Beyond brick-and-mortar

For someone who works exclusively online, Vancouver-based web developer Matthew Janik spends a lot of time pressing flesh.

Janik says face-to-face meetings and traditional networking have allowed him to build Fringe Media into a successful operation serving professionals throughout Clark County. As old-fashioned as that might seem, Janik, like other local entrepreneurs, has combined his personal relationships with an entirely 21st-century workplace: the virtual office.

"There's no sense in having to spend the money for an office space," Janik said.

When he first meets a client or needs to check-in, Janik goes to them, instead of the other way around.

"When we're trying to do a website for a company that reflects the unique character of the business, we want to get a feel for that unique character."

Janik lives in Vancouver. One of his salesmen lives in Beaverton. Fringe's coder now lives in Lake Oswego, but he's about to move to Texas to attend the University of Dallas. When he does, he'll still have his job with Fringe, Janik says.

This dispersed team of web developers collaborates by way of a remote server. When they need to talk, they use Skype, a software application which allows for free, unlimited computer-to-computer, as well as a paid computer-to-phone communication service. Skype also allows Fringe's staff to share video and even views of their computer desktops to discuss what they're working on.

"All of our information is cloud-based," Janik said, referring to data stored via the Internet, as opposed to data stored in a physical server location. "There's security in that. If there's a fire or something like that it doesn't matter. People can move and nothing changes and the thing never goes down."

In addition to Skype, Fringe uses Google's suite of free online applications to collaborate with one another and with clients. Google Sites, for example, let's Fringe build a complete mock-up of a Web site that Janik says he and his employees can share with clients.

"People can contribute code snippets, they can contribute ideas, and we put up all the copy so they can see how the site is going to flow," Janik said.

Janik likes Vancouver, but still feels close enough to a large creative pool centered across the Columbia River in Portland for jobs which require skills outside Fringe's capabilities. By incorporating in Washington state, Fringe has taken advantage of the tax benefits to doing business in Vancouver, Janik says.

Meanwhile, Janik's developed local brand recognition by getting to know professionals in Vancouver in person. When potential clients ask to meet him in his office, he counters by suggesting he'd prefer to sit in theirs and see how their business operates.

"I say you don't need to pay me to have an office," Janik said. "There are companies in Portland who charge money to have a cool building downtown and cool art on the walls and cool cubicles."

Fringe isn't Vancouver's sole online-only operation. Maya Muller Design Studio employs four full-time designers, all of whom work on their own schedules from home offices in Washington and Oregon.

"We use technology pretty much to do everything," said Muller, who launched her business five years ago and whose clients have included state agencies and large institutions, both based locally and as far away as Austin, Texas or Ohio.

"I haven't met a lot of our clients face-to-face," Muller said. Her firm uses a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server to exchange information with clients. When she needs to show them the designs of a hard-copy project she creates a digital document to share with them.

"A lot of our clients are pretty savvy," said Muller, who still meets face to face with her clients, which include the Port of Vancouver. Still, she said collaborative technologies like iChat and Skype have allowed her to reach other potential customers, as have social networking tools like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

"It really opens doors for us as far as who we can work with," she says. "In the very beginning there was more of a stigma of having a home office."

Other developers like Jamon Holmgren still value traditional office spaces. Holmgren owns Vancouver-based Clearsight Design. He communicates with some clients exclusively through email, phone and instant messaging. And while two of his employees work remotely, Holmgren still works out of a small office.

"Without being able to meet with someone face-to-face, you don't have the ability to judge them on how they interact with you." he said. Though Holmgren uses Skype and Google Documents to work with some customers, he said most small business owners don't want to take the time to learn how to set these services up. Nevertheless, Holmgren says his overhead has been reduced by relying on a smaller office and working with off-site employees using virtual private networking and collaborative tools.

Commercial real estate agents don't seem specifically nervous about virtual offices. As of last month, Clark County's vacancy rates remain at a historically-high 18.3 percent, according to Adam Roselli, a broker with Vancouver-based Eric Fuller and Associates. That rate has slowly declined each month since last August, but it's far from healthy. Still, in his five years in the business, Roselli says he's only had one tenant shut down his office and transfer employees to home-based work.

Like Roselli, Jim West of Coldwell Banker Commercial Jenkins-Bernhardt Associates says the market's slow growth has more to do with businesses postponing decisions on office space in an attempt to ride-out the effects of a lingering recession.

In fact, West said advances in mobile networking may actually be helping brokers connect businesses with office space – making the commercial real estate business more competitive.

"All of the different types of technologies, web services and places for leads we can use in the electronic media … make it easier to disperse our information," he said. "It also makes it easier for the smaller guys to do so as well."

Image caption:

Using a mix of networking technologies,colleagues at Vancouver’s Fringe Media,including company founder Matthew Janik (seen at far left) and web developers Glenn Diviney (left) and Thomas Janik (above),collaborate with clients and each other, often without ever stepping foot in an office.
Design by Megan McDonagh_VBJ