Affordable office makeover ideas: Try budgeting $100 per person

Written by: Karl Sakas

Coveting your big competitor’s brand new office? Wish you had a cool new space for your agency—one that impressed your clients and that made your employees proud to work there? Unfortunately, moving to a new office is expensive and disruptive.

Unless you have the growth strategy, profit margins, financial reserves, and business confidence to make a big commitment for the next 3-7 years, I recommend finding a way to make your current office feel new.

Why a limited-budget office makeover is a smart idea

The makeover gives you something new—and something for your team to work on that’s their very own—without your signing a personal guarantee on a five-year lease, without spending tons of money on new furniture, without losing weeks of billables due to moving disruptions. Expanding too fast leads to Ulcer City.

You’ll get most of the results—people get to be creative and collaborative about something that’s not client-related, and you get the “shiny and new” feeling—without the trauma of leasing a big new office.

You can have that feels-like-new office for $100 an employee (plus some sweat equity). If you have 10 people, that’s $1,000. If you have 25 people, that’s $2,500. If you have 100 people, that’s $10,000.

Why $100 per person? Most agencies can spend that much without breaking the bank. And it can go pretty far in making a difference—especially when people treat the budget limitation as a way to be extra creative. (If you’re in a high-cost market, you might make it $200 per person.) Let’s see how to make that happen.

Budget-stretching tips: 10 ideas to get big results on a small budget

Let your employees pick how you spend all (or most of) the money. They’ll feel ownership and they’ll probably make better collective decisions. Here are some ideas to get the best results.

1) Focus on paint and other visuals. These will have the biggest impact, at a small cost. Think paint, stencils, and posters of past projects. Print the posters to fit off-the-shelf frames from a craft supply store like Michael’s and you’ll avoid paying custom-framing costs. Consider some whiteboard paint, if your walls are smooth enough to make that work.

2) Create a Pinterest board to track ideas. Get everyone involved—in a couple weeks, you’ll have plenty of options. It’ll hurt their billables for a bit but as long as you don’t let this go for months, it’ll be worth it—the team will produce plenty of ideas and they’ll have buy-in on the process. Check out agency new business consultant Michael Gass’ Offices of Advertising Agencies board to get started.

3) Go with second-hand chic. Instead of buying a brand new $2,000 espresso machine, get a gently-used model on Craigslist… or a well-reviewed new model for $500 on Amazon. If you have a truck or van, you can get nice-looking furniture off Craigslist at a major discount. And if you want a new conference table in particular, you can get one for free (or nearly free) on Craigslist. There’s not really a market for used conference tables—offer someone $100 to take it with you tomorrow and you have a new conference table.

4) Trade time for money. Buying new is quick and easy. Finding a great second-hand item takes longer but lets you get something unique for a lot less. Don’t take this too far—because for a marketing agency, billable time is money—but the goal of this project is have fun and stretch your budget.

5) Use your team’s hidden creative talents. Someone has a background in interior design? Put that to work. Someone loves furniture refinishing but doesn’t have space in their house for yet another piece? Maybe they’d like to refinish something for the office. Someone paints murals? Sounds like a good after-hours project. (This only works when they see it as something fun, not more work—good morale goes a long way.)

6) Take advantage of your space’s existing features. Got something interesting built-into the office? See what you can do with that. Big windows, built-in furniture, staircases, so on.

7) Turn liabilities into assets. Got a room without any windows? Add lighting, color, and some interesting furniture—or turn it into your new nap room. Got a stupid pillar in the middle of the office? Turn it into something else.

8) Repurpose things. Someone else’s garbage might be your treasure. An old-time radio that doesn’t work might become a sculpture. Something from a thrift shop or re-use store (like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore) might look funky and new in your space. And that’s automatically a field trip right there, for team-building and a break from the office.

9) Think creatively. As you review things you like on Pinterest, think about ways to get similar results for less. You’re a digital marketing agency—you have an entire staff of creative people! Can you make a version of that other agency’s $5,000 chandelier yourself for $200 in parts? How about getting the IKEA version of the table for $300 instead of the custom-built version for $3,000? Again, find a balance on time vs. money.

10) Coordinate with your landlord before you get started. They might like the changes, or they might approve them if you agree to “rollback” things before you move out. You might even be able to negotiate some free upfits from them, if you’ve been a good tenant and you’ve been there for a while.

With those ideas in mind, let’s look at how to make it happen.

Project planning: Cool marketing agency offices on the cheap

Want to get it done? Have a project manager (or your office manager) run this like it’s a client project.

  1. Identify your business goals. Is the goal to impress clients, make your office more functional, have something new, or something else?
  2. Set a budget. I suggest planning on $100 per employee, but you can adjust accordingly. In an expensive market, you might want to plan on $150 or $200 per person.
  3. Choose a theme. Are you committed to a modernist design, a retro design, or something eclectic? Setting this constraint will make it easier for everyone to think of ideas that fit.
  4. Brainstorm new ideas. Use a Trello board or other “asynchronous” approach before you gather people for a meeting.
  5. Recruit a couple people to lead the makeover project. Ideally, these are people who aren’t normally billable.
  6. Narrow the finalist ideas. You might want to do the meeting now.
  7. Choose the “winning” ideas, ensuring they fit within the budget. You may need to adapt the scope a bit—that’s where creative solutions come in.
  8. Organize a plan for getting it done. Focus on getting it done on-budget, while minimizing disruption. This might mean taping and dropcloths on a Friday afternoon and then painting that Saturday, with drinks afterwards.
  9. Execute. And celebrate the completion, including social media posts about the change.

The key is to manage the labor involved. If you’re spending 20 staff-hours a week on planning and ideation, you’re losing $2,500 to $4,000+ a week in billable revenue. And it’s probably higher, since the distractions make billable time less effective. Get things done faster and you’ll waste less time.

Applying this advice at your agency

The key to doing this well is to get your team involved, find creative solutions based on the limited budget, and have fun. You’ll have a “like new” office in no time… without the ulcers that go with expanding too fast.

And if you’ve reached the point that you’ve truly run out of space but aren’t sure how to afford a new office, let’s talk—I can help you figure out how to make that happen.

Question: Have you done an office makeover on your agency’s current space? What are your tips for getting the best results?

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