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At the outer limits of Travis County, Texas, sits a 360-acre plot of land that’s home to grazing cattle, an old farmhouse, and the beginnings of a fully functioning farm.
It may not look like it from the outside, but this is the US headquarters of the 9,000-employee international software company Zoho.
In April 2019, Zoho purchased the land with the intention of building a massive new office for its Austin-based employees, who, up until then, had been working out of a rented space in an office park in southeast Austin.
But when a group of 20 or so employees took a drive out to the land, which is about five miles east of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, they found acres of uninhabited space, void of skyscrapers and the trappings of life at a tech company.
So they decided to start a farm.
This was in February 2020, just a few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic forced offices to shut down and caused tech leaders to allow employees to work from anywhere. In the months since, Zoho employees have built a small but flourishing farm that has served as both a food source for employees and a respite from the stress and upheaval of the pandemic.
The farming initiative has been so successful, it’s led Zoho to open rural offices in India, Mexico, Japan, and Canada, and seek out small towns in Texas that could serve as rural offices for employees wondering just what’s keeping them tied to city life.
‘You never know who’s going to show up’
Zoho was founded in 1996 by CEO Sridhar Vembu. The company makes a suite of business software, like email and video conferencing apps and tools for finance, sales, and marketing. Launched in India, Zoho now has offices in nine countries, including Japan, Australia, Mexico, and the Netherlands. It has remained a private company and has never taken outside investment.
While Zoho does have an office in the San Francisco Bay Area, the majority of its US employees are based in Austin, a decision that came about after one of Zoho’s top executives, Raju Vegesna, packed up and left California.
“I lived in the Bay Area for about 17 years and I never owned a home because it never made sense,” Vegesna told Business Insider. “I felt like I was working really hard to make my landlord rich and it felt like if I were to buy a house, I would be house-poor.”
Vegesna decamped for Texas, and about 150 employees now work out of Zoho’s Austin office.
With the pandemic still surging in many parts of the US, Zoho employees are working remotely, and that will continue to be the case for the time being, Vegesna said.
But Zoho has something most other tech companies don’t: a safe place for employees to meet, work, and reconnect.
For Mickey Stanley, Zoho’s head of PR content, the farm has helped break up the monotony of working from home. The farm is home to an old farmhouse that the company is in the process of fixing up and turning into an office space, but for now, Stanley sits in a chair on the porch and gets his work done.
“You never know who’s going to show up,” Stanley told Business Insider. “You go into an office and it’s the same people in your section of the office that you see and talk to. But here, somebody could walk in and sit down next to you and be doing their work and you have the ability to make a new relationship with a coworker that you wouldn’t otherwise.”
Breaking down the silos
Zoho is careful to point out that the farm is not a commercial one — it’s a small, employee-led operation that’s an experiment more than anything else.
And its growth has been deliberately slow. Seeds that got started in small grow boxes in the windows of Zoho’s rented office eventually made their way into the ground. The employees started with three rows, then created two separate beds. They had irrigation installed and then they expanded to four beds, each with 10 rows of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Behind the beds, employees planted apple, lemon, and orange trees.
“There is no hierarchy of good ideas and bad ideas,” Stanley said. “It’s just like, if you have an idea, we have this space, let’s try it out.”
But with minimal farming expertise among the staff, the team has inevitably hit a few speed bumps in the growing process. Stanley said his first crop of tomatoes died, and a swarm of beetles ate most of the kale. Sometimes, they get overzealous with the produce they plant.
“I really like melons, so I decided to go out and get a bunch of cantaloupe transplants and other kinds of melons, and I planted them and they were thriving, but I started to notice that my little section just became overgrown with all of these vines,” Stanley said. “We managed to get probably hundreds of these melons, but how many melons do people really want?”
Stanley said he’s slowly working his way through the bountiful watermelon crop, putting watermelon in everything from a fresh summer salad to a boozy watermelon smoothie.
Besides melons, the Zoho employees had strong crops of corn, arugula, radishes, squash, pumpkins, basil, moringa, persimmons, and “a lot” of peppers and chilies — they are in Texas, after all.
There’s no competition over the crops, Stanley said: Employees will go to the farm to pick their own produce — bringing along friends and family is encouraged — and whatever they don’t want, they leave on a bench at the end of the beds for someone else. The company has since started a new channel in its team messaging app, Cliq, where employees can share what they made with their produce. Eventually, once the farm gets bigger, they hope to set up their own farm stand or co-op as a way to meet their neighbors in the area.
For Zoho, the farm has completely replaced other tech company perks, Vegesna said.
“In a typical campus, you would have, maybe, a gym. But when you have a farm and you have real work to do, you really don’t need a gym,” he said. “In a typical campus, you have a snack room, but when you have fresh fruit that you can pluck directly from the tree, there’s nothing better than that.”
For Stanley, the farm is mostly a learning process, but he said it has also become a symbol of a better way to work.
“The metaphor of the farm is to break down the silos, right?” Stanley said. “So we couldn’t just compartmentalize all the different produce. What we want is this kind of loose learning process where everything isn’t overly manicured and everything is kind of growing into each other. And we see what works.”