Creating Startup Office...on a Startup Budget

Jessica Tenuta

The story of how Packback — and our equally scrappy, entrepreneurial landlord — turned a vacant space in Chicago’s South Loop into a true home for our team on the tightest budget you can imagine.


 

Packback has lived in 6 offices in our 4 short years of existence. Ok, maybe 6 is an exaggeration…since our first “office” was actually just our 4 person founding team clustered into a very, very dirty college apartment.

The last four years have been quite a journey. We’ve come a long way from starting as college students with no connections, no money, no degree and no experience…to partnering with all of the largest publishers in America, and having our platform in use across the country by over 50 universities. We’ve helped over 120,000 students save money on their books (over $14 Million in fact, by our calculation!) with Packback Price Comparison and Packback eTextbook Rentals. We’ve had over 100,000 curious questions and answers posted on our platform. We’ve had 83 professors this semester integrate Packback into their classroom as their full ‘classroom curiosity solution’.

And the Packback team is no longer just 4 scrappy college kids with a dream of making education more valuable for students. We’re a team of nearly 20 product designers, engineers, sales team members, and community managers… all with a shared purpose of awakening students’ fearless, relentless curiosity!

Our most recent space was a sublease with our dear friends at Learncore, another awesome Chicago online education company focused on corporate training. We moved in back in the summer of 2015, but it quickly became clear that we were both growing so fast that pretty soon we’d be sitting on each other’s laps! We were having an Alice in Wonderland problem…a team growing so quick that suddenly we were far, far, far too big for the room in which we sat!

Packback never planned to move into our own space until another year or so, and once we realized our need for our own office were a very real reality, we turned to our dear friend Brad Serot, angel investor in Packback and EVP at CBRE Downtown that had been working with us since September. Brad is a notable Chicago angel and is one of the most well-connected folks we know. Brad challenged our thought process of what space we wanted to be in and why, what would work given our budget, all the way to our options for furnishing. One of our biggest concerns was how much of a distraction the process of coming to terms on a lease would be. We were going through it for the first time and November was a critical time for our company. Thanks to Brad, the process was seamless, stress-free, and his support and advice through our leasing process helped us stay focused on running the business. If you’re a year away from even thinking about potentially hopping into a space, having folks like Brad in your network is critically important.

As luck would have it, our friends at Matchup.io had recently moved into a new space in River North owned by a landlord who had been awesome throughout their whole process of moving in. 

That’s how we met Ed Magnus, the scrappiest, most entrepreneurial landlord in the city of Chicago…or perhaps, anywhere. Ed rolled up his sleeves, shared his experience, and worked along side the Packback team every step of the way.


 

Ed took us on a tour of the South Loop space that would eventually become our new home and we were greeted by a sea of grey carpet, server rooms, old wooden desks and conference rooms. It was last occupied by a trading company; a company just about as far from Packback in personality, design and working style as any two businesses could be.

But Ed saw the potential.

The location was right, the size was right, and Ed made the decision to offer a build out on our space to make it truly “Packback’s”. Ed brought his friend Jeff Prussack from Plan the Space in to learn more about what we wanted to create with the Packback space. We of course wanted to squeeze a lot of us into the space (our college frugality is still alive and well in our leadership team), but we also wanted to create a space that truly felt like a home.

If we expect our teammates to spend most of their waking hours in the Packback office, it better darn well be a place where they want to be.


 

Jeff came back the very next day with beautiful space plans of how the Packback space could look, post-buildout. He planned for a library with a working area, a family room with a comfy couch, a conference room, two mini breakout rooms…and even a bunk bed loft for getting some quiet work done! We were smitten, and construction started the very same week in October.

Soon, walls were knocked down, carpet was ripped out, and the new Packback office was beginning to take shape.

As construction continued, we began a hunt for the thriftiest possible furnishings to fill out the space. We began our search on Craiglist and spent a weekend driving around scooping up frugal finds. We hunted down a picnic table for the lunchroom for $100. An antique kitchen table and chairs for $200. One of our thrifting destinations actually led us to an Ancient Syrian Museum that had closed its doors and needed to liquidate some chairs. We scooped up gorgeous 22 vintage chairs for $200 to fill all of our conference rooms. And our teammate Billy Walsh even donated his family’s old couch to the Packback Living Room.


 

We had thrifted a ton of our furniture, but we still were missing some of the most major budget-breakers: work desks and a conference room table. This is where Ed, our landlord, stepped in and volunteered to build our desks out of scrap wood from cubicles torn one of his other offices. We picked up $4 metal legs from Ikea and we were able to build 28 desks for $16 a piece. Ed is really so much more than a landlord to us; he is a part of the Packback team. He got in there right along side us and got his hands dirty, and helped us make this budget-conscious office a reality.

When all was said and done, we had furnished a space for 28 people for under $6,000…or $214 a person!

This office was literally built by the hands of our team. From putting together furniture, to donating books for our library, to cutting our own logo for the wall, to wiring the internet…everyone came together to make this place great.


 

When the build out was finished, our team all came in on a weekend and banded together to assemble an office-worth of Ikea furniture. We all ended that Saturday with some very sore hands (from those tiny little ikea screwdrivers), but the office was furnished! We laser cut the Packback logo out of white acrylic right down the street at the MakerLab at the Chicago Public Library to hang in our foyer. And last but not least, Our senior dev-ops engineer Brandon Papworth came in late the night before we moved in and hand wired every desk for internet and set up our wifi system to withstand anything we throw at it.


 

 

 

We’ve been in our new space for four days now and we are excited about what this office means (and what it doesn’t). Just because we were too big to sublease anymore doesn’t mean that we are willing to be frivolous with our spending — we prioritized putting in the elbow grease to furnish this space for less because looking for ways for to do more with less is a core part of our company’s DNA. Our own office space isn’t “success” in and of itself…it just sets us up to be focused and allow for future growth in a space that lets our culture come out fully.

To us, a “cool” office isn’t something that builds culture…instead our culture allowed us build this space.

Reflecting on where we’ve been and where we are now, it’s hard not to see that at every point in our growth we have been lucky enough to be supported by great people who helped us get to the next level.

From our very first investment check from Alan Matthew…to being given temporary homes at Leo J. Shapiro research, Catapult, ContextMedia and Learncore; from being supported by amazing investors like Brad Serot throughout our growth…to meeting great people like Ed Magnus and Jeff Prussack who helped us create this space, I am constantly struck by the importance of people in building anything of significance.

A company, by definition, is a collection of people working towards a shared purpose. It’s not your product code or your sales script or your office that define your company. It’s the people working side by side with you who believe in where you are going, and want to help you get there. We might be a little bigger, but we’re still just at the start of what Packback can (and will) become.

And I personally couldn’t be more excited for where we are headed and who is by our side.

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If you're looking for great people to help you find, rent and furnish a startup office, talk to these guys:

Ed Magnus

Timber Creek Realty

[email protected]

 

Brad Serot

EVP, CBRE Downtown

[email protected]

 

Jeff Prussack 

Architectural Services 

Plan the Space

[email protected]

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