Editor’s Note: In the new podcast Masters of Scale, LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman explores his philosophy on how to scale a business -- and at Entrepreneur.com, entrepreneurs are responding with their own ideas and experiences on our hub. This week, we’re discussing Hoffman’s theory: the smartest companies don't tell their employees how to innovate, they manage the chaos. Listen to this week's episode here.
When your business is very small and getting started, it is easy to find yourself “breathing your own exhaust.” As Lisa Gansky, the creator of Ofoto Photo Sharing wrote, “When you create something, you can fall in love with it and aren’t able to see or hear anything contrary. Whatever comes out of your mouth is all you’re inhaling . . .” If you work alone, or with only a select group, you may be limiting yourself and your company. More interaction, ideas, concepts and thinking often lead to more innovation, creativity and a more profitable business. Environments that convey this kind of positive energy are a key reason that coworking is growing at a dizzying pace.
Coworking isn’t a new notion. In 15th-century Florence, painters, sculptors, architects, engineers and scientists worked together in the Renaissance “bottega.” Bottega workshops brought together different types of talent to compete, collaborate, learn and improve, most often under a master teacher. These bottegas created environments that increased the level of discussion among diverse groups and helped these individuals to turn their ideas into actions. The interactions led to higher levels of innovation for all.
The philosophy of personal interaction leading to higher levels of output and innovation is illustrated by W. L. Gore and Associates, the makers of Gore-Tex and other products. The company’s unique business model includes keeping its manufacturing facilities to between 100 and 250 employees. Gore believes that “the cost savings from large plants is canceled out by the loss of efficiency and productivity that comes from employees not knowing each other well.”
People haven’t changed. We still gain new ideas from interacting, collaborating and competing with others. A setting that brings different groups together and encourages interaction is exactly the type of environment that spurs entrepreneurial growth. Just over three years ago, we opened Gather, the premier coworking space in our hometown of Richmond, Va. With our second location, opened in 2016, we currently create a community for more than 250 entrepreneurs, freelancers and small business owners. Like the Renaissance model, Gather offers expert guidance through our business partners in the areas of law, business, finance, accounting, real estate and others. Like Gore, we restrict Gather offices to no more than 250 coworkers to allow people to get to know each other well. These connections are also encouraged through the open common spaces and social and educational events.
There are dozens of examples of coworkers collaborating, innovating and working together. However, we find that most of them fall into one of these four categories:
Learning and advice
TJ Rinoski, a young graphic designer, talked to us about learning from others with more experience. He said that he often asks the more seasoned designers who work in Gather, technical questions when he gets stuck or needs some guidance. Likewise, Stinson Munday, of Linden Legal Strategies and Gather’s legal business partner, spoke about the ease of both giving and getting advice from others who are “next door.” She offers office hours each week, where coworkers can pop in to receive some quick legal advice. Stinson explained that she also relies on other professionals at Gather to answer questions outside of her expertise. She said, “It is like having an office without all the office politics.”
Recruiting and employment
When PJ Wallin needed to hire an employee for his growing financial planning company, Atlas Financial, he looked no further than his fellow coworker, Darla Keefer. Because of their many interactions, PJ felt he knew Darla’s character, skills and work ethic. It was an easy hire. Similarly, Kate Ayers with ReEstablish Richmond, a non-profit that connects refugees to services and aids in their transition, has referred several of her clients to Andrew Crotts with Volatia, a company that supplies interpreters in more than 280 languages. As Kate said, “Our clients need jobs. This is a win for our clients and both organizations.”
Networking and clients
Members of Gather often look to each other when buying services and products. As Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVA2021, explained, “We are a small nonprofit, and coworking has enabled us to cross-pollinate with smart, creative people regularly on a ton of projects. One of the biggest was our work with Charles Merritt, whose social media targeting and analytics, plus a natural knack for strategy, enabled us to execute a crowdfunding campaign with $50,000 from 1,000 donors all over the country. We cowork because informal access to such talent can't be found in a regular office environment.”
The networking that occurs naturally in a coworking environment can also lead to referrals. Jessica Zullo with Hickok Cole, an architecture firm, referred Barbara Bliley and Nick Toce of Helm & Hue, a branding and marketing company with a knack for printing, to create decals for Jackson & James, one of her client’s new stores. Nick said, “The opportunities we have received have been integral to our growth and expansion. Our access to new clients, collaborative resources and referral partners have opened doors that would otherwise have been unreachable at this stage in our development.”
Innovating and collaboration
Jeff Kelley is a commercial journalist whose company Kelley provides content, media and digital communication services. To do this, he uses a select group of freelancers and small companies to add to his skill set. When several of Jeff’s clients started asking for graphic design, Jeff called on Caitlin Hathaway, a freelance graphic designer and web developer. Jeff said, “For six months, we met maybe once and did most of our work via email. But, when we each moved into our own space in a coworking community, we were able to work like a true agency -- but without the overhead. Today we remain individual but can shout across the hall and get face-to-face time that we could not before. Work is done more efficiently, and we’ve been able to get more work because of the proximity.”
When Caio Bailoni overheard AJ Mojaddidi talking at the next table about cybersecurity, a partnership was born. AJ, of Key Cyber Solutions, a successful cybersecurity consultant, teamed up with Caio, an analyst with Cloud Automation Solutions, to extend the services of both. Together, the companies have been able to bid on several large projects that they would not have been able to approach before the collaboration. Caio said, “This is just the beginning of our work together.” He sees this partnership growing in the future as they find more ways to create together.
Evan Garrison, a freelance analyst, has collaborated on several commercial real estate projects with Duke Dodson of Dodson Property Management and Andy Beach and Jeff Bunch of UrbanCore Construction. Together, they have purchased and renovated multiple commercial properties, finding synergy in their skill sets. The unique alliance allowed the partnership to move into historic redevelopment and adaptive reuse. Without the relationships created by coworking, it is unlikely that they would have found each other.
Most cities and even smaller localities offer coworking. If you have a business that could benefit from discussion, collaboration, networking and learning opportunities, we encourage you to look at the options located in your area. The benefits are many, and like the bottegas of Florence, the environment they create inspires innovation and more.