Everybody somehow related to the coworking industry has surely heard a lot about BLANKSPACES, a popular network of flexible workspaces in Southern California. It welcomes entrepreneurs eager to grow their businesses in personal, boutique environments surrounded by like-minded peers. The project was founded in distant 2008, when nobody knew the word “coworking”, by Jerome Chang, a still-practicing licensed architect, an early pioneer of coworking, co-founder of LExC, and the League of Extraordinary Coworking, and COSHARE. Let’s find out how Jerome managed to grow his empire and preserve the communal vibe, which keeps the community around BLANKSPACES for so many years.
Helga: How did you get an idea to found BLANKSPACES? What were the main idea and unique proposition of the project?
Jerome: I thought to open my own architecture practice and envisioned sharing the physical office with a few friends. As I crunched numbers for the office, I ended up turning that office management into a business—coworking! It of course helped that I’m an architect so designing/managing the build-out was relatively easy.
In my research, I noticed that only executive suites were providing anything close to what I wanted. I recognized a few main areas I could innovate:
Helga: You started BLANKSPACES in 2008 when there were no similar establishments in Southern California. Was it difficult to communicate the value of coworking back in the day? How did you manage to drive the first customers in?
Jerome: It was very difficult to explain the concept and its value then. I even didn’t use the word “coworking” in my regular tours until about 2013+…commensurate with the rise of Silicon Beach, locally, and WeWork, nationally.
As to driving first customers in, I hosted a launch party and just hoped people would come in. Apparently, a flex/creative office offering was readily appealing.
Helga: What unique architectural and design solutions can BLANKSPACES boast? Which of them are most favored by members?
Jerome: I’m a licensed architect, who specializes in tenant improvement spaces like offices and restaurants. I readily understood both office space and hospitality operations.
My style is pretty modern…on a budget. Being your own client is almost the worst—left brain squashes my right brain. In the end, I’m always trying to create a destination space, as this is the rare office you want to go to, even to pay to go to, vs that office you have to go to. In my vision, collaborative, creative spaces are the most aspirational because even if you’re, say, a lawyer, you’d still want to be part of a buzzing space even if your own work may not be.
Distinctive design elements of BLANKSPACES are glass walls for offices and meeting rooms, but not glass all the way around. I think that can cause a paranoid fishbowl effect. Spatially, I avoid long hallways by creating nooks and small bullpens to break up the monotony of too many offices in a straight line. Ultimately, this strategy actually creates more opportunities for private offices. I’ll do the opposite as well—I create choke points to make adjacent spaces seem larger…and to cause serendipitous collisions and interactions.
Helga: Coworking is about communication but the pandemic introduces multiple restrictions that will probably stay with us for a long time. How did those restrictions affect coworking space design trends? What did you change in BLANKSPACES?
Jerome: Darwin said creatures are a product of their environment. As architects, we have a huge responsibility…and opportunity to affect how humans use our spaces, including interactions. I generally have not changed my design strategies, including the above small bullpens and intentional choke points - merely sitting adjacent to or crossing paths with another person avails communication, even if it’s non-verbal.
Helga: BLANKSPACES hosts the first and oldest coworking community in Southern California. How do you manage to keep these bonds for such a long time?
Jerome: Longevity has helped a lot. Few can boast of being able to connect once, reconnect in 5 years, and reconnect again in another 8. Being part of a community requires sticking around, and sincerely and authentically engaging throughout that, whether we are in your specific neighborhood, or one a few miles away.
We do host and sometimes sponsor events. We localize our efforts to a local chamber or a set of local influencers.
Add all of that up and everything we do reinforces everything else.
Helga: Is it difficult to maintain community spirit while scaling your business? How to preserve it and not turn your growing coworking network into soulless office centers?
Jerome: Yes. Localizing per neighborhood means less consistency across our brand. That said, that’s what makes mixes it up. Therefore, we localize our brand to the neighborhood by not, for example, putting up slogans and large logos that we've used everywhere that a larger operator, say, WeWork: local artists, partnership, and even local coffee. At some point, if we have many or mostly large enterprise clients, maybe we will scale up the brand that benefits the local communities with product placements, sponsors and events. Otherwise, we just happen to be physically in a bunch of neighborhoods.
Helga: Do you agree that the future belongs to member-centric workspaces?
Jerome: I’ve never actually thought that. My premise has always been a community around a brand, or workstyle if you will. Users of our space may be monthly or situational. Post-pandemic, users will come in daily, 2 days/wk, 1 day/mo, etc…how many days would a “member” have to come in to contribute toward this “member-centric” workspace? It’s therefore not surprising that I leaned upon my hospitality background for my coworking spaces (I’ve been a bartender, waiter, host, etc.). However people want to use my space, I’m happy to host and spark interactions.
Helga: Does member-centric policy bring good dividends to coworking space owners? Maybe you can share some numbers based on BLANKSPACES experience?
Jerome: I do believe that having “regulars” is ideal, no different than, say, the TV show, Cheers, back in the day. They’re your most engaged members who constitute the pulse of your space, and your ambassadors within and outside of the walls of your space.
Helga: What can you advise to less experienced operators? Where should they focus their attention in 2022 to find a perfect balance between earning money and making members happy?
Jerome: This might sound biased, but I’m often astounded by so many operators who don’t focus enough on their #1 start-up expense, their build out, and their #1 recurring expense, their space rent. I would simply never tackle a business or project where I didn’t know a ton about the biggest item in the project, just like I would never endeavor to start a software company.
For 2022, focus on flexibility: flexible pricing, flexible plans, flexible offerings. Then change them again.