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“A ROOM of One's Own” - Success from Anywhere w/Karen Mangia Special Guest: Brian Chen, CEO, ROOM

Updated: Oct 4



“A ROOM of One's Own” - Success from Anywhere w/Karen Mangia Special Guest: Brian Chen, CEO, ROOM





KM:

Today on success from anywhere an English teacher turned entrepreneur schools me about what the office wants to be when it grows up. And the answer might surprise you. Discover what homeroom and headquarters have in common from the leader committed to make room for a better way to work. Brian Chen, Co-founder and CEO of Room. Welcome to success from anywhere, Brian.


BC:

Thank you for having me.


KM:

Well, there's one question I like to ask every guest to get started. And I'm curious, what was your first job? And how did that job influence your career trajectory?


BC:

Well, you mentioned it, in your introduction, I actually had my first job as an English teacher in Ecuador. So I went to Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts college, where I studied English literature and economics. And I was so impacted by my professors and by the curriculum that I went through at Swarthmore College, especially in the English literature, where I felt I wanted to actually give that back. And so I went to Ecuador, I moved there with a college friend of mine, and I taught ninth and 10th Grade English literature, and I taught some of the classics, you know, things like mice and men, by Steinbeck and whatnot. And the concept was to teach it at this bilingual High School where I had an opportunity to shape the minds of young teenagers who are just coming into their own.



KM:

How did that inspire you? Or how did that impact what I currently do?


BC:

You know, I thought a lot about the concept of impact. And, as a teacher, you have a tremendous amount of impact on a group of students that sit in front of you, for five days a week during the school year. And that was incredibly rewarding. But it was also not what I was looking for in terms of the scale of impact that it wanted to achieve with, with my own ambition. So what I learned from that year was one, I think managing a classroom and classroom management is there's a lot to learn just in terms of leadership. What I learned about myself was that I had these ambitions of having impact that could really scale. And scale was a concept that was personally important to me, it doesn't have to be important, everybody, but it was personally important to me. And, and so entrepreneurship was really the avenue where I felt like I could have the greatest amount of real tangible impact where, you know, I do something, think you poke the universe and the universe responds. Right. And that was really kind of the key learning for me from my year of teaching that first job.


KM:

Your story is so relatable to the context happening right now where people are stepping back and thinking about what matters most. And impact and scaling impact, as you just shared is a theme that comes up consistently. What I'm wondering is, how did you stay motivated in that gap between intention and impact? Because that's not an overnight experience. You don't just set an intention and then realize this impact and scale it. How did you keep yourself encouraged along the gaps in that journey?


BC:

It's a great question, because there is this dark middle of the journey that people don't talk about, right? Where it's really important to shine a light on that middle part of the journey. And I think for me, it's always been about the idea that motivates. At the end of the day, it is ideas that will ultimately change the world, right? And after teaching English literature to ninth and 10th graders in Ecuador, one of the jobs I took was at a nonprofit called endeavor. And endeavor has a mission of supporting high impact entrepreneurs around the world, and helping them scale their ideas from their local country to the global stage. And it's had tremendous success, it's brought companies from Argentina, and Turkey to kind of the IPO, New York Stock Exchange stage. But the thing that always was clear is you need to surround yourself with people who are similarly minded. And you need to have that big idea. At the forefront, you have, you can't stop thinking about what that bigger vision is, and where you ultimately want to take your business or your particular business to. And you need to have people around you who are crazy enough to think that you can do it. So if you don't have that community of support, and that's mentors, peers, loved ones, just people who believe in you. Or if you don't have that bigger idea, always in mind that's nagging at you, are you doing enough to achieve your big vision, then it's going to be very hard. Because there is that messy middle, from when you're just having an idea, and aspiring to have impact, and there's a long struggle in between. But I would say that those are the two things in my mind that are most important to bridge the gap.


KM:

The messy middle, I love that. And you're reminding me of a really influential career mentor I had for years. And he described that gap between intention and impact as the valley of despair, right? Because when you set the intention, or have the idea, as you're describing it, you feel kind of a high, right, a little passion, some adrenaline. And then you feel like you're taking these steps, and that maybe getting to the impact, and you called it the valley of despair, your idea of the messy middle. What's interesting is you don't have to go start your own business to be an entrepreneur. I mean, an entrepreneur, I think, can be anyone who has a big idea and wants to start something. And so often I find people get stuck at that starting point. I mean, how did you think big X small as you've gone on your entrepreneurial journey to scaling your impact?


BC:

So to me, it's a question of curiosity. And oftentimes, you might have a big idea. But a big idea is a ball of yarn. And you have to pull and tug at the string of yarn to truly unravel the truth of it. And so when we started the room, it started off with a small idea, a small problem and evolved into the realization that we're onto a big problem. And so the way it started was, we realized and felt personally the pain point of noise, in lack of privacy and open floor plan offices, which was especially prevalent amongst startups pre pandemic, right. And it was such that it was the case that you'd have your marketing, or you'd have your designers who would be singing to the tunes of music, because that's the way they got into flow. And you'd have engineers who, literally, we're so upset about the state of affairs that they were, that's that was the number one complaint when it comes to work, workplace satisfaction. And it was very clear that there was this problem around lack of privacy and too much noise. Now that curiosity led me and my co-founder more than to try to understand why this problem exists on such a large scale and why it is so prevalent. And through pulling at that yarn and through a ton of curiosity and asking our customers questions and trying to understand an industry that we were completely new to, we realized that there were lots of underlying factors and those were related Should, oftentimes to maybe some non obvious stakeholders in the equation. So, if you're a business, you're oftentimes forced to sign long term leases 510 year leases. So how do you build out an office that does accommodate privacy at an affordable in an affordable way and in a way that can change to very quickly evolving ways of working? There are underlying issues when it comes to the number of stakeholders that it requires to build an office, whether it's landlords, brokers, general contractors, or Tex furniture dealers, the list goes on and on. And it's the complexity of creating the right solution that ultimately led us to think okay, yes, there's a need for phone booths in offices, yes, there's a need to solve for privacy and lack of, and a lack of spaces for focus. But to really get at the root of it, we have to create a new way of building offices. And that's really been what's motivating for us. So to bridge that gap, I suppose to answer your question between x small Think big. I think it is, for me, the connective tissue relates to curiosity, and to understanding what's a symptom of a bigger issue.


KM:

What fascinates me about what you shared, is that that curiosity took you on a journey to think differently about a fixed asset, an office office space, a lease, and turn a fixed asset into something flexible. Adaptability is one of the topics of our time. I mean, how did you move into this thought process of the adaptable office design really ahead of your time? Tell us about that fixed to flexible journey?


BC:

Yeah. So when we realized that this was a problem, I actually had a friend who runs a billion dollar startup that's seven years old. And he had told me that he actually went so far as to build his own modular phone booth, he hired a carpenter off of Craigslist, and built a phone booth with no ventilation. But that was isolated. And it was a very unpleasant experience. But he told me that his employees were there eight hours a day, because they couldn't find anywhere else to get a quiet phone call. And so I credit my friend, his name is Ryan Peterson, he's the founder and CEO of Flexport. For seeding the idea and actually being our first angel investor. And he introduced me to the idea that there could be something that would ship flat and assemble on site that would solve this problem of noise. And what I realized is that that concept was truly a replacement for construction. And that the alternative solution was to actually hire an architect, hire a general contractor, go through a complex permitting process, to physically build out this fixed asset, as you said, so what I threw this great pulling of the yarn discovery process, I realized that this was the seed of of that transition from fixed to flexible. If you can start to build interior structures within an office, using the logic of things that are prefabricated, modular, easy to assemble, then you change the dynamics, you no longer need to set up structures that are expected to last 10 to 15 years, even though you have zero confidence that that's going to be the case, you all of a sudden have the ability to adapt to your changing needs and the turnover time that's required. If you again, if you decided, hey, I want a focus room in my office, and you call your architect and call it general contractor. You reroute your HVAC, reroute electrical you route in a sprinkler, all those different things. It'll probably take you six months. Now if you use a product like rooms, it'll take you hours. And that is such a powerful change, where the value that is unlocked through that adaptability Honestly, is hard to measure because you're benefiting from time, you're benefiting from costs, you're benefiting from increased employee productivity and satisfaction. And it's just a completely different logic and paradigm of what it means to build out in the office. And, I think a lot of these types of innovations probably come only from people who are not from the industry. And I'll be very honest. My, my first job was as a English teacher is that as an architect, and it is, trying to lean into that naivete, and try to trying to rely on that innate kind of curiosity, where I think new approaches to old problems can be appreciated, and, really brought to market in a successful way.


KM:

And nostalgia is a powerful force. I mean, we can all relate to the feeling of being in an office in that open floor plan on a deadline, or a customer critical conversation, and you've got the loud talker, and somebody's heating something up in the microwave that, of course, explodes or is making popcorn. You're looking for privacy. I think in some ways, as people consider returning to the office, they're hanging on to some of those beliefs, that the office is this noisy, distracted, or maybe now even unsafe place? What other myths and misconceptions Do you see people carrying about the office that you would really choose to challenge and invite leaders and organizations to do the same?


BC:

Number one, I think that the commute that the majority of working Americans got used to pre-pandemic, is not going to return in the way that it had had existed. The idea of sitting in a car, two hours a day round trip. And sitting in traffic, and having to do it five days a week. There's just a lot of lost productivity when it comes to the commute. And that's something that is an assumption that we have to shed. I think that's leading to a lot of novel solutions that are coming to market right now, where there are lots of workplaces and lots of solutions that are embracing this concept of less of a centralized headquarters, but more of a distributed network of places to get great work done. And that's a macro trend that I think we will continue to see to accelerate. But I also think that when it comes to myths and misconceptions we are in such a state of flux right now, in terms of how we think employees will or want to behave, that the honest truth is, nobody knows. And being in the industry that we're in, I have followed the surveys that have been sent to employees from March 2020, to June 2020, to June 2021, to June 2022. And the preferences of employees, and what the expectations of employees have honestly evolved in such a staggering way that I think we are still standing on shifting grounds. We are not in any state of normal, we're not standing on any type of foundation. And so I think in that context, the only answer is to embrace optionality, adaptability, flexibility, because those misconceptions and myths are still around us that we can, those are still things that we take for granted, granted. So it's, it's an interesting time when it comes to returning to office or thinking about the future of office, but it's also it's a it's a motivating time, because for a company like room, this is our opportunity to help shape the future and to help nudge the working world towards outcomes that we think will be better and to be more inspiration should not for people to do their best work.


KM

What could the office be when it grows up? I mean, what's your ultimate dream? When you look out on the horizon? If you were to design the perfect, most adaptable, sustainable, productive office? What does it look like?


BC:

First of all I was I was I was, I will say it is, we believe that that room can become the brand and become the company to go to company that helps really define what it means to have productive, healthy, sustainable, creative workplaces. So that is what we wake up thinking about every day. Now, I think there is no single answer. And what I really truly believe is that the future is going to be a network of easily accessible, easily discoverable, distributed workplaces. So you don't have to travel an hour, five days a week, but you can access something that's closer to home, I don't think it necessarily has to be at home, because I think that everyone is realizing separation, a little bit between home and work is probably a healthy thing. But I think it's a network of easily accessed purpose built workplaces. And when I say purpose built, what I mean is that if you're if your work requires focused work, that you're able to access a place where you can get focused work done, if your work requires brainstorming and collaboration, you can go and access a place that's truly purpose built for that, that I think is going to be the future rather than more of that monolithic centralized headquarters and at room, what we're really focused on is trying to build make the building blocks of that distributed, workplace, easily accessible. So that's where we have the phone booth we have, the room that I'm in right now is called the focus room. It's purpose built for videoconferencing for the zoom calls for focus work, we also have purpose built meeting rooms. And these different form factors are going to be required across all sorts of different spaces and, and all sorts of all different types of geographies and not necessarily in a centralized place. So what we're doing is a little bit, it's a little bit of an unbundling of the office. It used to be, you go to the office, it's 9am to 5pm. And you're going there for it. Maybe Google is maybe the guiltiest of this, but you're going there to sometimes do your laundry, to meditate, to do your focus, work, to collaborate, to socialize, to build a sense of community. And that's a lot to ask of a single office. And when you learn on top of all those things, this high friction of commuting from home to the office, I think we're in basically this great unbundling of the office for more nuanced, multi purpose utilizations. And that doesn't have to be in a centralized place. There will always be a need for companies to bring everybody together. We just had an all company off site for the first time, a couple of months ago. And it was incredibly valuable. But we don't need an office that's designed for that purpose. And what we what we need is is easily accessible workspaces that are purpose built for the different ways in which we work,



KM

Unbundling the office could be a vision of what it helps me to imagine is a world where you would choose the kind of experience you want, and then search for the location in a secondary search. The primary would be what kind of work experience do I want or need to have today? Is it focused on time? Is it gathering time? Is it an off site, as you mentioned, and then where could I have that style or experience? I mean, is that doable?


BC:

I think it's 100 percent approval. And I think it's, it's, in my regard, in my view, it is the inevitable future that we're headed towards.It starts with purpose. What, what and what do I need to accomplish and how? And then the answer becomes a location in the real estate. And historically, that has been flipped, it's been, here's the location, the office, let me figure out how to make the best use of those artists and in real estate and location for the purpose. But that's kind of the wrong order in which to think about things, it's entirely possible to flip the equation, and I think that there are lots of solutions that are popping up to support this. And when I think about where the room is headed, I can see our products. And our products already are in places like multifamily real estate buildings, where landlords are deciding that if they want to attract people to one or two bedroom apartments, they actually need to have business amenities in the building, because people don't want to work from home, but people want to work near home. And we're seeing that we're seeing, we're having very active conversations with airports, hotels that want to reinvent entice lobbies, and their business centers, even retail, suburban retail centers that want to provide a place for people to get work done, like you said, Success from anywhere.You used to be able to be able to be productive, whether you're on a family shopping trip at the suburban shopping mall, or whether you're dropping your kid off for daycare, or whether you are on a business ship, seeing at a hotel, or even on a leisurely trip, or just on a extended stay during the summer somewhere. And the key to it is providing, I think, the tools for success. And that is definitely, definitely that includes internet connectivity and strong ability to connect with your co workers. But it also includes your AV setup, your laptop, of course, your hardware setup, and your ability to conduct calls like this. But the four walls are also really important, but it's actually less important. The four walls of the building, what's maybe more important is the four walls of your specific workplace. And that's what we're focused on. We're focused on interior architecture, the space that has the most disproportionate impact on your day to day work. And so I do think, if you have these modular building blocks that are easily deployable, shipping flat assembling on site, you can then have an access to these spaces, wherever you are. And that then allows you to flip the equation to think first, what do I need to accomplish today? Why am I doing it? How am I going to do it? And then to answer the second question where to where, if you have that distributed network, the work can be solved. But I think that's the right order in which to ask the questions.


KM:

And what you're describing is a flexible Foundation and the building blocks to make the experience of success from anywhere a reality. And as you were describing hotels and hospitality centers, I have to believe other people besides me picture the moment when you're in a hotel and you realize you need some space for a video conference or an important meeting. And do you find the business center inside of your hotel? And what's it like? There's barely a light, right? It's gray in there, there's a strange color, it's dim, it's in the least desirable real estate. And when you turn on the camera, you sort of look ill. It's echoing what you're talking about is truly making it possible to realize this vision of success from anywhere.


BC:

And my vision of that business center includes a printer, a scanner, and a massive conference room. And things that just are no longer relevant and the way that we work changes so quickly. We need to have dynamic tools to help us adapt and be ready for whatever way we want to work going forward.


KM:

Time Magazine named your phone booth, one of the best new innovations. Tell us more about the solutions that you offer. And lots of folks listening will want to know, have you designed anything for the home office? Because I know a lot of people with pets and kids who would love a phone booth experience in their own home.


BC:

Yeah, so thank you for mentioning that. Time Magazine named this one of the best innovations a couple of years ago. And it was for the phone booth. And it was because we were truly helping to create this new category of products that I mentioned, where we actually, it was in 2019, right before the pandemic, we surveyed our 3000 business customers that we had sold to at that point, we've now sold the 6000. But at that point, we serve the 3000 that we've sold to it. And we asked them if they'd ever purchased a phone booth, a modular phone booth or if they'd ever purchased any kind of modular architecture. And the concept was so novel for them that it was over 90% of our respondents that said, there's no room was the first company from which they had purchased modular architecture. And this was so exciting for us because it was, it's a creation of a new category, it's creation of, of a new, as I was saying, new paradigm of Office build out. And so we're continuing to expand upon the fact that the phone booth was truly designed and optimized for that 30 minute to an hour long phone call or video conferencing call. And we've expanded the footprint to accommodate different use cases. And with a focus on well focus and collaboration as being two primary modes of work, that in each has its own kind of unique design requirements. So we have a focus room and a meeting room. The meeting room can seat up to four. It's designed for hybrid collaboration. So we've partnered with Jabra camera where they have 100 To a degree panic caste. So that you can actually have great experiences for people who are both dialing to meeting remotely, as well as people who are sitting in the same room. And that's been an age old problem and a design problem that has been overlooked until the pendant. So we have these purpose built meetings that are really designed for hybrid collaboration, as well as, as I mentioned, the room that I'm sitting in right now, which is called the focus room for zoom calls. And we actually did a partnership with Zoom, we launched a product called the boom from for zoom, were partners with HP for the hardware and obviously zoom for the for the software. But that's we're just in the beginning stages of where we want to go. So we have these set of products that I just mentioned, we're looking to expand the footprint. So that the future we imagine is that if you're a company that wants to take over a lease, to expand or to, to just kind of bring your employees together, you can you can walk into a book, what the industry will call a white box environment, basically, all of the shell of the place intact, and have a modular setup where room products pop up overnight, and you have a dynamic, optimized workplace, for your employees. It's well suited to your culture, to the type of company that you are building, to the type of work that your employees are doing. So that's ultimately what we're trying to build. But we are, early in the early innings of our journey, and very excited to continue bringing new innovations to the market.


KM:

Because I'm fortunate to spend time with entrepreneurs and innovators. People often ask me, where does innovation come from? Or what if I have an idea you've described throughout the course of our conversation, a great life cycle. Think about innovation, I mean, first, find a problem, you are passionate about solving. Second scope, the magnitude of the problem. Third, listen and look, how are others trying to solve this problem? You described people building this phone booth experience that was terrible to get to an outcome at the cost of the experience. So you said, hey, we'll solve for a better experience. And then you talked about deep customer listening. And now what you're describing to us is asking what I call the genius question, which is, how could we make this easier? I mean, imagine a construction list office and easier renovation, reducing time to making your space valuable?


BC:

I would definitely say that there's a sprinkle of relentlessness. This required and put in just pure will. Because, I don't think it's ever easy to bring a new, completely new idea into the world into making it widely adopted, because by default, you're changing an understood and accepted way of doing business. And so, sort of bringing that kind of novelty into the world. Yes, it requires the things that you mentioned, also, I think requires conviction in relentlessness.


KM:

Well, well said. And we were talking earlier in the show that challenging the way we've always done things, especially with something like the office, is challenging. And I work with a lot of leaders in organizations. And I know you do to her feeling stuck right now. And you were quoted as saying, we need more workplace pilots, and less workplace strategy. I'm going to paraphrase your statement here, but what advice would you offer to leaders and organizations to get them unstuck, from pondering and into piloting?


BC:

Yeah, so thank you so much for bringing it up. Because one thing I forgot to mention actually, about our entire portfolio, is that what we have done is we've embedded occupancy sensors into the products themselves, we've embedded technology so that you can understand how the products are being used, you can get real time feedback on whether employees are using the focus spaces more than the collaboration spaces, or what hour of the day, essentially you can create a heatmap of your floorplan to understand what the what your the flow of the day looks like what the flow of employee work looks like. And for us, that's such an important element of what we're building because modularity is one leg of the stool. Insight data and insights is another leg of the stool. And the third leg is the ability to act and reconfigure and actually be responsive to changing needs. And that's why I made this statement, which is that we need more workplace pilots and less workplace strategy. Because if you put yourself into that old world where you say, we're going to take our 10 year lease, and we're going to design a workplace strategy that's going to be valid for 10 years, it's going to rely on this ratio of deaths to conference rooms, and this is the way people are going to work. Your mindset is, instead of failure. Because things are not that static. And if we weren't anything over the last two and a half years of the pandemic, it is that things change quickly. And there needs to be this tight feedback loop, where you try something quickly, inexpensively with something that ideally would be modular, and also that you test and learn with sensors or technology or whatever data you can collect. And that you have you set yourself up with the ability to adapt, right to, to iterate. And it is this. I think people are thinking about returning to the office. If you're thinking about how they would design a new office for the next 10 years, they're weighed down by the gravity of the decision. What does the future of work look like? And that's an immense amount of gravity to be living with. But the reality is that we can be more. It's more iterative. And the much better response is to get things out there, see if it sticks, and, and continue to evolve. And that's what we are trying to enable. The inspiration for that statement that I made was inspired by an article I read about Mayor Bloomberg. And what Mayor Bloomberg had said, when he was mayor, New York was he, he just decided to call a lot of things late. He called Central label a lot of his projects, pilots, rather than new policies. Because with a new policy, it's, it's that's a heavy weight, inflexible mindset. Whereas if you say, this is a pilot, we might cancel it, we might take it back, we might change it. It's much faster and easier to deploy. And that is 100%. The mindset that I think we need to take to the physical world. And that's the belief that needs to be made. Because most people don't think about atoms in the physical world as something that can be easily iterated, iterated upon, usually people think about iteration through the lens of UX design or, apps, web applications. But the reality is that we were, I think, what we're trying to do, and I think what the world wants is for there to be this kind of application layer in the physical world that can be iterated upon. And that can be optimized. As, behaviors change.


KM:

Do the doable, men, that's what you just described, a policy mindset is fixed, and says, what's our 10 year $10 million plan? The pilot mindset puts you into flexibility that says what could we do with 10 minutes and give ourselves permission to change what you describe there as within reach for every organization. And when we all hear the word pilot, we are in a different mindset, we expect change. And speaking of change, I want to take you into a little segment that I like to call take five. And the inspiration for take five is people say all the time, how much they miss these spontaneous watercooler inner interactions. And so we're going to take five right here, before I ask you one parting question. Here's how to take five works. I'm going to ask you five questions related to the office and I want you to give us the first answer that comes to mind. Are you ready to take five? I don't know if I am. I'll give it a go. All right. So here we go. Take five imagine that we're in the break room. There's free snacks and drinks, whatever that looks like to you. But here we go. Take five when you were a kid, Brian, what did you want to be when you grew up?


BC:

I wanted to be an entrepreneur. That's the truth.


KM:

You're living your dream come true. That's awesome. What is your favorite guilty pleasure office snack?


BC:

I mean, we provide fruits to the office so an apple, honestly, like you feel guilty about eating an apple. I don't feel guilty now. But I'm not a snacking person. Honestly, I like yeah, I missed three meals a day a person and not that much of a snack person.


KM:

You've just busted the entrepreneurial myth. I mean, there was no Red Bull. No Sour Patch Kids. Nothing. Amazing. Amazing. Okay, next, what is the best excuse you've ever heard or given for missing a meeting?


BC:

Oh my gosh, what comes to mind? I have done this myself. Where I literally forgot to set an alarm clock. And, I showed up late for a meeting because I overslept.


KM:

We've all been there. We've all been there. What do you keep on your desk that inspires you?


BC:

A stack of books.


KM:

Ah, fantastic. And to whom are you most grateful for investing in your career?


BC:

Too many to name to be honest. There's, I think the exercise of entrepreneurship is betting on the unproven, whereas the exercise of building a company from scratch is betting on people who are unproven in their careers. And that's certainly been the case for me.


KM:

One last question. Before we go now that we finished up our five round, you got a break from all the questions about the future of the office. One last question for you, what do you want your legacy on the office to be?


BC:

We would like nothing less than for a room to become the most significant brand in the future of work to be the brand that is synonymous for fun, productive, creative, healthy work environments, that will inspire people to do their best work like that is the legacy that we hope to leave behind.


KM:

unbundle your office, that construction list office, all of these are possible as we look forward to the future of work. Thank you so much to Brian, founder, co-founder and CEO of room. Thanks for joining us on success from anywhere because success is not a destination. Success is not a location, success is available to anyone, anywhere at any time.







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