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Chamber Executive Article Archive

The World’s Smallest Office

Katherine House

Summer 2012

In most places, the bigger your office, the bigger your bragging rights. Not so in Durham, North Carolina. That's where a start-up business run by three sisters competed for—and won—the right to work in about 30 square feet, thanks to a competition sponsored by the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Durham Inc. (DDI).

The small office comes with a suitably abbreviated name: The Smoffice, short for the world's smallest office. Spacious, it's not, especially when you consider that the average office cubicle is 2½ times its size, or 75 square feet, according to 2010 data compiled by the International Facility Management Association. But unlike the standard cubicle, The Smoffice comes with a window, and one much larger than the space's name implies. That's because The Smoffice isn't located in an office park or an office building, but in the storefront of a popular downtown café.

Clearly, The Smoffice is not traditional office space. Nor was the competition that spawned it, the business plan of the winning firm, or the role the Durham chamber plays in reaching out to entrepreneurs. But all of them passed what chamber President and CEO Casey Steinbacher, CCE, refers to as the "That's so Durham…" test.

What creates the distinctive Durham vibe? It's a city that parlayed aging, abandoned tobacco warehouses into vibrant places to live and work. From 1995 to 2011, the number of employees working downtown more than quadrupled, along with a nearly 10-fold increase in the number of residential units. It's inhabited by young, educated professionals equally enamored of the established baseball team and a new performing arts center. Thanks in part to dozens of first-class restaurants, Durham (and nearby Chapel Hill) were designated the "Foodiest Small Towns" in America by Bon Appetit magazine.

At a Glance:
Bull City Startup Stampede


www.startupstampede.com
YouTube Video

What: A contest designed to show start-ups why Durham is a dynamic place to live and work. Winners work in a common space in downtown Durham for free for 60 days. Participants benefit by brainstorming and networking with others in the shared space, as well as through meetings with established entrepreneurs.

Entries: When the competition made its debut last year, 80 companies applied for Startup Stampede 1.0; 15 were selected. Startup Stampede 2.0 was held later in 2011, drawing 55 more applicants. Of those, 13 were accepted.

Results: Seventeen of the 28 participating businesses continue to operate in downtown Durham. This year's Startup Stampede 3.0 began June 1 and ran through July 31. Participating are 11 runners-up from The Smoffice competition.

Cost: The two events in 2011 cost about $14,000 total, in addition to approximately $100K of in-kind support, according to Adam Klein, the chamber's startup strategist.

It's a place to "Find Your Cool," as Downtown Durham boasts, in a metro area where the chamber prides itself on what it is not: "your father's chamber of commerce" (their words, not ours). Home to Research Triangle Park, Duke University and successful business incubators, it's a natural spawning ground for entrepreneurs. In fact, Durham's downtown is home to more than 70 early-stage start-ups, many in the technology sector, according to Adam Klein, start-up strategist for the chamber. While most communities can't match the "That's so Durham" style of encouraging start-ups, it's important that they find their own unique ways of attracting young entrepreneurs.

Incubating an Idea

Klein and Matthew Coppedge, DDI's director of marketing and communications, hatched the idea for the Smoffice competition, appropriately enough, in a small space. The two thirty-somethings, who are friends as well as collaborators, were driving home after giving a presentation to chambers in another part of the state about the Bull City Startup Stampede, a contest designed to show start-ups why Durham is a dynamic place to live and work. Stampede winners work in a common space in downtown Durham for free for 60 days, networking with others in the shared space and meeting with established entrepreneurs.

Both men wanted to build on the Stampede's success, but change things up a bit. During the ride, they reflected on what they have learned from entrepreneurs. For starters, founders had described the importance of building the density of entrepreneurs with whom they could network and brainstorm. Founders also "talk about starting in a space the size of a closet," says Klein. Some used borrowed furniture and labored endless hours. Regardless of their work environment, entrepreneurs recall the early days as the most fun—the period when they were the most passionate about their work, he says.

From those thoughts, The Smoffice sprang to life. The plan? To hold a competition for a start-up company interested in settling in downtown Durham. The winner would receive six months of space in a tiny office situated in the window of a coffee shop, plus a rent-free condo within walking distance of the workspace, and introductions to people who could help them succeed.

Getting buy-in from their bosses was critical. "A lot of other cities haven't gotten to the point to try out-of-the-box, creative things," says Coppedge. Adds Klein, "Their leadership is really what's driving this." He describes Steinbacher as a creative leader who pushes her staff to think beyond the typical. Take a look at the chamber's web site to get a sense of what he means. A succinct introduction begins, "Let's face it. Businesses don't conduct business the way they used to …" Instead of traditional staff bios, the site features employees' answers to offbeat questions such as, "If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?" and "Rock, Paper, or Scissors?"

Steinbacher says Klein is known for his "crazy" ideas around the office. Her job, she says, is to "get over the craziness." Given that the Startup Stampede turned out to be "incredibly successful," she says, the idea of The Smoffice "didn't seem bizarre at all."

Making it Happen

Chambers' Role in the Entrepreneurial World 

Startup strategist. That's Adam Klein's job at the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. It's not a typical title for a chamber employee in a mid-sized city, but that's just fine with Casey Steinbacher, CCE, president and CEO, and a former chair of the ACCE Board of Directors. "It's very unusual," she says, "but it's very appropriate for Durham." Steinbacher created the position to determine how the chamber could best interact with and support the city's growing tech industry entrepreneurs. "The smartest thing I ever did is realize this is not my world," she explains.

Klein is responsible for "leading the chamber's entrepreneurship efforts and accelerating Durham's position as the hub for entrepreneurship in the Southeast," according to the chamber's web site. Steinbacher is passionate in her belief that chambers everywhere, to varying degrees, will need to embrace and understand today's entrepreneurs if they want to be relevant in 10 years. Says Steinbacher, "I worry that, as a profession, we view the next generation of business leaders as just younger, but the same. But they're not."

Here are a few things she has learned from start-ups in her community:

Today's entrepreneurs are "serial entrepreneurs," she says. Chambers are accustomed to working with business owners who start a company and run it for 30 years. Instead, today's entrepreneurs "start with an exit strategy," she says.

The majority of tech start-ups' clients are outside the chamber's marketplace. They are spread around the country—and around the world. Therefore, "sponsorship means nothing to them," she says.

Many are venture-backed, so joining an organization to meet would-be investors or lenders is not necessary.

They have a greater interest in social good and are committed to a more even work/family balance than many established entrepreneurs. Therefore, night and weekend events hold little appeal, she explains.

"They talk to each other big-time," she says. That includes transmitting information via social media, spreading the word—both positive and negative—instantly.

"They do not play well in command and control circumstances," which has been the method of traditional ED executives, she says.

"They have no fear of failure," says Steinbacher, something she especially values. As a result, "I don't fear failure like I used to."

The next step was convincing Dorian Bolden, a former financial advisor in New York who is president of operations of the Beyu Caffe, to give up prime real estate inside his coffeehouse, bistro and bar on West Main Street. "I was skeptical," admits Bolden. "I was a little cautious." The space that the organizers had in mind wasn't merely a sunny spot in the window, but the location of the café's stage. "The entertainment part of our business model is a very big component," Bolden says, explaining his initial reluctance.

With the blessing of the city and construction assistance from sponsors, Coppedge and Klein arranged to relocate the performance area to the rear of the café. Bolden was sold. The organizers' sterling reputation didn't hurt either. "These are two guys who are really well liked in the community," says Bolden. "I admire their ingenuity and hard work ethic and creativity."

With the Beyu Caffe on board, Coppedge and Klein lined up an architectural firm and construction company to transform the space. The partners found businesses willing to supply a tablet computer, high-end office furniture and wi-fi for the contest winner. And they scoped out a one-bedroom loft in Magnum 506, a hip, modern condo complex in downtown Durham.

Thanks to the donated services of a local design firm, the chamber and DDI developed a web site. Visitors to www.thesmoffice.com did not find a lengthy entry form or pages of fine print there. Instead, they found a 3½-minute video shot with a Flip camera starring Coppedge and Klein, inviting entrepreneurs to compete.

Dressed in jeans, they appear inside the Beyu Caffe, outside the café and inside the condo, addressing the audience as if they were old friends. Viewers learn that it takes them exactly eight minutes and 46 seconds to walk from the café to the condo. DDI and the chamber also promoted the contest via Twitter and Facebook, relying on existing entrepreneurs to spread the word. And they launched a mobile campaign using a QR code placed in the window of the Beyu Caffe.

To enter, aspiring entrepreneurs needed to submit a one-page business plan and a 60-second YouTube video explaining why they wanted to work in Durham. Entries were open between Feb. 29 and March 30. The web site also included contest rules, but they weren't written in your father's legalese. Rule #3 read, "The participant will add intrigue, excitement, and fun to Main Street with his/her presence in The Smoffice storefront." It was followed by this simple translation: "Durham isn't boring, you shouldn't be either."

And the Winner Is …

Out of 21 applicants, the selection committee picked The Makery as the winner. "This was a tricky selection," says Steinbacher, "as we needed a real company that could last and grow and at the same time have enough personality to live in a window for six months. We think we found the perfect blend and a perfect fit for Durham."

The Makery, a start-up Internet-based business, will be a flash sales site offering items crafted by North Carolina artists in limited quantities for a limited time at prices lower than what customers would pay at a craft show. It was founded by three sisters who grew up in Durham. Middle sister Brita Nordgren Wolf, an artist herself, says, "I have found most local craft fairs to be filled with support, fellowship and an unspoken alliance between artists. Our hope with the Makery is to create a virtual community that embraces these same qualities but allows for a broader reach."

"We wanted a company that we thought the community in Durham could really help," explains Klein, who knew the Makery could benefit from the wisdom of existing tech entrepreneurs. Its business plan was appealing, too, because Klein believed it had the ability to "scale quickly" in other parts of the country. Coppedge said the start-up's unique marriage of the technology and art worlds, as well as the Makery's potential to help local artists, worked in its favor.

Krista Nordgren, the youngest sister of the founders, heard about The Smoffice competition via a tweet from an entrepreneur who participated in the Startup Stampede. With only a few days before the deadline, the trio scrambled to enter. "We did not have a business plan at all," recalls Sarah Rose Nordgren, the oldest sister. At the time, she was immersed in a writing fellowship on Cape Cod, Krista was a college student in Illinois and Brita lived in Asheville, N.C. They did, however, have experience creating a video from three separate locations. They had produced one for their Kickstarter.com campaign, which netted the company about $4,000. (Kickstarter.com is a crowd funding website for creative projects.)

With Sarah Rose's fellowship ending April 30, the timing of The Smoffice opening couldn't have been better. She arrived just in time for the World's Tiniest Ribbon Cutting on May 1. Krista also moved to Durham following graduation, while Brita remains in Asheville. Working in The Smoffice took some getting used to, Sarah Rose says. Passers-by stop and watch her work, point or explain the concept to friends. And while the Beyu Caffe is a terrific spot to meet other entrepreneurs, the lively hub is not so terrific for making phone calls.

A Home Run

So far, The Smoffice has exceeded everyone's expectations as a catalyst in promoting Durham's vibrant entrepreneurial scene—and helping a start-up succeed. Those involved say it's all about making the right connections. For Coppedge and Klein, that means reveling in the free publicity the Smoffice has generated. A few years ago, DDI executives identified a list of media outlets whose attention would signify that the organization—and Durham—had truly been successful. They included Fast Company magazine, the New York Times and TechCrunch. This year, The Smoffice garnered attention in all three, as well as several other publications. Of particular pride is the mention in
Techcrunch.com because it's the largest tech and start-up blog, boasting more than 4 million readers, says Coppedge.

For the Nordgren sisters, introductions and networking opportunities provided by the organizers have turned out to be the most valuable aspect of The Smoffice to date. It's been "a really great help" to be "put into a network that's already been vetted," says Sarah Rose Nordgren. She has been introduced to attorneys, accountants, web developers and others who have helped the trio hone in on their priorities and the best way to achieve their goals.

The Makery

To learn more about the winner of the Smoffice competition, visit the Makery's blog, or follow them on Twitter @TheMakeryNC. View the video prepared for its Kickstarter.com campaign.

For Bolden, its' been about seeing his space—and his business—in a new light. He's so happy with the relocated performance space that he plans to leave it as is. He'll probably do the same with The Smoffice since patrons have raved about its potential as a cozy work and study space. Is there anything he plans to change? Thanks to The Smoffice competition, he has a newfound awareness and appreciation of his business' role in the local start-up scene. As a result, he is mulling over the best ways to "reach out to the entrepreneurial crowd who wants to come here and work," he says.

To all involved, the secret to the success of the Stampede and The Smoffice lies in the foundation of entrepreneurs who already called Durham home. "We are not trying to create [an entrepreneurial community]," explains Coppedge. "It was already here. We're just trying to enhance it."

Katherine House is an award-winning business writer who lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

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