Need a home office, a classroom, or spare bedroom? This Ohio-based company reconstructs shipping containers for additional space.

When businesses and schools shut down in mid-March and everyone went home to work, it was a very odd stroke of luck for Central Ohio businessman Robbie Friedman. Once a corporate attorney in New York, Friedman had returned to his hometown, upstarted a business based on legal software, sold that business and was launching his second venture, called ootBox. 

Friedman’s startup story is personal. Back in 2016, he was making phone calls in preparation for the sale of the software business to the background noise of his and his wife’s newborn, first child. To save his own sanity and deal with a lot of anxiety, he hastily retreated to his own backyard with a newly purchased drill and some wood. 

“I started connecting wood to wood to build what I called an escape pad,” he says, laughing. He started to make business calls from the newly built, backyard box. Soon, his neighbors were asking if they could use it at times, too. 

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That got Friedman thinking about a new venture. He and his family had since moved to a new neighorhood, leaving his initial escape pad behind. (There’s a neighborhood theme here, for sure.) He met neighbor Allison Zofan who worked for a Washington, D.C.-based corporate consulting firm out of her Central Ohio home. She knocked on the door one day, panicked, because she had lost her wi-fi connection just before a scheduled presentation. She would be talking to the heads of real estate for several Fortune 500 companies, and she asked if she could do it from Friedman’s home. 

Always the entrepreneur, Friedman listened closely. Eventually, he sold Zofan on the idea of joining him as ootBox’s vice president. When the shutdown occurred, ootBox had eight pre-orders from corporate buyers. When workers were sent home, though, those orders went on hold. Friedman and Zofan quickly saw new opportunity. They returned to the thought of Friedman’s original escape pad. 

The ootBox has come a long way from Friedman’s first version. Today, the company reconstructs shipping containers to create these 8x10-foot rooms, furnished and comfortable, for homeowners, as well as businesses. Details and finishes are refined. An ootBox simply plugs into an outlet, powering light fixtures and HVAC. 

In addition to some backyard models, ootBoxes are currently used by BrewDog, the Pizzuti Companies, and Muskingum Valley Health Centers. Leases range from $750 to $1,000 a month. Total units can be purchased for around $30,000. 

Robbie, how would you define the style and functional differences between your original escape pod and today’s ootBox? 
Both my original escape pod and all our ootBoxes are hand built here in Ohio. The difference is that my escape pod was really just an exercise in answering, “Can I build one?” While with ootBox, we are strict about form following function. We went through an extensive prototyping phase where we first deployed ootBox models in over 30 different applications—ranging from backyards and schools [including Ohio State University] to coffee shops and corporate campuses—because, unlike my original escape pod, our goal has always been for ootBoxes to have a wide variety of different uses. We learned how to transport them, and how to make them brandable and customizable. 

Allison, when Robbie first approached you about this venture, did you immediately buy in?
 I remember walking back to my house the first day Robbie mentioned ootBox. I got about halfway home before I turned around, went back to his house and spent the next two hours talking with Robbie about all the ideas I had of what ootBox could become. The next day my phone rang, it was Robbie asking if I wanted coffee and he wanted to know if he could stop by to ask me a few questions. That quickly turned into an everyday activity. The Tim Hortons’ cups slowly started piling up in our garbage can and the conversations shifted in my house to: “So is this a thing worth leaving the most stable, flexible job you’ll never be able to find again?” But, I finally came to a point of: “If not now, then when?” 

At a two-month lease price that ranges from $750 to $1,000 a month, what’s the potential of isolating in the woods of Hocking Hills (on land someone owns) this fall? 
For delivery, we have two requirements: the site needs to be accessible by our truck and we need to be able to plug the box in somewhere. That said, we also like when our boxes are used in cool ways. So, if the application is cool enough, we’ll do whatever we can to make it work. Hocking Hills sounds pretty good right now.