Desks for Success: Perch Founder Lucy Lyle Makes Offices Smarter
Filed in: Woman of the Week
Ever wondered why your brain feels like a bowl of oatmeal in the office, but comes alive and churns through tasks as soon as you’re in the comfort of your own home? So did Lucy Lyle, who left her job at Google in 2015 to pursue a mission: create beautiful workspaces that help people maximize their productivity. At the end of 2016, she launched Perch, a design lab-slash-online store that manufactures sleek desks and sells a selection of useful (and visually-appealing) office products to go with them. We recently paid a visit to Perch’s light-filled headquarters to chat with Lucy about the end of the nine-to-five job, the importance of one’s surroundings, and how order inspires great thinking.
WHEN DOES A CAREER really start? I had a lot of internships that shaped my trajectory. I was a physics nerd in high school, and interned with Senator Al Franken for a couple of summers. Then I decided I didn’t want to do politics, so I thought I’d do something in business. I did trading and investment banking internships in college, and while I loved math, that field wasn’t quite right for me, either.
I GREW UP in New York City. My dad is a chef and my mom is a painter. I think I ran into business as a reaction to my creative family. After finishing school at Brown, I bought a one-way ticket to Ecuador and ended up working to launch a tea company called Runa. I helped them set up their supply chain down in the Amazon jungle, which was really fun. I got a taste for the scrappiness of start-up life. I also lived in India for a year, working with sari weavers. Then, when I came back to the U.S., I went to work at Google. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted yet, but I wanted to be around smart people.
MY JOB AT GOOGLE was in large customer sales, working with the top five to ten clients and coming up with strategies for how they used Google’s paid ad products across various channels. It was really interesting to see people’s online behavior, and how it differed from the physical world. Learning the points of friction where you lose people’s interest—because there’s not as much investment online as there is when you’re in a store, a physical place—was really valuable.
I GOT THE IDEA for Perch when the third plant I had died on my desk in the Google office. I was like, “That’s not a good sign. I spend my whole life here.” I began to work more from home, because it was hard to concentrate in an open office space under fluorescent lights, and I found that beauty and my physical surroundings beyond the screen had such a positive effect on my productivity. And I started wondering: Is this a big enough problem that I could create a business to address it? I wasn’t interested in leaving Google if it was just a niche, elite issue.
THEN I REALIZED that the work day has changed for a lot of people: It isn’t tied to a physical location anymore, and many of us have departed from the traditional nine-to-five model. The opportunity for us to create personal workspaces that actually feed us and support us and cultivate our energy and functionality, rather than draining us, is huge. At the time, the conversation around workspace design, both in the office and at home, and this idea that it contributes to your happiness, was really picking up.
I HAD TONS OF CONVERSATIONS with people to solidify the ideas behind Perch before I left Google. I wasn’t interested in doing something small. I wanted to solve a big problem, whether it was at my company or someone else’s. Some people were like, “This is a crazy idea.” But other people got it, and over time, it was amazing how many people were like, “I’ve been looking for this!” I finally made the leap in 2015, and Perch launched at the end of 2016.
I NEVER HAD ANY ARTISTIC TALENT like my parents, but I did always have a sharp and curatorial eye for beautiful things. When I was young, I remember being very particular about how papers were laid out on a desk, and I needed things to be quiet. Apparently I was very strict. I had a sense of what worked best for me, and I was always paying attention when it came to establishing order. I think it’s important to be sensitive to the way you work and test how different things influence it. Just have a spatial understanding: Notice how bright the lights are, what the music is, and whether it has lyrics. I’m very aware of structure and my surroundings, and whether they’re supporting me or working against me.
WE STARTED PROTOTYPING DESKS when I discovered that it’s nearly impossible to find ones that aren’t wildly expensive and still of the quality and design standard I wanted. In the process, I learned that the furniture industry is very antiquated, and one of the last ones that the internet had yet to disrupt. I was like, ‘Why is furniture so expensive? What is going on here?’ There are a lot of really nice, beautifully-made pieces at a price point people would buy, but they’re only sold in showrooms for decorators, so most people don’t have access. As a result, furniture has some of the highest mark-ups in retail, because there are so many middlemen. I think there’s a huge need for a different model.
DETAILS ARE EVERYTHING. When I’m looking at desk prototypes, for example, I’m asking, “What will improve the user experience?” If you’re pulling a drawer open a certain way, it had better not get stuck, because that’s annoying. The slides on these drawers are all hardwood, from Vermont. I wanted every component to contribute towards a wholly delightful experience. I also want our products to look timeless, not tied to a trend, so that they can grow with you. They get better with age, which is different from a lot of office supplies: Most people have a stapler that’s plastic and meant to be replaced within the year, which kind of feels shitty.
ALMOST ALL THE SUPPLIES we carry at Perch have been on my own desk for a time. I like to have a tray where all my essentials are kept. I’ll put papers there and process them in batches. A photo or a little beautiful thing to catch my eye. Usually a flower or two. Boxes for storage. If everything has its own place to land, it isn’t troublesome to clean up. There won’t be so many distractions, like paper clips that easily create clutter. I also like to use an hourglass. It helps me keep track of time in a subtle way.
I HAVE A STRICT MORNING ROUTINE: Stretch, meditation, gratitude practice. Then I time-block my schedule. I ask myself: What are the three things I really want to have happen today? What meetings do I have, and is there enough buffer time to prep beforehand? You think that you can outsmart the system, but it turns out that best practices really help. I also cut off my internet at 10:30 p.m. I know that my self-control at that hour is terrible, and I’m not getting that much high-quality work done. It’s good to remember that the balance of sleep and exercise actually helps my work productivity. There’s no way of cutting those corners.
Photographs by Lindsay Brown.