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MediaTech Ventures’ Community Spotlight Ep.06 – Workscape Designs

It’s one thing to be a professional in a given industry and show up to an office or work from home, and do the best you can everyday. It’s another thing when your job is to design, source, and build work environments that covers the vision of the executive, inspires the client’s team to do their best and love where they ‘go to’ work, with the expectation to bring the ideal workscape to life.

Meet Heather Parauka & John Baran, founders of Workscape Designs. Together they have close to 50 years in their industry, and are two of Texas’ most sought after office design experts. Their story begins with both of them working for different organizations early on in their careers, quickly recognizing there was a lack of transparency and overall customer satisfaction, leaving them both desiring more than where they were.

They first met at an industry conference, where it only took one conversation for them to realize their shared frustrations with the ‘status quo’ of their industry, and the massive opportunity to fill that gap; helping pave the way to partnering up and launching Workscape Designs in 2012. Fast forward, Workscape Designs has helped dozens of companies nationwide bring their ideal work environment vision to life. There’s no company too big or small, they will help you build the ideal space while looking out for your best interests.

You’ve both been in your industry for quite some time. John, you’ve seen a lot since then, to now, what got you into the furniture business, and what are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen take place since you started back in 83?

John: That’s a very good question. Actually, the way I got into the furniture business was I simply just needed a job. So my mother worked at a company and worked with a lady and her son worked at the largest Steelcase Dealership in Arlington, Texas, and they were hiring. So I went there, got a job, and here I am now.

John: Well, the most interesting thing is the people and the evolution of people in the way they’re valued in the workplace. The Eighties was a very transitional time for people, we were coming out of the 70s, where people got whatever they wanted in the 80s we hit a recession. So things got more budget-oriented, manufacturers started discounting, really, really low. In the 70s, there was no such thing as a discount; their published list price was pretty much the price that you paid. In the eighties, we saw discounts all the way down to 50%. Then in the 90s, what I saw was, is if you were a talented person, they paid you. It wasn’t about the workspace nearly as much as finding talent and paying them. So we had all these jobs. And we’re looking for talent. Now we have a surplus of jobs, right. And people are trying to decide where they want to work. You go back to the early 1900s people were glad they had a job. They had a desk, an in-tray and out tray, and an ashtray. And they were in an open room. Everybody could see everybody that was the first open workplace. Nowadays people want to feel good about where they work, and how they feel. So now companies can’t just lure them with money. They have to create this work environment that’s consistent with the way they want to work and the way they want to feel. So that’s the biggest change. Now we have to create these environments to attract people to come to work. That’s never been the case before.

Heather what do you think were some of the big factors that led to, going from this era of appreciating you had a gig to paying top dollar for talent, while also having this experience in the workplace that really inspired them to come to work every day?

Heather: I think really just companies. I mean, I think the millennials kind of had a big impact on the workforce. I think they saw their parents and how hard their parents worked. And I know I did, I saw my mom go to a nine to five job, come homework, did some bookkeeping for my dad’s business that he ran. And so I just saw her work really hard and I think a lot of the millennials wanted something different. They didn’t want to just go to a job for 20-30 years, and do their time and retire, they want to go to a place where they can also have that work-life balance and enjoy themselves. And kind of have a mixture of both, they still do want to be compensated properly, but they want also, like John said, a good environment and a fun place to be. And I wholly believe in that as well. As one of the big things that I say to a lot of our customers is that you spend the majority of your life at work that you should enjoy where you work and enjoy what you do. So otherwise, you’re just kind of wasting your life doing something you hate. So I think that just a different mindset from different generations kind of really impacted how companies need to change their environment to attract them.

John, can you tell me a little bit about how Workscape Designs came to be, and how you and Heather kind of partnered up?

John: Well, I think just like any other company that has succeeded in the market, it comes because of something that’s not there. Something that’s missing, and the dealerships of yesterday, which are still very established in this market, don’t add the service level, that we tend to try to cultivate, we try to offer all the services, not just the furniture rented the interiors, into the specification of colors, flooring, the detailing of where walls will go, we’ll do the structured cabling, the electrical works, and GC work. So it’s just all these different services that several different people are not being managed well. And if you’re indeed you have a team of people, okay, you have all these people manager projects. But when you’re in the 10,000 square foot, and under specifically, the two to five, there’s not a lot of services out there. And that really kind of sets up people just to go to work because they can be taken care of, they can pay the premium to be taken care of. And so we basically have recognized, just like Scott over elevating, recognize that these people that are getting these smaller square footages need services, they need help.

Heather: I believe they are finding service, a lot of times I think they’ve taken advantage of and so I certainly noticed that like with some people that we were interacting with, was like, oh, that’s not a fair price, he didn’t help you all the way he may be helped you a little bit. But I think that also played a role too, I don’t like it when my customers are taken advantage of by other vendors. 

John: No and tech startup companies probably are the biggest single factor in bringing that awareness to the top because so many tech startup companies are brought into incubators. And for example, in the capital factory, once you reach about 18 to 20 people you have to get out. 

And so all these people have come up with a great idea and have gained great venture capital money and have got a great market share. And then they have to become a regular company, they can’t be in the capital factory or we work, they have to go ahead and get their own office space. And so now all these people are doing that and that’s I mean elevate is the best example of that elevate basically exists because of the lack of consideration for tech startups and helping them involve in their early seek money in A, B series funding.

That’s a very specific stage of an organization’s journey that you mentioned John. Heather is that primarily where Workscape tends to focus on, is that where you’re seeing the most opportunity?

Heather: I would say so yeah, a good majority of our business are younger companies, people that are growing, they could also be established companies that maybe they were established and successful underneath and other companies’ umbrella. So they’re finally branching out and opening their own space. We deal with big corporations as well, a lot of our house accounts are larger corporations with multiple locations. But yeah, I think here locally in Austin, a lot of our businesses are growing companies that are just starting out, don’t know what’s going on, haven’t done this before. So I think we’ve been very beneficial to them and being able to help them out with you know, complete agency services. So that way, they’re not so stressed about it. And they have a single point of contact from us.

John: Interesting, we started out as a nationwide company; we did projects nationwide in the amount of anywhere from 15 to 20 projects for several years. So 75% of our business was out of state, then we moved to Austin. And we really started focusing on the local business, because we know that tech startups are here and growing companies are here, Austin’s probably one of the best economies in the nation. So that’s one perception that we have to express to people, especially with people down that are going to have multiple locations, like Nordash.

Two questions here. Question number one is for you Heather, what are some trends you’re starting to see in the workplace and building out workplaces in particular? Then question two for you John. When’s the right time for companies to start engaging with organizations like yours?

Heather: So I think as far as trends go, I mean, pre COVID benching was a big thing the more open office environment, lower panel heights, collaboration or lounge spaces is huge, I think still is because people want to be able to get out of their desk and on laptops now. So they want to be able to bring their laptop to a lounge space or high top table in the break room or what have you and I think those two things are really, like excelling and growing as popularity in the office space. But now with COVID, tall panels, again, kind of like back in the 70s and 80s. And now segregation, but prior to that, it was becoming more open, even though there’s been a lot of studies that show that the open office environment can create less productivity and things like that. Companies just seem to gravitate towards that. A lot of the millennials, again, the millennials are having a really big impact on the workplace, I think that’s probably the most impactful generation in a while to create such change in an environment.

John: Yeah, that is kind of interesting. That ties back to my original point of basically, you know, right now, the people are driving, what’s important to the office department, because everyone is trying to protect their employees by making them work at home. And they’re not gonna bring it back in until they have the right work environment to keep their employees protected. In the early 1900s, that wasn’t a concern. You better be glad you have a job, and you were.

Heather: Just coming out of the depression right, so I mean, people were just happy to have a job and be able to provide for their families. Now I think getting a job isn’t as hard, we still have an unemployment rate and things like that, but I think it is pretty low, at least in Texas. And so I think people are pickier and more choosy than they used to be previously they take the first offer. And now you’re getting a few different offers, and you’re having to weigh your options.

John: And to answer your other question was when’s a good time? Well, when you’re thinking about looking for space, and you actually are trying to determine what is the square footage that’s going to work for you, that’s a great time to talk to us. Because we can work with you and your broker. Look at several different spaces. In other words, if you’re looking for a 5000 square foot, you’re probably going to find three spaces that are your top out of about 20 listings. Each one of those spaces is going to be plus or minus 5000 square feet. Each one of them is going to layout completely differently. And sometimes when you just look at the paper and you see the configuration you assume, okay, well there’s a conference room and there’s an office and everything else. But we’ve seen it so many times where that conference room really will not fit a four by eight conference table, it’s actually a three by six. And you thought that you could put eight people in, there are 10 people. And because you just look at it, it’s a conference room, why would you not think anything different. And then some of the offices are either so small that you can barely put a desk in there, where you’re facing the door because no one likes facing the back of their neck to be facing at the door. So these are things that will keep them safe from because there are some things that you want to do some spaces, in order for it to work for you, you maybe get the whole space, and you’re not going to get that much money in under 5000 square foot facility. And then some spaces, you may only have to change a few things. But these are all things that you need to know before you sign that deal. Before you give that letter of intent. So we call this the feasibility period when you’re trying to figure out what’s feasible for your new space. So that’s the important thing, another time that you can give us a call is when you sign the lease, but what happens is, is your timing goes from here to here. Now, your options for furniture goes from here to here, and your budget goes from here to maybe here because now you have to get in-stock, quick shipping stuff. And that’s not normally the best price product. 

Heather: I would add to that, by engaging with us in that feasibility stage, we’re able to help you budget the site, not only just for furniture, but for your move the data, the signage. So engaging with us on that front end process helps you plan your whole office move. And then I would also add that even if you’re not sure you want to move, you want to assess your existing space, maybe there’s a way for us to optimize it. And maybe you can put off moving for a year because we optimize it, we can add more seats, we can take out areas that aren’t being utilized, and create them for things that you need. So I would say there’s never like a bad time to get with us. I think that just the sooner the better. Because even if it’s a year out from a potential move, it’s still good planning. And it’s good for us to get involved and to start that consultation process and make you aware of some things that you may not know going into this.

John: It may help you either stay where you’re at or actually feel much better about going to the new space. If you look at Facebook and apps and all those guys. They’re there a year ahead of their moving date. If sometimes two years planning this whole thing out. So that tells you something.

Where do you see these bigger, high rises downtown that could potentially be vacant, in the near future? How do you see those transitioning into whatever is next?

John: Well for one, I see real estate prices downtown coming down, I see probably a bigger responsibility on the building owners to create this clean environment and have some protocols. So that way the people coming into the building will feel safe coming into the building, I think we’re going to be more disease concerned than we’ve ever been before. I think that’s gonna be a big focus of any HR, I think of the building owners as well. The very interesting thing that I’ve seen, since I’ve been involved in this since 83, and to now capital factory, we worked all these co-working spaces, start with these small groups, and they start to kind of like get them into one or two-person office, then they move to a six or eight, then they move to an eight or 12 office. So co-working by design. And the reason I noticed is that venture x which is a very big franchise co-working space, send up facilities across the country, they did a study of all the CO working across the United States because they wanted to know, how many single-person offices, how many two-person and how many eight-person offices when it comes to finding out that coworking is no different than these incubators, these venture capital incubators, they basically get them into the small offices hoping to grow into a bigger office helping them to grow into a bigger office. So our economy is really catering very much to the small businesses into helping grow them into bigger businesses. So that way, they can finally go to their forever home. Because when you when become a 20 or 30 or 100 million dollar company now, you don’t want to rent anymore. You want to build your building. Why do you want to rent, there’s no purpose in it when you can actually have the money in the cash flow too. And another thing that I see happening, Zoho is the best example of it. Zoho bought 450 acres to create a campus, but they own their building, they own their building in San Jose, too. So I’m going to see downtown is going to be very affordable. And it’s going to be basically great, having you for smaller companies to grow into bigger companies. I want to see bigger companies moving out to the outskirts buying land and building buildings. That’s my modest opinion.

Heather: I also think that when COVID hit, April, May like you’re seeing all these big companies were like, oh, wow, everyone’s doing great at home. We can get rid of half our real estate and we can lessen our overhead etc. But it was short-lived. I think a majority of employees like to get out of their house, like to go work in an office, have a separation of work and home life. And I think it’s going to go away. I think a lot of big companies will try it for a while, and they’ll give their employees the option to work from home and certain people that don’t mind doing that will take advantage of it. But I think it’ll start growing again, where everyone’s either has to be in the office or wants to be in the office. I think it’s short-lived sad really.

Let’s say I’m one of these companies coming out of an incubator, or I’m on 15-20 people deep, and it’s time for me to branch off on my own. What are some big, just some best practices, right, maybe some things that are easily overlooked, that you see all the time that they should keep an eye out for?

Heather: I think most companies coming out know they need furniture, know they need internet, I don’t think they like realize the process that goes into making sure that their space has the right cable or fiber connection in the lead time on that. So that is like something I advise them of, as soon as we’re connected. So that way, they can start that process on their own.

And I think also, they don’t really realize like a lot of them are like they’re still kind of scrappy. And so they want to work with the bare minimum of things, they don’t really think about how their people are going to work in the space or standard things that employees need to be productive. So they start to, like, skimp out on certain things because of budget, and we respect that I get it. But just simple things like they think everyone can work off Wi-Fi, for instance. So they don’t like hardwire the cubicles or hardwire the offices. And then inevitably, if we do have a customer that goes that route a  month or two then they have us to come back in, bring the cable and hardwire the connection to the desk because that’s an important thing to be able to be connected.

John: And there’s the one really big thing that most companies make is they forget to order that service to be there prior to their moving date, they assume they can make that phone call tomorrow, they’ll be there to put that service in, especially if it’s fiber, fiber takes up to 90 days.  When we engage with the customer, we give them a list of things that they need to consider during their project. And so until sometimes, even when we get that, we go over that with them to say, hey, make sure these are things that are very hot you’re the only ones that can do that you’re the only one that can do this, please make sure. And usually, some people take it and they run with it. And some people, we got to remind them week one, week two weeks 3-4. But typically, because we’re reminding them that it becomes real, but it’s just like anything else, a movie is, it’s way out here in front of you, right? But then eventually it comes to here, you have no choice.

Heather: We worked with the company kind of over the December, January holidays. And they were kind of incubating within a larger company space. And I had just given them a simple checklist, like John said, make sure you get your internet connection, your phone system, the same thing. Even if you have internet, sometimes the phone system takes about 60 to 90 days to get set up as well. And then also like if your business requires a license. So again, nothing that we can help with but we always like advice because they don’t think about it. But if you require a license to be in a space and operate your business and make sure you start filing for that, change your address on your website, change your address with Google, things like that, because then if you don’t do those things, and people are going to your old address not able to find you. So simple things like that, like people, don’t think about when they’re moving. So I always like to kind of just ping them and make sure they have that list.

What were some inspirational books, podcasts, sort of things that you listen to? Or you read? If I’m interested in this space, in particular, or do you get your inspiration outside of this space and from other forms?

John: Both in all, inspiration comes from all different places, I tend to pride myself in having somewhat of intuitiveness. I certainly like to listen, showcase has a podcast that comes down, I certainly like to listen to some of the things that they have to say about the work environment. Some of them pertain more to the larger companies, some of them universally pertain to all companies. But everything is about trying to make the office environment better. I’m a very process-driven guy, I can probably sometimes come across as a little intense. And that’s why Heather and I are a very good pair. It’s like I told you one time when you asked us how does the thing work between you and Heather, I said, well, you want me defusing the bomb, and Heather taking care of crowd control. And so that’s why we make such a great team. 

But something interesting, one of the most interesting books that I’ve ever read was, it’s not by chance by Goldratt. And he was an engineer in the 80s, that help format on-time delivery, believe it or not, prior to the 80s on-time delivery was a pipe dream. And nobody knows that. And so he came up with the process. And he wrote a book about it, and it read like a novel. And it was just a lot of really interesting things. And it was funny how math kept on playing a role in how he needed to change, this guy shows up at his plant in Springfield, Illinois. And so he shows up at a plant in someone’s parking space, and he finds out that he has 90 days to turn this factory round, or they’re going to shut it down. So he has to figure out how to bring him into the blackout of the red in 90 days. And it’s just very interesting. And he is always going to the meeting, and then he’s traveling, and he runs into his old math teacher, and his math teacher taught him statistical fluctuation. And what that is, is the human element. Like, for example, if you take 17, Cub Scouts, and you walk them through a forest, right, the line may start like this. But it becomes like this, in no time at all, it is not because of the first person is because of all the things in between that basically cause it to spread and spread and spread. So a process, in his opinion, was very much valued that same way, in some corporations, but a lot of value in buying that piece of equipment that produces so many do hickeys, and they want that report every month. So that way, they’re making sure that they’re getting the return on investment. Remember, that is their buying inventory, to what to make that product. So that’s causing them to be in the red Room, they had too much inventory. And it’s not speeding up the process and their deliveries are still not on time. So I found that book to be very, very interesting, very inspirational, but it’s a lot of practical application, just watching offices go up seeing what the problems they are after they move in. You’re gonna make some decisions that are not in your favor. It’s just the way it is. The real thing is, is we can get that to be less than 5% you’ll never notice it. You’ll never notice it.

Heather: My knowledge comes from just my educational background, I still pull from that on a daily basis. And any like-new office trends, I tried honestly not to really design a space off of the trends. Because I think trends come and go and so are trying to make spaces that are timeless and timeless in the sense that they’re going to be functional for that particular company needs long term. So I don’t really design on trends I design on, what my customers saying they need from the space, and how their employees are using it. So one of my big questions, I’m always asking, like, what’s your organizational breakdown? If we need to program the space, how many executives are there? What’re the people below them? Who do they take care of? And how do those people work? So say we are dealing with engineers describe to me a typical day for that person in that position, so I can understand how they’re flowing through space, if they’re doing that at all, or are they strictly at their desk? They have two monitors and one, are they spread out? Are they looking at things at the same time they referencing materials, or do they need no storage, so a lot of our vendors send out design information, then I’ll read those just so I’m staying up to date on trends? But I don’t particularly push a specific design, aesthetic, I really just playoff with what my customers are needing from their space. So we can make that something that is useful for the duration of their lease or the duration of their business.

When people think about Workscape Designs, what are you hoping comes to mind for them?

Heather: I hope they think of us and our passion and our drive, and loyalty, and our values. Like I always tell people, my dad owned a business when I was younger, and back then, I don’t even think he had an email. And so if he told you, he was going to do something, he shook your hand, that handshake meant something. And he taught me growing up, like, always stand behind your word, never project something that you can’t promise to a customer or you can’t keep. And he also taught me to have a strong handshake because I would say as a female and, uh, predominantly male-driven world, even though we’re in 2020 now, but it’s still like that. I think those traditional core values of running a business with honest integrity is how John and I really got together. I mean, when I first met John, he would tell me about his business and how he ran it and how he treated his people and his customers. And I was like, wow, like, we have a lot in common. Like, you don’t see that, I want people to be treated properly. I don’t ever want to take advantage of people. I want them to come here and know that we have their best interest in mind.

If you had a superhero power, what would it be?

John: To change the future. 

Heather: I don’t know if it’s a superpower, but to clone myself. I think I certainly need a few more of me. We say that a lot. I think I have one employee, that’s a pretty close second, but I’m trying to create a masterful, mini-me, but yeah, the stuff that I want to do and the people that I want to help I find myself being tethered in many directions. And it’s tough because I started out as a sales rep and now I’m an owner. And now, there’s responsibilities there, just the love and huge desire that I have for helping people to so I try to balance both and it’s not always easy.

How do people get a hold of you, and what’s the best way to engage?

John: You can go to our website, which is https://www.workscapedesigns.com you can engage that way or you can reach out to Heather and I and my email address are simple as [email protected] and Heather’s [email protected] and we will welcome you with open arms and help you and you will not regret the relationship. Not even for a moment.

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John Zozzaro

Thinker, Tinkerer, Problem Solver, Entrepreneur, Musician, Husband, Dad.

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