Saying No to the Cubicle

Grail Noble (front, seated) and the Yellow House team have abandoned the notions of a traditional office.

Grail Noble bucked traditional corporate culture when starting Yellow House Events, now one of the nation’s fastest-growing events agencies

Ten years ago, as first-time homeowner Grail Noble stood in her new abode just weeks before the birth of her first child, she felt a deep yearning for career independence. “It was a real ‘aha’ moment,” she says. “I was painting the walls of our first home and looking at the colour I picked and knowing that I owned it. I said, ‘The feeling I have of driving my own vision and my boat forward is what I need in my professional life.’”

With that, Noble closed the door on her former life as an employee and formed her own company, Toronto-based events powerhouse Yellow House Events, of which she is the CEO. Previously she had worked all angles of promotions, sponsorship, and events for notables such as YTV, Molson Coors Brewing Company, and the NBA (“We helped launched basketball as a sport in Canada,” she says), but she left behind job security and an enviable maternity leave to ignite one of the fastest-growing companies in Canada through solid networking and innovative organizational practices.

Through the Years

1991–2001
Graduates from Western University and builds her career working for Congress Canada, YTV, the NBA, and Molson Coors Brewing Company

2001
Buys first house, leaves corporate world, becomes pregnant with first child, and starts Grailco

2002
Works from home and lands her first client, the Heart & Stroke Foundation

2004
Rebrands her company as Yellow House Events and buys a yellow house, too; lands new major clients such as REVLON and Sun Life

2006
Snags the big client, BlackBerry

2007
Hires her first intern, who then becomes the first employee and is now director of operations; moves Yellow House into its first office space, in the Parcel Building; revenue growth and a need for more staff and space sparks an office move to the Distillery District

2007–2012
Survives recession and wins some awards while adding five new staff members, a graphic design department, and an Orlando office

2012–2013
Adds a director of marketing and business development, and doubles the size of the office

2013
Enjoys busiest, most profitable year, billing more in its first quarter than in the entire previous year; her husband, Paul, takes a sabbatical from his career to support Yellow House as VP of special projects

Noble registered Grailco—which became Yellow House after a rebrand—out of her bedroom. In the early days, she rocked her baby in a carrier with her foot while typing at her desk. Noble decided to grow the business slowly at first to spend time with her family, but remarkably she had clients to attend to from the start. She attributes her acquisitions to a few things: a thick Rolodex, strong relationships with former employers and colleagues, and, more often than not, random chance.

For instance, Noble bagged her first “elephant,” BlackBerry, eight years ago, a few months after helping a client’s wife jump-start her job search over tea. Noble followed up to see where the woman had landed, and it turned out she had been hired by then-little-known Research in Motion (now BlackBerry). The woman introduced Noble to the BlackBerry events team, and to date, Yellow House has conducted hundreds of BlackBerry events, and the brand is still Noble’s largest client.

“There are always sales strategies that work, but in our business it’s very much based on relationships and likability,” Noble says. “We don’t sell widgets, but people and ideas. People buy from people they like, provided all things are relatively equal.”

Noble’s people-centric philosophy starts internally: her Distillery District offices boast comfortable couches, great music that employees can select, wine in the fridge, and a latte bar—posh digs for the 16-person outfit. “It’s a really cool culture where people are valued,” Noble says. “We like each other and have a good laugh every day.”

Noble scoffs at traditional vertical business hierarchies. “Taking a bunch of people, putting them all in cubicles under fluorescent lights, and then making them compete against each other for limited promotions or positions doesn’t create a team environment,” she says. “Companies do this and then find themselves spending lots of money on corporate team building to offset the cutthroat or political environment they have created. ”

At Yellow House, employees work collaboratively. In brainstorms, a finance manager is as likely to participate as a marketing guru, fostering “knowledge spillover.” Frequently, client projects are assigned to staffers based on their skills; the office foodie, for example, would likely get a job with culinary connections. And account teams consist of junior and senior managers so that the up-and-coming professionals can show leadership without clients detecting any learning curves.

The latest ritual at Yellow House is the morning huddle. Workers gather around a whiteboard, coffee in hand, no laptops allowed, and announce their top three objectives for the day. It keeps the team on the same page, helps everyone gauge and distribute workloads, and adds a sense of accountability.

Whether it’s the progressive atmosphere or its client relationships, something is working for Yellow House. The agency has recorded 2,395 percent growth over the past five years. Perhaps it’s due to Noble’s empowerment ethos, the same one that initially drove her to go solo and that today defines her management style. “If you give people something they can own and are responsible and accountable for,” she says, “it’s amazing how they will rock it.”