Just about every startup these days is chasing the Silicon Valley-style workplace. A nearly mythical place that no employee would ever want to leave. Chris Harvey, CEO of the St. Petersburg-based travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth, had a vision for a grandiose, collaborative and unique workspace, too.
Seeking to be more than the average hip workplace with IPAs on tap, nap couches and work pods, the company purchased a massive 20,000 square foot church on the west side of Central Avenue in 2017 to build a dream headquarters.
The new HQ was to be filled with treehouses connected by rope bridges, with climbing walls and fire poles as entrance and exit points. There were plans to convert the historic “old sanctuary” into a public coffee shop and co-working space.
But just three years later, the church, which was purchased for $1.4 million, is on the market for $3.9 million. A decision that Chief Marketing Officer Megan Moncrief said came from changing workplace culture and increased demands on employers to provide workplace flexibility.
Squaremouth was an early addition the downtown St. Petersburg scene when it took over the penthouse of the former City Center (now Northern Trust) building at 100 2nd Ave. S., in 2012. That same year, Squaremouth posted $7.2 million in sales, and hasn’t slowed its growth since.
Squaremouth has been named to the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing companies in America seven years in a row, a feat accomplished by just eight percent of companies on the list. According to Inc., Squaremouth was the 2,292nd fastest-growing private company in the U.S. last year year, surpassing $29 million in annual sales a 32% increase over the previous year.
It has also been celebrated for outstanding workplace culture, from numerous local publications like Florida Trend, as well as Inc.’s Best Workplaces In America.
Moncrief explained that the biggest driver of the purchase of the church property was the company’s expectation to grow its call center on site. Squaremouth had big plans for training centers, team rooms and different physical spaces for engaging and teaching the call center team. But one problem kept surfacing – retention. The leadership at Squaremouth began to realize that the employees they were looking to hire wanted flexible work schedules, not treehouse offices. They decided to try going fully remote and found that their retention rates were higher than ever.
Instead of in-person trainings, the Squaremouth team created remote learning modules that removed the need for the extra space of the new headquarters. Instead, it led to a partially remote headquarters for all employees. Moncrief said the current situation with Covid-19 has highlighted how effective the Squaremouth workplace already is remotely. Every employee has two monitors, provided by the company, and they’ve found themselves more effective and less distracted than they were in the office.
Moncrief said that the team remains just as collaborative as before and will likely never go back to full in-office model, though Squaremouth plans to stay in St. Petersburg and keep its previous office space in the Northern Trust Building.
The company invested about $578,000 in repairs and permits into what was to become the new HQ, located at 4355 Central Ave. The Squaremouth team stood in front of countless city boards and commissions, vying to zoning changes and historic designations to allow adaptive re-use of the 1940s structures.
Moncrief said she believes that the property is far more valuable than it was in 2017 because of the company’s work to repair and rezone the space, coupled with the city’s push to redevelop the city on the west side of 34th St. Moncrief said she would expect to see the space transformed into residential condominium or multi-use space, or a cooperative co-working space.
The sale comes amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but Moncrief says that the sale is not connected to the pandemic. In fact, despite taking losses as a travel insurance comparison site, with their own travel insurance product, Tin Leg, Squaremouth has guaranteed full-time, regular pay for its 39 employees for at least one year, regardless of what happens to the travel industry under Covid-19.
“We’re in the travel industry, so we’re feeling the current climate of the world right now,” Moncrief said. “But we’re looking towards what the future of travel will look like, so working with our underwriters to create products to address the future of travel, what travelers concerns might be moving forward.”
She says she expects domestic travel within the U.S. to return first, then international and finally, cruises after that.
“We want to build products for the future that will better meet consumers’ new concerns about travel,” she explained. “What was never a threat before to a trip is now, so we want our next products to come to market to take those concerns into consideration.”
“Insurance is always designed to cover your main concerns, if you get sick, if your mom gets sick, if there’s a hurricane. This was never a main concern, it was never written specifically into the policies,” Moncrief said. “That’s what we think is going to change as policies are refiled. Even if it never happens again I think the concern would remain.”
Squaremouth continues to work full steam ahead for the time being, pivoting to see what future will look like and optimizing its website to be prepared when travel does ramp up again.