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Sen. Murray sees Bainbridge-style innovation firsthand in visit to Avalara
Please pardon U.S. Senator Patty Murray if she seemed a bit bedazzled at the end of her tour of Avalara.
Washington’s senior senator visited Bainbridge Island last week to see first hand the Bainbridge-based company that’s revolutionized the sales tax-accounting software business. One minute she’s in Avalara’s posh employees’ lounge, complete with foosball table and leather-upholstered furniture, and minutes later, she is standing amid a sunshine-washed entrance hall filled with amazing pieces of Northwest art.
It was a real Dorothy/Wizard of Oz moment, until someone pointed out that she wasn’t in Avalara anymore.
Instead, the tour of the island’s exemplar employer had taken a few steps outside the private business and into the public lobby for the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.
Murray, already much impressed by her visit to Avalara and its “cult of the customer” creed, was astonished to discover it shares a roof with an art museum.
The senator, making a somewhat rare visit to Bainbridge, hadn’t heard about the new museum, which opened last June.
“It’s gorgeous. It’s awesome to have your company connected to this,” Murray told her hosts, Avalara founder and CEO Scott McFarlane and co-founder and chief tax automation officer Rory Rawlings.
The total tour
During her Feb. 19 visit to Avalara, Murray made a top-to-bottom swing through the company’s building just off Winslow Way. The company started on Bainbridge more than a decade ago, and now employs more than 500 people worldwide in offices from California to North Carolina to India. It moved into its current home on Ravine Lane a little more than two years ago.
McFarlane explained the company’s focus on excellence, inside and out.
“We wanted to be something that was different. We wanted to be a high tech company that was bringing new solutions to a business that has been around for a long time,” McFarlane told Murray.
Forging a creative climate amid the stuffy world of sales tax accounting was key, as McFarlane recalled his conversations with accountants at a trade show about the perfect work environment and their talk of zen zones, employee massages and margaritas.
“Margaritas? I’m in. That’s just my personality. It sort of just took off,” he said.
The goal was to make sales tax less taxing. It was an imagery thing, he said. And if that meant creating a cultural feel that felt like life inside a Corona beer commercial, then so be it.
“We just wanted to tell people what they didn’t have to feel was the pain. And it just so happens that a tiki hut works pretty well with a corporate environment,” McFarlane laughed.
The color orange
Throughout the tour, Murray was greeted by Avalara employees dressed in the company’s signature color of orange.
Another goal, McFarlane noted, was to someday have the Crayola company label a crayon with the name, “Avalara orange.”
Color Avalara splendidly quirky in other ways. Murray was told, for example, that each conference room was named after a notorious island; Alcatraz, or Elba, where French emperor Napoleon I was sent in exile.
“Anyone can have a Mount Rainer room,” McFarlane expalined.
And everywhere, it seemed, was a life-sized cardboard cutout of a smiling man or woman.
Those were the VIPs at Avalara.
“We always have a customer in the room, always,” McFarlane said as he explained the cutouts. “They are always represented in what we do.”
McFarlane played the happy host during the visit, often stopping mid-sentence to ask Avalara workers to say hello to Murray as they passed through the marketing department, or a cubicle-filled sales room where Murray had to make way for an employee just back from That’s A Some Pizza with a hot stack of pizza boxes on his shoulder.
Future on Bainbridge
When asked about challenges facing the company, McFarlane mentioned occasional and unexpected power outages, which prompted an “I live on Whidbey Island, I know” response from the senator.
Murray noted the company’s rapid growth, and asked about its future on Bainbridge.
“The big debate is, will we be able to stay on Bainbridge long term or will we have to go to Seattle,” McFarlane said.
“And the answer is?” Murray asked.
“The answer is: I don’t know yet,” he said.
Murray also used the tour as a chance to talk to some in the company’s rank-and-file. They stopped in the auditorium, where Avalara employees were having a quarterly leadership meeting, and McFarlane again introduced his guest to a welcoming audience.
“We always think about our struggles, the stuff that we have to do. And you know how the budget process goes,” he said, turning to Murray for an introduction. “Chairperson of the Senate Budget Committee. Can you imagine how daunting of a task that would be?”
Laughter and applause quickly followed.
Murray said she was stirred by what she had seen.
“It’s such a simple idea. Most businesses out there don’t want to deal with their taxes, and you took that burden off of them and have created an amazing business. I’m very impressed with what’s going on here,” she said.
“And the fact that you guys really wear orange every day ... I think we should get that in the Senate Budget Committee,” she quipped.
Murray made her stop on Bainbridge during her home state work period that ended Feb. 23. Later in the day, she traveled to Port Angeles for the ribbon cutting of the new North Olympic Peninsula Clinic, a Veterans’ Affairs facility that will replace the existing outpatient clinic for veterans on the Olympic Peninsula.
“I am really impressed at the innovation and creativity that this company brings,” Murray said after her tour of Avalara.
“And for them to pick Bainbridge Island is a real tribute to this community. But I see a huge potential,” she added. “And anything that helps creates jobs and a good way of life for the people here is something that we want to support.
“We know the kind of jobs that are being created here and the innovation that’s required and I think this company is really part of that culture that’s great for our state,” she said.
Ongoing jobs debate
Murray’s visit came while talk back in the nation’s capital swirled around the five-year anniversary of the $800 billion stimulus package passed in 1999 and some Republicans charging that it was a waste of money.
Not so, said the senator.
“I well remember when we had a very tough decision to make and our economy was tanking. And there’s always naysayers; it wasn’t enough ... it needed to be more. The fact is that if we had not done anything, we would be in a lot worse place than we are now. And a lot has happened since then, obviously,” Murray said. “The budget agreement that I worked on with [U.S. Rep.] Paul Ryan brings some stability back.”
“We’re not there yet,” she added. “We need to keep investing in our workforce. We need to be helping to promote growth here.”
There was doubt that a budget agreement would be reached between the House and Senate, and Murray said that initial success has been followed by other examples of both parties working together.
“No one thought we would be able to do it,” she said of the budget agreement.
“What we both said to each other was, the country needs us to set aside our differences and find a way forward, and we kept that principal. We both want our country to work.”
The momentum continues, Murray said.
“We’ve seen a farm bill pass now. We just saw the debt ceiling get taken care of without some kind of national crisis, there’s discussion of how do immigration reform. I think we did set a pathway,” Murray said.
McFarlane said he was humbled by Murray’s interest in the company.
“It’s pretty special. I woke up this morning and I’m like, ‘Holy cow, a senator is coming to our office.’ There’s just so many firsts that are happening to Avalara all the time. And this is one of the special ones, it really is,” he said.
A visit by such an important and influential member of Congress was truly welcome, he said, for both Avalara and Bainbridge Island.
“It’s just validating; to our business, to our community, to the museum that’s here. I think it’s important for the whole company to know that we’re doing something special on a national and worldwide basis,” McFarlane said.
“I’m really proud of our culture. Culture is one of our competitive advantages. We’re in that moment where it’s flourishing. It’s really a good time to be at Avalara.”