32. Chris Holt on Member-Driven Services in Coworking Spaces

This episode is brought to you by the Global Workspace Association.

This episode features Chris Holt, co-founder of TechArtista in St. Louis, Missouri.

This episode and our previous episode, #31, focus on facilitating community in a shared workspace. I created a downloadable cheat sheet with a list of tips and insights shared by our guests, Craig Baute in the last episode, and Chris Holt from this episode. To get the cheat sheet text GWA2016 to 44222 and then follow the instructions on your phone.  

Chris, tell us a little bit about you and why you started TechArtista?  TechArtista was actually a sort of fortunate accident. I was working on a software business, my business partner and I were looking for somewhere to work because we were going to kill each other if we kept working out of our house, and we stumbled across this building that had been built out for an architecture firm in the early 90’s.  From a traditional real estate perspective it was very hard to work with because there was a lot of non-leasable space, which is exactly what made it perfect for coworking.  It had been empty for a few years before we found it and the landlords said “Hey, if you kids want to try and make this happen, we can give you the building for free for a year.” Now we are going on about we’re about a month away from our second anniversary and I am happy to say that things are going well and it works.

Describe this space a bit more.   The physical breakdown of space is that all the offices are on the perimeter, and there is a lot of open space in between.  There is a pyramid that goes all the way up to the middle of our three stories which the staircase spirals around which creates this open hive mentality. From there we started filling the offices one by one until we gained some density and were able to start using the income to build out the next phases.  One of the first things we built out was our Gym Space inside our building, which is called The Movement Lab. This was a really critical component for us because we wanted to create a space that was somewhere that people could work and also a space that people could be productive. We are also continuing to add in some unique concepts including a massage therapist, and we just recently build out a small little hair studio too.

One of the new things we just added was a maker space and photo studio so we just finished building that out and had an opening for it about two weeks ago.  We have a massive custom built 3D printer in there, a CNC machine, all sorts of prototyping, electronics, robotics, all kinds of stuff.  Then we also have a photo studio in that same shared space so you can build your products and capture them and create your marketing materials around them right in that same room.

Will you have enough use in that space from current members, or is it a marketing piece for new members as well?  Definitely both.  We had a number of members who mentioned that they would really like to do something like this.  We started reaching out to other people whose industry was either people, fashion, robotics, 3D printing, photographers, and videographers. TechArtista is filled with artists, there are people who cross two disciplinary boundaries, so we quickly realized that was something that was missing in the city of St. Louis: having an affordable community creative space.

What is the mix of your community, does it lean towards artists? Does it fit the name, TechArtista?  It does fit the name in a sense that we really do span everything from full tech to full art.  For example, we have a guy here who restores old furniture and sells it out of a shop downtown, and then we have enterprise software developers sitting a few desks away from them. We’ve got a lot of people that work remotely for non-profits or larger companies, and then a lot of single individuals, solopreneurs, who do anything from graphic design, to people who provide support services for local ministries and parishes, we have small magazines and publications.  It’s really cross disciplinary.  That’s part of what has been so advantageous for us because that’s where new ideas come out of: when you're bumping into the person next to you, and they have a completely different skill set and you propose the problem that you’re working on, whatever you're mulling over and this person takes a completely different approach and helps you expand your framework for tackling to solve the problem. One of the things that I think is really unique about our space is we have had six companies that were created because people were sitting around each other and someone had an idea, somebody overheard it and said “hey hey hey, tell me more about that!”

Community clearly plays a really strong role in your space, how do you facilitate that, how does that happen?  We definitely do a lot of happy hours, every coworking space does a lot of happy hours but beyond that I think we did something really early when we started that really changed the sort of trajectory of how we filled our space.  We had about 25 members at this point it was and we have a 14,000 sq. ft. building, everybody had a lot of space and we were spreading out.  We wanted to bring in more people like the people we had found because of our initial members many of them are still here.  So what we did was we gave all of those all of those members an opportunity to give away a membership to somebody else that they thought would benefit from coming into this space.  Overnight we doubled our membership and they were all people that our members wanted to have around them, so they automatically were vetted to be people that would contribute to what we were doing. That really helped us grow quickly and brought a native success.  Now any of our members, after they have been here for a month, they all have a free month to give away whenever they want to.  We have some people that give away 5 to 10 free months in a year because, they keep feeding us really interesting and amazing people.  We also give away a free week to anybody that walks in the door to say to give them an opportunity to come hang out and talk to members.

You encourage the week versus the day trial period?  We do because over the course of a Monday through a Friday, the people that are coming into the space completely changes.  Monday morning the space is bustling, Tuesday morning dies off a bit because people might be off site for meetings, or they worked really hard on Monday and they decide to work from home, and then we have people who work all night long, and people who are only here from 8pm to 5am.  So we encourage them to come see the space at different times and to experience that different dynamic because you might come in during the day and it’s a little chaotic and that’s not the right feel for you and what you don’t realize is after 5pm the space becomes much more quiet, much more focused and that’s also available to you then.

Besides Happy Hours, what other types of events do you host?  We host the normal range of events such as lunch and learns, where we cater lunch, we do small workshops series and educational things like that.  But also, what we tend to do is we will rent out our venue to members, and if their event can add value to our community they don’t have to pay a cent for the use of the venue.  We want to encourage people to do that kind of thing but if they are just launching their new product, and it’s not about the greater community, then they’ll have to pay rates that internally are still cheap, but incentivise people to have a product launch but also consider working in something into that that makes it more exciting for our community to partake in, so it’s free.  

Talk a little bit about the neighborhood that your space is in, and how it’s evolved since you opened.  We are in the central west end in St. Louis. The central west end has had an interesting history.  Twenty years ago, there was a Saks Fifth Avenue right in this neighborhood, it was one of the upper neighborhoods in the actual city of St. Louis.  This neighborhood has a very cosmopolitan feel and has density.  It was the only real neighborhood I was looking to live in after college because I live right around the corner from my business, I can bike to my grocery store, I can walk a hundred yards from my house and go to any number of the 10 bars that are on the streets near me and there is a nightlife of restaurants and clubs. It is desirable place to live, but while it’s also fun and very accessible it does also have a very professional feel to it. It’s a polished neighborhood that’s got a historic character.  So that’s one of the other things that has attracted this young professional audience to us, it’s an affordable neighborhood for people that are in their early to mid-twenties, but it does give you the feeling of kind of what you are shooting for, that you’re a little closer to that polished completely transitioned out of college adult lifestyle that you’re working towards.

It was the perfect place for us.  We’re in one of the top twenty neighborhoods for the arts in the country.  We’ve been significantly involved in this neighborhood, we  joined the neighborhood board, and we started getting plugged in, which has been very helpful for us as the co-working space because we have a lot of resources that we provide to the neighborhood. We will even host some events for the neighborhood association to be a key resource for the neighborhood.

You mentioned last time we talked that you have a member that’s a coffee roaster that you’re starting a coffee kiosk in the space, talk about that.  One of our members has been working on non-profit for a very long which she is providing clean water in Latin America.  As a non-profit that relied solely on donations she continued to struggle and fight for her salary every year when really all she wanted to do was have as much of an impact for her in these communities that she cared about.  So in an alternative attempt to find a reliable funding source, she came up with the idea of doing a coffee roasting company in which 10% of the profits of the coffee sold go back to Origin and go to vetted nonprofits to really help those people at Origin with clean water.  So as she started this coffee Company, we helped her kick-start about $10,000 out of our space to build out a cart we are creating in the front of our space where there was a desk.  Now we are going to replace that with a full coffee bar barista set up but we are also making this a public coffee shop for our neighborhood.  We’ve got a Starbucks of course and we’ve got one or two other Coffee Shops right here but there is no high high end, high quality coffee, artisan coffee, so we are looking to create that here.  In addition to providing the product of the high quality coffee, there is also the fact that every time you buy that coffee some of that money is going back is somewhere you know.  In addition to being able to provide more amenities to our members there is a really good intention behind this product which is why we were so eager to support it and it’s actually one of the first companies that we’re helping incubate ourselves within the space in a much more hands on way.

Ok, parting advice, what advice would you give to someone just starting a space, or for someone looking to focus more on community and their space?  I think it depends on the situation and I think a lot of times if someone is really looking to ramp up their community and their space, before looking outward they really should just look internally because odds are you’ve got a lot of people within the space that have a lot to give or that know people that have a lot to give.  So before you start trying to scramble to find something completely new, just look to what you already have, I think you’ll find a lot of unique ways to activate the potential that’s already there. These people are already investing in your community, they’re already there every day. Start asking them questions, ask them what they want, what would really complete this experience for them, what would make this space perfect.  The biggest thing that we realized was instead of trying to  keep pushing ideas out there we need to let them come to us, I think we’ve found a lot more interesting opportunities that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise so.

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PodcastJamie Russo