Filling in the Spaces of an empty canvas
For creatives, a blank canvas represents the beginning of something new. An exciting start to a destination with infinite possibilities. For systems thinkers like me, a blank canvas can feel like an infinite expanse of nothingness, devoid of anything to grab hold of for inspiration or direction.
At times, the blank page of my computer screen gives me that same feeling. The blink of the cursor flashing at the top of a page awaiting the words that I can’t seem to find swirling in my head. Writing can be incredibly rewarding, and a source of clarity and inspiration. But regardless of whether it’s been a blog post, a journal entry, a marketing document, or even my to do list, it’s been a real challenge for me recently. I’ve been lacking that something to grab hold of.
This week, Spaces gave me that something. Like a partially painted canvas, the background has been laid at DC’s newest coworking space, ready for artists to fill in the space with stories yet to be told. The perfect jumping off point for this systems thinker not only struggling with writer’s block, but life blocks as well.
Dusting Off the Easel
If I’m honest, I’ve been coasting recently. Not all the way there, but getting closer to complacency than I’d like.
The past few months have been great. I’ve had consistent client work doing what doing what I love. I’ve started settling into a new daily routine. And I’ve been enjoying riding the ebbs and flows of a freelance lifestyle. It’s been the perfect excuse to press pause on my coworking and self-exploration project. But I’m starting to feel that itch again. That it’s time to speed back up and go back out exploring.
So I decided pick back up where I left off, get back out into the coworking world, and to start writing again. My destination this time — Spaces.
Located in the quickly developing NoMa neighborhood, Spaces sits above the new REI in the old U-Line Arena on M St. NE. Just like it’s location, it’s roots go deep. Started in Amsterdam in 2008, the brand has nearly 100 locations and counting all around the world. It’s owned by parent company Regus who pioneered the first generation of coworking spaces in the 1980’s. Yet despite how well established the concept is, there’s no escaping the fresh and new feeling. The first of it’s kind in DC.
I first visited Spaces upon the invitation of my good friend Brandon McElroy, who manages the space. He threw what I can only describe as a kick ass launch party filled with smiling faces atop well-dressed figures, local art, heavy appetizers, and a supply of booze that could have lasted through a nuclear apocalypse (and may still).
The party’s guest list exceeded 500 responses, a record number for a launch party in the history of the company. Not all attended of course, but the room was full without feeling crowded. The evening started with the pleasantries of conversation and networking which spilled out onto the patio by the end of the night where things got much more festive. I’ll simply say that red solo cups were involved.
It was the perfect balance between community building and outright celebration. Brandon shared with me that following the party, one of his members came up to him to thank him for such a great night. “I haven’t partied like that in a while,” she said. “It felt good to just let loose.” Yet Brandon was also congratulated on the maturity of the crowd by his regional manager, who commented how despite the size, she was surprised “There weren’t any crazies.” That balance Brandon achieved, I came to learn, characterizes the space in many ways.
A New Yet Familiar Scene
After the launch party, I was eager to return. Curious what the space would actually feel like without the pomp and polish of the event. I had zero expectations. It felt energizing walking into a fresh canvas of an experience.
Arriving for the second time, I walked down the long open lobby flanked by glass windows that framed brief glimpses of patios and tucked away work nooks; almost as if they were vignettes previewing the space to come.
Directly through front doors lies the main community space they call the Business Club. It’s open and inviting with the modern design aesthetic and amenities I’ve come to expect in large coworking spaces. Yet it’s balanced out by homey seating areas and exposed concrete forms that remind you of the history of the U-Line Arena that’s become its home. A wall of floor to ceiling windows line the back wall and transform into moving pictures every so often as trains pass by along the tracks heading towards Union Station.
To the right of the main space forms the bulk of the private work spaces. Narrow hallways lined with glass encased offices loop down and around the building, very much reminding me of the private office spaces I spent time in at WeWork. I did notice one big difference from WeWork, however, that caught my attention immediately — the lack of controlled access points. In fact, there aren’t any locked doors in the entire space during normal business hours. It’s interesting how something so simple, can make all the difference in how inviting a space can feel.
To the left of the Business Club, there are more private offices along with some meeting and conference rooms, each more beautiful than the last. They looked more like exhibits on the floor of a home show than they did office spaces. At the end of the hall lies the aforementioned patio. It was a welcome respite in the middle of my afternoon when my focus was waning and I needed a place to warm up from the cold blast of the air conditioning inside.
Despite the fact that Spaces is still new — they’ve now leased about 40% of their capacity — the space didn’t feel empty. There were handfuls of people in the main space throughout the day. Some, like me, found a spot to get down to work. Others emerged from their private offices to greet a visitor, eat lunch, or play a game of foosball. There were also a steady stream of new business owners, freelancers, and realtors coming to see for themselves what Spaces has to offer.
There wasn’t much mingling or casual conversation. People mainly kept to themselves. But it also didn’t feel like anybody was sizing up their peers or trying to network with anyone and everyone who could give them a leg up. It felt like the beginnings of a community who will grow together over time rather than “here today, gone tomorrow” type of interactions.
Those who were there skewed slightly older than the entrepreneurial crowds I tend to see in coworking spaces. Mostly people in their 30’s and 40’s it seemed; certainly fewer of the 20 somethings who think they’re going to set the world on fire with their latest and greatest idea. A lot of that has to do with the leasing structure at Spaces. While there is a flex membership available, there’s fewer options for individuals than other coworking spaces. And unlike many whose memberships are month to month, the typical lease term for a private office at Spaces is 1 year. The result attracts a crowd established enough know what they will need in the future, yet still progressive and entrepreneurial enough to seek out an alternative work environment.
Balance vs. Contrast
With so many similarities, it was hard not to compare Spaces to WeWork. From the modern design aesthetic and impressive amenities, to the glass lined hallways of private offices, you’d be forgiven for thinking one might be the other if their names were removed from their buildings.
Both too have played pioneering roles in the up and coming coworking industry. But there were some striking differences. For one, I was shocked to learn of WeWork’s $20B valuation with just over 150 locations, especially when compared to the $4B market cap of Spaces’ parent company when they have over ten times the number of locations. It brought to mind the musings of perception vs. reality I had while visiting WeWork’s Dupont Circle location. It’s a worthy conversation on how businesses are valuated today, but a conversation for a later point in time.
In thinking how I could best summarize the difference between Spaces and WeWork, what came to mind was the difference between balance and contrast. WeWork felt like a world of contrast. Depending on your perspective, it could be cool or cold. Embracing or exclusive. Connected or community-less. Spaces just felt in balance. It was contemporary and comfortable. Industrious and inviting. Modern and mature. Brand-new and well-established.
Most importantly, however, Spaces felt like a world where the identity of its brand never superseded the identity of its members.
Finishing the Painting
The painting is yet to be finished on the future of Spaces in DC. At least 3 other locations are on the way in Rosslyn, Farragut, and Chevy Chase. It’s a part of a long term strategy Regus has as it starts to convert some its current markets, modeled after the shared office concepts from the 80’s and 90’s, into the more current model of the Spaces brand. It’s reflective of the changing nature of our distributed economy, and I for one am excited to see things moving in this direction!
As for my painting…? Well, I’m not yet sure what it will look like either, but at least I’ve picked back up the brush. And while I don’t think the original vision of my project — to visit and blog about a new coworking space every week — is sustainable, I’m iterating and moving forward. I plan to continue exploring DC’s coworking scene when the opportunity arises, but I’m also looking forward to creating a more sustainable routine that still supports my need to get out of the house and think in new environments. I see a lot more coffee shops, libraries, and community spaces in my future. I hope you’ll continue to follow my journey as I begin this next chapter!