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The invisible office Featured

10:07am EDT July 22, 2002

You’ve heard of the paperless office. How about the officeless company?

Data Now Corp., founded six years ago by Karen Brown, employs 13 people, working from either residential offices or client locations across Northeast Ohio, and it has no physical office.

The company doesn’t need a storefront. It doesn’t need a receptionist. Though it does have a post office box, nearly all communication takes place via e-mail, and for that, you don’t need to spend $15 per square foot.

Data Now, which projects $2 million to $3 million in sales this year, provides Lotus Notes/Domino and middleware solutions to clients ranging from small, local businesses to multinational corporations. Lotus Notes combines messaging, scheduling, groupware, the Internet and seamless Web access. “Because of the technology the way it is, it’s the same working with the developer from England as it is the one in Youngstown,” says Brown, who calls Akron home.

The officeless office operates under the same electronic work-flow solutions the company provides for customers. It runs on two integrated Lotus Domino servers and has several chat rooms for day-to-day interaction: the War Room for sales and strategic marketing information; the Board Room (accessible only by the six shareholders) for corporate information; and even the Water Cooler, for small talk. The employees also rely occasionally on digital pagers and cell phones.

Besides saving on expenses, Data Now benefits from its virtual office because the electronic work-flow arrangement serves as a showcase of what it sells to others. The company’s motto: “Data Now—where the floor space is measured in megabytes.”

Data Now purchases a new computer for each employee. Most have one already, but if it wasn’t bought this year, it’s outdated. The employees already have the only other tool they need: an Internet connection.

“Everything we’ve saved by not having an office, we’ve dumped into the infrastructure,” Brown says. She notes that her appreciation for technology dates back 24 years ago, when she got her first computer. She was just 12.

Brown runs Data Now with Mary Morlan of Barberton, who is vice president of operations, and Mary Lou Kula of Parma, who is vice president of technology. The three together own 92 percent of Data Now’s stock; Brown has allowed three other employees to purchase small interests as a retention tactic. “The nature of this business is to steal everyone’s people. So what I did was offer stock to the key people in my company. We haven’t had any turnover in these key positions.”

For the rest of the employees, Brown says they enjoy the flexibility and freedom of a virtual company. “Everyone works really well on their own.”

So even though they have the online Water Cooler, how do they overcome issues of real, live camaraderie?

The principals meet in person every two weeks, and companywide meetings occur every month or two. Because they have no office, meetings generally are held at a restaurant. “In between, we do a lot of talking on the phone. And most of our work back and forth is done online. So when we get together in person, I already know what Mary Lou thinks and what John thinks,” Brown says. “So our meetings are just as much social as they are business.”

The formula appears to be working. Sales grew 1,000 percent in 1997 and are expected to increase 400 percent this year. Notably, Data Now this year won an e-business Development for the Growing Enterprises Fund award, sponsored by IBM, Lotus and the National Federation of Independent Business. Because of the flood of clients, Brown expects to double employment by year’s end.

She won’t rule out a real office someday, but doesn’t see a need in the immediate future. “It’s just fun right now because we’re building something different.”