By Flora Tsapovosky
It took some time, but the coworking trend has reached San Rafael; VenturePad, a full-service coworking and entrepreneurship center, opened here in March. The bright, welcoming space on B Street (between Fourth and Fifth streets) is a joint venture by Chris Yalonis, a longtime Marin entrepreneur with 30 years of experience in software development, and Alejandro Moreno, who guided marketing at Marin’s former leading accelerator Venture Greenhouse. We caught up with Yalonis on local entrepreneurship, working remotely yet together and Marin County realities.
Flora Tsapovsky: Why start a coworking space in Marin, why in San Rafael and why now?
Chris Yalonis: “I’m a 30-year Marin resident and VenturePad is my sixth start-up that I have founded or have been on the ground floor with. I believe that as a community, we need to support our entrepreneurs, freelancers and work-at-home professionals. We were involved with Venture Greenhouse and Renaissance Center, two incubators here in San Rafael that supported and launched over 350 businesses between 2010 and 2015. They dissolved because of unsustainable business models and left many of us in the entrepreneurship and small business support community without a rallying hub. Existing Marin coworking spaces are either niche, or out of the way without nearby amenities, so we wanted to have a center that was substantial and professional, with capacity for a critical mass of over 150 small businesses and entrepreneurs to inspire and support one another.”
FT: Who is your target audience?
CY: “It is an inclusive model that casts a wide net across Marin: Work-at-home individuals in Marin, incorporated entities with four employees or less, commuters to San Francisco, Sonoma, the East Bay and Silicon Valley—a percentage of whom would prefer to work closer to home part of the week, individuals employed by Marin nonprofits and more. Our early founding members tell us that they find that working at home, while comfortable much of the time, can be isolating and distracting and they need to be around other people for social stimulation and motivation.”
FT: Most of your team members are age 40 and older—do you feel there’s a need in coworking for this age group, rather than just the younger, start-up-like crowds?
CY: “According to the census, Marin’s average age is 45. There is a substantial number of professionals who are well established in their careers, are on their third or fourth start-up or business that they own. Besides, according to a McKinsey study in 2016, one third of the U.S. workforce do some kind of freelance work. Marin has an even higher percentage, closer to 40 percent, according to census data, which is approximately 60,000 residents freelancing, so regardless of age, coworking is addressing these needs.”
FT: What kind of workshops and classes do you plan on offering?
CY: “Every Thursday, we have a Lunch & Learn session, free to members and $10 for non-members. They are run by local experts in a variety of leadership practices, [and cover] special skills or relevant hot issues that impact a small business owner or leader. Popular topics have included social media for small business, intergenerational team collaboration, managing cash flow, innovative business models and negotiation skills.
We will be launching our incubator and accelerator program later this year. This will be a six- to nine-month program with 10-15 members per cohort who will have a workspace and meeting rooms, weekly mentoring and classwork, regular milestones and presentations to hit and a network of advisors. VenturePad is also organizing Marin’s first Sustainable Enterprise Conference, slated for October 26 at the Embassy Suites. This is an offshoot of a 12-year-running conference in Sonoma that draws over 400 every spring.”
FT: Where did the inspiration for the look and feel of the place come from?
CY: “We wanted something open, full of natural light with a modern, yet post-industrial feel. Plenty of steel, wood and glass; a very uncluttered, clean look. We found a wonderful open space at street level with 16-foot ceilings, all glass on two of the four exterior walls. We also have ‘baked’ sustainable practices into our operations; VenturePad is carbon-neutral, and all of our energy comes from 100 percent renewable sources.”
FT: What’s your take on the changes that Marin County has gone through in recent years, following the tech boom?
CY: “In recent years, we have added jobs overall, but not our housing stock. The lack of housing stock is the biggest challenge we face as a community, and it has multiple ripple impacts. This includes longer commutes and more out-of-county commuters. As a community, we need to make commercial and residential space more affordable to be able to support young and growing companies and families. Otherwise, they will continue to decline in numbers.”
FT: What are you hoping to achieve with this project?
CY: “We want to grow our membership and build out a rich educational program of lunch, online and workshop sessions, as well as classroom programs for baseline entrepreneurship skills and tools. We also want to be a convenor for public-private collaborations that link up our technical and professional services experts with policymakers and nonprofits to address some of our biggest community challenges. Right now, the target issues include homelessness, sea level rise impact and climate change, fossil fuel-based transportation and congestion, affordable housing and equity. Easy stuff, right?”
VenturePad, 1020 B St., San Rafael; 415/309-0331; venturepad.works.