Advice on Opening Up A Creative Coworking Space, Classroom and Retail Shop

Retail Shop at Gather

I get asked the following question a lot. Instead of just answering all the emails individually, I thought I’d wise up and post my thoughts here for more people to see.

“I was wondering if I could pick your brain about the collaborative space you had at the old Cary shop. Myself and a few friends are throwing around ideas and I offered to reach out to you. Would you mind sharing what worked/didn’t work for you?

We’re considering a space that would be a home for our business, a collaborative space for artists (could potentially rent a space for an hour/day/year), an event space, and a very small retail area. The entire business as a whole would be related to building a space to connect local creatives.

Would love to hear if you had anything that you would/wouldn’t do again.”

Coworking at Gather

As with anything there are bright spots and challenges. For me the bright spots in the previous Gather location were so bright, but the challenges (mostly in the amount of management needed to make it function) were more than I wanted to pursue on a long-term basis so I evolved the business model to be more in line with my long term goals and values, and it’s been great.  I do miss all the lovely things that you’ll see outlined below, but I still do a significant amount of what the other space did in the “new” space, but in a leaner fashion with a lot less management, and for me that is great achievement.

Coffee at Gather

The Bright Spots:

  • The employees – So so gratifying being able to mentor young bright, amazing individuals and watch them grow.
  • The conversations – Every day I was at the space I was able to have a thoughtful, deep, one on one conversation with either a coworker, a maker, or a customer. These conversations lead me to wanting to start a podcast so that others could hear these inspiring dialogues that we were exchanging. This desire is one of the reasons I downsized, now to actually make them …
  • Bringing together creative maker entrepreneurs to talk about their challenges and successes in small groups as part of Gather Creatives has long been a goal, and to see it take shape was wonderful. I think networking and sharing successes and challenges and lessons learned helps grow businesses so much. This group will be starting up again in the late Spring and I can’t wait. I’m even outlining plans to make this a larger effort in other cities too, so if you’re interested in hosting one get in touch.

Potluck Gathering at Gather

  • The classes – I began hosting classes about seven years ago at various locations but having a set location to really dig into and create a full schedule of them has been fun. Connecting with others in real life versus on the computer and working with your hands is both cathartic and scratches an itch that I don’t think most attendees realized they had.
  • Teaching classes – Because I am oftentimes orchestrating things behind the scenes, it is nice to share my expertise with others in this format sometimes too.

Classes at Gather, North Carolina

  • Concocting ‘Drink of the Month’ recipes – while I initially didn’t anticipate running the coffee shop part of the space, I did end up absorbing that part of the business. Though I am a no-caffeine tea drinker, it was really fun developing recipes with my staff and planning them in advance.
  • The environment – For sure, designing a space that was bright and white and lovely to be in, filled with warm textures, colors and plants had a huge impact on feeling like it was a home away from home for so many people. I heard a lot of people say they wanted their home to feel like that space, and it was something that I was very intentional in creating. I noticed a lot of homogeneous, tech-oriented shared workspaces with clean lines and masculinity but never felt like I fit into any of them. I crave an environment that is calm and soft.Mug of Coffee at Gather, North Carolina
  • The storefront, the garden & the sleepy downtown – I really thrive in an environment where I can put my head down, spread my wings and do my own thing. Being in the middle of the Triangle area but still about 20 minutes from all the action in a charming, sleepy downtown was really sweet. I loved the garden out back and the way the shop looked when you drove by, with its brick walls covered in Creeping Jenny. The other awesome thing about being in a less concentrated, and “hip” location is that the community was created out of need and therefore was more diverse. I feel like in more urban locations there is a tendency for like to stick with like and because there are more options to choose from you do tend to stick with your people. I am so grateful for being surrounded by a diverse group of people who broadened my horizon and perspectives daily.

Gather's old location in Cary, North Carolina

  • The coworkers – I can’t write a list about the bright spots without including the coworkers who really transformed me. Being surrounded by other women (all the coworkers at the previous incarnation of Gather were women except for one man) who were pursuing their dreams at different paces, at different stages, some with children, some not, but all working nonetheless, was so inspiring and fulfilling. We would put our heads down at times when we needed to get stuff done, then pop our heads up and talk about everything from feminism, to what we ate, to giggly mundane day-to-day things, but no matter what we were chatting about, it was all very special. I tried really hard to cultivate an environment that was nurturing and encouraging in an organic way. There were no feelings of competitiveness or judgment; it was just great and a truly one of a kind, beautiful thing that absolutely moved me on a daily basis. And when on the rare occasion there was any sort of destructive behavior (there was only one instance in the beginning), it was nipped in the bud immediately.

Gather Coworkers

  • The focus on wellness and happiness – there were two permanent built-in offices in the space and the rest of the coworkers used the communal shop area to work. Two massage therapists rented out the back office. One of my employees was a yoga teacher as well, and I shared an office with a writer (and kindred spirit) whose focus was on editing manuscripts for happiness psychologists. Another coworker was a self-help coach, so there was just something in the air (not just the wafts of essential oil tricking down the hall) and we frequently encouraged each other towards living more mindfully and powerfully.

Gather, North Carolina

  • Creating various platforms and opportunities to help spotlight and grow maker entrepreneurs – This is truly my passion and my expertise. I love curating their wares in a beautiful way, encouraging them to hone their craft through refining their product, teaching them the skills to be better marketers and entrepreneurs, offering classes where they teach their skills and of course in creating community, which of course I still do all of at the current version of Gather as well.
  • Consulting one on one with makers – This one goes hand in hand with the above sentiment but is even more focused on the growth and mentoring of individual makers. I really am a million idea a minute person and helping others connect the dots on their ideas and mine and taking their ideas from dream, to goals, to reality is awesome.

Gather Goods, Raleigh, Studio Shot, Zass Designs

Which leads me to the challenges:

The Challenges:

  • Managing so many moving parts – I think that the more seamless something looks on the surface, the more parts that are being massaged and managed to make it function that way. There were just so many moving pieces to the business in that space: coworking, coffee, retail, classes, employees and they were all chugging full steam ahead, but it was exhausting to perform at that level and there was no time left over to focus on me.

Cactus at Gather

  • Catch-22 – I worked so hard to create an environment that I would love to work in, that attracted others to work in, but at the end of the day, because I was managing the space, and always having to deal with the demands of running it, the questions from employees, and coworkers and customers when I was there, the sensory overload, I personally couldn’t actually do any of my own work there other than the management aspects. I had to do my deep, focused work, and my art at home.What initially started out as a studio space for me became the exact opposite of that. Ironic, huh? This is a trap that I see a lot of artists and makers fall into. I think you have to be really aware of this when creating an environment such as this. Sometimes it is better to lease a space from someone else rather than be the orchestrator of the whole thing. You may be good at it but the reality is, you probably can’t do both. Or maybe you can, but I couldn’t. I still struggle with this in my pared down space, it is a slippery slope that you have to work really hard at keeping focused on. If you want a lovely space to make your art in, see if someone else has already started something you can work out of first, that may be just what you are looking for.

Retail Shelves at Gather, Raleigh, North Carolina

  • You can’t be a nice guy all the time – It wasn’t always wine and roses and initially in the very beginning, I did have to ask an individual to leave because they were negative and disrespectful and being dishonest. That is never fun. I really don’t like confrontation, and I also really expect the best of everyone so when someone takes advantage of you it’s just super lame. And anyone that knows me knows that if I am blowing a gasket, this person must have done something really bad to push me over that edge. Sheesh. The reality is, when you run a space with this many people involved there will sometimes be issues like this you have to deal with – and manage. It’s that word again, see a theme here?
  • It was stressful, there is no guide – running a business is hard, and I had no guidelines or examples to look to in the model I was creating. It has become a much more popular thing in the few years since I started the initial coworking/coffee shop/classroom/retail shop space to now, so there may be more examples to look to, but regardless, with any business, there are a lot of judgment calls, stabs in the dark, prayers, pleas and wild ideas that are spinning through your head constantly.
  • It was (and still is) self funded and doesn’t make a lot of money – I don’t have a trillion dollars, I have debt, I had to make it work, and these things are helped and challenged by the fact that I am married. My husband has a full time job, with benefits. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if he didn’t and wasn’t a steady constant in our lives. I am intensely entrepreneurial, he is not. Balancing what works as a family and as a business owner is not only hard but different for each couple. I have to respect the dynamics of our relationship and family enough to know just what makes sense in the long term and what doesn’t.  While that space was definitely aggressively growing and succeeding I felt that streamlining to something that could grow faster, leaner and with less management just made the most sense for us as a family.

Retail Shelves at Gather, North Carolina

  • I’m giving up my prime earning years to pursue this dream – And you know what, for me it has been worth it, but I am acutely aware of the fact that I could put on my corporate hat again, put my twenty years of expertise to a different use and make a cushier living and turn out the lights at the end of the day and not take my work home with me. You just can’t do that when running a business, whatever type of business it is. The more you take on, the more responsibility you have and the more that is compounded.
  • The grind & the hustle – I say a lot “if you build it they won’t come” which I know sounds sort of cynical but I believe it to be true. You have to really work hard to get people to notice your business, to grow it, to make it succeed. There is a definite grind and hustle to it, and you either love it, hate it or fall somewhere in between, but it is legit. To stay on top of the game you have to work really hard for a long time.

Potted Cactus at Gather

So all that said, you really have to weigh the pros and cons of what your goals are for the future and what you want to do in your day to day life. Are you an artist and looking for an outlet in terms of community and connection or are you trying to scale a business separate from that? As with all things I would suggest starting small, and dipping your toes in the water without getting fully immersed to see how it feels, and growing over time into something larger. Though Gather (in its former and current shape) may seem like a business that just popped out of my brain and into the real world fully fleshed out, it was an evolution, and a very intentional and deliberate business and plan, with a lot of stops along the way to get here, and lots of testing the marketplace too.

And though it is a struggle (for me especially) to refine and streamline and stay focused, I think that is very important in terms of professional and personal growth to keep your eye on the prize and be clear about what your goals are in relation to yourself as an artist, maker and business person. Really ask yourself if the time you put into this endeavor will help or hinder your goals. Probably it will be a combination of both depending on your ultimate aim. The bottom line is that this type of business isn’t for the faint of heart. You need to be passionate, driven, entrepreneurial and maybe a bit of a workaholic but it can be gratifying if you are able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and willing to invest in the long term. Otherwise, there are plenty of other ways to create community without having to take on an endeavor of this scale. Hope that helps!

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