Jason McCann Flexible Workspaces
Credit: Sean Berry

Jason McCann
Full Transcript

Back to Episode

Juliet: [0:04:16] Jason McCann, welcome to The Ready State Podcast.

Jason McCann: [0:04:18] Oh, thanks so much for having me. Looking forward to today.

Kelly: [0:04:21] There’s so much to get into.

Juliet: [0:04:22] There’s so much to get into here. But I just want to start by saying we’re gigantic fans of you and what you’re doing at Vari. I think as you know, we’re huge fans. But before we get into talking about how we work and the best ways to work and all the things you guys are doing there to sort of transform offices and how we work as humans, tell us a little bit about, because I know you have a long and storied history of entrepreneurship before you took over as CEO of Vari, and I realize that alone could be a podcast, but maybe you could give us just a little Reader’s Digest version of you pre-Vari, pre-VariDesk.

Jason McCann: [0:04:59] Yeah. You know, the first entrepreneur and CEO that I knew was my mom. So growing up in Galveston on the island, I got to sweep plenty of hair for my mom in her hair salon when I was probably 10- to 12-years-old. And she said eventually I had to go out and get a real job, so I started working on the beaches of Galveston, doing chairs and umbrellas, and then eventually opened up my own chair and umbrella company, and great experience there. 

And studied hospitality at the Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at U of H. And it was a great opportunity. I thought I wanted to be in the hospitality industry and opened up a restaurant and nightclub called Yaga’s. We played live bands seven nights a week in an incredible era in Houston during the rockets heyday of [inaudible 0:05:44] so that was fun in the early ‘90s. Decided the restaurant industry was not my calling, so sold it out to my partner. Started working on my MBA and ended up in the pog craze, which started out in Hawaii and these crazy milk caps, and ended up in the toy business for a few years. Jumped into the .com business in the late ‘90s and learned how to go boom and bust during the heyday of the .com craze.

Juliet: [0:06:11] You and me both. You and me both. 

Jason McCann: [0:06:14] There’s a few million of us out there that got recalibrated. It was a great learning chapter and had a chance to, became very good friends with Dan Flaherty, my business partner during that because when you lose a lot of money with somebody, you learn a lot about friendship and what people are really like. So we went bust together. But he had a business called Gemmy Industries. So they’re known today for all those crazy inflatables that you see on people’s yards for Halloween and Christmas, the singing fish that went on the wall, Bigmouth Billy Bass Fish. And so I had a chance to be president of Dan’s company. And one day Dan was standing at a cardboard box with back pain. That’s sort of entrepreneurial dots here as we connect them. 

Juliet: [0:06:57] Well, I just have to say that Kelly and I, again, we’re really going to separate ourselves from the pack, and we’ve actually had a chance to visit the inflatables-

Kelly: [0:07:07] Showroom destiny.

Juliet: [0:07:07] Showroom, which was really like a peak experience for us and I will say gave me a whole new appreciation of inflatables. But we actually live on a neighborhood where people come from far and wide for Halloween. And one of the challenges, this is going to sound crazy, is that it’s really hard to store all these decorations. And so I’ve learned in recent years too, one of the beauties of an inflatable is that you can actually have one and store it in your small house. But anyway, that was amazing and I just have to thank you for letting us in there because that was a really, really cool experience. 

Jason McCann: [0:07:42] Like a Willy Wonka experience.

Juliet: [0:07:43] It was a Willy Wonka experience.

Jason McCann: [0:07:45] Yeah, it’s one of those moments. I agree with you.

Juliet: [0:07:47] Yeah. And that’s one of those companies that is gigantic that you’ve never heard of that makes so many things that we all interact with in our day to day lives. It was cool to learn about that. Go ahead, Kels.

Kelly: [0:07:56] You kind of just casually connected the dots that your cofounder was looking for a solution, and if I understand the story, it was his physician who was like, “You can’t be hunched over in this wretched C position all day long. You need to move around a little bit more.” And you both looked around and it was sort of a desert because the options weren’t really there for people. We didn’t even have the language yet about how to think about our workplace. Is that right?

Juliet: [0:08:25] And just to sort of add to that, I mean you’re saying that you came upon him and he had made sort of a DIY standing desk with cardboard boxes, right, at the recommendation of his physician. So tell us a little bit more about that because it’s such a cool origin story.

Jason McCann: [0:08:40] Yeah. So Dan and I, I was president of his company, and so we had offices near each other. I would walk into his office. And for a while, he started having his laptop up on cardboard boxes in his office. And of course, I kind of razzed him. I was like, “What’s going on? Are you okay?” He’s like, “Ugh, I’ve got back pain and I asked my doctor about it and she said, well, if you feel better standing up, then you should stand up more. So I don’t know what to do.” 

So Rosemary was our assistant and she’s going online with Dan and they’re googling standing desks and trying to figure out a solution for him. They couldn’t find anything. And so these crazy contraptions would show up six or eight weeks later, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Dan would call me and say, “Hey, come into my office and look at these crazy things that are showing up.” And we’re trying to attach them to his desk. It didn’t work. They’re wobbly. One desk showed up and it took the guys, he had to hire some people, it took them eight hours on a Saturday to assemble this $3,000 desk. 

So Dan walks in one morning and says, “I’ve been dreaming about this product all night. I’ve got an idea for an item.” So I grabbed our industrial designer, David Patton and I joined the meeting and the three of us stood there around Dan’s traditional desk and he has his boxes sitting there. And he started to describe, “Could something come out of a box? Could I grab the sides of it and just stand up when I want to and then sit down right when I want to?” And David was just drawing what Dan was describing and literally over a two-hour period gave birth to the idea of what became VariDesk.

Juliet: [0:10:15] And tell us a little bit more about that original product because I know a version of it still exists to this day. 

Kelly: [0:10:22] It was pretty innovative. Won a bunch of innovative design awards.

Juliet: [0:10:24] Yeah, it won all these amazing awards, if I’m not mistaken. And so just tell us, can you describe it a little bit more? Tell us more about it because it’s so cool. 

Jason McCann: [0:10:32] Yeah. When Dan was describing it, he said, “Everybody’s got a desk that they just want to stand up throughout the day.” What he noticed was when he was standing at his laptop with a cardboard box, and he couldn’t do it all day, he just hadn’t built up the strength to stand all day. So he wanted to kind of move his laptop down. So what he described was something with handles that would pull right up. And so as we started to build our prototypes of that and we were working on the prototypes, started to work on lifting mechanisms. How could it lift? Could it lift like an ironing board? How could we reduce any pitch points? 

And David started concepting out what became the ideas. And eventually we decided there was a two-handle lift so you could grab from both sides, that you could have your monitors on it and just instantly grab these handles and lift up. And the way we designed it was so it kind of pulls towards you just a little bit so that you weren’t wrenching over your back trying to lift it straight up. Kelly may know why this is a thing, but you don’t want to lift straight up with your body hunched over but just something that would kind of pull towards you and naturally allow you to stand. And so that became the first prototypes that we started to design.

And so we did the same thing. We built two prototypes, we shared them internally with ourselves. Dan and I started to use them. And Dan instantly felt better. He was like, “Oh, this is starting to work.” Go up and down. And so we started to show it to people inside the Gemmy headquarters. And they all started to like it. Like, “Oh, this is great.” We would take it to one person that had been using it and letting somebody else try it. And the person we took it from said they missed it. “Oh, I wish I had the standing desk back.” And so that’s when we knew we were sort of on to something bigger.

Kelly: [0:12:09] What do they say? There’s a little distance twixt the cup and the lip. Step one, you guys happen to have an industrial prototype around, genius manufacturer. 

Juliet: [0:12:18] Yeah, you’re like, “Hey, let me just get my industrial designer.”

Kelly: [0:12:20] You happen to be a pretty good sized company, sort of rules the world in its niche space. How do you go from that to the world leader of thinking about office space and moving and the health of people? Because you start with a problem, but you guys didn’t say we’re going to start here but we’re going to end in reconceptualizing how many trashcans a place uses or how to block out sound or to create work environments, and now pivoting into how to support people at home. How do you make that jump?

Jason McCann: [0:12:54] I talk about you’ve got to constantly innovate or die. So as an entrepreneur you’re looking for pain points that you see in the marketplace. So we were literally looking at Dan’s back pain and we were solving that particular challenge. What you never know in the business world is if that idea is going to stick. So somebody told me a long time ago if you can get a small group of people to love something, there’s an opportunity for a large group of people to like it. If a small group of people only like the idea, it’s probably not that big of an idea. 

So what we did was literally take the idea… Once some of the employees liked it, we said, “I’ve got to get it outside these four walls. I’m the president of the company; I need to get real feedback from the battlefield of commerce.” So the first client, somebody knew somebody, a president of Verizon’s call center. So we walked in, showed them the prototype. The only marketing material that I had was a Wall Street Journal that Dr. Levine had coined “Sitting is the new smoking” from the Mayo Clinic. And that was sort of the idea of, hey, there’s a need out here. 

And he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t even know what this contraption is. But let me get my ergonomist in and let me get my head of HR.” And I didn’t know what an ergonomist was. This was 10 years ago. And I leaned over to David and I was like, “What’s an ergonomist?” And he starts to describe it before the gentleman walks in. And he starts talking about posture and sitting and standing. And the head of HR said, “This is a huge deal. Back pain is one of the top reasons that people in this work…” So we’re taking notes. The ergonomist gives us feedback on how to contour the edges, what the grips should be, what should the lift be. And so this is how you learn on the battlefield, where it’s Dan and David and I talking to other human beings in person, interacting on an idea. 

Then we took it over to The Container Store. And The Container Store is known, and they happen to be down the street from us, for amazing really culture and innovation. They make great products. I was like, “This will give us great feedback. I don’t know anything about the furniture industry. Do we have an item that people might buy?” And I walk in and they’ve already got standing desks in their offices. And I said, “Oh, it’s over. It’s already done.” They said, “We make our own standing desks.” 

But when I showed it to them, that it goes up and down and they were growing and changing their offices, and I’m watching and I’m listening, just like all of us do as leaders, and as entrepreneurs. And they said, “Our challenge is we already have a standing height desk. So if somebody that is fun-sized—my daughter’s 4 foot 11, so she’s fun-sized versus somebody taller—needs to work in that same space, we have to get the guys to come in, and it’s a 30 minute to two-hour process to move this desk. If somebody wears different shoes or takes their shoes… So I’m like, oh, adjustability, flexibility works. So we kept massaging it.

And they both asked the magic word, which was, “How much do they cost?” And we said we didn’t know. Back of our minds we said, “What are you willing to invest in your employees?” And that’s literally the listening was like, okay, we’ve got something here, other people want it. That’s when we started on the journey of the product. 

Juliet: [0:15:54] So I still want to go back to the original desk only because I do know that you guys showed up at a furniture trade show and no one knew who you were, and I think you had a single product at the time, and you guys won. Am I not mistaken that you guys won a bunch of awards or the award? Could you just tell us a little bit about that?

Jason McCann: [0:16:15] We’re incubating something new. I knew about consumer products, but I didn’t know anything about the office furniture. So I said, “Where is the big… Is there like a tradeshow?” And they said, “Yeah, NeoCon in Chicago is the once-a-year tradeshow for all this furniture.” So at the last minute there were three booths across from each other, so we got all three booths and we basically set our furniture on the sides and stood in the middle of the aisles to make our booth space look really big. And we showed up in our jeans and our black T-shirts and we show up and I realize everybody’s in a suit. And I’m like, “Oh, no, no, no. We’ve got logos printed on our T-shirts. Nobody has logo printed T-shirts.”

But when they walked down the aisle, we’re standing there, and the judges go, “What is this?” And we describe it, and at the time we called it the single and the dual, so single monitor and the dual monitor. And they said, “Y’all must be from Texas because dual sounds like a gunfight.” So I’m like, “Okay, gotta change the name if I’m going to do something.”

Juliet: [0:17:08] You’re like, “Noted.”

Jason McCann: [0:17:10] Noted. So again, listening. You’re just listening to the customers ad you take them along the journey with you. And so they said these things. But they said, “This product is so innovative.” And we described our price point was less than $400 delivered. And the said, “Oh, you’ve got to raise the price. List and discount.” They started talking about all these crazy things, the way the furniture industry operates. So again, I’m making mental notes. I said, “Well, how does the furniture industry operate?” They said, “It operates like a dealer network. Just like your automotive industry. It’s a handful of manufacturers and a bunch of dealers.” And so you might buy Herman Miller or a Steelcase and there might be multiple dealers inside different cities owned by different people. I was like, “Oh my God, this is so antiquated. We’re going to build Tesla. We’re going to do something very, very different here and build a totally different business. Just again, building ideas, planting seeds.” But we won first and second place for the most innovative products out there for our two products. And we were off and running to the races.

Kelly: [0:18:06] That is so annoying as an old, established-

Juliet: [0:18:08] Yeah. And I wonder if the next year everybody came in jeans and logo T-shirts. I wonder if that also kind of permeated through the conference. Well, I’ve got to get back to one other subject, which I think is so clutch and we had our own experience with, which is the affordability piece. Because when we first discovered… Kelly talked about standing at work in 2010 when he did a talk to Google employees. And at that time, it really was the Dark Ages. Like if you went and typed in standing desk online, you could get these desks that were between $5,000 and $10,000.

Kelly: [0:18:42] Treadmill, swimming pool desks.

Juliet: [0:18:44] And some of them, they really would take like two hours to move up and down. There wasn’t any flexibility or easy adjustability. And the ones that you could actually plug in and adjust were seriously $10,000. So obviously not scalable in any way. But just tell me a little bit about, first of all, from a business model standpoint, it sounds like what you guys were learning in these early stages, that you want to go direct to the consumer and cut out the sort of dealer network. I’m not sure if that’s what you ended up doing, but I think maybe it was. And just a little bit about what you’re thinking because I know the affordability piece was really what… Because the early desk was what, $400 bucks, something like that?

Jason McCann: [0:19:23] Yeah, it’s still $395 delivered. Slides out of the box. Our whole thing was just like those inflatables, if it’s easy to use, people will use it. So again, slide out of the box, no tools, no assembly. And we just started to sell. We initially tried through dealers. That didn’t work so we did an ad in SkyMall magazine jokingly because we were trapped on a tarmac for four hours without any Wi-Fi flipping through the magazine. It became the number one selling item in SkyMall history. So it was like off to the races.

Kelly: [0:19:53] That’s amazing. That alone, you need to lead with that. hi, Jason, number one SkyMall history.

Juliet: [0:20:00] Yeah. I hope that’s in your Instagram profile.

Jason McCann: [0:20:03] Yeah. They went bankrupt a year and a half later and they owed us a bunch of money. But that’s your financial segment. But you learn from all these things as business owners. But again, by listening to the friction points, so we’re addressing Dan’s back pain, and then we started to see friction within the business model. There was all this opacity when you buy stuff. 

And we, again, you look at the way Jim Sinegal built Costco, the way Jack Bogle built Vanguard, Sam built Walmart, everyday value. The way Amazon is crushing certain categories, it’s like everyday value, one simple price, and sell it direct without any middle people involved in the process that are unnecessary steps. We just thought we’d simplify it. And as it started to happen what I was telling Dan was, “I think we have a shot to build one of the great companies and organizations out there and really build something that can live beyond my lifetime.” And so I said, “If you take all these great companies the way that Tony Hsieh at Zappos did customer service, the way Southwest Airlines does culture, the way that Tesla was disrupting and simplifying electric vehicles, and the way that you can procure things, and you start layering all these things in, it’s like we could take the best of all these businesses and build a different business model by listening to our customers.” 

We were selling, obviously, the VariDesk at the time and they would email us and say, “Hey, do you have any mats?” And I would say, “Mats. Why?” “Well, because I’m on concrete, I’m on wood. I need an anti-fatigue mat. I’m standing for five hours.” So I started going on Amazon, this was my R&D research, and I bought every single mat that was bundled with our product, and we laid them all out. And David and I were standing there and we’re like, “We can build a better mat. These aren’t that good.” And became the number one selling mat on Amazon. 

Then people were showing us pictures of monitor arms jerry-rigged to our product. So we reached out and we redesigned how monitor arms are attached to desks and became one of the largest sellers of monitor arms. We started to look at the electric standing desk category the same way, I would argue, that Steve Jobs looked at the MP3 category, and said, “Every desk is $5,000 or $10,000, takes two hours to assemble. We want one you can assemble in five minutes.” And David worked on that thing for a year with a team. And suddenly, we’re one of the largest sellers of electric standing desks out there. All by listening to the customer.

And then we had to move out so we moved into our own space. We spun out from Gemmy from an entity standpoint. And we started to build standing conference tables and walls that move because our space was changing. It became a living, breathing thing where traditionally you put up a bunch of sheetrock, you have a bunch of offices, it goes into a landfill every five years. We said, “Could we build a living, breathing workspace, like a maker’s space, that would be the office of the future?” And that’s when we were off to elevating the vision of what we ultimately are becoming. 

Juliet: [0:22:49] So just back to you and your own journey in this, it sounds like for at least a time, you were doing two jobs, which is trying to do your original job as president of Gemmy, and then also building out this other company. At what point did you go all in on VariDesk and how did you make that transition? Or was it early? Did you get proof of concept early on and you were like, “Okay, this is what I’m focused on?”

Jason McCann: [0:23:15] Yeah, at first it was Dan was chairman of both businesses and it was like an internal side hustle even though we had both businesses. We were physically five minutes apart. But within about six to nine months, we realized this one was taking off on its own trajectory. And so you picture Gemmy was created back in 1985, and so you’ve got almost a 30 plus year old business that’s running and it’s one of the largest producers of Christmas and Halloween in the world, and then you’ve got this startup coming out of the gate. And so basically Dan and I just talked. We promoted Roger to be president of Gemmy. He’s done an amazing job at Gemmy. And I just said, “I’m just going to focus here on the team and really see what we’ve got here.”

 Again, early on, we’re probably two or three years old, and it’s like we’ve got to give this a chance. Can we turn this into a teenager, can we get it to a 20- or a 30-year-old, can it live beyond my lifetime? And really for me as a leader to challenge myself could I build it from zero up. And so we started to really hit that curve. I think in 2016 we were the fastest growing company in Dallas; 2017 we won Entrepreneurs of the Year for the country with EY. And so we were on this crazy, and I would describe it as if I was 25 years old, I would’ve crashed because I wouldn’t have hired the right people, I wouldn’t have surrounded myself with amazing talent or invested in the infrastructure. I would have came off the guardrails personally and not taken care of myself. So all of those things allowed us to hit just different strides of our growth during those early days.

Juliet: [0:24:51] I just want to say too in terms of for all our listeners, Jason is not kidding. I actually, somewhere in my Instagram past I made a timelapse video of putting together a full electric, height adjustable Vari standing desk in like four minutes. And I am not handy. So I don’t even remember the occasion for that, but I can attest to you can have literally no skill, zero tools, and put that thing together quickly, plugged in and working and functional. It’s pretty amazing.

Jason McCann: [0:25:26] Yeah, Dan and I just kind of always think about things backwards. We want to make it easy for us and we’re not that handy either. So if we can do it, anybody can do it. 

Juliet: [0:25:34] Exactly. 

Kelly: [0:25:35] So suddenly there’s definitely a transformation where people are realizing, hey, wer’e sedentary. And one of the things I appreciate about you and working with your advisor Mark Benden and just having been at the company, just so everyone understands, it’s not necessarily about sitting versus standing. It’s about moving and being more comfortable and having more dynamic work options. Am I getting that right?

Jason McCann: [0:25:58] Yeah, absolutely. The vision has really elevated. When we started on the journey, it was to create happier, healthier, more productive workspaces. That was literally the first words that I said when we met with our first potential client at Verizon. But what I recognized years later is we’re really about elevating people, creating workspaces and transforming their culture through workspace design. And if we can create a canvas where people would feel healthier, happier, more productive, if the workspace could work for them, if we could ebb and flow and change over time, that’s what we were doing. When people would walk into our offices, like y’all have been in here, you walk in and there’s music playing, you walk in and there’s a coffee bar close by. The energy is different. There’s music in the restrooms. People don’t think about little details like that. As they’re walking through, there’s biophilia, which is where you take plants and nature and bring those elements into the workspace. And then you start to have a space that changes and flexes. So if you need more teams in huddle rooms, you could actually change a space.

And so for us, when people would walk in, they said, “Oh, I want this,” and they would start to wave their hands in the air. “I want this.” What they were describing was the energy of the space, the culture that we were creating and building versus standing desks. And so to allow people to have a standing desk, areas to sit, soft seating, collaboration areas, flexible areas, outdoor space and outdoor amenities, all those in workspace became the journey that we were on. We started to realize that it was much bigger than just desks. So that’s why we’ve been pushing it hard on really how can we impact the lives of people and elevate cultures, communities.

Juliet: [0:27:39] Well, two comments. I recently just this last fall saw your newer offices and had one of the greatest cappuccinos I’ve had in recent memory, by the way. So you guys are getting that right.

Kelly: [0:27:50] One of the best cappuccinos or best cappuccino at a work place, like a corporate cappuccino?

Juliet: [0:27:55] No. I mean like best cappuccino, competitive with an Italian cappuccino. It was awesome, by the way. But yeah, I’d love if you could talk a little more about this because I think what Kelly and I, and we’ve also, both of us have been to your offices, and it’s really hard to describe without actually being there. But when you’re in an office that is so carefully thought out to be flexible and dynamic and all of the details are thought out, it really does have this gigantic impact on culture. It’s hard to even really describe because we come in the office as visitors. We’re not employees. But we come in the door and we can feel and see that as guests.

Kelly: [0:28:37] Yeah, people say culture is what you do. It’s not what you talk about. What you do. And when you come in and the environment is shaped, it’s got to impact business. Can you talk about that a little bit more and maybe even some success stories that you’ve heard from people who have kind of bought into this vision?

Juliet: [0:28:53] Because I just don’t think a lot of people are thinking how significantly environment impacts culture. So I think there’s a lot there. We’d love to hear more about that. 

Jason McCann: [0:29:02] It’s the little details. So we bought a building that was built in the ‘80s. It’s the original Zales headquarters. This is a 400,000 square foot building in the heart of Dallas-Fort Worth, the urban area. And so we bought it and said, “We’re going to transform it into an ideation lab and showroom for us and literally learn and test.” And we were not in soft seatings, we didn’t have privacy pods. We were early in our generation of how our walls would move. But we said, “We want to create this workspace of the future and then we’ll prove it out ourselves. We’ll become a tenant in here and we’ll try it. We’ll lease it out to other companies and we’ll learn with them. And then we will be able to work with other building owners and other high growth companies and transform spaces.”

So it starts with the little things. So we took a campus that sat empty for six years and we brought it really back to life. So we started with the investment on the outside. So you’re literally walking up and there’s music playing. So instantly, whether you’re a guest, an employee, a vendor, you’re starting to feel energy right when you walk up to the space. When you come into the inside, it’s my team that’s there to welcome and greet you. 

So if you’re a visitor… If you happen to be a tenant in our building, so this building will hold well over 1,000 people and so we have tenants in here like RumbleOn and Akili and Verizon and some others. And so we’ve got them in here as well as us. And so our team members start to know your names. We’re hosting events that are happening so that these companies can collaborate and get together. And this all was designed pre-COVID. Open stairwells for movement. We took out the old escalators that were built from the ‘80s. And then we have a 1-acre courtyard and we invested in a beautiful patio and Texas native plants to host indoor and outdoor events that we envisioned that people would want to have, whether it’s book clubs, book signings or events ore speakers coming in or music all could be encapsulated in a workspace. Training facilities. 

And then when you get into your suite, it’s using all of our… And everything in here is our Vari furniture. So picture walls that move. Everything is glass and aluminum and it’s all writable but it allows us to move and change with the space. Plenty of soft seating and breakout areas whether you just want to sit and recharge, put on your meditation app, and breathe for a little bit. Or you go into, we’ve got a 10,000 plus square foot gym with very high amenities: towel service, beautiful showers. So there’s no excuse not to get a great workout in when you want it. And a .6-mile walking trail around the campus. 

So it’s all of a sudden, within nine months, we were fully leased. And we were like, okay, we’re onto something. Then we bought our second building in South Lake. Literally that building sat empty for 11 years. Did the same transformation. It’s beautiful. And during COVID, because we bought it right before COVID, has leased over 50 percent. And so we’ve recognized that we’re onto something. 

And now we’re building our third VariSpace and that will give us a million square feet in Dallas-Fort Worth that’ll literally allow us to learn. So clients like y’all can fly in from all over the country and ultimately the world as all this begins to heal, see what we envision as a workspace of the future, visit these campuses, see different office configurations. And you immediately feel if it’s right for you or not. And then we can come in and transform spaces for clients all over the country.

Kelly: [0:32:21] Amen. Can I get an amen? Showing up at your work spot. As a physical therapist, I worked in plenty of offices that had carpeted ceilings, hung floors, little cubicles. And I was like, oh, these floors and lights are killing me. This is the worst, gnarliest, unhealthiest place I’ve ever been. You kind of mentioned, you tripped over this word COVID, where all of a sudden, people may have been in a work environment that may have worked for them or may have been we’ll call it heritage where sometimes people, you just inherit an old work situation and people just park traditional desks in there. But regardless, suddenly people were at home. And I don’t know about you, but my home potentially is not set up for lots and lots of deskbound work. What did you find out about COVID and people’s work at home, and was that a lesson, or what are the lessons from that?

Jason McCann: [0:33:20] Yeah. So early on, I think like everybody, we had already had drills in case our Wi-Fi and internet went down. So a hundred percent of my team was on laptop and we had already practiced having a “empty the building drill.” So we went home and I think like everybody assumed for the next two weeks, and then we’d all come back to the office and everything would be normal again.

Juliet: [0:33:40] Yeah. We lived in that two-week dream for a little while too. Yep. 

Jason McCann: [0:33:45] And so I reached out to my teams in Asia who were about eight to twelve weeks ahead of us, and they were talking about masks and thermal scanners, and they were talking about stickers on the floor, plexiglass shields, and distance space designs. So literally while everybody was out and it was March 14 of that year, we transformed the entire headquarters. Because everything in our spaces are designed to move. So I spread everybody out. We tripled the number of walls in our space. We tested plexi panels. I bought the thermal scanner from the Taipei 101. I bought the same one that they use in the tallest building in Taiwan. And we started to incorporate these all before the CDC. I added another coffee bar, single serving. 

And we welcomed our team back June of 2020 and said, “We’re coming back; we’re an essential business for work from home.” And to your point, our work from home orders pivoted and shifted and escalated immediately. So our orders were roughly 70 percent were going to corporate offices before COVID and maybe 30 percent were going to people’s homes. And overnight in less than a two-week period, it went to 90 percent of our shipments getting shipped to people’s homes and only 10 percent were going to offices. Because people got home and what happened was after two weeks on the sofa, the futon or whatever, they’re crunched over the laptop, and you’re talking to these chiropractors who are like, “Oh my God, these people are already getting tech neck right off the back.” They need the same tools that they’re going to have seamlessly. 

So first it was technology, get everybody with laptops, get them remote Wi-Fi access. But then it became the tools. So we started to do work from home programs. So basically, what most people started to realize that whatever the tools are that were ergonomically set up so we could work in the office, I kind of need the same setups: dual screens, great chair, what I needed to sit or something like our active seat where you can perch when you want, height adjustability, all the same tools that somebody like Dr. Benden would recommend for someone to have, but I need it in my home office and then I need the ability to have privacy.

So we saw it shoot up for us and we started like everybody to scramble to figure out what are we going to do for people. So we designed over 1,000 offices during the last 12 months. So since all of COVID, I’ve done over 2,000 offices. And a lot of them we do two designs for. What does it look like now when our teams are coming back a few days a week, our huddle areas, our team rooms to safely meet, and what does it look like in the future? And then we did tens of thousands of home offices for clients. 

And what I’ve seen is that they traditionally want the same setup as much as they can that they have at their workspace when they’re in the office. And so every company’s going to be a little different, but that’s what I’m seeing in sort of table space. If I’m going to allow this flexibility for my team, I don’t want them to go home and crunch over a laptop and sit on the kitchen stool hunched over. I want them to have flexibility and space. So I think it’s us working with these companies and clients to go, “What does that look like for the future workspace?”

Kelly: [0:36:49] And I just want to point out that we were fortunate enough that we were able to procure two height adjustable desks for our daughters for their whole year on-

Juliet: [0:36:59] Yeah, we actually already had them when they got stuck at home and on Zoom school.

Kelly: [0:37:05] But it made Zoom school so much better for them to have agency and to be able to fidget and to perch and just have movement choices. We saw that these growing bodies around us just were locked into these six- and seven-hour epic Zoom sessions and it wasn’t great. It was not great for the development of a growing body. 

Jason McCann: [0:37:25] Yeah, I know our teenagers, they’re in the bed all day. These poor teachers are seeing these… They’re sitting in the sheets still. So I think to find safe, healthy ways to create a space, and then as we’ve learned, so we came out with a line of smaller desks. So most of our stuff has been 60 inch size. So we started to come out with smaller sizes because not everybody’s got room for a five foot desk. So it’s, “Can I get something that’s 48 or 40 inches? Can I get something with a little different depth? Can I get the portable laptop stand or something that’s just a little bit more mobile for me as I may be jumping over to Starbucks or wherever and I may be looking for a space to get out of my home office for a little while too?”

So for us, it’s continuing to navigate that. But I use the word seamless because wherever I plug into, we just want to create a workspace that allows people for productivity, for health and wellness, when they’re in the home space or whether they’re in an office space or in a third space, to try to figure out what those products and tools are going to be.

Kelly: [0:38:24] Yeah, there shouldn’t be a cost, you shouldn’t feel terrible after being at work. And we try to tell people, “You can actually leave a good day of work and have moved a lot and feel good and you don’t have to feel like I need to open up my hips for three hours to address this.” One of the things that, putting aside the health and wellbeing of your workers, if that’s important to you, I mean maybe you can just have troglodyte people hunched over all day and that’s totally fine because it’s part of your business model. But you certainly have to have found out that reimagining the workplace and having this more turned-on person because we’re moving more, that’s got to be a competitive financial advantage. Is your experience working with companies, are they seeing that there’s a financial bottom line? I mean sure, people go out less on work and disability and that’s fine. And HR’s super stoked because you save a company millions of dollars. But let’s just pretend that it’s not about that. Let’s pretend is it a competitive advantage to have a place where people are moving more, able to move more?

Jason McCann: [0:39:25] Yeah, I think the number one thing that they’re measuring is, and they’re trying to figure out how do you measure it, but it’s engagement. Am I excited to be here? Am I making a difference? Am I making an impact? Do I believe in the mission of the company? Do I buy into the values of the organization? Do I feel like that I’m personally contributing to that? And how do you measure that? And there’s surveys out there. 

We’re seeing that with companies that create a workspace because when you create a flexible workspace that really is very pro employee and it allows him or her to work in the best ways for them possible, it shows you care. By loving on your employees, they in turn love the work that they’re doing and adding to it, they’re loving on the fans and the customers. And that ripple effect starts to happen. Also, as your fans and your customers start to experience what you’re doing and the impact that you’re having on their organizations, that ripple effect continues to grow and your fan base starts to grow. So we look at it there.

You always look at, you can start to look at the financial side. I think it all starts to work itself out. But engaged, impactful cultures that are making a difference out there, higher recruitment, higher retention rates, and ultimately better, stronger businesses long term. If you look at what   Simon Sinek talks about, that infinite game where they built these infinite businesses, I think these healthier organizations that companies are building for with healthier cultures ultimately survive and thrive long term. 

So we look at it like our values were battle tested during the last 18 months. Our business model’s been tested. Our vision. Are we truly here to create workspace, people? We’ve donated almost $6 million of product to nonprofit organizations in the last three years to help them impact the world. So I think all those things our team sees in all the organizations and the tens of thousands of companies that we’ve worked with are starting to see it and they start to come back and they start to reach out.

We had a client in the Northwest and they said, “Hey, we’re going to have 1,000 of our employees that are going to work remote at least three or four days a week.” So we said, “Okay, let’s figure out how you want to do it.” So they said, “We’re going to let them all…” So they all logged in on the website Monday through Thursday, we shipped out all 1,000 desks on Friday, and chairs and the whole setup, and by the following Friday 100 percent were up. I thought we’d have to go to a few houses and help them. Nobody needed. A thousand people in less than a week. So that’s what’s going to happen. And these thousands of workspaces that now they can call us six months later and say, “Hey, we just hired a new team. We want to change it.” Or, “This isn’t working. Nobody’s using this space.” Great. We’ll come in and change it. Where before, that wasn’t even possible. So we’re very early in learning what that means. But I think we’re building something fantastic.

Juliet: [0:42:16] I think the flexibility is so cool. So I have to go back to something because I want to move on sort of. But Kelly mentioned it early on. And again, I think we’ve talked about how you guys have done such a spectacular job of thinking about and creating places or ways in which people have to move throughout their day as opposed to just hunched over their laptop for eight continuous hours. But the one that has always struck us is the trashcan thing. We will never forget that from our first visit to your office. And so I can’t move on until you just at least tell our listeners what that is so they can understand why we found it so striking. 

Jason McCann: [0:42:52] Yeah. When we were just thinking about our workspace, we said, “In a perfect world we wouldn’t have a little trash basket under every single person’s desk. People should be… If we had centralized trash and recycling, people would get up and interact with other people and be forced to move so they’re not just dropping the banana peels.” And a couple things happened. One, it got people up and moving and interacting. It’s amazing who you bump into, whether it’s grabbing a coffee or going to the trashcan or putting something in the recycle bin, that interaction. And that was just a little piece of our culture.

Two, it started to save us a lot of money because all of a sudden, the little tiny bags, we might have had a hundred of them, just one recycle, one trash, real simple. We started to look at all those metrics. The other thing as I tour all these great organizations, we were out at the Google headquarters and I’m touring it and they gave away everything for free. And we just didn’t believe in that so we charged for drinks and waters and snacks and whatnot. And they said if they hid the Snicker bars and they frosted the glass over the sodas, that less people would consume those products. So we had always just charged more for them. But I immediately called my team and we frosted the glass over anything that might be something not as healthy and we hid anything in the snack drawer off to the side. And it reduced consumption overall. 

Bringing plants into the space, creating biophilia, your energy level just feels better when you’re around plants. You start to centralize trash and recycling, you start getting biophilia, you hide the snacks. And all of a sudden, that’s all elements to the culture and the productivity and the health and wellness of your people. And the fact that you care about those details shows in your people. And then you share those ideas with other organizations like y’all do every day, and you help them get better. And that’s ultimately why we’re on this journey of life anyway, is to help and serve others.

Kelly: [0:44:47] I love that. I was going to say that we call that environmental constraint. And the first time I was exposed to that actually in physical therapy school, if someone has a head injury or a traumatic brain injury and they have a deficit on one side, what you actually do is constrain the well side and you make the more affected side do all the work. And one of the things that we’ve started to realize is that we can actually use that behavior constraint process as a way of thinking about lots of things. That if I leave my phone in the kitchen, I’m not going to be on my phone during the day. If I don’t buy cookies, I’m not going to eat a bunch of cookies.

Juliet: [0:45:25] Right. If I have to walk 100 meters to recycle my can-

Kelly: [0:45:28] That’s a long way. 

Juliet: [0:45:29] Whatever. That’s a huge office. But a little ways.

Kelly: [0:45:32] But when you start to view that as behavior constraint, pretty soon you can apply that algorithm to a whole lot of net behaviors and you run into something that the Brits called aggregation of marginal gains in performance, which is all these small details aggregate into a real competitive advantage and a real environmental change. 

Juliet: [0:45:51] I was just going to say too, I was really able to appreciate that because I had my own work experience, I used to be a lawyer. We had an original office that had open stairs so you could go between the floors on open stairs without having to take the elevator. And then this was back in the day before everything was digital and we actually had a library. So in order to do our legal research, we would have to leave our floor, walk up a flight or two of stairs, go to the library, at which point we would interact with other humans. And then we would walk back to our office. And the culture was vastly different. We moved into an office where you could only move between floors in elevators. All of the legal research went online. And it really changed the whole work experience. People would go to the office and stay inside their office all day, maybe only leave for lunch.

And in fact, I knew what an impact it was because I actually left the law firm. I had been gone for two years and I came back to have lunch with someone. And I ran into a woman and we obviously weren’t close. And I realized in talking to her that she did not know that I had left the firm because we just had… And I think so much of that was just driven by this weird environment where we were all siloed from each other on different floors, there was no library, there was no real location or reason to connect as a group. And it was a real damage to the culture, just the loss of that one physical space. So anyway, I think that’s part of the reason why I so appreciate what you guys are doing. 

Jason McCann: [0:47:14] Oh, I was going to say I think the next generation of workers that are entering the battlefield here, they need to learn from all of us that are in the middle, latter parts of our careers as we’re going on our journey, that apprenticeship piece and that gap out there where they don’t get to watch the human interaction, it’s Oxytocin and all these other chemicals that I think just naturally happen and you start to feel it. And so what I’m hoping is that we can continue to find ways in these spaces, and if people do need some focus time that they can have it, but to encourage it. And I’m quite introverted but I do recognize that I do need to be around people to get energy as well even though I may recharge alone. But I get so much energy from the staff and the buzz and helping the next generation of leaders, coaching, learning from great mentors and leaders.

Jeff Lamb, my president, talks about you’re not going to have Thanksgiving dinner on Zoom to see grandma. You need to be interacting. Our bodies, as humans, we’re social creatures. So how do we create spaces that safely allow that? And I think that’s our challenge as leaders is to encourage it and fight through this pendulum swing that wants to just throw everybody to stare at a screen all day, because that’s not what we’re designed to be, to figure out solutions with all these great companies and schools and organizations to safely think about the working of the future, how we interact as human beings, to help organizations.

Kelly: [0:48:42] What are you even doing as a CEO, Juliet?

Juliet: [0:48:44] Oh my God. So Jason, I know that you also recently went through a rebrand, which I can relate to because we rebranded our company in 2019 and it is certainly, it’s a thing. So I know you went from VariDesk, how we first came to know you as a company, and rebranded to Vari. So tell us a little bit about that process and the thinking around it.

Kelly: [0:49:04] Was it worth it?

Juliet: [0:49:05] Was it worth it?

Jason McCann: [0:49:06] Oh, absolutely. Yes, it was worth it. Little scary when you jump. Everybody that walked into our space said, “God, you’re so much more than a desk. I had no idea. What are you going to do?” And several years ago, I had been looking online and trying to figure out what are we going to do and brainstorm are we going to change our name totally. We hired some marketing firms; we invested some money with them just to brainstorm what could we do. I finally found the owner of vari.com and I said, “Okay, I’m just going to, I’ll buy it.” I spent $68,000 I think and bought the website. Couldn’t figure out who the owner was for years. Bought it and held it. And we went through a process. 

We worked with the same company, Landor out in your area, and they helped take Federal Express to FedEx. Some people don’t remember Federal Express, but to FedEx. And they took us through a process and it was painful and expensive. And I was like, “Oh my God, are we doing this?” And then we had to push it out. And the team worked 18 months to rebrand everything because you don’t realize how many things that your brand touches, from the product to the website to legal to all the stuff.  Can you protect your trademarks globally?

So we spent the millions of dollars, pushed into our big rebrand campaign on television, said “We’re going to go crazy from design to installation in less than 28 days. We’re going to create the workspace of the future.” We started that in January and then COVID hit. It was literally like out of the gate we’re building workspaces and offices, we’re Vari, we’re here for you, you know us as VariDesk.

But it was the right decision. I believe as people were researching the brand, they said for people that didn’t know us, Vari could mean flexibility, it could be a tech company, it could mean change, variety. For people that knew us as VariDesk, they gave us permission. We said, “Could we be Vari?” They said, “Absolutely. That’s much closer to what you are.” And so we said, “We’re going to go for it.” It’s been incredibly expensive. But I wouldn’t change a thing. 

Kelly: [0:51:02] No, and it really does capture what you’re trying to do. It started as a desk. I can see how, “We should be VariDesk.” And then all of a sudden, you’re like, “Actually we’re in workplace design.”

Juliet: [0:51:12] Right. You are much more than that. I want to say I feel like ads are now targeted the way that they are on social media so I’m not sure if we were targeted. But Kelly and I definitely saw that ad multiple time and we were cheering from our living room.

Kelly: [0:51:26] There’s our friend Jason.

Juliet: [0:51:27] There’s Jason. He’s on TV. That was cool.

Kelly: [0:51:29] I want to tell a story because you all have been our partners for some projects locally. There was a local school, a Tier 1 school, in Marin where 80 percent obesity rate, actually ended up getting into some legal issues at the state level. Brilliant principal came in and lot of kids got two meals a day there. Traditionally a very poor school, lot of homeless kids. And we went in there and you were our partners, and we flipped that school from sitting desks to this movement choice desk, and educated. And the kids loved it. And as they have pivoted, the principal, David Finnane, came back and was like, “I need more desks. We can never go back.” The kids were more engaged. They had better tests scores. There was a place to hang their backpacks. Some kids wouldn’t even take their backpack off because… There was a hook on the desk that could actually take their backpack off for the day because they weren’t afraid it was going to get stolen. Kids just wouldn’t fall asleep because even they’d been out foraging for food all night with their families, right, because they’re food insecure, they would stay awake because they could move. And they just weren’t getting the cues.

And I don’t know if you know that. And your team was amazing. But it really transformed this local school with the really powerful idea that human beings are designed to move. We can reconfigure the desks into a circle, they can be small, they can individually fit a child on the spot. And I just wanted to say, I haven’t told you personally, but thank you so much for that incredible partnership because it really did transform a local community.

Jason McCann: [0:53:07] I appreciate it. I think we kicked off that project with you. And I heard the challenges that that school was facing and those kids. And I think we as leaders have an obligation to push and help any which way we can. So it’s absolutely our honor to be a part of it. And you’re definitely the tip of the spear. Y’all are both doing that to make an impact out there. We’re a small piece of it in the product side to do that. 

But I know that if we do it right and we plant these seeds, these positive seeds of hope, of health, all throughout these schools, we can impact them in universities, and we can impact them in these other organizations, in these nonprofits, and continue to serve, it’s going to pay so many dividends to us from a societal standpoint. And the impact is going to be felt way beyond our lifetimes. And so I appreciate all the incredible work that y’all do to impact so many lives out there.

Juliet: [0:54:04] So Jason, before we let you go, if you had a crystal ball and looked one, two, five years into the future about what work looks like, and I do think COVID has given us all this important pause moment to think about, okay, how do we work? Do we need to work in the old traditional ways now that we’re very technology driven? How can we rethink people’s time so that they can be flexible, which seems to be the number one thing on people’s minds, is flexibility. But you are right at the tip of the spear in terms of how people work. What do you think? What’s the future of work? What are we looking at?

Jason McCann: [0:54:43] Yeah, I think obviously the pendulum swung and I think that we realized that we’re not designed to just be in our homes, locked down, staring at the screen all day with no movement, activity.

Kelly: [0:54:54] So say we all.

Juliet: [0:54:55] Fact. Fact. 

Jason McCann: [0:54:56] And there’s something magical that has happened. Every event that I’ve been to as we’ve onboarded people all during COVID, as we’ve interacted in person again and started to see the impact that we can have, and schools have started to come back, and we’ve started to see all these tides rise, I do think there is flexibility. And so if the spaces of the future are designed for culture, communication, collaboration, how do we encourage that to safely happen in the future? And then when you do need areas of focus, how do we create those, whether it’s in a workspace or a home space or a third space, and you do need some time to focus? But most people don’t need eight hours of focus time. They need a couple hours. So how do you drop into a space, you need to focus on some deep dive, but encourage activity and movement? 

So I do think it’s going to continue, that flexibility is going to be the word. The idea that sheetrock is going to go up and every couple years, it’s going to get ripped down and tossed into the landfill because the work needs change, the amount of sheetrock that’s already sitting in landfills, I do think that walls are going to continue to move, that air and indoor and outdoor spaces are going to continue to be more important as we think about workspace design. I know there’s a lot of companies thinking about the home space, because again, part of the challenge, Kelly, that you alluded to, is even in the home space, it may be the air, it may be the noise, it may be the limited access to Wi-Fi or little subtle details that people may not have at home or the idea that they’ve got kids. We’ve got to be able to create spaces for people to be productive. 

But I think at the end of the day, we’re designed as humans to interact, to work together, to be together, and to serve each other. And so how do we create work spaces that encourage that and don’t give up and take the easy approach of just saying, “Oh, we’ll just ship you a laptop and you’ll figure it out.” Because a lot of people, when they talk about meeting somebody that’s different than them, that speaks a different language and looks different than them, that maybe has a different religion or went to a different college, happens in the workspace. It may not happen in your neighborhood. But it definitely happens in your workspace. 

So how do we encourage that because this is a great opportunity for us, whether it’s through universities, through workspaces, to encourage collaboration, to encourage differing views, to learn compassion and empathy and service? This is how you do it as leaders and CEOs. We’ve got to work hard to create those spaces. So flexibility will be out there, some workspaces, home spaces. But we’ve got to continue to create areas where we can safely get together and learn about each other and make an impact together. 

Juliet: [0:57:28] Amen.

Kelly: [0:57:28] First principles.

Juliet: [0:57:31] First principles.

Kelly: [0:57:33] Are you on social media yourself? Can we follow Vari’s CEO? Your story is amazing. As a Harvard Business Review case, it’s such an incredible story. Or where do people begin this conversation of understanding some of the information you guys have aggregated and coalited and how you’re putting that out?

Jason McCann: [0:57:53] Yeah. Everything that we have is put on vari.com. So that’s v-a-r-i.com. And then for me personally, everything I produce is on LinkedIn right now. And it was all literally in the last two years of COVID I had so many CEOs asking me, “What are you doing about masks and what are you doing about anti-vaccine, shots, and what are y’all doing about…” and instead of just telling them all one on one, I started to just push it all out there. 

And I just decided that LinkedIn was going to be my B to B communication channel with other CEOs and other leaders. And it’s a real simple way for me to communicate and others to reach out to me and then we can connect on email as well. 

Kelly: [0:58:32] And is it through your personal, Jason McCann, or is it through Vari?

Jason McCann: [0:58:35] Yeah, so it’s Jason McCann on LinkedIn. Yeah. I’m up there. They’ll find me.

Juliet: [0:58:43] These guys are doing amazing work. So go follow them and check them out. We’re gigantic fans of what they’re doing.

Kelly: [0:58:48] Jason, we know you don’t have a day job, so thank you for carving out so much time for us on this day. It’s great to see you and can’t wait to be in person with you again.

Jason McCann: [0:58:56] Yeah. Absolutely. And appreciate all y’all do for so many people out there. You’ve impacted millions of millions of lives through your work, through your teachings, your books. I love that you’re the tip of the spear out there fighting the good fight for all of us. So thank you for doing that.

Juliet: [0:59:11] Thanks, Jason.

Kelly: [0:59:11] Go team. Thanks, Jason.

Back to Episode