How to run a high-performance office (without the office)

Alain Albert, founder of the online cabinetry retailer Doordoer, likes the flexibility that comes with running a “virtual company”

The Frictionless Office

Carpenter talking on a smartphone

(Sofie Delauw/Cultura/Getty)

“I started the business as an experiment,” says Alain Albert, founder of virtual furniture shop Doordoer. “I wanted to explore how we could customize products online.” A former architecture student with a multi-decade career in construction, computerized manufacturing and industrial design, he saw huge potential for a kitchen cabinetry business oriented around modern trends of customization, online shopping and construction on demand. “I still meet a lot of people who say nobody’s going to buy furniture online,” he says. “I think that’s rapidly changing.”

Albert notes that unlike, say, T-shirts, which might be offered in five sizes and five colours—a total of just 25 variations—cabinetry requires measurements in three dimensions, plus options like shelves, doors and hinge direction layered on top. “These products are made to measure with infinite possibilities of sizes,” he says. “It can make for complex customizing.”

Though based in Oakville, Ont., Woodoer is a truly virtual company: Albert has no physical showroom and makes use of a variety of digital applications to run his business. His smartphone is packed with apps to help him manage his shop: his toolkit includes Evernote to gather ideas, TripLog to track mileage, CamCard to scan business cards, Voice Recorder to take notes and Dropbox to store files so they’re accessible from anywhere.

Messaging and chat tool Google Hangouts has become an integral means of interacting with clients, reducing the need to drive around the notoriously gridlocked GTA to meet in person. The web service and its accompanying iOS and Android apps are focused on three key features—instant messaging, voice calls and video chat—with the latter available for up to 10 users at a time, joining multiple parties in a single conversation. In many situations, voice calls using Hangouts are free as well, making the tool a cost-effective way for small businesses to manage communications—in addition to the added value of conferencing via video instead of just audio. “It’s equivalent to being in the same room and working together on a project rather than having to talk on the phone, go back to your drawing board, and call them again,” he says. “When I’m doing drawings on-screen, they can comment and I can explain why and show them in real time—it’s more dynamic that way.”

Albert manages his books online, too, using web-based Wave Accounting. It’s a far cry from his experience in previous ventures, when he would avoid accounting and focus on production—to detrimental effect. “I remember I had a partner who was the one taking care of the accounting,” he says. “Turns out my partner was skimming some money off the top and it would have been better if I had known more about what was going on.”

With Doordoer, Albert wanted to be sure he had a good understanding of his accounts, and he finds Wave to be an intuitive, easy-to-use tool that allows him to track expenses, send invoices and run reports—all without the services of a bookkeeper. “I’m not an accountant and I don’t want to have to learn accounting software and all the intricacies of that world,” he says. “Before, I used to have to wait until my bookkeeper or accountant could print the report and explain to me what was going on. I find that with Wave I can get a good picture of my own business and the health of my books.”

Wave’s digital invoicing tools are more convenient for customers as well, as they can receive their bills digitally and pay online. It’s less work for them and also helps with Doordoer’s cash flow. He points out that when it comes to his own suppliers, he would much prefer the time-saving method of getting and paying bills online, instead of receiving printed invoices in the mail and having to write and send a cheque. “I would much rather they let me purchase online and pay with a credit card,” he says. “Unbeknownst to them, they have to wait and process the money, whereas if I was paying on their website by credit card, they would get the money right away.”

Ultimately, Albert adds, these tools go beyond improving a business owner’s efficiency. They serve the customer better, too. “We have new generations of buyers and new tools for consuming, and it’s important that we experiment and explore other ways of doing things,” he says. “As all these tools become more mature, I think they’re going to interact seamlessly with each other. We’ll be able to virtually be with someone and collaborate with them, even though we are miles apart.”