Thinking outside the cubicle

Gainesville's new high tech startups reflect today's freedom-loving “no-collar” office culture

Kevin Awe reaches back to save the ball from going out of bounds while playing "chair volleyball" after lunch at Digital Brands.

Matt Stamey
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 at 3:09 p.m.

It's nearly 9 a.m. at the downtown Starbucks. Time for the changing of the guard.

The 9-to-5ers who fill the cubicles of Gainesville's law offices, insurance companies and government agencies head out, bifocals tucked in jacket pockets and to-go coffees in hand.

The chairs and tables now fill with the jeans-and-T-shirt crowd, more likely to be wearing headphones or earbuds than jackets or ties.

They are the “millennials,” the under-30 workers who are drawn to Gainesville's growing number of high-tech startup companies. And they are changing office culture here and throughout the country.

There are about 80 million millennials in America, with approximately 10,000 more turning 21 each day, according to a study by MTV called “No Collar Workers.” They grew up texting and using Facebook and Twitter. For them, every day is casual Friday. They expect more from their office environment than the Baby Boomer generation of 50- to 65-year-olds that raised them.

Toby Sembower, the 38-year-old CEO of Digital Brands, takes a shot at explaining the differences of a digital age.

Launched in Gainesville two years ago, Sembower's startup with 10 employees now pulls in about $4 million in annual revenue.

What his employees have in common, he says, is a passion for whatever project they are working on.

“You really get the best out of employees if you are concerned about their long-term happiness in their position and within the company,” he explains. “That means giving them more that just a paycheck.”

Sembower worked in a traditional office setting more than a decade ago, then spent 10 years working in space above his garage. He visited Google and other giant high-tech firms in the San Francisco area to test their office culture before launching Digital Brands here.

“I could see the energy employees there drew from their work environment,” he says. “I wanted the same thing here.”

Digital Brands designs, builds and creates the images and marketing campaigns for half a dozen online branded sites such as

You won't find the employees' dogs lounging around the office in the 4,000-foot loft space across from the courthouse square. But Sembower explains that employees have plenty of time to walk them before heading into the office.

“We have non-traditional hours, starting at 10 a.m., and we are typically here until around 7,” he says.

Free snacks and drinks (including beer) are at hand in the fully-stocked kitchen.

An hour before lunch, a menu from a local restaurant is passed around the room.

“You write down what you want, it is delivered and set up, and the company pays for it,” he says.

Lunch is followed by a little friendly competition to break up the day. It might be paper-airplane racing, a putt-putt golf challenge, trashcan basketball, a limbo contest or chair volleyball — so popular they've laid out a court with tape on the floor and bought a net to stretch across it. Winners get gift cards.

Sembower describes the office atmosphere as open and collaborative.

“We have to be able to share (computer) screens with each other, and we're generally working at tables. We need to be able to communicate quickly and freely, without walking out of one office and into another to share an idea,” he explains.

“We encourage new ideas. We have a break between big projects that gives us time to talk about possible side projects and together we try to pick the right one.”

In a more traditional company, often tagged as a “cube farm,” Sembower says employees “walk into their cubicles and it feels lifeless. You don't feel that you are part of something bigger.

“You can be inspired to work hard if you know you are appreciated as an employee.”

In MTV's survey, half of the millennials responded that they would “rather have no job than a job they hate.” Asked to rank a job's desirability, “loving what I do” outranked salaries or big bonuses.

Research shows that 81 percent of millennials think they should be allowed to make their own hours at work. They maintain that as long as the work gets done, the amount of time spent in the office shouldn't matter. In the MTV poll, 70 percent said they need “me time” on the job, compared to 39 percent of the Baby Boomers.

Joyce Bono is a professor of management in the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business. She admits that even her Ph.D. in organizational behavior isn't enough to predict how the freedoms of today's startups will influence office culture in major corporations.

Can the “one-for-all, all-for-one” togetherness of a startup survive as a firm needs bigger offices and more support staff?

She concedes that the data on changing office culture is limited, but cites the work of another organizational behavior specialist at Stanford, Jeff Pfeffer. Pfeffer shared his views in a November 2013 article in Businessweek titled “Sorry Kids, Corporate Power Hasn't Changed.”

Bono thinks the world of work is changing, but believes the hierarchical culture of the bigger corporations will win out in the long run.

Agapitus “Augi” Lye, 35, describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur.” The University of Florida College of Engineering graduate has established himself as an important cog in a growing network of startup companies in downtown Gainesville as well as the Florida Innovation Hub on the former site of Alachua General Hospital.

Lye is the CEO of Trendy Entertainment, developers of the successful digital-download video game Dungeon Defenders, and inventor of ToneRite, a company whose device ages any stringed instrument.

He's another believer in thinking outside the cubicle.

“Traditional companies need to start believing in their employees and stop stifling talent with process,” Lye warns.

Lye says in making a new hire for Trendy, which has 85 employees in Gainesville and 120 worldwide, he “looks at where their heart is.”

Joining any startup company is very high risk, he concedes.

“You don't really think long term. You are caught up in the passion of the moment. You're thinking 'how can I make this software better' and 'how can I survive now while making this business into an amazing company?'”

One of the things that motivates Lye and others to launch a startup is “the horror of a big company, being stuck in the cube farm of some Fortune 500 company and being lost in the mix.”

As for himself, he says, “I'd rather starve for a little bit and work in a tiny company in order to say, 'I made this myself. I'm in control of my own destiny.'”

At Trendy Entertainment, according to Lye, everyone has a voice.

“If you create an environment where your voice will be heard, you can attract brilliant people,” Lye says. “And if you are a brilliant person, you want your voice to be heard.”

Andrew Lipstein, 25, is director of digital marketing for Wear Interactive in downtown Gainesville. Wear builds brands through websites, and apps and digital marketing campaigns.

Lipstein came to Gainesville from New York, attracted by the active startup scene that spreads from the Innovation Hub to downtown.

Gainesville, he says, is a place where “incubators and idea centers (like HackerSpace) welcome anyone with a taste for disruption.”

The thing about the office culture at Wear Interactive, Lipstein says, is that you don't actually have to BE in the office to advance the team's goals. Half of the company's dozen employees are based in Gainesville. The creative director works from Costa Rica. The guy who mans the New York-area office is linked in via Google Chat, Skype, text, mobile, email and Trello. One of the company's programmers recently moved from Prague to Auckland, a transition that has gone virtually unnoticed, according to Lipstein.

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