Ottawa’s rockin’ new workplaces
Boring old cubicles are quickly becoming a thing of the past at region’s rising firms
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.’”
Lixar co-founder and CEO Bill Syrros shows off the company’s spiffy new lounge that comes complete with beer taps at the bar.
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.