Each time we begin to think Akvo is moving out of “start-up” mode into being a “grown-up” organisation, something happens that reminds me we’re most definitely still starting out. One day I’m doing one thing and the next something completely different.

Over the last few months, I’ve spent a bit of my time bringing together the look and feel of our new Amsterdam office. Though Gino Lee has done a proper office fit-out before, he was 5,500 miles away in San Francisco (and on that occasion he’d had a budget of $2m). So I’ve been steering the design elements. I’m in London, which is a lot closer. Though we’ve been learning as we go, we’ve put some thought into it. Here’s what we’ve done.

What we wanted to achieve

The rest of the shared space we have with Text to Change and 1%CLUB already looks great (thanks guys!), so our attention has been on what to do with our two main workrooms. We wanted to avoid too much standard office furniture. It’s ugly, boring and surprisingly expensive. On the other hand really beautiful office furniture is very, very expensive. Too expensive.

Gino did a set of mood boards in August, ideas on how the place should look and feel. They were gorgeous and I must admit to wondering how we could possibly live up to them.

We’re here until at least 2015, and want to make the work environment something really special. A lot of people come in and out of our HQ, staff and partners, and many meetings are done each day either one to one or in groups via video link through Skype, iChat or EVO.

We’re four years old, but have always been a tenant in someone else’s space. We now have operational revenues to run our software and services topping €1m per year, so decided that a fit-out budget of €12,000 was realistic. At this point we didn’t have anything to sit on, or sit at. When the Dutch team moved on 31st August, they brought barely more than 15 boxes and a screen. The whole move took just a few hours.

Akvo’s at the intersection between the internet business and the international development field – that’s pretty uncharted territory. We need to attract really creative, talented people to work with us. Right now top Silicon Valley software startups have to work very hard to attract talent, so I have no illusions about the challenge we face. Akvo needs to stand out, charm, seduce.

So we settled on a 3-prong approach. First we got some standard, non-descript, office pieces (including a few ‘throwaway’ items to tide us over the first month plus a raid of IKEA). Meanwhile Peter asked a talented carpenter we’d all met to build us two, huge, very unique work tables. And then we finished things off with a mix of vintage and industrial chairs we bought here in Amsterdam.

Building new work tables

Peter had met Daan Croonenberg, our carpenter, during the build up of the Parade Festival, where Akvo is a partner in the GIVASHIT toilet blocks. He asked him to build us two big tables. When I say big I mean huge. It took five of us to lift each piece in from the street outside (at one point I thought Mark Westra was a gonner).

These tables arrived early in November. They look great – a light wood with a beautiful finish. They’re a statement of scale and solidity – we can fit a lot of people around them, with everyone facing inwards towards eachother across this really expansive surface. Potentially we can clear the whole surfaces and you fit about 35 people around them for a meeting I reckon.

Their size means there isn’t an excess of circulation space, so we’ve cleared the perimeter walls. Eventually I think we’ll hang a big light over the centre of the big table.

The small table (this is a relative term) sits nicely up towards a video screen that Rik and Mark Westra mounted on the far wall. I think this will become a really nice way to bring a bunch of people together on a video conference, with the rest of the office visible behind. It’s also a great work table for visiting staff and partners, and a place where the guys can lay out documents, etc, when we’re on deadline with something.

Vintage chairs

We decided to seek out some interesting vintage and industrial furniture in Amsterdam. There’s a lot of it over here, and it’s much cheaper than in places like the UK or US.

Gino and Anna-Marthe followed a tip-off from our friends at the 1%CLUB and discovered the incredible Neef Louis. This is the coolest place I have been to in my life. It’s a treasure trove of European industrial and vintage furniture run by talented guys on a bleak industrial park in Northern Amsterdam. I visited with Gino, Beth and Kathelyne in driving rain on the last afternoon of our all-team meeting at the end of September. We wanted 12 chairs and went about picking out options. I returned a few weeks ago and made a final selection and they delivered the next day.

In total we spent €2,500 on this furniture and I think it was a very good decision. The whole environment is now much more interesting. Different chairs appeal to different personalities and the whole thing is just great fun.

Here’s a collage of the chairs and the overall result, if you’re curious:

Having Gino visit during the team meeting in late September was really important. He was very quickly able to get a feel for the rooms and what we should do with them and set me on the right path. He also made some snap decisions. He turned around the conference table and sited it by the window – a genius idea that I’d never thought of. Suddenly we had space for a “lounge” area, with its own fireplace. It changed the whole feel of the office.

I’ve learnt that it’s useful to let people move into a space and see how they use it for a short while before you make too many design decisions. Originally I’d assumed our main entrance would be the double doors into our main workroom, but people hated them being left open. Random people visiting upstairs would keep wandering in asking for directions and it just annoyed everyone. Instead, the door from outside into the meeting room became the preferred one, with people entering the work room from there.

This gives a very nice “clubby” ambience and I think it’s really welcoming. All our work is about transparency, so having people passing through the end of the room during meetings is fine in most cases. You can introduce people more easily and there’s no sense of visitors being hidden away from the team, or vice-versa. In exceptional cases, when people need full privacy, we can open the main workroom’s access door onto the outside hallway and stay well clear.

It looks good

It’s really easy, in a busy and growing organisation, to not prioritise design in the work environment. Akvo pays a lot of attention to user interface and technical design in our products, so our HQ should absolutely reflect that too. At certain points I’ve needed to intervene and bring everyone back to the vision, or stop them doing knee-jerk “we’re too busy for this” purchases. I’m grateful to everyone for being supportive and patient when I’ve put my foot down (ahem). Likewise I’ve tried to bring together and mix elements that reflect everyone’s ideas and taste (I’ll write more about our photo walls, soon, for example).

I was in Amsterdam again last week finishing off some details. There’s still a little way to go but all the main stuff is now in place. On Wednesday afternoon I had the place to myself and was taking photographs and putting up pictures. It felt really special and I’m sad not to be returning until after Christmas.

As my Twitter pal @jaggeree said on Twitter  that evening in response to a Flickr pic:

it looks very peaceful. lovely. yet you can imagine that it has energy when needed. really rather envious.

Akvo has a lot of work to do, with a lot of people. We’ve got a great new base to do it from. I hope those of you who work with us enjoy spending time there.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo.

Related: Background on the move to Amsterdam. History of the building. AmLab opens for business.