A collaborative process

Owners of Nashville’s shared workspace businesses learn on the go as local industry remains relatively new

Christian Paro foresaw various challenges when he earlier this year opened Center 615, the East Nashville-based collaborative workspace business that has quickly gained popularity.

But given Paro is part of an industry with a modest — and very young — local history, it is not surprising he did not anticipate one in particular.

“The HVAC climate control,” he says when asked what perhaps has been the main obstacle of operating his business. “Everybody has a different take on what is comfortable. Center 615 has 37 individual suites, and the heating and cooling is centrally controlled. We have 10 zones. It poses its challenge with climate control and airflow.”

Paro was fortunate in that he started Center 615 (pronounced “six one five”) after having already established the adjacent Paro South Creative Suites (which has a higher concentration of small work suites).

“That was like a testing project,” he says. “We have only one conference room at Paro South. We have three at Center 615 and we are adding a fourth.”

Those growing pains are helpful to have, as they have offered Paro a chance to learn what is effective and what is not.

"Originally, we tried to include a cleaning service as part of the rent," he recalls. "That made the rents higher [than otherwise]. We eventually found it would be better to leave as an option. Some tenants will take out their own trash. [Not offering a cleaning service] allowed us to keep the rents as reasonable as possible. However, about 25 percent of our tenants opt to have the cleaning service for their specific offices. And I’ve had tenants elect to add the cleaning service as their businesses have grown."

When asked how he has incorporated an entrepreneurial focus within Center 615, Paro says he has been investing in residential and commercial property since 2005. In addition, veteran businessman Bret MacFadyen (co-owner with wife Meg of Five Point-based Art and Invention Gallery and small-retail-space concept The Idea Hatchery) helped show Paro that office spaces can be small, affordable — and embraced by certain clients.

"This allows the little guy to spread his wings," Paro says. "[Bret] inspired me with that logic. I’ve always had a sound appreciation of the entrepreneurial spirit, especially when it comes to affordability and access.”

CoLab, based on Fourth Avenue North in Nashville's central business district, is believed to be the city’s first true collaborative workspace service. Kailey Faber, CoLab owner, says some basic concepts — whether needed or not — have driven how she approaches the business since she unveiled it in January 2010.

"When CoLab opened, we did not have a mailbox system or a mailbox membership," she explains. "This was one of the biggest requests we got as CoLab grew. For some startups in the early stages of their business, all they really need is a professional address. Then, as the businesses grow, they often merge into full-time co-working. Given our downtown address, once we started offering just a mailbox option it caught on very quickly. It is now a nice amenity."

In contrast, Faber says CoLab scrapped memberships that offered a dedicated desk option and a night owl option.

"We had very little interest in these types of memberships and wanted to simplify our options, so ultimately decided to do away with them," she says.

Faber says a key challenge — both in terms of attracting tenants and garnering general respect, is changing misconception regarding how companies use collaborative workspace.

"I think sometimes people assume that because we are not 'corporate,' we are somehow not working hard," she says. "Yes, our work environment here is in some ways more flexible than a typical nine-to-five desk job. But at the same time, our members work incredibly hard. Just because someone is wearing jeans and sneakers doesn’t mean they aren’t serious about business.

"What we face more often, however, is a misconception about what it’s like to work downtown," Faber continues. "For example, one challenge we face a lot is the parking options. For people who have come from suburban work places — where there is no shortage of open parking — it can seem intimidating hashing out the downtown parking options. And it is surprising to people sometimes that there is an additional cost for parking. However, we have an on-site and Printer’s Alley garage we partner with, and we are now including parking in the cost of membership. It’s not an additional revenue stream for us. It is something we are willing to oversee at no cost so that the space is easily accessible with the benefits of a downtown location."

Faber says that since coworking via the shared office model is a fairly new concept, it is a challenge to project an internal growth plan.

"In that way, we are just like the entrepreneurs that work with us," she says. "We are kind of carving out this niche as we go, so we are working to grow responsibly but, at the same time, to meet the demand and to serve as leaders in the national coworking movement.

Phil Gibbs, founder and chief executive officer of E|Spaces, says a key element he learned about the shared office space industry as he was formulating his business — and something he was not particularly anticipating —was the allure of a certain beverage people associate with the workplace.

“When we started the business, we had simply observed people working in coffee shops and realized they provide a nice environment — but really are not a good place to do business,” recalls Gibbs, who operates E|Spaces (which the company stylizes as E|SPACES) in Belle Meade and Brentwood. “We also had experienced executive suites and, while they had the amenities missing from a coffee shop, for many people they represented a dated model. So E|Spaces grew out of simply combining the casual environment of a coffee shop with the amenities of an executive suites or state-of-the-art office.

Gibbs says he also did not realize the extent to which technology is fundamentally changing how people work and the degree of the shift to shared office space.

“We are in a period of great transition and people are trying to figure it out,” he says. “While the traditional walled office is often still the standard for many, the reality is that it is a relic. [Conventional offices] were designed for paper file cabinets and typewriters, and they sit empty much of the time, creating tremendous waste and unnecessary cost.

“While I think we knew we were on to something, I don’t think we understood the full scope of what was about to happen,” he adds.

Interestingly, Gibbs prefers the descriptor “office as a service” as opposed to “coworking space” or “shared office space.”

“The ‘office as a service’ is much more descriptive of what we offer,” he explains. “Many ‘products’ are transitioning to ‘services’— everything from software to cars to bicycles and even tools. So instead of buying software and installing it on your computer, you access the software through the cloud when you need it. In Nashville, instead of buying a bicycle, you can simply pick up a B-cycle and drop it off at your destination.” 

As to the entrepreneurial aspects of both starting and operating E|Spaces, Gibbs says the key is having found a “disruptive solution” for the office space industry and providing that solution to folks who — though not all true entrepreneurs — collectively boast an entrepreneurial spirit.

“As has been said, the people who made the money in the gold rush were not the miners, but the people who provided the picks and shovels,” he says. “We like to think of ourselves as providing the picks and shovels for entrepreneurs.”