Ot­tawa’s rockin’ new work­places

Bor­ing old cu­bi­cles are quickly be­com­ing a thing of the past at re­gion’s ris­ing firms

Ottawa Business Journal - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID SALI david@obj.ca

From Lixar’s mu­sic-themed head­quar­ters to Shopify’s hip down­town digs, these def­i­nitely aren’t your fa­ther’s of­fices

Lixar co-founder and CEO Bill Syrros read­ily con­cedes he was “para­noid” the first time he saw the com­pany’s name spelled out in gi­ant letters on the front of its new Coven­try Road head­quar­ters.

“It’s the first sign we’ve ever had in our com­pany’s ex­is­tence,” says the af­fa­ble tech en­tre­pre­neur. “We spent 15 years never hav­ing any­one be able to point out that we’re here (in Ot­tawa).”

Alas, Lixar’s cover has been blown. Since the mo­bile app devel­oper opened its new home last month in a for­mer fur­ni­ture out­let, Mr. Syrros and his col­leagues have been in­un­dated with texts, e-mails and Face­book mes­sages.

“Some peo­ple were like, ‘I didn’t even know you still ex­isted,’” he says with a grin. “Thanks for the vote of con­fi­dence.”

He laughs. Mr. Syrros can af­ford to make light of his firm’s bash­ful­ness.

Lixar has achieved its suc­cess qui­etly over the past decade and a half, mostly fly­ing un­der the radar while build­ing a cus­tomer base that in­cludes ma­jor air­lines, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions providers and car­mak­ers.

The com­pany now boasts nine-fig­ure an­nual rev­enues and a staff of more than 70 in Ot­tawa, as well as a 40-per­son satel­lite of­fice in Hal­i­fax. Once Lixar be­gan to out­grow its for­mer home near Lit­tle Italy, Mr. Syrros and his team de­cided to go all in, pur­chas­ing a drab in­dus­trial ware­house with the in­tent of re­mak­ing it into the ideal en­vi­ron­ment for staff.

“At some point in time, you’ve got to re­ward your­self for do­ing good work,” he says. “This is fi­nally a place that our em­ploy­ees are truly re­ally proud of.”

And for good rea­son. The 30,000-square-foot shrine to tech­nol­ogy – and mu­sic – is a se­ri­ous con­tender for the crown of Ot­tawa’s coolest of­fice space.

Pro­ject man­ager Shel­ley Fraser wanted to keep a “ware­house feel,” Mr. Syrros says, and coined the term “warm-tech” to de­scribe her vi­sion for the space. The warmth came partly from some­thing near and dear to Mr. Syrros’s heart: mu­sic.

When he, CFO Em­manuel Flo­rakas and man­ag­ing part­ner Leroy Wiss­ing launched the com­pany in 1999, “we lis­tened to mu­sic con­stantly,” says the long­time CEO, who is still a fix­ture at fes­ti­vals such as Austin’s South by South­west. “We were all down­load­ing mu­sic by the mil­lions of files on Nap­ster. It was like this mu­sic mecca, where all of a sud­den we had all this mu­sic at the end of our fin­gers.”

To­day, that pas­sion is on dis­play through­out the build­ing. The board­room, for ex­am­ple, fea­tures a 28-foot-long, one-ton solid oak ta­ble coated with what ap­pears at first to be plain black lac­quer.

Upon fur­ther in­spec­tion, how­ever, the ta­ble is em­bossed with quotes from a who’s-who of rock and blues le­gends, from Elvis Pres­ley and John Len­non to Lit­tle Richard and Bob Dy­lan. The over­head lights con­tain speak­ers that can be turned up or down by re­mote con­trol.

At the en­trance to the main lounge, key dates in the com­pany’s history are printed on guitar picks ar­ranged in the shape of – what else? – a guitar.

Each meet­ing room is de­signed to re­flect a par­tic­u­lar genre of mu­sic. In the folk room, for ex­am­ple, the gui­tar­shaped ta­ble is em­bed­ded with real strings. The hip-hop room fea­tures lights made out of spray cans.

Decked out in a San Fran­cisco Giants cap, shorts and flip-flops, Mr. Syrros sits down for an in­ter­view in his beloved in­die room. Its ta­ble is sculpted to look ex­actly like a 45 of De­baser, a sin­gle from his favourite band, the Pix­ies.

“It blows me away that I can sit at a ta­ble that looks like a 45,” he says, sound­ing like a kid in a candy store. “If I can get an artist to build ta­bles that are re­ally cus­tom to our needs, what I got out of it was some­thing re­ally spe­cial. If any­thing ever hap­pens to Lixar, this is com­ing with me.”

The whole pro­ject took nearly a year, cost­ing “seven fig­ures – a few of those,” Mr. Syrros says. While ren­o­va­tion plan­ning usu­ally con­sists of brain­storm­ing about a hun­dred ideas that get whit­tled down to the best 25, “Shel­ley was am­bi­tious,” he ex­plains. “She wanted to shoot for the hun­dred. It was a long haul … and this is the re­sult of it.”

Though Lixar is no longer hid­ing its light un­der a bushel, he in­sists it’s still the same hum­ble firm at heart.

“We didn’t build (the Coven­try of­fice) so that ev­ery­body would say, ‘Holy crap, these guys are spend­ing a ton of money and they’re re­ally try­ing to put on a show.’ That’s re­ally not what we’re try­ing to do. This is re­ally a re­ward for our staff and the own­er­ship group.”

At the same time, Mr. Syrros adds, the new look sends a mes­sage to po­ten­tial clients.

“This is just cre­ative think­ing,” he says, ges­tur­ing to the Pix­ies logo. “What we did here is the same ap­proach we would take to tech­nol­ogy. I mean, it could’ve been just a clear glass ta­ble. But this tells a story. We’re like in the days of Mad Men right now. I’m like Don Draper. We’re go­ing to our clients right now, and we’re pitch­ing. We’re pitch­ing in­no­va­tion. So if I don’t have this ta­ble, and if I don’t do what we did here, why would any­body think that we’re more in­no­va­tive than any­one else? I want po­ten­tial clients to walk in here and say, ‘Wow, they re­ally put a lot of de­tail in this place. Hope­fully, they’ll do that for us if we get them to do our ap­pli­ca­tion.’”

PHOTO BY MARK HOLLERON

Lixar co-founder and CEO Bill Syrros shows off the com­pany’s spiffy new lounge that comes com­plete with beer taps at the bar.

PHOTOS BY MARK HOLLERON

All of the ta­bles at Lixar’s new of­fice were de­signed and built by Chris Smith, owner of Jampy Fur­ni­ture in Dart­mouth, N.S. “Some of the stuff he was com­ing up with just blew my mind – the level of cre­ativ­ity that he had,” Lixar CEO Bill Syrros says. When he de­cided the of­fice would have a mu­sic theme, he told Mr. Smith, “‘I need six or eight ta­bles and I’m go­ing to give you a chal­lenge. I hope this just blows your port­fo­lio right out of the wa­ter.’” The mu­ral on the north­ern outer wall of Lixar’s of­fice (top right) was painted by renowned Nova Sco­tia graf­fiti artist Chris­tian Toth.

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