Sunday, March 30, 2008

Location! Location! Location!

It has often been said that real estate has only three rules:
location, location, and location. Finding a place to locate
your business—no matter what your business—is
important. Where is the best place to locate a
technology-centric business in Columbus?

Using the business of retail is instructive for determining the
factors that weigh in on the decision of business location.
Retailers need to be accessible and convenient for their
customers. Retailers need to understand whether they're drawing
in foot traffic that just happens to be around and looking at
what's available or whether their customers already know what
they're after. The past few decades have seen the model of
“build it and they will come” replicated time and
time again. It's a model that presumes that people will drive
from wherever they are to wherever you are. For retailers with
a need for foot traffic, we've got shopping malls to address the
need for both destination and means to facilitate browsing.
Build It And They Will Come is a model that seems to work
until the next destination is built and people drive
there instead of your destination. Consider the
once-popular Northland, Eastland, and Westland Malls. Then
there was City Center. Easton. Tuttle. Polaris. At the rate
we're going, Columbusites are going to be asked to drive to
Cleveland to shop—but that's a topic for someone else to

Technology-centric businesses have different factors to
consider. Products and services are typically delivered
remotely. That's true whether you've got an online retailer, a
software development house, or an IT organization in support of
a business enterprise. Where retailers need to think about how
to get customers to them, we use technology to get what we have
to our customers.

In technology, we are more concerned with keeping our people
productive. That issue is often evaluated with a very
short-term view. We think about things like bringing food in so
people can work at their desks through lunch. We think about
glamorizing the Startup Life so we can get them to work an
average of 417.9 hours per week. When your event horizon is two
or three years, you can be talked into doing some bizarre things.

An important issue for us to remember, though, is that the more
time our people spend focused on getting our product or service
delivered, the less time that they spend thinking about what
else is happening out there in the world. This can be
dangerous. New tools and techniques get developed and have
implications for how our people do their work. If our
programmers are chained to their computers, they're going to
miss things that ultimately will put them—and the business
that relies on their skill—at a disadvantage.

When my firm graduated to real office space in 2002, we
considered many issues. Ultimately, we recognized that in our
business, people spent a lot of time alone, thinking things
through and writing. Sometimes they wrote code. Other times
they were writing documentation. To keep them able to stay
on-task we needed to provide a means for them to stay connected
to the world around them while spending so much of their days in
their heads.

We also thought a lot about quality-of-life issues. I had done
a stint at a very fast-moving time at what was AT&T Bell
Laboratories when I started and by the time I left was being
split into AT&T EasyWeb Service and some part of the IT
organization of Lucent Technologies. AT&T was big enough
that it operated almost like a city all by itself: you could get
there early in the day and leave many hours later, after taking
care of far more than just work. The proximity of people
working on other projects to discuss ideas, options for food,
etc., kept people productive not just for short bursts but over
long periods of time. Decades.

Shortly thereafter, I did my obligatory tour at a dot-com
startup, in the early stages of the Internet Boom at the end of
the millennium. Although the company was full of brilliant
people, everyone was working on pretty much the same project and
it became difficult to get facetime with people working on other
things. Practically every time we wanted to get something to
eat we would have to pile into a car and go. Then drive back.
Work hours where you're covering more than one meal a day and
that's a lot of time wasted driving around in the car. Throw in
the need to deal with anything else, like buying something to
take home, and it just became an endless misery behind the
wheel. The simple logistics became a distraction.

With that experience (and the pattern being reinforced with time
that I was working full-time at THE Ohio State University), I
concluded that we needed our business to be in a relatively
densely-populated area. We needed the ability to come into work
and focus on what it was that we were doing, able to include
with others in neutral territory (such as a restaurant or coffee
shop) easily into the workday. We needed to be able to have
ready access to services for everything from workouts to dry
cleaning and from breakfast to a haircut. In our case, as a
technology-centric professional services firm, we also needed
ready access to where many of our clients could be found.

We didn't really have all of those things available in the same
place anywhere that I could find in town. Downtown was close,
but in 2002 options were pretty limited for getting anything to
eat after about three in the afternoon, at least until dinner,
and even then, there were only a few places to go. The area we
scouted, at intersection of High St. and Long St., was in the
middle of a Special Improvement District, and it was expected
that people would move into the area. Realizing that if exactly
the setting that we wanted didn't already exist we'd need to
build it, we opened our office downtown at 5 E. Long St., in the
same building where we are today.

Today, downtown is quite a bit more vibrant than it was in those
days. I walk down the street and see clients, business
partners, service providers, and neighbors everywhere I go. I
take the bus in from where I live in Eastmoor early in the
morning (just before six o'clock), head to the Athletic Club of
for a workout and breakfast, then over to the office
for work. Even with the limitations of COTA, it's easy to get
to almost anywhere I would need or want to go and I need a car
only very rarely—usually for road trips. (In those cases,
it's more economical for me to walk two blocks to the Budget
Rent-a-Car and use that for the day than it is for me to charge
a client for mileage.)

For us, downtown was a good choice for us in 2002 and it has
proved to get even better since then. It gives us the ability
to keep people working hard and productively, without isolating
them from the rest of the world and having them develop the kind
of myopia that can sink a firm dependent upon technology being
developed and deployed expertly.

What do you look for in location? Where are the best places in
town to satisfy your requirements?

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