Coworking Part II: Creative Spaces
In Haddon Township and Collingswood, a pair of unique facilities are helping to grow nontraditional businesses by lowering overhead through economies of scale.
Editor's Note: This article is the continuation of a two-part feature on 'coworking,' a new model of collaborative working based upon the idea that people of different disciplines can benefit from sharing a common work space. For Part I, click here.
At the SoHa Arts building, a 4,000-square-foot converted warehouse and former salon on the White Horse Pike in Haddon Township, Lavon Phillips helps make people's dreams come true every day.
At least, that's his intended aim. SoHa rents workspaces to independent professionals of every stripe. Some of them come with a business plan. Some of them are armed with nothing but the know-how of their craft. Some of them just come for one afternoon a week to deliver a class, workshop or other session.
But everyone in the building is there because he or she is establishing the infrastructure of a business. People don’t want to be billionaires, Phillips said; they want to be thousandaires. They just want to find a way to make their passion profitable enough to feed them.
“The human will always need a place to dream," Phillips said, "a place to scratch and fight. And people, God bless ‘em, don’t feel like they have it in their house. They had it but the dog took it or the kids got to it. People grow into the need."
And SoHa isn’t just strictly for traditional artists. The variety of renters includes a financial consultant, jeweler, clothier, chocolatier, self-help speaker, and engineers, Phillips said. The one thing they all have in common: they came to SoHa to create a brand.
“We’ve got really top-quality people in here,” Phillips said. "There’s no hobbyists here; you can be a hobbyist at home. You can save your money and have a closet.”
SoHa tenants are thoroughly vetted and must pass criminal, background and “gut” checks, he said, which contributes to the building being “a solid, safe place," where, 24 hours a day, creative types can chase their inspiration.
“Real estate will always be valuable,” Phillips said, “but we want what’s on top of our real estate to be valuable.”
The community of tenants creates a supportive knowledge base, he said, that allows people to get questions answered by tapping into the human capital of their collective experiences.
Does the collaborative atmosphere rub off? Phillips thinks so.
"My inquiry is useful to somebody else," Phillips said. "My question is their answer and vice versa."
Want another example of that added value? Clients of a personal trainer who holds classes in the building impulse-purchased five paintings they saw hanging in the space after their workouts. That doesn't happen without a collaborative work space.
“People might have said, ‘He’s a gym rat, why are you letting him in here?’” Phillips said, "and they’re sitting back here and counting the money."
For those entrepreneurs who worry that their idea might not yet have found its time, Phillips said SoHa offers a low-risk, high-reward atmosphere in which to incubate. Some of his tenants go whole-hog from the jump; others transition from full-time to part-time at their day jobs while growing their side business.
“It’s a product that they can borrow for an hour, a day, or a year at a time,” he said. “People aren’t scared to change, and they don’t lose their shirt when they do.
"Even if you don’t like it, you’re finding out what doesn’t work for you," he said.
'Those enthusiasts keep the lights on'
Tom Marchetty’s modern-day workshop, The Factory, represents the bookend component to Phillips’ Bohemian vision, if SoHa were realized through the eyes of, say, a frustrated backyard mechanic.
“This isn’t a money-maker for me,” Marchetty said. “This is just an opportunity for everyone to profit off an awesome building.”
Although he is bullish on the potential for his site, Marchetty mostly cuts out Phillips’ dreamer’s talk of the human spirit or a grand artistic vision when speaking about the roots of his idea.
“It was selfishness,” he said. “I needed a place to do my own stuff, and there’s no other way to do it without having other people contributing. You need those people, you need those enthusiasts, to keep the lights on."
To be sure, however, Marchetty believes that necessity is a two-way street. He's looking for tenants who will take pride in the space, buy into the idea of its possibilities, and who want The Factory to be an enterprise in which they feel they have ownership as well.
“When I rent a space or I let people in here, I let them know, ‘You own this place with me’,” Marchetty said. “That’s what I think the coworking space is all about. Even though they’re paying a small fragment of the cost of running this place, it couldn’t happen without them. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Marchetty describes The Factory as “a blank canvas” where he’s open to most any idea, “as long as it’s a good fit and it’s not going to be hazardous,” but he is equally clear that the group buy-in isn’t strictly economic, either. He said he’s cultivating an open-door policy that will keep everybody friendly and networking.
“My place isn’t open just for anybody,” Marchetty said. “My place is for people I feel will fit. I want people...who want to be here and get out of their house and be creative and use their creative sides to bounce ideas off other people’s minds.
“These are the people you come to work with every day,” he said.
The reason an idea like The Factory can work, Marchetty believes, is because artists, craftsmen, and innovators don’t have the resources, time or space to do at home what they can do there.
“When people go to the gym, they work out; when they put their weights at home, they collect dust and it turns into a towel rack,” he said. “You get done what you want to get done and you go home.
“You can bring a client here, a customer,” he sad. “You can pitch your idea here, you can sell your idea here. You don’t look like an a--hole when you bring somebody in your garage to show them what you’ve been making.”
Choosing the space that's right for you
Coworking advocate Rae-Ann Ruszkowski, who’s seen a lot of variations on this theme, said that although securing a space is critical to the success any coworking group, fostering a nurturing community is really what makes it go.
“That’s what helped people have that internal competition, that deadline,” Ruszkowski said. In her experience, “the ones that didn’t work as well were more antiseptic, more like a doctor’s office; it was a community, but it was a sequestered community.
Some offices were "awesome,” she said, with amenities to suit any working style or mood, from free beer to a coffee-house kitchen.
"There’s deadline rooms, speaking rooms," she sais. "I know when I’m on a task-driven list, I need to be at a desk and plug away. When I’m in a creative mood, I need whitespace, I need walls, things to play with.”
But be warned, Ruszkowski said—endeavoring to start a coworking space as a profit center is generally a losing proposition.
"Those who try to open a coworking space thinking they’re going to make money at it do not do as well," she said. "If you have that deadline room, you’ve got that space, and it’s an extra cost.
One way to move past that, Ruszkowski said, is to crowd-source the operational funds. There's a way to give everyone a little financial stake in the environment, "so you create meaningful connection now with that business that’s there," she said.
"You don’t just like it and go there, you’ve got an investment in it."
At the bottom of all these arrangements, she said, is a foundational element of spreading the success around by improving everyone's ability to get their bases covered.
"How can I make my mark?" Rusczkowski said. "It’s hard to do that because now you’ve got to take on these other hats, it’s not just this thing you love all the time.
"Let’s all help each other get better," she said.