A conversation with Rena Tom and Bryan Boyer of Makeshift Society
If you read about Rena Tom in the November issue of HOW, you saw how committed the Makeshift Society founder is to helping creative entrepreneurs. In this extended interview with Tom and Makeshift Society Brooklyn co-founder Bryan Boyer, we learn more about what separates Makeshift Society from other co-working spaces. Hint: It’s not the monk or magician.
The idea of co-working has really exploded, and there are spaces opening around the country. Yet there’s something about Makeshift Society that’s different. What do you think that X-factor is that separates Makeshift from other spaces?
Rena Tom: I think we wear our heart on our sleeve, definitely. We are proudly made by creatives, for creatives — everyone who has been involved with opening Makeshift (Victoria Smith and Suzanne Shade in San Francisco, Bryan Boyer in New York) is a freelancer, and that shapes the feel of the spaces. It gets meta, but we’re basically a small, struggling business attempting to help other small, struggling businesses. It’s a sector of the workplace that doesn’t get as much attention, locally or nationally, as it should, considering how many people are part of that segment.
Bryan Boyer: By creating Makeshift Society with a focus on creative pursuits, we’re also able to be ourselves more than we could if Makeshift were a generic co-working space. Every design choice is a subject of discussion internally, and we’re careful to do things that resonate with our community. For instance, maybe in Brooklyn we could have made money by renting out enclosed offices for small teams of 4-6 people, but that would dramatically change the feel of the place. Instead, Makeshift Society Brooklyn is designed more like an open studio, and that means people who are used to those environments will be comfortable there while others, who perhaps desire more privacy or seclusion, will feel less so. That’s okay; Makeshift Society isn’t for everyone, but the ones that it fits, it fits them very well.
RT: We also sincerely want to be embedded in our community. One of the ways this emerges is that we locate our clubhouses on the ground floor in mixed retail-residential neighborhoods. This makes us much more part of the conversation on the street than, say, an upper floor in an office tower does. We don’t even have free coffee (which is often touted as a “must” at co-working spaces). Our thought is, “Really? This is why people choose to work at a space?” We’d much rather be located in a vibrant community that has coffee, food and other amenities nearby so that our members can flow into and out of the space, and support our neighbors. The closed campus mentality is not for us.
While we cater to the creative community, we are not anti-tech — we just feel that tech has plenty of resources at the moment, while small businesses do not. We want to take the best parts of the entrepreneurial mindset and offer them to our members, but in a way that doesn’t imply that extreme growth is the only path. We respect the needs of modern small business, which means that part-time hours, or solo work, or learning how to grow without taking on a lot of risk may be entirely satisfactory goals.
BB: Not every business has the potential to grow up to be the next Facebook, and that’s fine. But just because you decide to work in a slow or medium growth sector, does not mean that you can’t be innovative about how you conduct your business. At Makeshift Society, we’re trying to foster a conversation and community around what the next iteration of small business looks like in America, particularly in the creative sector.
What kind of impact do you think the many events/functions that happen at Makeshift have on the member community that you might not see at other standard coworking places?
RT: I don’t know what the other spaces do, but I imagine we all try to engage to create a feeling of trust and belonging. I think that because we have so many fields represented, there is less of a competitive feeling at Makeshift, and people can truly help each other out without making a calculation beforehand. It’s been remarked upon many times that our “vibe” is relaxed. Freelancers are driven enough so a relaxed atmosphere actually gives them space to be incredibly productive.
We do invite in a wide variety of people and brands for classes and events. There’s something for everyone, then. We also play with scale, which suits people’s needs and personal styles. We’ll hold one-on-one office hours which is less intimidating for the introverts, and we’ll throw launches and parties for the extroverts. Everyone finds their own comfort level.
BB: It has never been easier to look up a tutorial or find a trove of essays on some obscure subject online, but we’re finding that people really value in-person exchanges when they’re at the most tender moments of exploration. We love doing events that help people open the door to something new, be that a new skill, a new personal connection or a new perspective.
The San Francisco location has been very successful. Now New York is online. Talk about your growth plan and what led you to open up the second space. Looking forward, too, where do you see Makeshift growing in the future?
RT: San Francisco got very popular, very fast. It was just the right time for the freelancers and small business owners in town. San Francisco is enamored with tech culture and so we are an alternative for those outside of the system, while acknowledging that there is value working with the system. For example, a copywriter or photographer at Makeshift might get tons of business from tech startups, but prefers to work project by project and not be on staff. We can offer a quiet space to work, classes to learn or improve skills, and room to hold a client meeting or workshop, and the elusive but necessary element of camaraderie. I’m reading a book now called Consequential Strangers and it’s definitely related.
New York was always the top choice for expansion. The creative community is so great and diverse here, and there is some ineffable kinship between Brooklyn and the San Francisco Bay Area. We ended up in Williamsburg because of the density of creative professionals and also the fact that there didn’t seem to be a lot of office or studio space here. Logistically, it’s a bit difficult to have two locations, but we are excited to introduce members from both locations to each other.
For the future, we are not sure yet what’s going to happen. We’ve had many requests for more locations but we need to take the right approach to growth. Expanding our online component is in our thoughts, but beyond that, we like to wait and see what opportunities come to us, as well.
What did you learn from funding a significant facet of your Brooklyn build-out, the library, from peers and potential or current members? Do you think that gave folks a sense of ownership of Makeshift that other places may not offer?
RT: Kickstarter is a great measure of the extent of your network. We had many friends contribute, whether that means designing a reward for the backers, or just blogging or tweeting about our campaign. We tried to design the rewards to reflect our interests and the kind of programming and people that make up the Makeshift community. Some rewards were physical objects, but others were more esoteric like office hours with our advisors or a chance to be immortalized on our wall in custom hand-drawn wallpaper. Our people are our strength, and the campaign was a great way to share that fact.
At our launch party, it was wonderful to meet some of our backers. We very much want our members to feel ownership, and ask for their input often. The extent to which we give people permission is a little different than some other spaces. I liken this to taking a vacation: You can book a fancy hotel that tries to guess your every need, or you can stay in an interesting neighborhood and decide what sounds fun that day. We’re much more the latter scenario, but then again, we are focused on independent workers who like to (and need to learn how to) forge their own path.
What do you think the rise of co-working spaces tells us about how the nature of creative work — and how people work for themselves and with each other — is evolving?
RT: I think it says that, like with most ideas that receive a lot of hype, the needle tends to swing too far — then comes back to make a correction. In this case, the hype is around modern work and the promise of a mobile, work anywhere lifestyle. Yes, having a small practice or sole proprietorship means you don’t necessarily need an office, but what you do need is inspiration from being around other people, accountability by just being present and acknowledged and the flexibility to work solo, meet with a collaborator or bring in a team for a meeting. Co-working spaces can provide the mood, people and quirky, productive conversations that your dining room table or the cafe down the street can’t provide.
Taking it a little further, we have a very flexible membership structure to allow for people who work in bursts, and don’t need a co-working space all the time. We don’t want to be your only choice; we want to be a node on your work route, which may also include the breakfast table, the coffee shop, a studio visit, a client’s office and in line at the post office.
You’ve said you wanted to pursue having Makeshift Society be there for more back-end stuff for members in the future. What sorts of initiatives would that entail, and what do you think this desire says about what you think co-working spaces are going to look like in the future?
BB: There are big picture changes afoot to work generally as Rena describes. It used to be that you would go to school, then work for 40 years, then retire. Now it’s increasingly common to have a “nonlinear” career — one that features periods of education, reflection and experimentation interspersed with chunks of time where one is working full-time in an office or with a single company. And this career scale change is matched on a daily level with the changing geography of work. Mobile technology means we can work anywhere, so for many of us that means we work everywhere.
As the average job tenure shrinks and the traditional office loses its monopoly as the place of work, moments of transition multiply: Transitions into and out of jobs, from one industry to another, from one place in the morning to another in the afternoon, etc. But the thing is, these are new transitions that our old model of industrial society did not have to cope with. For instance, college is one of the traditional transition periods, where students learn how to be in the world as adults while capping off their education. But what’s the community or place that one goes to when making a mid-career transition? Who does one reach to when making the shift from employee to freelance? As these moments of transition multiply, people need better support structures, and Makeshift Society is a great place for exactly that. This has relatively little to do with the fact that we’re a coworking space, and more about the effort that we put into fostering a welcoming community and providing just enough structure that people can make their own way without feeling untethered.
We expect that coworking spaces will evolve into two paths. The first is that subscription-based access to space will become the new real estate. From a financial perspective, this is huge because it means the barrier to entry for workspace will drop as it becomes far more common for people to rent spaces on an hourly, daily, weekly or monthly basis without the same year-long or multi-year commitments that have been typical up until now. The second evolutionary path for coworking grows out of the first. When flexible access to space becomes commoditized in the same way real estate is now, there will be more experimentation and competition in diverse offerings that speak to specific demographics. Coworking spaces will put more effort into the style of the place, the mood, the atmosphere because they will be competing on those aspects. For coworking as cheap real estate, community will not be as important, but for the rest of coworking, community will be essential.
As you might guess, we fully expect to be in the second camp, where the qualities of what we do and who is part of the community are much more important than the quantities. Because we have a specific membership whose interests and needs have a high degree of overlap, we’re interested in all things that help them focus on the good parts of their work and breeze through the necessary evils without overlooking them. We’ll move into helping people gain access to professional services so that they can use Makeshift Society as a platform for their business, in addition to it being a place to work and learn. We’ve been doing anecdotal research lately and it’s surprising how many freelancers and small teams are overwhelmed by the vast array of options and requirements for legal, financial and management questions, to choose just a few examples. Anything that we can do to bracket or narrow those choices will be useful. We have some ideas, but they’re still in the oven.
Many co-working spaces emphasize privacy while Makeshift puts a priority on communal work. Why is that?
BB: This connects to what Rena says about work happening across a whole spectrum of places – people work at home, in cafes, in clients’ offices, on the road, at coworking spaces and so many other locations. It’s not that some people prefer to work in cafés and others in libraries, it’s that different kinds of work are suited to different kinds of places. In the design of the spaces at Makeshift Society, we erred on the side of collaborative environments because that’s hardest to do well in the other public spaces that most people have access to (like cafés) or at home.
Members certainly can spend the entire day at Makeshift Society, but we find that it’s more common for our people to spend part of the day at Makeshift, or use it as a “home base” throughout the day. They might come in for some admin work in the morning, meet a client at a nearby café for a quick check-in, head back to Makeshift for a video conference, then do some work in the afternoon leading up to an evening class or drinks at a bar with friends.
The design of Makeshift Society’s spaces are meant to encourage connections between members. Collaboration will happen in due course if people know each other beyond a cursory introduction, so the most important thing we can do is create an environment where people feel safe, comfortable and curious. The basic physical ingredients of a collaborative environment are nothing without getting the social parts right too. You can build shared tables until the cows come home, but if you don’t have the right atmosphere that sparks connections, collaboration isn’t even an option because people haven’t connected.
Being on the ground floor is a good example. Our huge windows give people a shared point of reference, and that leads to conversation and shared experiences, which themselves are the groundwork for future collaborations. There’s a kindergarten down the street from our Brooklyn location, so twice a day a string of toddlers walks by our windows and waves hello. This never fails to cause some reaction from the people in the space at that time, and you can hear a ripple of chatter as they pass. Those shared experiences are investments in future collaborations.
RT: Knowing how to be in the world, around and with other people, is a learned skill, especially when we have all the Internet in our pocket or tethered to our ears, allowing us to transcend our surroundings. A little escapism is great but the fact of the matter is that human interactions, good manners, ethics, compassion and empathy are all bound together, and you have to learn by doing, by taking chances and by screwing up in the real world.
Talk about the demographics of Makeshift Society’s members. Have you noticed any differences in the breakdown of your Brooklyn space so far as compared to San Francisco?
BB: The top category in San Francisco are photographers and in Brooklyn we’re heavier on illustration and graphic design. San Francisco has more people working in blogging, social media or other consultancy work with tech companies, whereas in Brooklyn we’re seeing more interest from people within the fashion and film industries. Not surprising given the mainstays of those two cities. For what it’s worth, in San Francisco we have a monk as one of our members. In Brooklyn there are no monks, but we do have a magician.
RT: Another difference is in how tightly networked the members are, even when first signing up. San Francisco had a big burst of momentum before we even opened because everyone involved had great reach and influence. The initial members tended to be women, and a lot of them knew each other or had heard of each other. Almost two years in, it has self-balanced and we have more men and more people who heard of us through other means, which is wonderful because it extends our weak-tie network even further. New York has a more even ratio of men to women from the start, and from a wider variety of industries; the latter reflects the creative diversity of New York City itself. Our job now is to bring about that tight-knit feeling in a way that is inclusive yet organic.
What do you see as the differences between your New York and San Francisco members?
BB: They have more in common than they have differences, really. Membership on both coasts is comprised people who are quietly accomplished. Makeshift Society’s members are doing an aspiring array of projects at any given, but they somehow manage to do it in a very humble, down to earth way, and we like that because it means the community is relaxed and focused at the same time.
In San Francisco people seem to play up their hobbies, their weekend trips and all the things they do outside of work so they come off as not working very hard, but secretly they’re up late with the laptop or sneaking in on the weekends. In New York, when you chat with people they often come across as breathlessly busy, but then you check their Instagram and somehow they magically found time to go on a hike or do some watercolor on the weekend.
Beyond owning Makeshift, you also work there. What kind of message do you think this sends to your community?
RT: I think it shows commitment to our members. The exchange of knowledge can flow both directions if we are down on the ground with people. Sometimes we lead and other times we encourage people to take the lead. Our members can learn both compromise and also how to run with a good idea, and for a small businessperson, both are valuable skills.
BB: We are our own research! Really there’s no other option for us, because we want Makeshift Society to have a face, to be approachable, and to be invested in the things that we say we’re trying to do. When we talk about helping freelancers and small teams up their game, we say it as individuals who are in the thick of it too.
What makes somebody an ideal Makeshift Society member?
RT: Makeshifters don’t have to be any one kind of person, but they have to recognize that fact in themselves and in others. Sometimes you just need to do your own work quietly. Other times you need to bug your tablemate and ask for their opinion. And occasionally, you just need to fetch coffee with someone or share your power adapter or watch a cat video. Every day at Makeshift is different and an ideal member enjoys that.
BB: The people who thrive at Makeshift are self starters who crave accountability and camaraderie. Our members tend to walk in the door with a handful of things that they have down pat and a few more that they’re consciously trying to improve. This means that across the membership there’s a strong set of diverse skills and experiences in constant flux, and that’s a damn nice thing to be part of.
Rena, you’ve said that “Where you work can influence not only how you work, but who you are.” Could you dig a little deeper into this sentiment? Further, what do you think working at Makeshift says about your clubhouse members?
RT: While acknowledging that the primary objective is to let people get work done, we tend to attract people who are both curious and curiouser. They have varied pursuits and Makeshift is a safe environment to both explore and boast about them a little bit, in a way that a coffee shop (“Why is the person next to me talking to me?”) or a more formal coworking space (“I have to act a certain way because there are venture capitalists visiting.”) might not be.
There are many coworking options in both San Francisco and New York. We’re just two locations 3,000 miles apart; we’re independent and not well-funded like some of the other spaces, so there will always be a place closer to home, less expensive or with more amenities. And yet, people choose to work at Makeshift. By choosing us over a different place, people are expressing their willingness to allow for a little chaos, to meet interesting new people or run into old friends, to nap in the window if they’re tired and to make shift happen on their own terms. People who “get” our core values become part of our family forever, and like a family, sometimes there are rough spots, but ultimately there is a core, satisfying feeling of belonging.
Joseph Hughes is one-half of the Kent, Ohio-based husband-and-wife creative collaborative Northcoast Zeitgeist. www.nczeitgeist.com
Get your hands on the November 2014 issue of HOW, our Creative Business issue. This issue delves into the different aspects of the business of design, whether you’re a designer working from a remote location or in a small design firm, we’ve got you covered. Plus, find out if your creative process is killing your creativity, and what steps you can take to avoid stifling your creative mojo.