Modsy's office is lovely. That's a given.

Interior design is the startup's dog food--which, in accordance with Silicon Valley mores, it must eat.

Modsy makes software that helps independent designers craft personalized room-renderings, complete with product recommendations. The venture-funded company is in fast-growth mode; in 2017, Modsy's volume of orders increased 10 times over the previous year, and its number of customers grew about 500 percent. Since what it sells is interior design, it's no surprise that the company's almost 60 employees work in a San Francisco headquarters decked from door to door with thoughtful, spirited design. Shell chairs in a rainbow of gelato-case-worthy shades dot one room. Walls are adorned with geometric decals, carefully arranged from floor to ceiling. Tall plants or hanging sheaths of wallpaper draw the eyes upward. In one room--the bathroom--there's a gallery wall tribute to design pioneer Elsie de Wolfe.

When Modsy set out to design its own office, the company had recently raised $2.8 million in seed funding and was determined to stay frugal. The goal was to spend around $5,000 for furnishings and decorWith that tiny purse, it wouldn't be hiring a "starchitect," or constructing a three-story-tall living wall, as did Airbnb down the street. Instead, the company managed to outfit its first major headquarters itself, in an imperfect space, to perfectly suit its needs as a company. Modsy is a case study not only in how to pull together a stylish office on the cheap, but also how to really make it your own.

48 Hours to a New Office

Founder Shanna Tellerman incubated the idea for Modsy within Google Ventures and officially launched the design app to the outside world in 2015. At the time, her team worked in a house--a "live-work" situation.

Once the staff passed the 20-person mark, it was clear that cramming more desks into every corner, closet, and hallway would no longer cut it. So in 2016, Tellerman found an affordable sublet on the second floor of 121 Minna, formerly an industrial building.  

Some of the team raised an eyebrow about the space initially. One employee recalls it had a "frat-house bedroom" vibe, thanks to large national flags hanging on the walls. Then there were the antiquated architectural quirks: a weird nook above the kitchen, a creaky freight elevator, and, mysteriously, a tiny attic tucked inside one closet.

In retrospect, it was the perfect challenge for an interior design startup. Once the lease was signed, the team moved out of the house in a dash. They had one weekend to decorate the new space. The following week, Modsy was scheduled both to debut its app to the public and to throw a big launch party for friends, family, partners, and investors. The strange new office with the frat-bedroom conference room had to look put-together--and look like Modsy--in two days.

The scrappy 28-person team made up of interior designers, artists, and style-minded engineers, dove in. "Design was really important to us, but we didn't want to be that Silicon Valley horror story of pouring all of our money into expensive furniture," says Alessandra Wood, the company's director of style.

They stayed on budget both by doing all the furniture assembly themselves and by scouring for deals. They found knock-off Eames chairs (pictured below) for roughly $125 for a set of four (the real thing sells for $450 per chair). A team-member scored coordinating antique tables on Craigslist for $100 each. The geometric wall decals came free, thanks to a partnership with Los Angeles-based wall graphic company Blik. Retailers who work with Modsy's designers also gave the company some free sample furniture.

Make a Plan--and a Layout

To make the process as efficient as possible, the Modsy team laid out the furniture virtually before moving it in. Using Modsy's own software, they 3-D modeled the seating arrangement for the common space, which had to do double duty as a cafeteria and all-hands meeting room. They also modeled out several seating nooks and conference rooms and furnished them using their service's own recommended products. 

When a freelance designer uses Modsy's software to create a photorealistic model of the customer's room, she mocks up the space with real furniture and décor. The 360-degree rendering is zoomable, moveable, and entirely shop-able. Customers pay $59 or $149 per room, and the designer receives a substantial chunk of the fee. Modsy makes most of its revenue by referring customers to the retailers selling the products featured in the mock-up. So, the company's secret sauce is not its advances in 3-D photorealistic renderings, but rather nailing the customer's individual style preferences and suggesting the right products. Modsy does this by giving customers a style quiz and then categorizing the results into one of several "style genomes," such as "Atomic Industrial" or "Rustic Minimalist."

The new office space was a chance for the company to show off some of these popular style genomes. At the time of the 2016 move, "Mod Visionary"--a sort of minimalist, eclectic take on Mid-Century Modernism--was a customer favorite. So the team put together a typical Mod Visionary nook, complete with a deep purple wall, a designer couch sent to the company by partner Interior Define, and a black-and-white wallpaper called "Queen of Spain," sent by F. Schumacker. (The pattern apparently had been used in Mick Jagger's London flat.) They hung the beloved wallpaper on a dowel rather than applying it to a wall. This office was a sublease; they loved the paper too dearly. 

In another corner, staffers assembled a vignette from the "Industrial Chic" genome, with a red bar-cabinet ($600) from West Elm and a colorful rug ($200) that several Modsy staffers have since purchased for their own homes. Now, with multiple Modsy-designed rooms of the sort typically served to a customer, the small staff was not only ready for their launch party--but they were really eating their own dog food.

What Really Makes a Cool Office?

Months after settling into their Minna digs, the team members still adored their new space. It wasn't necessarily for the style, though they were proud of the aesthetics. Their attachment to it was personal: each of them had put in the sweat and the creativity to make it what it was.

Employees genuinely liked being in the office, despite the long hours and complex challenges of growing an early-stage startup. Thursday nights you'll find much of the team working late and then gathering for "Retro," a team-building, game night/project presentation all-hands meeting. One recent Retro featured a Wheel of Fortune. On another night, there's office "curling"--pushing one another around on wheeled desk chairs. And there's frequently in-office karaoke (because: They have an in-office karaoke machine). 

"We've used that central space for so many fun team events--it contains the feeling of the memories we've made and the fun we've had there," Tellerman says. "That's what actually makes you happy in a space."

Not that she wants her staff to get too comfortable. Among the many innovative policies Tellerman has developed for her staff is one that sounds at first blush like a productivity nightmare: Every few months, the entire seating chart is redesigned. Everyone moves.

"It's fun," says Victor Gama Sabbithi, the company's lead engineer for its 3-D team. He explained that with the rapidly growing headcount, roles change frequently enough that the quarterly shuffle is necessary. It serves another useful purpose: Teams that will be working together most intensively the following quarter are seated near each other.

After the first quarterly shuffle, Modsy's collections manager, Jacqueline Bott, noticed some subtle changes. "It really unlocked some of our ability to work together--fast," she says. "Everything felt a lot more collaborative." 

Replicating the Magic

Now that Modsy has grown to nearly 60 people, soon it will be time once again to take down the wall decals, ditch the wobbly knock-off Eames chairs, and move into a more spacious office in San Francisco's South Park. Executives say it will be clean, bright, and newer construction.

"Every inch will be useful," says Tellerman.

Modsy's design-oriented employees are salivating at the prospect of a new office: It will be a fresh canvas, and much larger, at more than 8,000 square feet. An office-design committee is project-managing the move and soliciting ideas the company's own style team. They surveyed the needs of everyone in the company, asking questions like, Do you use video conferencing? Do you want more silence or more music? Do you ever use our white boards?

Some features of the old office will make the move--the karaoke machine is one. The fancy wallpaper is the other. In the new space, entire rooms will be devoted to each of the company's favorite styles, from Atomic Industrial to Rustic Warmth.

"I think it helps creativity to feel like you are moving into a different environment [when you go into a new room for a meeting or conversation]," says Elisa Marszalek, a senior creative stylist. "It's also fun to be able to do what we do for our customers for ourselves."

Modsy, now equipped with a total of almost $34 million in venture funding, is yet again working with a limited budget, which the company says was in the "low tens of thousands." Fortunately, there will be no need to move and decorate in a single weekend this time around. When the company moves on September 1, employees won't have to get up on ladders to apply decals, or spend their days off scavenging Craigslist for furniture deals. 

This time, their desks and their Modsy-designed conference rooms will be all set up.

Published on: Aug 27, 2018