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Five Questions: GeekDesk Founder Donovan McNutt on Standing Desks

Standing desks are catching on with home office users, and for good reason.


Five Questions: GeekDesk Founder Donovan McNutt on Standing Desks

Donovan McNutt is founder and president of GeekDesk, a company that builds and markets convertible desks that can be raised for use in a standing position. The desks include a motorized lift that enables home office and other workers to quickly switch between sitting and standing positions. I contacted McNutt and asked him about the growing popularity of standing desks and the inspiration for starting his company.

The topic of standing desks is certainly of interest to home office users, a portion of whom are prone to working long hours without the benefit of natural interruptions (like daily meetings in the staff conference room). Last month I blogged about the reported dangers of sitting at a desk for long periods (Is Your Home Office Killing You?), as well as about some available standing desk alternatives (Get Up, Stand Up). It's clear that there are real health and productivity benefits to be had from an alternative desk setup.

Michael Desmond: How did GeekDesk get started? What were you hoping the company could do that others were not?
Donovan McNutt: The backstory (pardon the pun) is really what got me into this business: I was involved in a pretty bad snow innertubing accident as a 17-year-old kid, which left me with a rib broken loose from my sternum and the vertebrae that rib connects to knocked badly out of place and "hypermobile," (as chiropractors like to phrase it). By the time I was in my thirties, I found myself very sensitive to sitting in chairs all day, but also more aware of what helped and what didn't. I starting "tuning into" what my body was trying to tell me.

I made my living at that time as a programmer and IT consultant, and therefore spent a ridiculous amount of time sitting in front of the computer screen. Inevitably, my back would start complaining. At the time, the conventional "expert opinion" for desk workers was one of "proper position" -- sit with your feet flat on the floor, arms at the right angles, etc. That was the expert opinion, but my body was telling me something very different, and much more simple: "Move! Change positions once in a while!"

From there, I started experimenting with different setups that let me work standing part of the time. It made enough of a difference for me personally, in terms of how I felt and my energy level that I decided to get a lot more serious about it, and figured others could benefit from a cost-effective solution as well. That intuition turned out to be correct -- and I'm very grateful for that.

As far as "What were you hoping the company could do that others were not?" goes: I think the main part that we brought to the market was simplicity. Adjustable desks have been around for quite some time – we were not the first to make or sell them -- but they had historically been (in my opinion) more complicated than they needed to be, outrageously expensive, and tedious and difficult to buy. We brought a simple, solid product to market, at a very compelling price point, backed it up with direct support and a solid warranty, and then made it as simple to buy as a mouse click. That basic value proposition has resonated very well with the market.

MD: Do you sell a lot of desks for home office users?
DM: We sell a lot of desks to home office users. They are a very significant portion of our business. It would be difficult to quickly get an exact estimate, but it wouldn't surprise me if it's a third to half our business.

That said, we have a surprisingly-wide variety of customer type. Corporations (both Fortune 500 and small), individuals and home office workers, government agencies of all kinds, and universities are among the regulars.

MD: Have you found that more regimented office environments, like larger enterprises and cubicle farms, tend to resist adoption of convertible desks due to their cost and need for more vertical space?
DM: I think for some institutions there can be resistance due to cost, but I've not heard of anybody complaining about the vertical space aspect. What we are seeing though, increasingly, is the benefits of having employees working at a quick-adjustable desk getting recognized more and more by management, from both the health aspect and the employee satisfaction aspect. In technology circles, it's actually become a perk that companies use to attract employees. We have sold desks in quantity to set up more than one new technology office over the past few years.

MD: Ergonomics has been an issue of workplace discussion for decades now, yet it seems like standing desks are a fairly recent phenomenon. Are we seeing greater awareness of standing as an alternative? Any insight into what has driven that awareness?
DM: Full-time standing desks have actually been around for a long time -- Thomas Jefferson used one, and so did Ernest Hemingway. Adjustable desks have been around for at least a few decades. I think what has happened though, is that we've reached a critical mass, at least here in the United States, as far as awareness goes. I definitely think the answer to "Are we seeing greater awareness of standing as an alternative?" is a very loud "Yes."

People are waking up to the fact that sitting all day is not only uncomfortable, it's not healthy either. There has been a shift in momentum with respect to that being a known and accepted idea, and people are a lot more open to it as a result. We are even seeing it in corporate settings a lot more than we used to, where companies are outfitting entire new offices with adjustable desks, for example.

As far as what has driven that awareness, I think it is primarily a combination of two things. One, a higher percentage of people seem to make their living working at a desk all day than used to be the case and two, the normal momentum of "an idea whose time has come" as it impacts and courses through the market and culture. (e.g. friends telling their friends, media reporting about it, people seeing it and remembering it as an idea/approach/possibility, they tell their friends, etc.).

MD: People considering a move to a standing office often worry about issues like sore legs and feet. Obviously, a convertible desk can address some of that. But what can office workers do to ensure a comfortable standing environment?
DM: Not to speak from too much of a sales perspective, but one quick point: A convertible desk actually addresses ALL of that, not just some of it. The need for change, rather than just favoring one position over the other, is the main point. When your feet and legs get sore, you just change position and give them a break.

Also, standing all day isn't that great of an idea, in my opinion. Probably better than sitting all day, given how much we sit elsewhere besides work, but still... not at all ideal.

Those two things said, we have a lot of customers who are pretty dedicated to standing at least half the day are more. One thing we hear from them pretty regularly is that A) an anti-fatigue mat can be very helpful, and B) a stool, like a drafting stool, can make a nice "in between" position to take a little pressure off your feet and legs, etc. I personally use three different chairs that I rotate throughout the day, one of which is like a drafting stool. I also am a pretty big fan of standing some days on an anti-fatigue mat wearing only socks on my feet.

As always, the mantra for me is "listen to your body." Once you get to a certain level of health, I believe your body tends to tell you pretty reliable information. I have some days where I stand almost the entire day. Other days, I'm sitting on a stool or leaning back in a chair more of the time. It really depends. What works for me is frequent change (typically five to six times a day or more), and paying attention. Some of our customers find that having more of a "set" sitting/standing allocation plan works for them. I think that aspect depends a little bit on temperament.

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