This Coworking-Space Franchise Is Winning Without the WeWork-style Perks
If you’re looking for a workspace with Ping-Pong tables and kombucha on tap, Office Evolution isn’t the place for you. That’s the domain of big players in the space, like WeWork and Regus, which tout Silicon Valley–style perks that help bind together a community of workers. But Office Evolution founder and CEO Mark Hemmeter saw a marketplace of entrepreneurs who weren’t served by that model: They’re mostly first-time entrepreneurs over the age of 35 who live in the suburbs, have managed small businesses such as accounting or legal firms, and are already plugged into a more traditional community. Many of his franchisees go to the same churches, country clubs, and grocery stores as their customers, and don’t need whiz-bang spaces to commune. Office Evolution was founded in 2003 and started franchising in 2012, quickly opening more than 50 locations -- each of which has its finger on the pulse of what its particular community needs.
What are the benefits of franchising for a coworking company?
We have owners talking to other owners. We like to say we’re “owners to the third”: I’m an owner, our franchisees are owners, and our clients are owners of their businesses. We spend a lot of time building relationships with local Chambers of Commerce or Rotary Clubs -- those organizations are fantastic lead generators for us.
You operated the business for nearly a decade before franchising. What caused you to take the leap?
It’s just so important to have that local connection, and we couldn’t replicate it with corporate stores. Our franchisees are not seen as foreign entities coming into town when they open up a location. They’re seen as members of the community, friends who’ve been part of that community forever.
How is that reflected in the way your individual locations operate?
It’s very codependent. We’re helping our customers build their small business, and their small business has helped our franchise. Our word for our company culture is ohana, which means “family” in Hawaiian. I’m originally from Hawaii. Sometimes when I fly Southwest Airlines, after we land, the flight attendant says, “We’re running a little late; to help turn around this plane so it’s on time for the next group, would you bring your trash to the front?” That’s what we do here. Everybody jumps in to help. We have people who will sign for FedEx at the front desk, or they’ll put away mail if one of our Office Evolution employees is sick.
Many of your customers are over 35 and entering entrepreneurship for the first time. How do you cater to people at that juncture?
People start at one level and move up as their company grows. We have a whole range of plans and pricing that go from $79 a month to more than $1,000. Everything is month-to-month, and any client can use any Office Evolution location anywhere in the country, 24-7. We know small businesses need to be flexible, and we know that a lot of our customers have families and other obligations that require flexibility, too.
Do your franchisees customize their locations to reflect a local aesthetic?
They put their own spin on marketing and artwork. Our location in Nashville has a lot of great, professional photography of Nashville, and our location in Summit, N.J., has art from the covers of The New Yorker. There’s one thing that’s universal, though: Right behind the reception desk, there’s an orange wall with a very specific piece of art. There is no Office Evolution signage when you walk in. But once you’ve been to one location, if you enter any other, you’ll know you’re in the right place.