By: Ben Bryan Issue: Innovation, Growth, Job Creation Section: Community
Fostering Collaboration Among Entrepreneurs
On a bitter cold and snowy January evening, 20 or so people are earnestly taking notes – most on laptops and some in spiral notebooks. The topic is business and this could be one of many colleges or universities in and around Denver. But there is no professor, these are not students and this is not a classroom: these are entrepreneurs in a solar powered brick warehouse near Coors Field in downtown Denver.
Welcome to Green Spaces Colorado, a co-working space for social and green entrepreneurs. The event described is one of many such events sponsored by Green Spaces.
The speakers in this case are local venture capitalists, projecting their PowerPoint presentations on a blank wall where paintings from local artists usually hang. The audience, entrepreneurs all, sit on well-worn secondhand couches and miscellaneous chairs moved to the front of the 5,000 square foot converted industrial space and assembled into a casual semicircle. Most of the audience wear winter coats or heavy sweaters as the warehouse heaters are struggling to keep up with the arctic outside temperatures. Dogs are curled up at the feet of a number of people.
None of this interferes with the intensity either the speakers or audience members bring to this session. Questions are pointed, discussion is lively. The focus is how to raise money to get an entrepreneurial enterprise started: a fundamental and often misunderstand aspect of starting a business. The two most salient pieces of advice given that evening: it is hard work to raise money, and most often it is friends and family that must be relied on to get an entrepreneurial venture off the ground.
A close look around indicates that most of the audience are in their late twenties or early thirties, but a number are quite a bit older – entrepreneurs obviously on their second or third career. An equal number of men and women are in attendance. Despite the weather, or perhaps because of it, the energy in the room is infectious with lots of hope and optimism.
After the presentations are complete and the formal question and answer part of the program is over, everyone partakes of coffee and tea and casually breaks up into small groups. People are asking questions of each other: What is your business? How are you currently financed? Have you thought about this or that? This is a crucial aspect of the Green Spaces experience – fostering collaboration among entrepreneurs and creating an environment that allows for structured and unstructured opportunities for interaction.
Instead of a faculty, instead of a professor, there is Jennie Nevin, the founder and owner of Green Spaces Colorado. She is more impresario than professor or manager. She guides the workings of Green Spaces with an informal and personal style, which belies both the passion and confidence she brings to the business. Her confidant is Hobbes, a Jack Russell terrier and mascot of the organization. He rides in the basket at the front of Jennie’s bicycle, which is her preferred mode of transportation to and from work. Despite his size, Hobbes has 1,600 friends on Facebook and is the top dog on any given day when three or four additional dogs may be in residence at Green Spaces.
The Origins of Green Spaces Colorado
The concept for Green Spaces originated in New York City some six years ago. Nevin was living there and was self-employed after stints in the private banking group of both Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney. She began to look for ways to foster her interest in the “green” movement, so with friends she helped to start a discussion group called Green Leaders that met regularly in different locales and grew to over 100 people. The mission of Green Leaders was to foster collaboration on green business ideas from a wide variety of industries such as the media, architecture, and finance.
Nevin knew firsthand the frustrations of being on her own yet needing advice on practical business issues such as building a website or developing a logo. Like many people who are self-employed or transitioning from one career to another, she was growing tired of working alone in her apartment and then relying on coffee shops as meeting venues. Networking opportunities were mainly through large and generally stiff and awkward events.
With Marissa Feinberg, a friend who shared her passion for “green” issues and was also self-employed, Nevin began to focus on the idea of a work and meeting space for individuals such as themselves, but also a space that could be a regular venue for larger groups like Green Leaders. Getting positive feedback from their circle of contacts, they decided to reach out to a broader audience by the unorthodox method of a press release announcing their concept of a shared or co-work space for the self-employed. Hoping for a modicum of attention, their press release was picked up by all the major news outlets in New York City, and Nevin and Feinberg were soon bombarded with positive emails. People went so far as to offer deposits, when a space, much less a business plan did not yet exist.
What followed was an entrepreneurial story in and of itself: quickly organizing a business, finding and furnishing a space on a shoestring budget, defining management roles, raising money, budgeting, and most of all, long hours of hard work. They found a landlord willing to let them use an old warehouse space in Brooklyn free for the first three months, but they had to clean it up themselves; it was spookily full of old mannequins and dusty from years of neglect.
Soon after Green Spaces New York commenced operations, a potentially competitive and more up-scale co-work space opened within a mile forcing Nevin and Feinberg to brand themselves as a co-work space for green entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs – a focus coincident with their own passion and vision, and a niche that proved successful. They soon had the cash to begin paying rent, and cash flow grew to break even within six months. Next, they began to think of opening Green Spaces in other cities.
Nevin visited San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle, Minneapolis and Denver in mid-2009. She quickly settled on Denver as the logical place for the second Green Spaces because she perceived a strong green community, but one without a lot of existing infrastructure. She believed that there was momentum and significant opportunity. Nevin was also attracted to the region’s entrepreneurial culture – not to mention its outdoor-oriented lifestyle. She began setting up Green Spaces Colorado in August 2009, and after personally guaranteeing the lease, she officially opened for business in October 2009.
Nevin came to Denver to start the first in a series of satellite Green Spaces across the country. But in a short period of time, she has put roots down in Colorado and recently relinquished her ownership interest in the original Green Spaces New York. Her focus now is to continue to build and expand Green Spaces Colorado and pursue related entrepreneurial efforts.
The Green Spaces Space
Green Spaces Colorado can be found on 26th Street, between Walnut Street and Larimer Street adjacent to downtown Denver. It is a one story brick building sub-divided into a contemporary furniture show room facing Walnut and Green Spaces itself. A non-descript metal door opens up to a spacious front room containing a reception desk and assorted couches for informal discussions. The floors are polished concrete, the walls bare brick and the columns wood. Exposed ductwork and conduit meander through the high ceiling and past numerous skylights.
Behind the front room is a large open space with desks irregularly placed around the perimeter – some of which are merely solid doors set on top of low metal filing cabinets. These can quickly be moved aside for the larger events held at Green Spaces – some of which attract 100 or more persons on a regular basis. These events can be fairs for handmade and locally produced products or a celebration of locally grown organic produce.
Recently, the landlord, Bill Cutler, invested over $100,000 for a solar array on the building’s roof, which now supplies a majority of the building’s electricity. The building can be accessed by light rail - the 26th and Welton station is just five blocks away.
The Green Spaces’ business model is based on memberships, with different levels allowing for different use rights and access to the space. In this way, it is truly co-working space as opposed to rental space or an “executive suites” arrangement. There are three tiers of membership starting at $50 per month and going up to only $350 per month.
Some eighteen months after opening, Green Spaces is over the 70 member threshold and is gaining new members at the rate of 5 to 10 a month. In fact, a previously used storage area is currently being renovated to create additional desk space.
On any given day, there are 20 to 30 people working throughout Green Spaces’ 5,000 square feet. There is a hum of activity. Most people are working on laptops at desks; the dress is casual. At one desk is a woman developing a web-based business to promote eco fashion; at another, a young man is running an existing business that uses small windmills to power wireless Internet networks.
There are few amenities: a conference room, couches for lounging, and a galley kitchen for preparing coffee and light meals. Parking is on the street. But the members aren’t here for the amenities; they are here to work and to share with fellow entrepreneurs: share space certainly, but more importantly to share ideas, share stories and share aspirations.
There is a sense of purpose at Green Spaces Colorado, but there is a “coolness” factor at work as well. It is intangible but immediately perceptible; perhaps it’s the dogs or the loft feel of the space. It is a cool that is authentic because the Green Spaces Colorado members and their passions are authentic.
For more information about Green Spaces Colorado, contact Jennie Nevin at 1368 26th Street, Denver, Colorado. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call at 303.720.6850.