Virtual Means Unreal; Therefore, It’s The Wrong Word For A Networked Company

The editorial staff of Inc. Magazine didn’t show up at their Manhattan office for one month, but still managed to produce an issue. No they were not protesting working conditions–they were experimenting with virtual work dynamics.

Here’s what Inc. learned: Crunch the Numbers; Get the Tech; Settle In; Master Your Emoticons (And Everything Else About Communicating Online); Explain Yourself; Consider Your Culture. This fifth step concerns reputation and how to manage it.

This insinuation — that our experiment in doing without an office was a prelude to shutting down the business altogether — betrays a widely held prejudice about virtual work. Outsiders are apt to view even the most successful virtual companies with a measure of skepticism, if not outright derision. Convincing them otherwise means carefully managing perceptions about yourself and your company.

“Never say, ‘We’re a virtual company,’ ” advises Tony Conrad, who, in addition to founding Sphere, is a partner in True Ventures, a VC firm that has invested in several virtual companies. “Say, ‘Our headquarters is in San Francisco’ — or wherever — ‘but we have employees all over the place.’ ” He recommends renting a small office if necessary; you can use it for meetings with potential investors, clients, and business partners. This is the approach taken by one of Conrad’s portfolio companies, Automattic, which leases an office on San Francisco’s Pier 38, a block from founder Matt Mullenweg’s home. It has some desks but no computers, and most of the time it’s empty. “It makes visitors and partners feel better,” says Mullenweg. “But I don’t go in at all unless I have a meeting.”

I’d say never say, “never say.” Not in a culture that values transparency. However, I do value and practice the fine art of brand positioning, and understand that a company is best positioned when it has a physical office. Even if it’s just for meetings.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.