Sometimes the most substantial support for a community project comes from outside the community. A philanthropist, who declines the term, has been tracking our efforts to create a coworks on Whidbey. Our Kickstarter campaign generated great emotional support and attracted several enthusiastic donors, but we didn’t manage to hit the required goal, which meant no funds were transferred (except for yet a different donor who gifted me money as a personal emergency arose.) Enough of those details. The idea is valuable enough that we now have a $3,000 challenge grant from someone who would never directly benefit from the space, but who thinks it is worth it. The challenge is real. Can this seed sprout enough committed interest to make a coworks happen?
The chain of posts that lead to this post are probably best started with the most recent one, Coworks Conundrum. Work your way back through as much as you want. It may ruin the suspense, but it will probably save you time.
Since the Kickstarter campaign finished, we’ve been brainstorming other ways to create a coworks. I was lucky enough to get a tour of one of the massive and massively impressive coworks in Seattle, Impact Hub. They can accommodate hundreds, which makes for a nice revenue base. We might work up to a few dozen, and will probably have to start with less than that. I’ve also contacted some of the other large organizations like WeWork. On the island, our stand in, at least for writers, has been the Wednesday Coworks for Writers, hosted by the Whidbey Island Writers Association. It has also been a weekly forum on what to do next. There has also been interest from community-minded local entrepreneurs who provided advice. We’ve also talked about different revenue models, service offerings, and locations. The original location was Langley, WA, an internationally known tourist destination. The coworks could benefit from the higher profit margin day and week visitors, but internationally known tourist destinations also have high rents and utilities. Can a location closer to the ferry make it easy enough for mainlanders and clients to use the space? Hello, Clinton, WA. Can a location that is less touristy but well-situated for locals and local businesses work better? Hello, Freeland. Hello, Bayview. Coupeville and Oak Harbor, go for it, but I need a space I can drive to in less than a half hour. Options, plenty of options.
Building businesses in small towns is different than building businesses in cities. Cities have the benefit of numbers. Seattle has about 620,000 people within the city limits. The region has over 4,200,000. The south half of Whidbey Island has fewer than 20,000 in the winter and maybe over 40,000 in the tourist season. Here, relationships and individual needs are heightened. Here, the benefits are amplified. Improve the financial lives of a few hundred people in Seattle and maybe it will make a quick news sidebar. Improve the financial lives of two dozen people in a small town and the local economy can feel the impact and it will be headline news (on either Wednesday or Saturday, the two days the paper is printed.)
As one advocate pointed out, the issue may be as simple as my honesty. I’ve been a millionaire, have a resume that some couldn’t believe until they met me, but evidently some judge me on my recent perfect storm of bad luck. Regardless of the progressive attitudes of Washington State and Whidbey Island in particular, people are measured by their wealth; especially, when money is part of the conversation. I’m not the only person involved, but evidently I am the one most comfortable speaking in public, listening to a wide range of advice, and conducting at least a moderate amount of research. One consequence: I have a broader understanding of the commercial rental property market of most people who aren’t real estate agents. It’s been suggested that maybe I should try yet another career switch. As Seattle’s hot market spills past its borders, that may be a good idea. Tom Trimbath, Real Estate Agent – smile! (Probably have to get a haircut and wear long pants all the time.)
I would like to present a detailed plan for a revised coworks model. We’re not there, yet. I didn’t want to let the conversation fade to quiet, either; especially considering the surprising and impressive support that continues despite any public display of progress.
A $3,000 challenge grant is effectively $6,000 in startup funds. An optimist would say go for it. That’s enough for a month or two of operations (assuming there aren’t any costs like furniture); and if we build it they will come. A pessimist looks at the low success rate of any new business or venture, and says get as much as a year’s operating funds before signing any lease or making any commitment. My estimate is that about six months of operating expenses would work out to about $18,000 ($3,000 per month for six months, no salaries). Those are Langley numbers. Clinton, Bayview, and Freeland are probably lower, but not as low as $6,000.
As a pragmatist, I keep in mind the reality that this may not be the time, I may not be the person, or our models may not be the right ones; in which case the prudent thing to do is to thank generous people, but not take any funds. That is an option.
During one of the larger power outages, the local telephone company (Whidbey Telecom), opened their high-tech conference room and filled it with about six dozen people who would normally work from home. Give people the right environment, facilities, and reason, and they’ll use the service. The other advantage of coworks that is more powerful than great bandwidth is the community that develops. People working beside other people invariably find work to spread around, fertile ground for new ideas, support on bad days, and someone to celebrate with on good days. That amplification is missing. Uni-working is working and can pay the bills, but coworking benefits greatly because of the co-. In small towns, co- is vital because small towns are defined by community.
Of course you can tell that I’m a fan. I’ve witnessed the benefits, and then watched them fade when a previous coworks closed. I also don’t care if I am the one to implement it, but I want to be able to participate. If someone else can make it happen, great! That’s less work for me. If someone else wants to add it as a service to their business, cool. (I’ll just hope it meets my needs, too.) And of course, if the community wants to build something that helps the community, that’s the best way for it to happen. At least one person thinks the idea is worth at least $3,000. How much more valuable is it to people who actually live here?