This Q&A is the first of a series we’re calling “How We Work Now,” which explores how Covid has impacted the ways we work and how we do business—possibly forever.
Organizations like San Rafael-based VenturePad, a coworking space in the heart of the city’s bustling downtown, were already revolutionizing the landscape of our workdays before Covid struck. By providing the space and amenities for those in the twilight between working in a conventional office environment and working from home, coworking spaces were a Goldilocks solution. Then everything changed. What follows is a conversation with VenturePad’s co-founder and President Chris Yalonis.
Pacific Sun: How has Covid affected your mission and what pivots have you made?
Chris Yalonis: Yes, we had a severe drop of revenues, and it stayed flat for 12 months. We are slowly replacing our members, and revenue and should be back to pre-Covid by the end of the year. We moved to virtual programs on personal and professional development for small business, but our mission stayed the same, to support and activate Impact entrepreneurship. But we are a brick-and-mortar business, and our brand promise is to experience the place, to feel the support and the light and the electricity, the cross fertilization across sectors and professions. We could not replicate that going virtual.
PS: How does the housing market play into your business? I know many Marin-based tech workers would rather stay off the Google or Facebook bus and remain in the county where they can actually afford a home. Has this been a factor with VenturePad?
CY: We do not serve a big group of Big Tech workers. We did have some corporate teams, and their headquarters did shut down their memberships. We expect them to come back. But housing prices are affecting everyone across the whole Bay Area.
PS: Coworking communities have often seemed stronger to me than some corporate cultures I’ve experienced. Can you describe the culture of VenturePad and any synergies you’ve perceived?
CY: We have a culture of innovation, [and] support friendliness, professional and personal development. The professional-services people really like to help the startup founders, and even the folks from the corporate employers. We also have a strong commitment to sustainability, low waste, clean energy for sourcing electricity, sustainable sourcing for furnishings, etc. I don’t find the same commitment in most corporate environments.
PS: I suspect we’re going to find that being on Zoom as much as we have will prove deleterious to our physical and mental health. How does VenturePad and its analogues correct this?
CY: Well, we will still offer Zoom, and hybrid- and full face-to-face meeting options. We will be starting up our “Lunch and Learns” and “Summits” this fall, that will include professional and personal development help, as well as a Summit on Cannabis and Wellness, and a conference on Sustainable Enterprise. As far as mental health, my professional friends in that business are seeing a lot of mental health crisis surges, suicide alerts [and] drug dependency. Entrepreneurs—especially males—are not very good at showing vulnerability, so we try to have support groups, and have confidential discussions and sharing of stress-management and anxiety-mitigation tools like mindfulness, talk therapy, yoga, proper sleep and nutrition, social support [and] exercise.
PS: I know this is just the tip of the iceberg—which is building as we speak due to climate change—but is there any data to suggest that coworking locally is better for the environment than commuting? On the surface it seems to be true, but educate me.
CY: Certainly most of our corporate members are driving 50–75% less miles when coming to VP. We encourage our members to ride bikes, walk, share rides [and] drive EV’s—we have 50 charging stations within three blocks of us. We also model shared-economy practices and encourage members to practice less consumption, more sharing, less footprints—waste, water, wheels, watts—not only at VP, but elsewhere.
PS: With the contractions in the economy due to the pandemic, many coworking spaces shuttered; I’m thinking of the beloved WORK Petaluma in particular, which shifted its energies to a “dedicated office” venture. How did you guys survive?
CY: We stayed open as an essential business and encouraged people to come in by demonstrating the 30 safety protocols we put in place. We reduced expenses to the bone, went into debt big-time and got breaks from our landlord. We have increased rent payments commensurate with our increase in revenues this summer. We are breaking even and headed towards profitability.
PS: What’s the life cycle of a business in a coworking environment? Do they stay solopreneurs, or do they grow and eventually require real estate? How does that jibe with your business model? Do you consider VenturePad also a kind of incubator?
CY: The average tenure is about 18 months. Eighty percent of start-ups don’t stay open over five years, so they naturally morph, shut down, pivot, fade away. Sole proprietorships can go in and out of active operations pretty easily, and we encourage that with a no-lease model. It’s important that we, as a community, make it easy for entrepreneurs to get affordable space [and] access to capital, expert advice, talent, cofounders.
VenturePad has an incubator and an accelerator that offers peer support groups, weekly accountability meetings with coaches, over 75 advisors and experts on execution of work—not just advising. We also have video training on small business development and growth, financing, marketing, etc. We also have a track on access to capital, to help founders with their business plans, pitch decks, [and] legal and structural help to prepare them to raise friend- and family-funds or outside investor money.
PS: Generally speaking, who are your members and what amenities do they enjoy?
CY: We have a mail and virtual business service so small shops can have a professional business address, access to meeting rooms and workspace. We have open and dedicated desks for part-time and full-time use. Turnkey office setup with fast wifi, printing, meeting space, private offices, IT support, concierge. We also have advisors and experts with discounted rates who can help with technical needs or strategy or leadership-management issues. Beautiful meeting rooms are available to rent by the hour or the day. All bookable online.
PS: How important is it for organizations to have a physical presence in today’s contemporary economy? Are the days of no one knowing you’re a dog on the internet long gone? Or do clients and customers “get it” now?
CY: I believe that many small professional services, tech, financial services [and] advisory services can be virtual. But personal services, products [and] experiential types of business models need some physical presence. Customers and prospects gain confidence in meeting in a professional setting and interacting with suppliers face to face. According to the experts, only about 5% of human communications can be conveyed with an electronic screen. We’re social beings, and we need to feel and convey empathy, vulnerability, caring, touch, emotion and all the rich means of expression.
PS: What can local government do to help area entrepreneurs embrace new models of doing business that align with the coworking vision?
CY: Marin and the North Bay region needs to develop a plan and then resource an ecosystem that supports and helps entrepreneurs succeed. We have 13,000 employers with W-2 employees and 41,000 sole proprietors, so micro and solopreneurs are a critical driver of our economy and job growth. We need to support them with affordable housing, affordable work space, access to capital, supportive advisors and services, [and ] peers that can support and can offer empathy and contacts.