Remember when everyone with their own business wanted to work from home? The benefits seemed endless - making calls in your pyjamas, meeting clients at Starbucks, free coffee in your own kitchen. The setup had its pluses and plenty of converts. But there were drawbacks.
Downsides included working in your pyjamas and meeting clients at Starbucks. In other words, isolation and a loss of professionalism and structure.
But technology usually catches up to problems, and in March, 2009, Toronto entrepreneur Gratuz Devanesan jumped on a trend he sensed was about to take off - the virtual office, or as he likes to call it, "the office cloud."
Mr. Devanesan, who had previous experience working out of his own apartment, knew the drawbacks first-hand. And he was encountering people with small, startup businesses who were struggling to work at home, or just lacked the capital to set up a large, professional office of their own. He wanted to offer a solution.
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"We were looking at how we could improve people's office expenses and experiences by providing a professional service at a substantially lower cost," he says.
"A lot of people with a business don't actually need a permanent, elaborate space. They just need a professional space they are comfortable working in - a place to meet with clients and present things. We realize that small companies, when they get off the ground, just really need an address, and a meeting space, not a long lease and a lot of expense. That's when we realized the idea of a virtual office had potential."
On that premise, in March, 2009, he started Officeexec. Today the company has 120 virtual clients and 45 permanent office clients and will open its fifth location in Mississauga by the end of the year. The offices are in prime Toronto locations - Bay and Bloor streets, the heart of the financial district on Bay Street, Yonge and Sheppard, and Bloor Street West near High Park.
The smallest office space available is 60 square feet, the largest, 400 square feet. There is no long-term lease - clients rent what they need by the month. Officeexec also offers spaces that can be rented by the day, or on an as-needed basis.
Mr. Devanesan's goal is to create an "office cloud" around Ontario's Golden Horseshoe. He also sees opportunity for expansion in Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver. "I'd like to create a virtual office grid," he says.
For $149 a month, clients receive the roaming use of office space at any location, or permanent space where they need it. They also get full receptionist services - there's always someone to answer the phone in your company name, forward messages and sign for deliveries. They get an address and portable phone and fax numbers they can take with them. Clients also get 10 hours of boardroom time each month.
But Officeexec isn't just for startups. Established businesses have found the service useful as well.
Carter Hoppe, an immigration lawyer with offices in Toronto and Dubai, says: "Every once in a while I wonder how I practised law 15 years ago."
Mr. Hoppe has been in business for 30 years and spends two-thirds of the year in Dubai, and the rest of the time in Toronto. He wants to feel at home when he's working in Canada, and toyed with office options. He considered renting space from another law office - at a cost of $1,500 to $2,000 a month - but stumbled across Officeexec's services while researching options.
Now he is sold on it.
"The virtual office is an in-between method," he says. "Previously in my career I had a full standing law office and wasn't getting much benefit from it.
"The downside is it's not mine and my name isn't on the wall. But that's minor compared to the positives of very minimal overhead costs and not having to sign a lease."
His month-to-month deal with Officeexec, since December, 2009, provides him with office space at Bay and Bloor, phone and fax service and numbers he can take with him, a receptionist to answer the phone and accept mail and 12 hours of fully equipped boardroom availability, all for $149 a month - what he calls a "superior product at a fabulous price."
Adam Evans, chief executive officer of Evolve Thought Media Group, a new, small advertising agency specializing in Web design and online marketing, has been using Officeexec for a little more than a year and loves the flexibility. "Essentially they don't charge for the little things that some of their competitors will - they include everything at one fair price. Basically, it helps keep overhead costs low."
His previous company, which he sold, paid about $4,000 a month for a physical office space. He currently spends $149 a month. "I don't foresee an end to our relationship any time soon," Mr. Evans said.
He has recommended Officeexec to five of his clients, and all have signed on to work in the "cloud office."
"We don't want startup businesses to feel small and startup," Mr. Devanesan says. "And we don't want people who have been in business a long time to feel worried about their professionalism and clients judging their setup. We really feel like we can service any kind of business, and give them all the professionalism they need without any burden."
Shawna Richer is an editor in Report on Business. She writes about small companies doing interesting things with technology. If you know of one, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.