over. Why lose hours every day of productive time commuting to a desk where you’re going to work on what you could have done at home anyway? This is a bit of an Industrial Revolution holdover. The implications for large downtowns are mind-boggling. I’ve worked somewhat/mostly from home for a long time and gotten to watch my kids grow up as a result.
  • (Most) companies being in it together – I work with multiple companies that have needed help from landlords and other key suppliers. Most have recognized that if we go under, it does them no good, and that helping us is good business for them. The companies I work in have done what they can for their customers, employees and other stakeholders. Not all – but in 2009, I think it was none. HBR wrote a piece about this last fall. This accelerating trend will change how companies deal with one another when things go wrong.
  • Business performing public roles – the PPP program, in effect, was designed to help companies “keep” employees even if there wasn’t much business to attend to. But if you think about this, this doesn’t make much sense.  It only happened this way because (a) companies are where most people get their health insurance and (b) the unemployment insurance system in America was designed in 1938 and not up to the modern challenge of paying millions of people short-term benefits. In almost every other society, business isn’t asked to perform these roles. In ours, it was. The fact that companies have to do this is going to change the relationship between companies and government, and companies and their employees, in ways we can’t quite see yet.

There are many others, but I thought I would start with a few. We’re in the 1st inning of this thing and there will be plenty of time to identify and track others.

Your Home is a Coworking Hub – now what?

Here is a copy of a post I wrote for Workbar, which is one of my companies.   When all of this is over, companies will discover that they don’t need to have massive offices, and individuals will find that working from home looks great on paper until you try it all the time for real.  Workbar is right in the middle of these 2 trends.

Here’s the link to the blog post on their site (which looks a lot nicer than mine, I admit)…

And here is the text…

……

I have a friend who hates his commute and sometimes will idly say something like “I wish I could work from home all the time!”  I’ve told him that this might sound great, but trust me: it’s not what you really want. He’s always ignored that advice because there are some things you have to experience to understand.

After the last 5 days experiencing working out of his busy home with small children running around, I think he is starting to understand. 

My home too is now a coworking center.  My wife works from home, my teenage daughters are doing school online, we have an extra guest here all week, and our dog continues to expect to be walked, fed and entertained.  He is greedy that way. We are on top of each other all day, and still have to get stuff done.  

Luckily I work at Workbar (I’m the CFO) so I’ve learned a few things along the way about to get set up for success.  We’ve implemented some of these best practices in my house, and maybe they’ll help in yours too.

    • Write it down – we developed a “coworking constitution” (see pic) that we all agreed to and signed.  It’s important to have rules and buy-in, especially if you have teenagers who tend not to be interested in either of those things.  Workbar has an operating manual, so we decided we need one too. What are the operating hours? Who can come and go? How do you register guests?  
    • Have “neighborhoods” – one of the things that makes Workbar go is that our spaces are separated into quiet areas, collaboration areas, call-centric areas, and common spaces.  We did the same in our house. This required some imagination; for example, our dining room (which we don’t use at the moment because no one is coming over anyway) is now the quiet area.  My wife’s office is next to the main TV room, so we had to compromise and make that TV room a collaboration area instead of a loud space. Etc. Make this specific and try to stick to it.  
    • Set limits – We implemented a rule around lighting candles (again, see pic).  This one is for me. Basically it means “no scented candles when dad is downstairs because they smell like a store in a mall and it makes him crazy.”  Set “must haves” in your rules.
    • Take reservations – just as you can reserve conference rooms at Workbar, we set up a Google calendar for different rooms in the house to block them off if needed.
    • Decide on roles – At work, I usually hide that I once used to be an IT person, because once people know this, you will be tech support forever (BTW – don’t tell my Workbar co-workers).  I can’t pretend at home though, so I am the technical support person of the family. My daughter Lily is (more or less) the Community Manager. We all load the dishwasher with dirty glasses by the way; some jobs are too much fun for only one person.
    • Get tech enabledWorkbar invests a lot of time and money in our systems.  If you can afford it and haven’t done so yet, invest in a good printer/scanner and in a webcam if you don’t have one on your laptop already.  Get good headphones for long days on calls that used to be meetings. We can help with recommendations if you need us to. Another form of technology that you haven’t thought of is your chair.  We buy chairs for Workbar that you won’t notice after 8 hours in them; that’s on purpose. We want people to be comfortable and productive. A dining room or folding chair, believe me, is not going to work for long.  If you can, invest in something with decent support.
    • Be socialWhat makes Workbar more than a place to work is the community and other people around you. It’s harder to enjoy that these days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t check in with each other occasionally.  If you have young children and can swap off who is watching them for specific periods of time, I recommend that too.  

 

 

 

 

 

If you are working from home in these uncertain times, consider yourself lucky.  I know I do. Hopefully, these tips will help make the best of that situation and keep you productive and sane.

 

The WeWork ‘Chapter’

I’m starting this blog back up after what I’ll just call a sabbatical.  Much respect for busy professionals who manage to write regularly and work it into their daily/weekly routines.  It is not easy.
Onto the writing…
There have many busted WeWork IPO posts written, many dripping with schadenfreude (look it up).  Adam Neumann may or may not deserve the bad press – it’s hard to know what’s really behind someone’s motivations – but it is pretty striking how quickly the press and investors switched from adulation to tar-and-feather mode.  It reminds me of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.
Mostly, I wanted to write about them because their situation reminds me of the WeWork of the 1990’s: Exodus Communications.
I used to work at Exodus, which was a data center/co-location business back when that was a thing.  It has so much in common with WeWork that I’m surprised more people haven’t drawn the analogy.  Here’s a partial list:
  • A real estate business with long-term capital obligations and short-term client contracts
  • Decidedly *not* a tech company, but valued like one
  • Management making a lot of money through side deals
  • Also decidedly not a marketplace, but tried to present themselves like one
  • Huge debt load
  • Bankers who talked the company and employees into irrational deals (JPMorgan in WeWork’s case, Morgan Stanley in ours)
  • Insane growth (40% quarter over quarter for years) that could only happen by not worrying about running a tight ship – someone wise there told me that 40% QoQ growth meant that of 10 people you met in the hall, 4 just started, 4 had been there less than a year, and of the 2 that were left, only 1 was any good and that’s if you were lucky.  WeWork grew so fast that they had many of the same problems, I’m sure.
I could go on, and maybe I will in a future blog post, but you get the idea.  Exodus has the distinction of being one of the few large public companies to go Chapter 22.  First it went Chapter 11 on its own.  Then Cable and Wireless USA bought them, and they too went Chapter 11.  Then when Savvis bought the assets out of bankruptcy and rationalized the footprint and cost structure, they were able to execute a business with solid return on assets.
Buried within WeWork, there is a business with legs.  The question is how many Chapters, so to speak, have to be written before we find them.

Sign of the Times

This is a picture from the inside of a new South Boston development called “The BEAT”. It’s significant for what it will be, which is a multi-use commercial, retail and shopping hub on the Red Line, 2 stops south of downtown Boston. From my work in the co-working world, and some other ventures in the past, I know that this is where the world is going.

People, many of them millennials, will be able to work, eat and play without having to leave the complex. Of course, an IPA-centric brewery is in the plans as well.

What is also significant is that this gap is where the printing press for the Boston Globe used to be. It is a symbol of a by-gone era.

I don’t know if replacing the printing press of a venerable journalistic institution with a wonderful place to work and a big improvement in the neighborhood is good or bad. It just is. Now we get our news differently and develop our sites differently. But I do know that this picture captures what is going on in ways that most of my pictures don’t.