Can the worst workspaces still create success?

They say an Englishman’s home is his castle, but what about his place of work? 

Most people can’t choose the location where they earn they keep, although they may be able to choose how they earn that keep. What’s more, even those that go it alone are often restricted – financially – when it comes to the location in which they set up shop.

Dragon’s Den star and British entrepreneur James Caan is said to have started his first recruitment company, his initial step in building a bona fide empire, from an office in Pall Mall that was so small he couldn’t open the door fully without hitting his own desk. Hardly impressive for visiting clients, one can only assume that he avoided such meetings given where he is today. But what’s really important about the story is the reason why he opted for that particular address. The prestigious West London borough known for its affluence looked better on letterheads than other parts of the city, which may have been able to offer him better accommodation, at a fraction of the price.

So what can we take from this? Well, for starters, books should never be judged by their cover, yet first impressions always count. It’s more important to project the image of booming business than it is to focus on the creature comforts we would associate with good quality, modern office spaces. Caan isn’t the only one who has had to suffer some pretty cramped conditions in order to get himself up and running, either, as we quickly discovered. The self-employed share one thing in common, it would seem, irrespective of their trade – an understanding of the word endurance, for the sake of realising passions and dreams.

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Amy Weaver is one such entrepreneur who, along with business partner Pavel Komarov, currently lives something of a dual life. For ten months of the year the pair are quite literally at sea, dealing cards in a floating casino on board a cruise ship. They are also in the throws of establishing a company making specialist toys, inspired by a one-off they created for a friend with cerebral palsy. Although a manufacturer for their product – Hippomottie: Out Of This World Learn To Dress Toy – has long been confirmed and they are preparing to unveil their creation to the world, there is still much to do from their ‘office’. Which is a cabin, located wherever the current itinerary takes them.

“Living, working and playing in such a confined space definitely has its downsides. There's been some fairly heated arguments over simple things, such as a font colour or size, especially as we've got closer to the launch on Kickstarter, simply due to the fact that we can't really escape from each other, or Hippomottie, our loveable Space Hippo,” Amy explains.

“There's also the weekly cabin inspections where we've had to hide our designs and prototypes from prying eyes, while making sure our bed/office desk is made with our life jacket neatly placed on top. Personally, I always find life boat drill the low point of my week. I mean what other business has to endure standing out in the heat trussed up in a fluorescent orange foam filled life preserver for over an hour, when they want to be getting on with the important tasks at hand. Still, at least we're prepared in the unlikely event that our "office" ever sinks!”

Despite these drawbacks, Amy is clear on the fact that, contrary to what some may assume, tight quarters do come with some benefits.

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“There are a surprising amount of pluses to our unusually small working area, though. The commute is non existent, we get 'free' hot food three times a day and if we fancy we can always take work outdoors, as during the day there's usually a beach or seafront café nearby. Plus, of course, there are very few day to day real life issues to contend with, i.e. supermarket shopping or household chores – God bless the room stewards.”

There are plenty of other examples out there, too, both on and offshore. Jukebox is now one of the UK’s leading music agencies, specialising in both new releases and events, with a client roster that includes festivals from Vietnam to Amsterdam. Alex Jukes, the man behind the company, first launched his firm in a shed, before gaining traction and growing into the current set up. Now based in Central London, with an ever-growing staff base, he’s perseverance personified, for want of a less clichéd term.

1200 Plates makes specialist kit for vinyl turntables and other DJ equipment, and is based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Set up by Ric Morley, whose artisanal products are now sold worldwide, with a huge US market accounting for highest proportion of customers, he echoes the sentiments that it’s not where, but what you do that makes a business successful.

“It started out in the basement of my house here in Hebden Bridge, shortly followed by an artist studio, then a storage unit in Todmorden before moving to our current location,” Morley explains. “Working alone from storage units can be lonely, especially when you don't have the luxury of a window. While at work I have absolutely no idea what the weather is doing or if it's already dark outside, which means I can only handle a couple of hours before I have to go outside just to see some natural light.”

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Again, he also agrees there are some benefits to unorthodox offices that may not immediately present themselves.

“Storage units can easily double up as offices as long as they have a power supply, meaning you can have an office, drive-in storage and a packing and dispatch unit all in one at a very low price. I think if you have the right product, a good method of advertising your product, a room with power going to it, and the internet, then you can sell just as much as you could in any brand new modern office block.”

Ultimately, then, what these examples show us is that everyone has to start from somewhere, whether that’s a bedroom, shed, or ship, and even if you can’t open the door because of your desk, the sky is the limit in terms of what can be achieved. After all, entrepreneurship is all about belief in yourself, and what it is your doing. 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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