You’ve spent hours toiling away at a makeshift desk at home while developing your business from dream to reality.
Now, whether its floor space or headspace you need, the time has come to invest in an office.
So far, so good. Where many people go wrong, according to commercial property solicitor Lisa Evans from Kirwans law firm, is in failing to take into account the many factors involved in making such an important move.
“Leaving home working arrangements behind and taking on your own office is undoubtedly an exciting move,” says Evans.
“Done well, it can enhance your business, helping it to establish a more visible and professional presence while allowing it to grow. However, done badly, a move into commercial premises could result in financial difficulties, confused clients and unhappy employees.
Fortunately, there are ways to maximise your chances of success. Here, she talks us through 14 key things to think about when you’re planning a commercial move.
Be sure you’re ready
Many start-ups feel that they need a physical office presence to appear professional, and over-stretch themselves as a result. However, if renting office space is more to emphasise credibility then to accommodate staff, a virtual office could be all you really need. Virtual offices provide a business address, a telephone answering service, and often meeting rooms too. A quick Google search should result in a wide range of options to suit both your budget and your professional needs.
Location is everything
Think about your target and current client base as well as third parties that you work with. Where are they located, and how do you communicate with them? If they’re city centre-based, and you’re regularly called upon for face-to-face meetings, then perhaps you should be there too. But if they’re geographically scattered across the region, or even the country, and you tend to travel to them for meetings, then a business park or industrial estate out of town would almost certainly offer a cheaper option.
Consider how you want to attract customers too. If you’re hoping that many of them will simply walk in off the street, then a high street location or an area with high footfall should be important to you.
Accessibility is also a factor. Is there parking nearby? How about public transport? Will your employees or future employees be able to get to work easily? Consider the needs of your staff as well as those of your clients.
Size is important
What are your plans for the business? Do you expect your workforce to grow in numbers over the next few years? If so, try and find an office premises in which you could let more space as the business expands. Serviced offices are a good option for businesses of this type, as in addition to supplying phones, broadband, office furniture and reception space, the service contracts are usually flexible and allow firms to move into a larger space as their business grows. Short-term leases in larger buildings also offer a similar flexibility, so it’s important to do your homework before you sign on the dotted line.
Stick to your budget
Searching for an office can be similar to house hunting, in that it’s easy to fall in love with premises that are way beyond your means and end up struggling to afford the monthly payments. Decide how much you’re willing to spend on commercial premises and stick to it, then don’t even look at those properties you know are beyond your means (unless you’ve already discussed a potential reduction in price over the phone). Using a good agent who understands your criteria and financial limit will help, as they will only suggest properties that are right for you.
Remember as well, why you’re moving to an office in the first place. If it involves growing your business and increasing profits, then you’ll need to be extra careful with your outgoings. Allowing office premises to take up too much of your profit would therefore be counter-productive. When you’re working out your budget, also factor in the cost of office refurbishments, plus any bills you might be required to pay, including potential increases in service charges; although this is unlikely to be a factor in serviced accommodation, traditional commercial accommodation will be subject to gas, electricity, and other utility bills, as well as business rates.
Consider your brand image
If your business has an edgy, indie feel, then moving into swanky plush offices will send out mixed messages to its client base, leading to a confused feeling to the brand. Conversely, if you’ve always prided yourself on having a corporate style, a quaint barn conversion in a picture-perfect setting may completely jar with your image. Make sure you choose premises that are in-keeping with your brand, so that they become an extension of your overall business rather than an element that appears out-of-place.
How will you deal with lean periods?
When businesses are prospering, it seems negative to consider the fact that that might not always be the case. But if your business is to stand the test of time, you need to factor in the possibility of down times when choosing premises. Do you have a six-month safety net for lean periods? Will you be able to afford to pay the rent and bills? Or are you over-stretching yourself in the hopes that your business will simply go from strength to strength? Can you negotiate a break clause that allows you the right to end the lease before its agreed expiry date? By hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, you’ll be able to relax knowing that you won’t have to give up your business premises if times get tough.
Should you buy or lease?
The decision of whether to buy or lease commercial properties depends very much on both your circumstances and your budget. It’s worth noting that many mortgage companies will demand at least a 25 per cent deposit, and the interest rates can differ depending on the applicant’s personal situation.
There are a number of benefits of owning your own commercial premises, namely the tax deductions from which you can benefit and the potential for your investment to appreciate in the longer term, as well as the possibility of renting out any spare space, which could provide an additional income. It’s important to weigh these up against the pitfalls; the need to sell if your business does not perform as expected, or, conversely, if it grows unexpectedly and you need to quickly expand your office space. Equally, consider the pros and cons of leasing too, or even of leasing with an option to purchase at some point in the future. From that starting point, you should be able to reach a decision on what’s best for you and your business.
Use a commercial property agent
A good agent will take the time to understand your property needs and use their knowledge of the area and the premises on offer to find something that’s just right for you. They could also be aware of properties that haven’t yet come on the market, and will raise important points that you may not otherwise have considered.
See it as a good marketing opportunity
Movements between commercial premises are usually of interest to local business and property media, so make sure they’re aware of your move. Sharing your news is also a great way of letting your current, past, or potential customers know that your business is growing – thereby reminding them of your credibility and reliability. Hold an office warming party, or contact clients to let them know of your change of address. At the very least, it will act as a reminder that you’re still around.
Make sure there’s adequate security
Depending on the type of business you provide, the contents of your office could carry a huge value, both financially and from a data protection point of view. Look at what security your chosen premises offers, and check that it serves your requirements.
Involve a good solicitor
It is crucial not to sign up to any contracts that could potentially cripple your business – a common mistake amongst business owners trying to save money who believe that they completely understand what they’re agreeing to. A good solicitor will read through the small print and identify any clauses that might trip you up.
Health and safety
The minute you move into an office, health and safety should be top of your list. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 sets out the legal responsibilities of employers to complete risk assessments and to take reasonable steps to prevent accident or harm to their employees. If you have fewer than five employees you don’t have to write down your risk assessment or your health and safety policy, but it’s good practice to have one in any case.
You will also need to consider other regulations, such as risk assessing your premises if you are allowing visitors on to it, as well as making regular inspections. Seek specialist legal advice to make sure you are meeting your legal obligations.
Make the most of your signage
An important part of being located in commercial premises is letting people know that you’re there, so signage is key. Find out what is and isn’t permitted, and whether the signage allowed suits your business needs.
Check the tech
As most businesses are reliant on fast and efficient broadband and good mobile phone signals, it is vital check out what’s on offer when it comes to office premises. Who is responsible for internet access? Is the broadband fast enough? Who can you contact if the server goes down? Can you get a good mobile phone signal in the space you have earmarked as your office? Speaking to current occupiers, as well as the building manager should give you a good idea as to whether or not the premises have the technological capability required for your business.
Lisa Evans is a commercial property solicitor at Kirwans.